During the COVID-19 shutdown, most productions stopped or went on indefinite hold. I don't know anyone who hasn't lost work or been affected in some way due to the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the film industry were put at serious risk. But as things continued to drag on, content still needed to be made. It just had to change shape a bit. Spots were made using stock footage. Remote productions began to pick up. And as some states in the US began to open again, the ability to start shooting again, albeit on a smaller scale and with certain restrictions, became possible once more.
This is what makes ProductionHUB so valuable. Many agencies and productions began looking for local crews to produce the content they needed instead of flying in themselves, and they turned to ProductionHUB to find them. It was an opportunity for freelancers everywhere who were able to capitalize on the situation and could work safely.
For this project, agency Blink LA contacted me to shoot part of a Budweiser spot for Memorial Day. Blink LA was hired by a branch of Oglivy and Mather, who needed to put together a spot using footage shot in 3 or 4 different markets. Two of these markets were large cities, but they also needed a more suburban America feel for variety. Thanks to ProductionHub, they found me.
The kicker for this project was that the turnaround would be one week. Yes, a single week to put together a Budweiser commercial! Welcome to 2020.
Though the situation was far from ideal, fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) we've all had to get used to fast turnarounds these days. I knew that I could pull together what they needed in my market, so I jumped onboard.
However, as the week progressed, the creative continued to evolve, and the need for certain shots to contain well-known landmarks of New York and Chicago went away. The spot became focused on what would eventually be its final form, a juxtaposition between a US military veteran and a front-line worker against COVID-19. As it became clear how impractical it would be to acquire permits and talent in a large market hard-hit by the coronavirus, especially in such a short amount of time, the agency realized that they would need to produce this all in one area. I realized that I could end up producing this entire spot myself. Jumping at the chance, I confidently offered to produce it and acquire all the talent and locations needed. They agreed. At this point we were three days out from shooting.
The first thing I did was to bring on Liz Murphy Stovall, an experienced producer who could also help me co-direct. I'm a cinematographer, and although I occasionally direct and produce content, I knew I needed someone who could handle the client needs while I focused on the technical. Liz has a wealth of experience in multiple agencies, and recently started her own production company, Fenton. She was happy to partner together and immediately began assembling talent and locations for the client.
Following CDC guidelines was important for this shoot. We knew we had to keep crew and cast down to 10 people, so every role had to be vital and personnel needed to juggle duties if necessary. This applied to the whole process, including the location scout. Two days before shooting we were still building the pre-pro book, building a shot list, and scouting locations to give the client as many options as possible before their final decision. We also had to find a real veteran to be in our spot to keep it authentic. Ultimately we settled on two locations for one very long shoot day, with a single company move halfway though.
Then a mere day before the shoot, we had a very long meeting on Zoom with the agency and the client, who went over everything and made their final decisions on talent and locations, along with a few added shots they wanted to see in the final spot. The client was very detail oriented, so they wanted to know exactly how everything was going to look and to play out. Adding additional challenge was the fact that the spot needed to be split-screen, with the talent acting in near-symmetry. That meant that each talent needed to be in the same framing, same angle, doing the same or similar actions. And bear in mind we were doing everything remotely for them, so they would be completely relying upon us on the day. Here's what we had for cast and crew:
Crew: 8 / Talent: 2
- Production Manager
- Audio Mixer
- 2 Art Department
- 1 Nurse
- 1 Veteran
On shoot day, we had a lot of responsibility resting on our shoulders. We knew we had to be in constant communication with the agency, sending updates, screenshots and video clips as went along. Framing for a square frame so that we could do split-screen had to happen, but they also needed a 16x9 full-screen option as well. I made sure to shoot each sequence on the same lens, at the same angle, using screenshots from the previous angle to line it up. I then used the lighting to differentiate the shots and create a different mood between the nurse and the veteran. For her, I used soft light. The rooms had white walls and we were on the second floor for some of the shots, so I had to work to balance her light against the background. We used the Litepanels Gemini in a Chimera soft box and Kino Select LEDs. For the veteran, I opted for more of a sunrise feel, with harder light coming through the windows. This was achieved with a 1200w HMI that our gaffer, Matt Hedt, placed outside the windows, and we adjusted the fill level in the room to get the right amount of contrast.
Here's the gear we used:
- Arri Alexa Mini with Tilta cage and follow focus
- Zeiss Super Speeds Mk3 set
- Bright Tangerine Misfit Matte Box
- SmallHD Cine 7 Monitor
- Flanders Scientific CM171 Monitor
- Cartoni Focus 22 head and tripod
- Easyrig Vario 5
- Litepanels Gemini 2x1
- Kino Flo Select 30 LEDs
- 1200w HMI
It was very important to the client (and to all of us) that we remain as safe as possible during the coronavirus pandemic. This was especially important considering our subject matter – a front-line worker and a veteran, both of whom are putting themselves in harm's way to keep the rest of us safe. Here are some of the steps that we took to keep CDC guidelines while shooting:
- An extensive health questionnaire prior to shooting.
- Temperature checks at call.
- The crew wore masks on set, and the talent wore masks when not acting on-camera.
- 6-ft of distance was preserved whenever possible.
- Minimal or no sharing of handling materials by crew.
- Lunch and snacks were in individually-packaged containers.
- Anyone not needed on set stayed away.
- Cards were given to the DIT, who remained outside and distanced from the rest of us as possible.
Although as of this writing, comprehensive universal guidelines have not been released by any of the major studios or unions, we felt that we produced this spot as safely as possible. And fortunately no one has developed any symptoms since wrapping the shoot.
As soon as we wrapped, a courier was there to take the footage and deliver rushes to the editors. We literally saw a first draft of the spot within 24 hours after that. A follow-up meeting to go over the shoot and to give feedback about the edit and the color grade, and it went to Budweiser for feedback. Ultimately, after a couple more days of changes from the client, the spot hit the air a grand total of 4 days after the cameras began rolling.
The result: over 4 million views on Bud's Facebook page, 155k likes, and 58k shares. Not bad for a week's turnaround!