Leonel Becerra is a Venezuelan freelance producer based in New York. Always impeccably dressed with glowing skin and a smile, he doesn’t just get the job done; he gets the job done right. With 138 Productions (formerly known as the production team at Red Hook Labs), KiDS Creative, and freelance production under his belt, he’s helped realize campaigns for the likes of Prada, Calvin Klein, Dior, Revlon, Nars, Zara, Balenciaga, Balmain, and Alexander Wang — to mention a few. In between shoots, we spoke with the powerhouse to get his take on where the industry is heading, how he moved to the States, and why he’s stuck around.
This interview took place over the phone between Leo Becerra in New York and Ella Jayes in Paris
Can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?
When I moved to New York, I was in college going to school for business. I lived with a couple of friends, and one of them was a production manager. I started doing PA gigs with her for small fashion shoots here and there. I think one of the first things I did was with Ellen von Unwerth, who I still get to see and work with every so often. Once I graduated, I got a job at an agency called KiDS Creative, which is the advertising side of the retouching house, Box Studios. It was led by the creative director, Pascal Dangin, and I started as his executive assistant.
That was my first experience in which I was fully immersed in the fashion world, with a powerhouse advertisement agency. We would do stuff for Balenciaga, Balmain, Alexander Wang, Vera Wang, Lancel, Prada; various brands from Paris, New York, London. It was very new to me and a very hands-on experience. In my role, I was handling all the conversations with agents, meetings, our creative director's calendar, and project calendar. In 2015, the company went through a lot of changes, and I decided to move on and freelance. I started working for various production companies and collaborating with some small magazines and photographers. Slowly, I created the network of people that I've continued to work with til today.
What were the aspects that made you feel you were ready to go freelance?
I was very tired of the routine — we would go on set, which sometimes required travel, but it was very much being in the office for 12+ hours a day and sometimes on the weekends. I wanted to get on my own time again. I realized it needed to be planned well because, as an adult, there are so many responsibilities. I just wasn't happy where I was. It wasn't the easiest transition, but I was able to reach out to people I’d previously worked with and friends in the industry. For the first couple of months, I was a little bit scared of the lack of stability. I didn't have what I had before, in terms of benefits and a routine, which could be comforting, but not knowing what's coming kind of keeps you motivated and pushing forward.
What was your academic background like?
I studied economics at UCSB [University of California Santa Barbara] before I transferred to Baruch College in New York, where I ended up studying business and entrepreneurship. I was a Venezuelan international student, and when I moved to the US I was very much like, "Oh, I want to study business, I want to study business" but I realized later on that I wanted to be a part of more creative work. My academic background didn't completely influence my career path, but it’s been useful as a producer to understand the business side of things.
And I'm sure, due to your education, you have a better grip of the common business sense that it takes to run your own show as well.
Absolutely. It definitely helped me to be more grounded in the understanding of the bigger picture of a company. To be honest, I kind of ran through college, because I wasn't fully happy there. I was taking a lot of art classes on this side, and I definitely could have grasped more of the business side than I did, but it did all lead me to where I am today.
Did you always know that you were going to come to the US to study?
Not necessarily — when I finished high school in Venezuela, which was about 13 years ago, the political situation was in turmoil; it has been for about the last 20 years. A lot of kids from my high school were all going to take a year off to study English outside; some of my friends went to Canada, Seattle, or New York.
I went to Santa Barbara because I thought it was going to be like The OC, which was my favorite show ever. It definitely was a little bit like that, but way more boring and much less drama. Then I decided to move to New York. I didn't know that I was going to stay, but as the situation worsened back in Venezuela, my parents were kind of pushing me to stay and study and try to build a career here. I feel extremely privileged that I was able to go to school here and have my parents support as Venezuela’s situation worsened.
So most recently, you've consistently been working with 138 Productions (formerly known as the production sector of Red Hook Labs), how did you get there?
I had worked at Red Hook Labs with Simon Malivindi, who created 138 Productions in September of 2018. We had friends in common, were introduced, and got in touch via email. I was speaking with one of his colleagues, Helena Martel Seward, as well. I was often in touch with them when I started freelancing, and I slowly started working more closely with Simon. He always extended a hand to me. He's a magnificent producer and mentor, and somebody I look up to a lot. Whenever he has projects to work on, they’re super interesting and exciting, and I'm more than happy to join the team. Over the past two and a half or three years, we've built that relationship.
For those who don't know much about 138 Productions, can you give us a bit of info?
It’s a production service agency that specializes in projects based in New York and Los Angeles, but also in any part of the world. On the company’s roster, we have worked with brands like Prada, Calvin Klein, Dior, Revlon, Nars, Zara, amongst many others. 138 Productions always has different projects and has great relationships with photographers, stylists, and creative directors. It's a really great team; it's a small full-time team, but there is a great group of freelancers and collaborators that work with the company on a consistent basis.
What has been the most memorable shoot so far?
We shot Prada for Fall Winter 17 in Lausanne, Switzerland in this beautiful architectural mansion by Adolf Loos, that hadn't been lived in for about 30 years. It was completely intact and it was just so beautiful and simple. It was by the river; I think it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to.
