The man with the creative eye behind Ali's newest promos that have recently been seen on WWE TV, videographer Craig Mitchell was a guest on a recent episode of Wrestling Inc.'s WINCLY Podcast. Mitchell went into detail about how he juggles life behind the camera while also periodically performing as a pro wrestler.
"I was always kind of involved with stuff on the camera side," Mitchell said. "And then obviously with pro wrestling, I don't get to do nearly as much [work]. So I actually did quite a bit [before this]; mostly my world was editing, so I didn't film too much. I was doing a lot of editing or posts, like somebody would shoot something and I would edit and post it. And then I started getting behind the camera a bit more just because I like working on projects, and I felt like what I had was a cool eye for filming matches.
"So looking at it just from a wrestling side, I always was a fan of being able to combine pro wrestling with very dynamic camera work where it actually feels like you're in the fight, or you're in the match," Mitchell continued. "Stuff like that. I always wanted to shoot more of that stuff but with pro wrestling it's kind of hard to make a lot of time to shoot shows. Plus, if you're in the area and you see me wrestle on Friday and then you go to a show Saturday and I'm standing there holding a camera, it's kind of funny."
Mitchell first introduced himself to Ali long before their promos were approved to appear on WWE television. He described what their initial shoots were like and the ways they have altered throughout their time working together.
"I had shot something for Bryce Benjamin's school and Ali was there one day, and we kind of played around with that [footage from the school]," Mitchell explained. "And then I had done some Freelance Wrestling highlight packages and I did a highlight video for Matt Knicks, and I just sent him some stuff that was out there. Ali had seen it and was like, 'Hey, if you're free, I have an idea to shoot this promo.' So this promo never actually aired but we filmed a couple of promos where he was in this developmental hell area where he was trying to develop what his character was going to be. This was before 'the light', this was before all that. We filmed some stuff and from there, it was like really, really low-end. It was, 'Hey, basic promo.' Just a step above from the guy filming a promo on his cell phone."
Although the duo didn't stick with some of the first ideas they thought up, it helped them better understand how they wanted to approach the shoots in the future.
"And then he started getting some good ideas and I said, 'Hey, if you feel like we can film some more promos, let's actually take some time and let's film them in a way that, I feel, is more like a small movie rather than just: here's me talking into my cell phone," Mitchell said. "From there, the idea kind of grew from that. I think it was maybe about a year-and-a-half ago that we met up for the first time. It'll be close to two years. We filmed a few promos and we ended up not using them but then after that, we started to actually get the idea of what we were going with. And I think the first promo that we ever released was the, 'This is my life as a police officer' one. I think that was the one [WWE] ended up using on one of the pay-per-views."
Mitchell mentioned the creative vision that he and Ali are aiming for when creating their most recent vignettes, including their "the light" promo that aired at WWE Stomping Grounds last month. Although it may not be appreciated by a casual viewer, Mitchell and Ali have thought out even the smallest details to give viewers their final presentation.
"I think that if you watch [the videos] very casually, you might not think of it as much, but what I've always said to Ali... we're not trying to overproduce these," Mitchell noted. "I think they should feel very real. Because what Ali is telling you is the story. It's not about swift camera work, it's not about anything like that; the story is what he is talking about. So when we film these, and this is something that I always thought was very true and consistent in how we've done [the videos], we always like to shoot eye-level. We don't shoot Ali from the ground because he's not looking down and talking down to you, we don't shoot him from above because the audience isn't appearing to be bigger than him, we shoot him eye-level so it feels like he's talking straight to us. And we like to make sure that they feel very raw, so, not very overly-sharpened. So I think the drift and focus is great because when you're having a conversation with someone and you lose eye contact with that person or you re-focus yourself, it kind of feels very real."
Mitchell wants the camera and audiences to direct their undivided attention to the words that Ali says. He does this by filtering out anything in the background that may potentially be distracting to the viewer.
"If you watch the promos, everything feels like a straight conversation from him to you, but the way we do it is we make sure that it feels like the subject matter of what he's talking about is the story," Mitchell said. "He just happens to be on camera. So when we do it, we don't want it to be distracting. There's nothing in the background that's going to distract you, there's nothing too loud, it's going to just be him, his voice, and his message, and I think by doing that, we've managed to stay very real. And if you watch all the promos as you go along, that's one thing that we've tried to make sure stays always constant is eye-level, very tight, we don't want too much space around him. We want you to be very focused on him. I always ask people, 'What do you think of the promos?' Even guys I know that are wonderful videographers, they say, 'I just feel very captivated by him', so he's very in the center and it feels very tight, so it feels like an intimate conversation."
Mitchell and Ali actually used extras from Chicago's Freelance Wrestling to act in the vignettes. Mitchell went into detail about the involvement Ali has had with Freelance Wrestling since the group started working together years ago.
"I think it's great, I think it's cool and it was [Ali's] idea too. And I think that's a testament to him," Mitchell explained. "He knows where he came from and he's always back here with us, he never forgot about any of us. And any time he's ever had an opportunity to include us, or bring us along, or even talk about what he's working on, he always comes to us so we've always felt very included. I think that speaks to his character as a person, like he is the way he comes off as. He's very humble, he's always come back to show us stuff, he's always training. When he was on the 205 Live schedule, he was still back every single week training with us. And a lot of people don't realize that this guy trains, he lives it. He's not just wrestling when he's on TV, he's always, constantly working and training, and he's giving back to us and showing us new stuff all the time. He's always making sure that us, the people that have always been around, we also get a chance to grow and learn. It kind of trickles down, so as he's learning and growing, he's also giving back to us too and he's never, ever stopped doing that. We've always been very appreciative to have him."
Mitchell is excited to be an independent wrestler at a time when the industry is booming like it has been. Nevertheless, he explained how content he is at the place he's at right now as he gets to explore his passions and work with people he cares for.
"It feels good because I feel like - I mean, I'll be realistic, I'm not creating something that's never been done, I'm not re-inventing the wheel," Mitchell joked. "But at the same time, I'm going out there and I'm staying very true to myself in the idea that I'm doing the kind of matches that I like to do and I'm keeping my professional attitude very grounded and humbled. So any opportunity that I get, at the end of the day, I realize that I do deserve what I've worked very hard for but I do understand, also, that there is so much, there are so many people all fighting for the same opportunities. So anything I get that puts me in a great place or gets any eyes on me, I'm very, very appreciative of it... When you're #1 or you're deep into the world where you're someone that everybody wants and everyone needs, I can only imagine how clouded that feels. I mean it's probably great because you're very sought after and you're a very big draw. But at the same time, I wonder if that limits your creativity or if it limits your ability to be a little more pick-and-choosy about what you like to do. I guess it's two world. I think I'm in a position right now where I'm doing everything I like to do, I'm having a great time, and I think I'm really enjoying actually growing and, obviously ten years later, seeing what actually works for myself."
To support Craig Mitchell follow him of Twitter @CraigXMitchell or Instragram.com/CraigXMitchell. You can also buy his shirts at ProWrestlingTees.com/Freelance-Wrestling. His full interview with Wrestling Inc aired as part of a recent episode of our WINCLY podcast. It can be heard via the embedded audio player at the bottom of this post. In it Mitchell discusses helping to found Freelance Wrestling, working to break out on the indies, working with Ali on his promo videos, how much freedom WWE gives him and Ali with them, constants across all of Ali's promos, Ali continuing to give back to the Chicago indie scene and more.