[Above: An image of the live feed from a New Zealand-based shoot for a Chinese client who was unable to travel due to Covid-19. The production and remote monitoring was facilitated by PSN]
Over the past two weeks we’ve heard from multiple production companies and agencies about projects that have been put on ice as a precaution against coronavirus. While some of this can be put down to nervy clients pre-emptively tightening their belts, people are also increasingly reluctant to travel and risk exposure to Covid-19.
However, putting work on the back burner because of travel bans could be the worst thing that the industry could do – bad for brands which need to stave off the impact of an impending global recession and bad for businesses working in advertising and production. That’s why we’ve spoken to a range of people across the industry for practical advice about how to keep on keeping on – and it turns out that remote working could even keep your international shoots on track.
Get in the Right Headspace
Much is made of tech tools that help keep work flowing away from the office – Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts and the rest – but those who have fostered a culture of remote working over the past few years reckon that the biggest challenges can be far more human.
Bridey Lipscombe is co-founder and MD of creative agency Cult. They’ve incorporated elements of remote working since the agency’s inception – from the off their global client base required the team to travel every three weeks and they soon saw the benefits to clients of allowing staff to work onsite with them, as well as the benefits for employees. With that experience, it hasn’t been too much of a stretch to roll out a response to the coronavirus threat – by Monday 16th, the team is aiming to be 100% remote. For Bridey, the key is to approach the shift in a human-centric way.
Of course, with remote working baked into Cult’s culture, it won’t be too difficult to pivot. For agencies and production companies with less experience, Bridey has some advice.
“Remote working can breed paranoia. Avoid the temptation to micro-manage your team's time, time spent online does not measure success. Be clear with your desired goals and results and use these to benchmark success,” says Bridey, who also reckons that video conferencing and voice are preferable to email overload.
It’s also important to think about the psychological impact of being physically cut off from clients and colleagues for a long period. “It can be challenging for some to work from home, consider how you can provide structure and routine for your team's day, ensure you have weekly check-in and debriefs so that you can celebrate successes and wins as you would in your office environment.”
Don’t Shut Down that International Shoot Just Yet…
If there’s one part of the advertising industry you can rely on to keep calm and carry on, it’s production service. After all, these are the real makers. The roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-shit-done-ers.
Sadly, we’re already hearing from production companies, post houses and music companies that have seen seemingly-sold scripts disappear into the ether following the global spread of Covid-19, and we’ve heard anecdotally that agencies in the US are being asked to try and keep things domestic.
For one thing, it’s important to take note of different countries’ situations. For example, one agency has had to scrap a shoot that was due to take place in Italy – the current epicentre of the disease in Europe. But negative news coverage is causing problems in other territories that are still open for business. Peter Grasse is founder of Mr Positive Tokyo and he feels that Japan is currently being lumped in with China in the minds of international agencies and production companies, even though the country is not under lockdown.
In countries with few cases of the disease, production service companies are keeping a watchful eye on hygiene and sanitation. In Ukraine, there’s currently just one confirmed case of the disease, and none in the capital Kiev. Nonetheless heavy-hitters Radioaktive
are taking precautions. And, crucially, they have enacted a paid leave scheme that includes freelancers as well as full time employees – setting an example for the rest of the industry.
“With all that is happening, Radioaktive understands how important health safety is in the time of a potential epidemic,” says founding partner Darko Skulsky. “We have stepped up measures to ensure all of our sets, production areas, locations all are equipped with the proper sanitation devices and temperature monitors. Our set doctors have gone through a briefing process on how to check the crews’ health and well-being. We have started a paid leave initiative with any full time, freelance and crew staff to ensure they will be paid for their labour days, to encourage them to self-quarantine at any signs of illness. We will continue to engage the local health authorities on how to increase our vigilance to all health and safety matters.”
But there are ways to keep your overseas production on track, even if international travel has been seriously curtailed. PSN (Production Service Network)
has extensive experience of remote production in the feature film world. In 2016, they pioneered this with the team at PSN Thailand
on the movie The 5th Wave, where shots were directed remotely via a Skype on an iPad. Since then, the virtual and remote tech has become more sophisticated – PSN Thailand now has a robotically-mobile HD camera that can pan, tilt and zoom on set.
