Intimacy, Trust and Technology: How Are Commercial Directors Getting to Grips with Remote Shooting?
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Since the pandemic began, directors around the world have been helming projects through video links. James Rouse, Calum Macdiarmid, Marcus Soderlund and more tell Alex Reeves how it’s changing the way they work for good
The past two months have seen the steepest learning curve some directors have faced for a long time. At the start of 2020, 1stAveMachine director Roman Rutten would only have used the phrase ‘remote shooting’ as in jest. “Remote shooting was basically a term that I was only familiar with in jokes between directors and producers,” he says. Now, like many directors, he’s made his first commercial over a video link.
Hope for the smooth, prepare for the rough
With only one week of prep, and locations to shoot in spread across South Africa, 1stAveMachine and service company Moonlighting had a huge production to make remote-directing-ready, figuring out a game plan that involved a system that’s usually used in live TV sports broadcasts and sends a lag-free HD stream to clients homes, Roman explains. “A backup signal, a Zoom live stream with our producers and another emergency backup signal over YouTube all passed the Chinese firewall. So many elements could have gone wrong!”
He’s staggered by how quickly not only his colleagues but the production world has risen to this challenge. “Before the Corona crisis, it was hard to stream pictures to follow a vehicle long enough. Now to do it halfway around the world, it was pretty intense. But we did tests before, and it actually worked really well, [the clients] were even able to comment live while setting up and do set approvals over a phone camera. For sure I will remember this shoot. But I am really happy it worked out and our client was so great about it and trustful, knowing the circumstances.”
Sweetshop director Nicolas Jack Davies reflects on the anxiety that his first remote shoot provoked. When the prospect of directing a Mumford & Sons’ music video over Zoom became a possibility, his biggest worry was, “frankly, whether the final piece would be any good. And when I got over that, whether my internet connection would hold up!”
Beyond that, having realistic expectations was a key component to success. Under lockdown, DOPs wouldn’t be allowed into the artists’ houses, so expensive, complicated cameras were off the table. Nicolas says limiting themselves equipment the talent could easily use was vital. They had these cameras set up completely beforehand by DOP Edgar Dubrovskiy, disinfected and sent in numbered boxes to fit a plan Nicolas had made. “We really tried to make it (forgive me Marcus & Reuben!) as fool proof as possible,” says the director.
Kuba Michalczuk took a similar approach to his remotely-directed spot for Polish drinks brand Captain Jack - make sure it was achievable for the cast, who doubled up as crew in their own homes. “We focused on natural content, which is why we were looking for actors active on Instagram etc. Thanks to this, they were really aware of content creation from the start,” he says. But the Papaya director has since helmed several projects remotely, and notes that each requires an individual approach. He’s excited about what is still possible within the constraints of lockdown. “I’ve already done other commercials in cooperation with a DOP. Using the actors as grips, we hung the lights at home to be able to play in 360 degrees with good exposure and get pleasing light. The possibilities are endless. We can also send in a professional camera and get its preview in real-time at the other side of the world. Day by day, film crews and producers are creating and improving the pipeline to achieve even better results while maintaining all aspects of safety.”
Like the other directors, for Romain Laurent’s first lockdown music video, realistic expectations were key. Sticking to one camera angle to keep things simple, the Bold director was able to make sure Korean idol Monsta X’s video came out just as he imagined, even while he directed it from another continent. The crew in Korea set up two live feeds from the set back to Romain in LA - one of the camera monitor and one of the wide view of the set. “Which helped me direct people around and get the overall vibe,” he says. “I adapted my sleep schedule the week prior to it. I chatted at length with the production manager there, basically doing normal pre-production stuff, but repeating over and over what I had in mind, sending drawings to explain specific ideas.”
Pre production is more important than ever when it comes to remote shooting, agrees Nicolas. “Lots of preparation, get a good team together, be really open about what you want to do and what the challenges are,” he says.
James Rouse, one of the most acclaimed performance-focused directors on the commercial landscape, just wrapped on his first remote production. And he found the process surprisingly stimulating. The strangest aspect, says the Outsider director, was the intimacy he was able to have with the actors he was working with. “We get to hang out all day together. You can’t go anywhere else. When it works this is great. On my last shoot, I really enjoyed hanging out with my four cast members, who, although I had worked with three of them before, I didn’t really know. I now do a bit… and it was a nice experience. It got pleasantly personal very quickly… although in the back of my head I’m aware that our relationship is being watched by 20 odd other people, producers, clients, agency and technicians.”