Another one that was very challenging, but very cool and beautiful was Calvin Klein's Fall-Winter 18 campaign that we shot in Utah. It was an amazing location. It was also the most exotic you can get and the most difficult in terms of production, but our team is really strong.
Having worked with your team in the past, it's impossible not to recognize the level of perfection in everything you do; whether it's the way that you set up the different production stations and offices, or how the stylists arrange all the clothing and accessories, or even how you arrange craft services — everything looks so perfect and orderly. How do you maintain that standard, especially when you're on location?
There is a standard of perfection that goes from the top to the bottom, and from bottom to top. We work with demanding clients and teams of creatives, so we need to play the part. Personally, I'm very detailed-oriented; order and organization on set gives you a sense of calm that, regardless of the situation, you’re able to remain on track. We work in fashion, which is an aesthetic-oriented industry; people are driven to things by their eyes.
How can you describe this level of organization to people that have never been exposed to it? What are you keeping in mind?
You have to consider how you will set-up catering, the lounge areas for our talents and clients, and office spaces; these spaces must all be stocked with the correct items as well (for example office supplies, candles, magazines, chargers, wifi signs, etc.) We are very specific about having symmetry all around and having all the items you could need in order to make sure that the creative process doesn't get disrupted. As a producer, you have to be able to aid in that fluidity.
Everything must go smooth and be properly set-up, easily accessible, and visible. Especially, when it comes to commercial jobs, there is so much information coming from marketing teams, PR teams, sales team, and for the stylists and the styling assistants; it’s imperative that we make all that information clear to the creative teams.
In the past, we've asked producers and stylists to compile lists of the typical things you'd need in a production or styling kit — but what are the most random things you've found to be super useful?
There are so many things that I don’t even know where to start, but there are these pink petals. It’s a styling kit item, but so useful. They can take out literally any single stain possible — there can be mud, and then you just rub this sponge and it disappears.
When you're on set as a production coordinator with 138, what does your role consist of?
It depends on the project. I usually work closely with the fashion and talent departments to make sure the transitions between the styling and the photo teams are smooth, that shots are getting done within schedule, that the talent is ready, and that everyone’s needs are met.
There is so much that goes into a shoot besides the actual shoot itself — how do you prep differently for a location shoot versus a studio shoot?
It starts maybe a couple of months ahead when we get first notice that a shoot is in the works, but there are never many details until a couple of weeks before. When it comes to location jobs, there are multiple days of location scouting, dealing with permitting, location prep, and basecamp set ups. It's a very collaborative effort. Leading up to the day of the shoot, it takes two weeks or so — the build out of tents, rental trucks, motor homes, catering, equipment, prop cars, location permits, fire safety, set prep, trailers for bathrooms, wifi, transportation of teams, collection, and the list goes on and on.
If you have issues with Wifi it's the end of the world.
Especially with 138, you're dealing with teams that are working on other projects or that are on conference calls with people across the world throughout the time that you're shooting. You have to have comfortable, functional working spaces, even though you could be in the middle of the desert; things like this are extremely necessary.
How many people are usually on set?
Once you put together everyone, it goes from 80-140 people. I also work on smaller productions, that can be 20-25 people and they are very different to manage. It's important that no matter how many people there are, you still use the same standards of organization and making sure that everyone is taken care of and having a pleasant time.
So what other companies do you freelance for?
Besides 138, I do my own projects with NYC brands, editorial work, and collaborations amongst friends and people in my circle. During fashion week, I focus on doing shows with brands that I love — last season I produced shows for Luar, Vaquera, and the new brand, Puppets and Puppets. I have been producing for Interview Magazine after their comeback. I also work often with friends/producers like Marcos Fecchino, Helena Martel Seward, Wei-Li Wang, Spencer Morgan Taylor, Reid Productions, Sara Mouzayanni, amongst others. They all are people who I trust and work together with often. I like to keep myself busy, and also build relationships with people that are super talented, positive and have good energy; seeing a vision come to life is something that is really special for me.
Working in fashion you're made very aware, very quickly, that oftentimes you won't get paid for your work. It's kind of cool that there's a mutual understanding between creatives; we're all doing this because we genuinely want to build relationships and work with really inspiring people and express ourselves — but it's a fine line when you need to support yourself. What are your thoughts?
There are two sides to the sword; it's very special that people get together to create imagery that is amazing and beautiful, and you can share ideas. When we are younger and just starting, people create just for the love and passion for the industry and to be able to create something new. But it's also because the publishing industry is dependent on that free labor. I don't know how positive it is in the end, because it is really difficult to put people to work without paying them. As a producer, this can be very tough. I want to make these projects happen and we have the creative team that is willing to do it pro bono, but it is difficult to ask people to do things without pay, and sometimes it can be taken negatively. Not getting paid for your work is a strange concept that I think is pretty unique to our industry.
Working with people worldwide, what have you learned about this industry globally?