Michael Moffett, founding director at PSN, is realistic about just what can be achieved as a director working far from the set.” Still, the process of remote directing is pretty brutal, and is really only suitable to the more superficial parts of direction. A director’s important choices are matured and made over a period of weeks prior to shooting, and these decisions are a result of continuous interaction.
Of course, with the onset and spread of Covid-19, many agencies and production companies may still find themselves having to decide quickly whether and how to push ahead with an overseas shoot. Michael says that in those situations, he would recommend bringing on board a local director of photography who the director has a relationship with.
“Prep is conducted as usual for overseas production involving liaisons on a daily basis, location photos, live-link casting and wardrobe sessions and HoD video conference. The director is then live-linked during the shoot, as are the agency and client. Slingshot rushes can also be arranged each night for data to be sent remotely,” says Michael, explaining how these shoots work on a practical level.
At Radioaktive, the watchword is flexibility and while some shoots will go ahead as normal given Ukraine’s current status, they are also offering similar remote options with tools like QTake and Cine Lab Cloud.
“This offers every client the ability to watch what is happening in camera, in real time, from anywhere in the world, by turning their computer or handheld device into a monitor. This way we can circumvent the need for clients to travel to attend a shoot which saves them any individual complications and time of doing so,” says Darko.
He’s also mindful that for many clients this could be the first time they’ve run a shoot remotely so is keen to demystify the process as much as he can. “We're on hand to walk clients through the process. They can register for and test the service in advance or we have technicians on standby to visit them personally to set up the production stream,” says Darko.
And if you’re still unsure that this is a workable solution, PSN has just recently wrapped on a project for a Chinese agency and brand who were, understandably, unable to travel to a New Zealand shoot. The Chinese production company sent an EP from Malaysia and director from Japan, but the agency and marketing team were able to keep on top of the shoot from home.
“PSN China employed its own live-stream system to overcome poor image quality and latency experienced on previous generation technologies. At user-friendly costs, this live-stream connected professional-grade video to all devices in near real time,” says Michael.
As well as the alternatives offered up by production service companies, animation might also gain prominence as it offers up more options for remote working.
Chris Page, founder of animation and illustration company Jelly says that a strong idea can be pivoted to animation. “It’s just a case of finding a style that suits and getting a good treatment from a strong director. Even if a director is attached to a project already and it was originally going to be live-action, there’s no reason why they couldn’t collaborate with an animation studio to get just as strong a result, in my opinion,” he says.
Of course, animation is a broad church, with some styles requiring more technical support when it comes to remote working. “If you are working with high-end CGI files then shifting work around can be a challenge without a dedicated fast broadband pipeline but luckily we have one of those. 2D is bit lighter on bandwidth. [In terms of] our in-house animation guys, The Kitchen have started backing everything up to The Cloud every evening and we are all taking our laptops home every night just in case. I’m very confident that we could fire up Slack and start working remotely pretty much immediately.”
In most cases, remote working is already integral to the animation process. “Most of our work is remotely handled anyway, we represent directing and animating talent all over the world and all of the projects are produced in London to be delivered globally, so if isolation happens it’s not going to be vastly different to how we work with a large tranche of our clients anyway,” says Chris.
Perhaps the greatest example of animation’s flexibility in the face of the disease is China-based Final Frontier, which spoke to Little Black Book in mid-February
. With an international network of producers and directors, they found that they were able to keep projects going despite Covid-19 keeping some workers stranded in their hometowns following Chinese New Year.
Ultimately, though, Chris Page at Jelly wants to see both animation companies and live action production companies survive and hopefully even thrive during a difficult period. In the UK, the production industry has had a slow, slog of a year plagued with Brexit uncertainties.
