The world of production has been one of the sectors of the ad industry to be rocked most by the Covid-19 pandemic. But companies across the globe have been doing what people in production do best: devising ingenious ways to make the impossible possible.
Brooklyn-based content production agency Mustache has been doing exactly that. The company has adapted to freelance 'micro teams' to meet production needs while respecting the rules around social distancing. To ensure they’re producing the maximum amount of content, Mustache is extending shoot times. For example, if only 15 minutes of sunset footage is needed, they’ll send the ‘micro team’ out to shoot for two hours to capture all the angles and send back as much content as possible. And to ensure seamless integration during post production, Mustache is making sure its micro teams are using the same cameras, settings, and equipment throughout shoots.
That’s just a snippet of what they’re up to - LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Mustache’s head of production Eli Ash to find out more about the company's activities and her viewpoint on the production industry in general.
LBB> Since the effects of Covid-19 truly hit, what trends have you seen at Mustache with regards to the type of work that you were being tasked to do?
Eli> We had to be careful about shifting the sentiment around existing messaging for campaigns we were working on right before the quarantine hit. It’s important to ensure our creative didn’t come across as tone deaf or like we were pushing anything in poor taste because of the unique timing of everything. We made substantial edits to anything produced ahead of the pandemic, and in some cases, we are holding on releasing content until it’s more appropriate.
The majority of the work we’re currently seeing is for post-only projects that use stock footage and remixed media, which are capabilities that Mustache has always championed. It’s a muscle we’re very comfortable flexing and helps alleviate the needs of our clients and empowers us to deliver in a way that isn’t cost prohibitive.
And of course, we are still producing shoots, although not as much as we had before everything hit. Production doesn’t look the same as it did before, but with some careful planning and innovation, and A LOT of video conferencing, we are still standing up live-action shoots we’re really proud of.
It’s also been really important for us to put out content that exists out of the vacuum we currently live in; we’ve been coming up with evergreen solutions that will be palpable months from now. Everything we shoot can’t look like a Zoom-recorded call or it’s only going to work for a brief moment in time. We’ve been expanding our production value for remote captures so that what we capture will be relevant months from now. While I can’t give away too many trade secrets there, I can tell you that it has involved inventing and building our own pre-staged camera rigs that we can remote into and control.
LBB> How much of your work is production orientated now compared to before?
Eli> Production has always been the heartbeat of Mustache, and pre-pandemic, I would estimate that 80% of our projects involved a shoot of some capacity from small scale up to full funnel campaigns with cross platform ecosystems (social, commercial, digital, print, etc.).
For the time being, that’s dropped down to perhaps 30-40% of our current projects. Since the dust has settled a bit, I am hoping to see a shift back to more live action capture. We are having careful communications with our clients to help them understand how we can shoot remotely and produce quality content, safely and with a high production value, despite the circumstances. I hope that we start to see the amount of original content that we do for our clients increase over time and as regulations ease up. It’s still possible; it just looks different from what it originally did up until the pandemic.
LBB> Tell me about the 'micro teams' that you've set up to work around social distancing rules. Define that term for us and explain how you've put these micro teams together.
Eli> Once social distancing became the norm, we adapted to freelance micro teams, which is essentially utilising small, scattered teams across the globe to produce content safely while in isolation. We’ve leaned on our network of trusted creators – directors, producers, photographers, folks with in-home studios and access to equipment.
Instead of one or two large shoot days, we are breaking apart the spot shot-by-shot and delegating each piece of the puzzle out to their own small, micro shoot day. Sometimes that means a remote shoot gives us about 40% of what we need for the total spot, and sometimes it’s literally one or two shots (say for an aerial). Every project requires a different means to the best creative outcome.
For example, if we have a scene with a family eating dinner, we can consider working with a DP that has a camera package and camera-ready family. OR is it more important to cast a family so we have the exact right look and send them a simpler camera package we pre-stage for them?
Nothing is as cut and dry as it was three months ago, and every shoot has its challenges and limitations; each project requires a different road map right now. We’re challenging ourselves to think creatively about how we build a route forward that maintains the best creativity.
LBB> Once you've got your micro teams in place, then how do they work? How does the way they produce differ to previous times? What big things do you have to keep in mind to ensure you get the content quality that you need?
Eli> What’s really important to understand about how micro teams work, is that every day is still its own shoot day. The prep that goes into a traditional shoot is still happening, granted via video calls and photos. But, we’re still location scouting, tech scouting, virtual wardrobe fitting, spending a day dressing the location and reviewing every detail in advance as carefully as possible. We’re doing a tremendous amount of pre-production planning and logistical coordination over multiple prep days to get the micro teams ready and to be able to control the capture as much as possible.
We’re sending the micro teams’ resources to use during the shoots: product, props, wardrobe, lights, equipment, you name it. Everything is funneling through fewer people and has to be set up by our talent or our micro team. There’s also a lot of communication before we actually shoot anything. We’re also on video calls the whole time with our directors and we’re working (virtually) alongside them as they’re shooting to ensure everything goes smoothly and we get exactly what we need.
To get the content quality that we need it boils down to careful logistics planning: over communicating, having practice runs and camera tests, and getting down to as many details as possible.
LBB> Do you have some examples of any live action shoots that have taken place like this? What are the biggest challenges in pulling them off?