Everyone works so hard. People are going from a shoot to a flight, to another shoot. People are constantly working while they're doing something else, and they're preparing for the next project. Everyone is putting so much time and effort, because the industry is really demanding, and constantly challenging, and super competitive. Also, considering how media is now presented, it's so consumable, and it runs so fast, that we have to create so much product. People in our industry have no idea what it means to have balance. But I think people have a lot of fun and that's what keeps us from going crazy. It's really a special industry; it has amazing aspects and experiences but it also can be consuming and unbalanced.
Because you're constantly traveling on jobs, what are your best tips for staying productive?
Have a to-do list on your phone, that you can easily reference. Put the things that are most important at the top, and try to tackle as much as you can. When you're traveling, you have to have a system where maybe you wake up a little earlier to check your emails and make sure you're starting the day without already feeling behind.
What about staying healthy?
I try to keep myself in check on set. It's so easy to eat all the bad stuff — there are so many snacks. I usually have a coworker/friend on set and we both keep each other accountable.
Also, drink lots of water! I'm very vocal on the walkies about telling people to drink water, because everyone has to stay hydrated.
Sometimes at night, when you've worked the whole day, you get back to the hotel, and you might eat something not so great, and that's okay. Just try the next day. Maybe you can have a breakfast of fruit, granola, and yogurt, or eggs. I try not to get into the too crazy oily stuff, and bready things — low carbs and no sugar!
When I have a normal routine, I try to be more active, work out, or take a class. But when you're on location for 14 hours, the last thing you want to do is go to work out, even at the hotel gyms. I don't mind doing some small physical stuff in the room, like push-ups and squats; staying even just a bit active is really important.
How do you mentally stay healthy?
Haha, it's really difficult, period. I don't have major tips, but for me, if I finish a project on location, I try and stay an extra day if I can. Or sometimes I take a day at home to rebuild my energy. After such hectic projects, if you can have a day that you're a little bit more in touch with yourself, alone, because you've been surrounded by so many people for days, that's always important to me.
What do you look for in production assistants?
Awareness, attention to detail, organization, communication skills, and the quality to serve. I think it's very important that the people on my team feel like they're there to serve others and help. You also have to be motivated, enthusiastic, and have good energy.
What's something that you're struggling with right now?
As a freelancer, balancing and managing a calendar amongst different projects and different people, different clients, maintaining a social life, eating healthy, working out, taking time to do creative things…
What tips do you have for someone who doesn't have the experience, but has a hunger to work in production?
Have the motivation and make yourself available. Reach out to people; there are always opportunities. Be open to work for free, because you'll learn so much and you’ll put yourself in situations that you would not have otherwise. You get to meet amazing people that will welcome you in the future for other projects. It's very important to build your community and your network by being part of projects, whether they're paid or not.
Also, have good energy; I think one of the biggest changes we've seen in the past couple of years is that people are tired of working with toxic people in toxic environments. It still exists, but thankfully, it's starting to change.
In regards to managing your team, how do you deal with a team member making a mistake?
First, I have to become responsible for whatever happened, especially in the eyes of the client and the other teams. I'd probably have a talk with the team member to see what happened and to find a solution so that it won't happen again. Usually, I'm very understanding, but from that point on, zero things can go wrong. It’s not a personal thing, we just need to make sure we are getting our job done correctly so that the production can run smoothly.
What makes you happy and what keeps you creative right now?
Working with brands that I love. I work closely with Vaquera, who are really pushing the boundaries of fashion in New York, and in the industry as a whole. I've been working with them for about three years. I also work with Raul Lopez, who is the creative director of Luar; he is a visionary that has made some incredible achievements for his brand over the past few years. Puppets and Puppets, who just premiered this last season, who are truly rooted in sustainability. I'm trying to focus my time outside of commercial projects on working with these brands I very much believe in and love.
What do you like about the industry today?
I love that it's constantly changing and that it has many new people. It's being influenced by youth and by multiple cultures more than ever before; there are issues of race, politics, and the environment that are being spoken about in the industry very openly. Certain parts of it are moving in the right direction, and you can see it. At the end of the day, the fashion industry is, and will always be, an industry of innovation. I think that's something really special to be a part of and to be aware of. It's a very inspiring place to be.
How would you like to see the industry evolve? Where do you think we still have some work to do?
I would like to see the industry evolve from such an emphasis on consumption. Every year there are so many lines per season, and it's just creating this need for consumption that is not in line with the environment's needs. I love fashion and I love people dressing and expressing themselves, as I do so myself. But what we are doing right now is not okay. We are in an industry of buy and waste. There are a lot of other things that I think we could be doing with our money. I think the industry can evolve in making sure that its practices are environmentally sustainable and more in line with helping the people and places where fashion has had a negative effect and continues to do so.
The industry needs to be showcasing different bodies and different races, cultures and people from different backgrounds. I think it's great that the industry is working with a broader spectrum of beauty, but I think there's a very, very long way to go.
What is your take on the generation coming up in the industry today?
This generation is coming in with such new ideas. They are politically fueled in the way that they want to get people to be seen, and they want to represent emotions and honest beliefs. The new generation has a more positive outlook, and they are working really hard. People are just being kinder and more respectful; more united. They are bringing a sense of community along with the idea that anything is possible.