“We haven’t seen a downturn yet, it’s still quite busy and there are quite a few opportunities coming in, so in my book that’s as good as an increase, given the current climate. Obviously as someone who runs an animation business, I’d love to see more interest for the work that we do and there are obvious advantages in avoiding group travelling, shoots. However, that said, I have lots of friends who run live action production companies and I hope that they don’t suffer too much as a result of the coronavirus, it’s been a pretty tough couple of years and we could all do with some resilience in the market.”
Fix It in Post
Even tech-dependent high end post production doesn’t have to be tethered to a city centre facility. Several post houses, like Absolute Post
and Untold, hold their machine rooms and servers offsite, in suburban or rural locations. From an infrastructure and workflow perspective, then, the switch to remote working is less of a complicated switch than one might imagine for a part of the industry so reliant on specialist hardware.
“Actually, almost all of our technical infrastructure is located in an offsite data centre. We remote into that data centre via a superfast internet connection from our HQ in Soho – so technically, we are working remotely everyday,” says Dan Bennett, who is MD at Absolute Post. “With a small amount of connectivity equipment – we can extend that ability to VFX artists working from alternative locations. As long as they have a fast internet connection, there’s no reason that our artists can’t work from anywhere in the country.”
Already Absolute has two artists (a Flame operator in Manchester and a CG artist in rural Wales) who work remotely full time by using a specially installed 50mb downstream internet connection, which allows them to access their powerful workstations and high bandwidth storage from home. Dan says that the team has learned a lot from the last few years and was already aiming to get to a point where every member of staff can work from home at least one day a week.
“The real efficiencies of remote working depend so much on the individuals and the type of work they are doing. Remote working can be far more productive than being in the office and we’re lucky that both of our remote guys are highly motivated self-starters.," says Dan, who reckons they are well-prepared for potential developments.
"If there is ever a reason that people can’t make it into the office, then the ability to work remotely is obviously hugely advantageous, we can continue creating great VFX work no matter what’s happening in Soho. Having remote access to our VFX technology is only one aspect though. By implementing project management and communication tools- such as Shotgun and Slack, has meant that we can keep efficient workflows and accurately track progress no matter where we are."
Looking to the Long Term
Given the rapid spread of Covid-19, agencies and production companies are finding themselves having to react fast in order to keep the wheels turning and lights on. But while there are short term solutions and options, some might morph into long term ways of working. After all, before coronavirus reared its spluttering, wheezing head, the industry had been dragging its feet on sorting out employee work-life balance and cutting down on over-the-top travel.
“[I] Absolutely agree, it will eliminate fear around remote working and demonstrate the efficiency of this working model from both a cost and environmental perspective,” says Cult’s Bridey, approaching the question from a psychological perspective. If collective fear of the unknown is what has held the industry back, then the current situation might force agencies and production companies to confront that fear to find that there’s actually very little to be scared of after all.
Taking a mid-term view of production, Michael at PSN thinks that awareness of remote production is likely to grow but that once the spread of Covid-19 has subsided it’s unlikely to be a solution that works for every project. However, in the longer term, new generations could embrace the approach.
“Production executed remotely by trusted local partners will be a solution for some projects or parts of projects. The need to take precautions against COVID-19 raises awareness about that. But it is a deliberate decision that is as dependent on the brief as all the players,” he says.
“Whether the challenges to filming abroad are caused by health concerns, limited budgets or otherwise, PSN’s boots on the ground in 50 countries are empowering its clients with proven production alternatives. I don’t think we’re anywhere near an industry-wide consensus to make remote production THE solution for all projects requiring travel. But a generation raised on immersive technologies will be better suited to build upon the baby steps we’re taking now.”
For Dan, his vision of the future is one of balance. Just a decade ago, doing VFX remotely would have been unthinkable. At Absolute Post, the team have developed workflows and habits to support remote working, but the creative productivity and spontaneity that comes from being in a room with colleagues is something we’d miss if we abandoned it completely.
“It is also important to spend time with your colleagues - working in a creative environment that stimulates new ideas and discussions. You can’t do that via email or WhatsApp,” he says.“So, it comes down to a healthy balance of being able to collaborate with others - in person - and having the time to focus on deeper work without distraction. That’s the sweet spot we’re working towards.”