Eli> Yes! We’re currently in the middle of producing an ad campaign with a personal care product company, all remotely and compliant to social distancing. It involves shooting in three different locations with three different families. It’s a more complex production process that’s using all elements of the micro team approach. We built our own camera rig for this which had to be mirrored by our equipment vendors and pre-staged before going out to talent. And of course, the upload process with large media files can be its own maelstrom and drive anxiety when you’re trying to work with consumer based WiFi speeds and talent that isn’t specifically tech-savvy or eager to sit by an upload after shooting all day.
We’re in post production now and pretty in awe of how well it came together and how the capture looks. You wouldn’t guess this was shot in isolation with a ‘crew’ of two-three people.
LBB> Many companies are leaning into animation and CGI at the moment - how are you navigating this at Mustache?
Eli> We’ve always had a really strong post production team at Mustache. Even with live action shoots, we’re always trying to push post capabilities as far as possible. Animation and CGI are staples in our in-house agency offerings, and we’re excited to see an increase in these types of projects in our pipeline.
LBB> You're also working to repurpose stock footage, etc. Is this a new process for you or something you've always leaned into? Do you have any examples of work you've made like this recently?
Eli> We’ve always been really nimble and flexible with how we remix assets to add extra depth and layers to it through animation or CGI. We can give our clients a lot of options with content they already have from previous campaigns or by building on to stock that we license. We don’t typically offer a simple, linear edit using stock, we like to spin it on its head a bit and make it feel more elevated by flexing some of our other strengths, specifically in graphics and VFX.
LBB> How is the freelance market fitting into all of this work? And how does navigating the freelance market during this crisis differ to usual times?
Eli> Freelance day players are impacted the most right now – in the worst way. There’s no real way for us to have a full-scale shoot and hire the number of freelancers we typically would for each shoot. What we’re doing that helps some, is utilising key department heads and enlisting them in the prep of a project.
For example, we’ll bring on an art director that can help us pull together props and find ways to elevate the location(s) we are using, which right now are usually the personal homes of our talent or DPs. We can tap into a stylist to help source wardrobe options and send it to the talent and lead a virtual wardrobe fitting mixing in what the talent already owns with some things we can supplement.
All of the freelancers who typically make up a traditional set are being impacted the most right now. Unfortunately, as much as we’d love to, we can’t hire beyond the essential positions that are needed when working on a remote scale. I have a heavy heart for the crew that is out of work right now and knowing how much that impacts their livelihood. I’m hopeful things start to turn around and that changes sooner than later.
LBB> On top of all of your own production work, is there anything else you're looking to during this time to help others with production?
Eli> I am extremely passionate about collaboration during this time. I’ve been reaching out to people in my own network and trying to connect with others in the production community as much as possible. We are all feeding off of one another in order to keep the industry moving forward. Rather than it feeling competitive right now, we are all trying to bootstrap and keep the industry alive and keep our crew members employed.
I’m in talks with production companies and other executive producers regularly about how we can ideate together and learn from one another. I’ve also been joining weekly calls with a group of EPs, HoPs and line producers to join forces and discuss what’s changing in the industry globally and also strategize how things may change week-by-week.
I’ve always been an advocate for working together as an industry to create exceptional content and keep our industry evolving, so it’s great to see how this situation has propelled that to be more common practice.
LBB> Overall, what lessons have you learned since having to shift your working practices? And how do you see these lessons benefiting you in the long term?
Eli> We are really quick to adapt – and at the end of the day, we’re creators and makers – we love what we do and will find a way to continue to do it by any means possible. I believe we will see a huge shift in the industry coming off this. We’re creating new ways to shoot, building new technology and discovering just how much we can all get done despite no one being in the same room. Although I miss being on large scale sets with our favorite creators and crew members, it’s refreshing that we’re continuing to find ways forward.
I am looking at this as a new beginning, not a pause or backslide for production. I think we’ll see an advent in technology and toolkits, from Unreal Engine to TeamViewer that change the way we do things and actually open up more possibilities.
One lesson in particular that I see carrying over to the long term is that we’re all learning how to be better communicators. I’ve become really conscious about checking in frequently – department meetings, 1:1s, executive team meetings, cross-department head check-ins etc. A good portion of my days revolve around “checking in” with everyone, but it’s been really beneficial to have this level of communication when we aren’t sitting next to each other every day.
Giving that much of my time to my teammates is really what it takes to make sure that everyone feels heard, supported, and empowered. Without an abundance of communication, problems can fester quicker in a remote environment or go unnoticed for too long. We have to address communication gaps head on and quickly to sort through problems and ultimately keep our teams productive and engaged.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Eli> Without a doubt, the production industry, and frankly the world, is changing in ways we’ve never experienced before. This is new to everyone and there’s no way to look too far ahead in the future right now. We can’t predict where things are going to be next week, let alone next month. It’s really important that we keep this in mind and continue to be flexible and adaptive. What is working today may not work next week, and by next month, new techniques or options may exist that aren’t available right now. We are in constantly shifting waters and it’s important to recognise that.
Collaboration has always been a huge factor in the production industry. Coming together to adapt, evolve, and push the industry forward right now will have tremendous impacts on all of us. I’m looking forward to looking back at this time and seeing how we all worked together and stood up to the challenge.