While it took a slightly different approach, the remote production that Marcus Soderlund of Academy just went through created a similar experience. The film, which is like James’ yet to surface, was shot in Marcus’ home with his kids as the cast and the agency on a remote link. “Somehow it felt like they were there in the room with us: I kept sending takes throughout the day and we discussed remotely on what to improve in the scenes. I felt like we almost got closer to each other working this way. Everyone was in their own homes with dogs and kids in the background. That created an intimacy that often gets lost on set. It was challenging but also extremely rewarding. Working with kids, having so few people there it’s actually a pretty good way to take away all the tension of a film set and get a closer more natural performance.”
It’s a good job that this process brings human connection to the fore because the importance of performance is definitely a preoccupation in remote shooting. “It’s crucial that the actor understands the story,” says Kuba. This isn’t like working on set where I keep most of my vision in my head, only giving the actors small comments to achieve the goal. Now I have to talk to each one about their characters, how they feel and what emotions they’re dealing with. Only if they fully understand what we want to achieve, will we have the chance of creating natural content.”
1stAveMachine’s Roman stresses the importance of building this director-actor bond. “I usually try to spend time with the actors and get them to feel confident around me and see me as a friend. So when we are on set we have already established a safe zone in which we can trust each other and they can be themselves. All this is a lot harder to achieve digitally. It’s a challenge on a human level. We all know the brilliance of Zoom calls, but nothing is better than all being together in one room to feel the energy, the struggle, fight and win together. The danger is here that it could feel like two sides not being part of the same team, that’s why pre-production is so very important to really get everyone on board. The technology is there. I can get the comments in almost real time and react, but we need to preserve the human connection.”
And when you’re staring at a screen for 15 hours, like Romain from Bold was, with a serious time difference and language barrier on top, that connection can be nigh on impossible to achieve. “Not being part of the physical set was surreal and odd,” he says. “You can’t bring in the energy via a webcam to a full set crew. You're in a lonely bubble, which feels opposite to the essence of directing. You sort of lose the creative spontaneity element you get by interacting in real life with people.”
Calum Macdiarmid, who’s worked with his production company Great Guns to make several films remotely, including a harrowing piece on the subject of domestic violence, just found the distance of it all a bit weird. “It's SO strange. The lack of immediate presence from a client makes it feel more like a short film you're doing as a personal project. The distance from the shoot makes it feel like you're watching someone else make the film and affects your emotional proximity to the situation... a little like a drone pilot dropping bombs and then coming home for afternoon tea with the family. On a normal job I'll usually need a fair few pints to come down off the stress and exhilaration but with this style of shooting you sometimes wonder if it even actually happened or if it was just some dream.”
Ultimately, achieving intimacy under remote conditions takes more work from everyone. Nicolas has learned a director can never be too good at communicating their thoughts and ideas. “Being removed from each other, you have to be really extra clear and open about what you want to do. Which is common sense, but maybe in 'usual' life you take that for granted.”
“I think more than ever, the key is establishing good communication with your client that is very transparent. That sounds easy but it’s not always the case,” says Roman. Calum agrees that this can be difficult for clients to navigate. “It requires a new leap of faith - perhaps in some ways closer to the commercial making of the ‘80s, he says. The PPM is obviously more important than ever so it's important to bring your A game and make sure that everyone believes in you.” After that, it’s time to trust that the team assembled can do their jobs properly, he says. “Because you spend so much more time stressing and communicating everything up front it means when the shoot happens it's a much calmer situation for the director. Everyone knows their jobs so it's almost like you get to sit back and watch it happen (...and then inevitably ask for tweaks in a panicked state as the light fades).”
