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The Power of Pro Bono Production: Studio Z Films and Ronald McDonald House

Studio Z Films' Steve Zugelter describes the evolution of his work with Ronald McDonald House of Greater Cincinnati over the last four years, the techniques he's used to produce increasingly intimate and story-driven films for them, and how this recurring pro bono project has benefited the local nonprofit and further established Studio Z in the River City.

The DSLR Factor

As an early adopter of video-capable Canon DSLRs in 2009, Zugelter has been shooting his Ronald McDonald House films on DSLR from the get-go. Among the more obvious advantages of this approach are the familiar arguments for DSLR production, namely low-light performance, image quality and control, shallow depth of field, and so on. But one of the great benefits of shooting with DSLRs on a project like this, in which a producer is shooting in environments rarely invaded by camera crews, and capturing subjects who have enough trauma and stress in their lives without the intrusion of imposing ENG cameras, lighting equipment, and so forth, is the minimalist footprint of DSLR gear.

"Without doubt, it helped ease the intimidation factor," Zugelter says. "The cameras aren't in-your-face at all, and even when you're in the same room and three feet away, it's not a big shoulder-rig news-type rig. It's small. People are comfortable around it. They make it easy to get into, especially for the B-roll shots, especially when we're in a hospital room. These aren't big rooms at all, so there's no way I would be able to get a big set of sticks--the sticks, of course, have to be bigger for the bigger cameras-there's no way I would be able to get the bigger sticks and a big rig in some of these really small rooms. But because I'm able to shoot on this camera with a monopod, my footprint all of the sudden goes down to nothing more than the size of myself. So it makes it so much easier to get around into filming these tight spaces. And I would have never had some of the filming opportunities that I had in the hospital if I didn't have the DSLRs."

Career Opportunities

Zugelter reflects on how the Ronald McDonald House relationship has evolved up to this point: "It's really been a learning experience for everyone involved. The first year I was like, ‘Okay, what do we do here?' It was my first time putting something together like this, and I went into it not knowing much, and same goes for the second year. And then last year I was given pretty much complete freedom to do what I wanted to do, so that's when we changed the recipe a little bit, and it worked really, really, well. So I said, ‘Okay, it worked then. Let's just duplicate it this year, but let's amp it up.'"

And as much as producing a film as meaningful and powerful as Zugelter's RMH series is its own reward, he's quick to confess that the exposure these films have brought him have benefited his career in ways beyond the satisfaction of serving his community well. "Part of the hidden reward of it all is this is played to a room of some of the wealthiest families in Cincinnati," he says. "Six hundred people are captivated by watching this, and at the end of it all, my logo comes up. They mention me after it plays. And it's led to a lot more of these type of things that actually pay now. Now I'm producing pieces for the American Heart Association and the Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club. These various organizations that do very similar things are now paying clients--repeat paying clients.

"For me, it's been an awesome transition because I came from the corporate world of making commercials, and I went into weddings, and I always wanted to get back into the corporate world at some level. But the one thing I didn't want to do is make used car commercials or things of that nature. And I learned so much from doing weddings, and they taught me how to really piece the story together. I love doing these things; it is not work at all. It is truly a labor of love in that it's good for the soul, and it helps families. It's a win-win for everybody."