One by one, the calls came in at the end of February. Solid bookings were put on standby. Shoots were pushed by a week, a month, and indefinitely. SXSW was cancelled. NAB was cancelled. It became clear in the first week of March that a calendar our company had securely populated with gigs was going to be clear for the foreseeable future. Concerts, live events, pilots, commercials-everything cancelled. It was time to rethink everything and find fast solutions. Luckily, I own the gear needed to make a shoot happen, a decision snickered at by many a crew member on various loading docks.
In addition, I am self-quarantined with my wife and business partner, so despair didn’t linger long at our door. We let everyone who had a project we were connected to know that we were still able to create content, if they were up to figuring it out together.
Despite ad agencies’ reluctance to spend in uncertain times, all around the country, consumers are ingesting more digital content than they did before lockdown. Not everyone wants to lose that time in front of the eyes of the quarantined. Luckily, our friends at Helium Films felt the same. Owner, Thierry Denis, had reached out to me a few weeks prior to the shutdown with the goal of filming a shoe commercial for Merino Shoes, a company known for their comfy classic sneakers that keep feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer — a trick made possible by the power of merino wool.
The plan had been to have a full crew that could move with dancers and actors wearing the shoes in various environments to complete two different campaigns. With that plan fully out of the range of possibility, Thierry shot a few storyboards on his phone at home and asked if we wouldn’t mind also being the talent.
I expressed my initial concern with all of this, and I confess that I was not as optimistic as Rin, at least to start. For one, we had to deliver spots with dancing, I am not a dancer. The other spots featured feet hiking through the great outdoors and 90% of the parks and beaches in our area are closed for good reason. I also had to temper my initially lofty goals for the cinematography of the campaigns as a whole, which well, bummed me out more than a little. Yet, Thierry was confident we would come away with content valuable for the client, and I knew Rin and I would at minimum give them higher production value than they expected. We have shot a number of music videos where there were only two of us… we just didn’t have to also be in front of the camera. Luckily, my wife really delights in problem solving.
“I often find parameters, which first present themselves as restricting, spark the most creative results. Whether the crew is 4 or 40 (or in this case: 2), the conversation is typically: How are we going to accomplish x with only this and that? Lots of ways! Lots of what ways? Well, let’s look.” – Rin Ehlers Sheldon
Before, I could even say, “Do you think we could even–” Rin was throwing out idea after idea- What if we built a lego park? “I could paint a backdrop! What about that awesome tree out front that’s growing sort of sideways?” We promptly “scouted” within the confines of our row of light blue townhouses and settled on a few useful locations:
- A parking space that was sometimes empty with a stone wall, a wooden fence and a rusty bike.
- An old magnolia fig tree over the community mailbox that requires a little climbing and which always provides ample shade.
- “That tree that’s growing sort of sideways.”
- The path in front of our laundry room.
- Our patio cleared on one side and rearranged into the best set we could manage.
- Our driveway.
“Even on a stage with limitless resources, artists can forget about what they can do with the headspace/airspace/height of their compositions. It’s important to look up. If the idea is adventure and fun and exploration, we’re not just gonna give up and walk through some grass. We’re going to maximize what we’ve got to express that idea.
The initial ad didn’t have anyone climbing trees, but we had to create more environments, and there weren’t anymore on the ground. There was also a funky tree growing sideways that was really different texturally from the other environments, so I thought about taking it down to that one flattish area of the trunk and taking the horizon off a bit to make it look steeper. Okay, now what action conveys the spirit of the ad? We can climb up it; we can climb down it. We can stand and look where we’re going. We can jump off of it. We can jump over it. Let’s try it all, and use what works best. ” – Rin Ehlers Sheldon
Beyond those two trees, a county trail (which we double checked was indeed still open) served as a good location for the hiking shots. Shooting in our small community meant we had to be flexible and considerate of our neighbors, so we couldn’t be throwing up grids and frames and have a huge camera setup. We needed to be able to move out of the way at any given moment. We also didn’t want to be too conspicuous because we didn’t want anyone to ask us what we were doing. Of course, you can guess the hero we chose. It was the SIGMA fp to the rescue.
We launched into filming with the Sigma fp and the L-mount 45mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary bundle lens.
The challenges with having a crew of two that are both also talent is numerous. We didn’t have extra hands, but we did have extra time on our hands, so we would wait until the lighting looked the best at each of the locations. For lighting during closeups, we used the Lightbridge 50cm CRLS system mounted to a light stand to bounce or to edge or to fill. A good portion of the shoot, we used available light, and shaped here and there.
We shot entirely 12-bit CinemaDNG UHD and FHD on the fp for this project. Everything was center framed and shot 16:9 for square cropping in post for social media delivery. All the dancing was shot at 23.98fps and the nature content was shot at 60fps.The footage would be left on our doormat and Thierry would pick up the drive for editing over at Helium Films.
“Producing these from a distance was definitely strange. With no physical contact possible, it forced us to be creative on how to approach the shoot. It first involved shooting and editing a low quality previz to share with graham the shots I had in mind (which I would usually not have done for a small project like this – instead relying on a basic shot list and on-set collaboration). It then involved a lot of back and forth texts and FaceTime, as well as dropping and picking up disinfected drives on a door mat without seeing one another. The raw footage out of the fp looked great, with lots of dynamic range and room for color grading. I’m super happy with the result, and I think that it shows that high-quality remote video production is possible, albeit for the right product and with the right creative!” – Thierry Denis
As isolation and distancing standards press on us further, it is going to be very tempting to throw up hands and try to sneak in a shoot here and there. I’m not saying our solution will be possible for everyone. I am lucky enough to live with a fellow filmmaker and someone that could teach me to sort of dance on camera. What I am saying is that we all need to be thinking about how we can change our practices to produce content at our own standards, while keeping ourselves and others safe. With a little extra effort, flexibility, and most importantly: some out of the (shoe)box thinking, you can produce more than you think. Why not give it a shot?
Stay healthy. Stay safe, and keep creating.
Gear Used in Project:
- Sigma fp Camera
- L-mount 45mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary lens
- Sigma fp Viewfinder
- Samsung T5 SSD
- Flowtech 75mm Tripod
- Tilta G2 Gimbal
- Lightbridge CRLS 50cm Panels 1-4
- A Light Stand
- SmallHD Bolt 502 Monitor