And just to prove that the best regarded talents have insecurities, even James felt exposed by the trust he needed to earn from client and agency in this process. The thing that most terrified him was being on display the whole time. “When one shoots in the traditional format, the director is hidden in so many ways,” he says. “From the actors you get to hide behind a monitor when you need to. From the agency, as they can’t hear what you’re saying to the actors, so you can interpret feedback accordingly. From the client, who’ve often little idea of the precise nature of what you’re doing on set. Even from the crew who probably don’t want to listen to me prattling on. But with an online shoot, everyone can see and hear exactly what you’re doing. Every word is recorded… literally. Perhaps it made me up my game a little even. I was aware I was on show, so had to perform accordingly. I had to be even more prepared than I would have been otherwise. Failures are also there for everyone to see, immediately. So the pressure increases incrementally, so whilst it’s not so physically demanding, it’s mentally exhausting. You have to be ‘on’ the whole time. I was completely finished at the end of each shoot day.”
The game has changed for good
However long various countries’ lockdowns will go on for, this crash course in distributed ops for production will leave its mark on directors. “I’ve always enjoyed working with actors; it’s been a big part of what I’ve focused on in my directing career,” says James. “But getting to spend even more time with them has shown me that it has exponentially good results if one takes the time.” He’s resolved to invest even more into actors in the future.
Roman’s key takeaway centres on the relinquishing of control that this process calls for: “In every darkness there is light. I hope that it brings one thing back that maybe got a little lost over the years and that is trust. Trust between all of us. This crisis forces us to give up control, whether we want it or not. Instead of micromanaging, let's focus on the big picture of what is really important. In the end maybe it's the little break we needed, and a lot of great creativity will come out of it.”
Calum would never have thought shooting remotely was possible before this crisis, he admits. “If someone suggested it I'd say that it's an extremely bad idea. However since this crisis I'm now on my third remote shoot and somehow it seems to be working. You definitely have to work in a different way. The benefit of everyone having a phone means you can get a rehearsal out of everyone - actors can record how they'll do a scene, DOPs can show you how they'll frame or light something. It's actually pretty amazing how well informed you can be before you shoot with all this technology we have around us.
“I'm hoping this will have a lasting impact. I'm very lucky in that I embraced iPhone filmmaking a couple of years ago so when this all happened I already had work on my reel which proved you can still make cool stuff even in your house on an iPhone, as well as working remotely on bigger shoots. Hopefully there will be more of this think-outside-the-box / tell-a-story-by-any-means kind of thinking.
“All the remote shooting that has been happening will definitely affect the industry. It's shown that it can be done and done well. Clients too might now have confidence to watch a shoot remotely which could allow for more flexibility over locations. Hopefully all these breakthroughs will be used as a way to make even more unusual, bonkers work.”
Kuba shares that optimism that clients will be open to more processes moving into a virtual space in the future. “I believe that lockdown will speed up the use of technologies that we had on hand, but no one had seen the need to use them. It turns out that a client from the US can do a very large production in Poland without spending a dollar on airline tickets and without wasting time on travel. They can have remote viewing from several cameras, as can the agency. We’re able to be in direct contact throughout the duration of the project. I think that many agencies and clients will see this as a great opportunity to optimize costs and at the same time, appreciate the ease with which it’ll be possible to create diverse, high-quality content.”
So there are silver linings, but when the cloud of coronavirus lifts from the world and the production industry emerges, blinking into the sunlight of a post-Covid world, you can be sure that these directors will want to be back on a traditional set. Nicolas will be there as soon as he can be. “One of the best things about my job is simply how many different people I see all the time at different stages of projects - the gang at the edit house, the crews, the guys in the production office. I miss them.”
The absence of that was what freaked Romain out on his remote K-pop shoot: “The real human interaction, the energy, the spontaneity, the last minute ideas, getting sweaty. The feeling of a family you get throughout the production process and the wrap drinks. I finished at 10.30am, went straight to bed with no wrap party.”
After three projects, Calum’s got an idea of what remote shooting needs from a director. “You're forced to stick fairly rigidly to a plan rather than taking advantage of some good light, or an interesting performance. So from an execution perspective I miss being able to experiment and push ideas around to push it to the next level and really find the magic.”
Even after just one remote shoot, James misses his relationships with the other crew members. “I miss their amazing skills that just can’t be used on a remote shoot (at least not yet),” he says. “I’ve been forced into relying on my actors to be DPs, art directors, wardrobe, make up etc. And that side of it suffered as a result, unsurprisingly. I miss being on location, seeing amazing places. I miss the people…
“Oh, and my ham sandwich fell short at lunch too. I don’t think my cheffing abilities are up to much when I have a shoot on.”