As we slide into August and the dog days of summer, production companies and production personnel keep asking me the same question over and over. That question is: “Are we there yet?” It seems to be the overwhelming theme over the last month doesn’t it? To be honest, I think that the jury is still out. In some areas remote truck production “seems” to be working. Some mobile units are carefully rolling out and taking on new “remote” productions full stream ahead. Other truck owners are still taking a 'wait and see' approach and working in what I call a “hybrid” work model. In the truest sense of the word we are talking remote production but with a lot of caveats.
We recently caught up with Nic Dugger, Vice President of Live Mobile Group Nashville, and Josh Greenstein, Director of Operations, Thistle Productions out of New Hampshire. Both are very highly regarded remote professionals with Emmys and tons of hands-on experience. They both are fighting the good fight to keep productions moving and their companies working. Here are some of their thoughts as they work to keep “remote” productions rolling.
PH: Tell me a little about what has kept remote production going since March of this year.
Nic Dugger: We were lucky - we have been working since the very first week of the pandemic shutdown, but almost all of our events have been a result of COVID. The weekly Grand Ole Opry, multiple events with Churches, and a slew of corporate events has allowed us to keep going with an average of 5 - 10 shows per week for every single week of the pandemic. The PGA coming back was another big boost for our sports division.
Business operations means all hands on deck. Each and every staff member is contributing to the preparation and execution of our shows like never before. Each and every project is being vetted for safety and heath opportunities like never before. We don’t want to put any of our staff, or any of our crew in a situation that could result in an illness. And we are all essential.
Josh Greenstein: Like many similarly situated companies, when the reality of COVID began setting in our calendars emptied out. At the time we were loaded into a ballroom for a large private event, the show was set and ready after three days of building and like *that* the event was cancelled, and we started to break down and head home. May/June are historically very busy for us and this year was very different. We initially were shut down during April like everyone else due to a lack of shows, safety concerns for our staff, and frankly because we just didn't know what we were dealing with. That quickly turned into an uptick in new requests that demanded a need to integrate our traditional production workflows with Zoom, WebX, and Skype etc.
Luckily for us at the end of 2019 we had designed a custom production flypack built around the Ross Carbonite Ultra production engine. When we started to see this remote production demand, we knew what we had to do: We converted a bay of our warehouse into a control room using our flypack, we were able to integrate multiple TVU servers, our Ku uplink/downlink capabilities, along with Zoom/Skype etc., to create a control room that could produce content for anyone, anywhere from our offices in New Hampshire.
PH: What kind of safety precautions are you taking?
Nic Dugger: From day one we took the safety of our clients and crew very seriously. All crew is in masks for the entire time we are onsite. Trucks have Plexiglas partitions to separate all crew. All trucks have hand-sanitizer stations at every door. Each truck and fly pack gets sanitized every night on show site, and deep cleaned when they are de-prepped at our field shop. Our larger trucks have modified air-handling systems to help eliminate any germs in the air. We are checking temperatures in the shop and onsite with external thermometers as well. And we are not lax about this. After practicing these requirements for months, it has become a very computable routine for all staff to follow.
Josh Greenstein: We put safety protocols in place to clean surfaces and set up socially distanced workstations to keep everyone safe while working. We were able to produce shows remotely for multiple clients across the US by allowing their producers/directors/editors to have live multiviewers delivered to them for monitoring with time code for all the local ISO records we were doing on site. For post-produced shows, we would record and FTP footage following the shoots, the editors had the logging from the live taping and they were able to quickly turn around their products from the safety of their home edit suites. We were able to seamlessly pivot and dive in on the "virtual production" trend, which allowed us to continue to support our clients' needs.
PH: Are some of your clients nervous? How are you walking them through the process?
Nic Dugger: Clients are nervous because of the uncertainly. The nervousness comes from the interruption of cash flow for all of us, the fear of contamination of course, and the fear of keeping everyone safe on set. No one wants to get sick. But everyone wants to work! The key to client sanity is explaining the steps we are taking to be safe, and to listen to their concerns while making sure each of their concerns are addressed and taken seriously. There is NO being flippant about any of this. As I mentioned, we have been doing it for months…but it only takes one lazy day to lead to a mistake. Each day counts. Each show counts.
PH: How are freelancers holding up?
Nic Dugger: Freelancers are in a tough spot. Their income has stopped cold, and at this point any show means bills get paid for them. We have been acutely of aware of any projects we can place our freelancers on, and we are trying to pay them as fast as possible. Their safety is as important if not more so, because if one of our staff gets sick - we keep doing shows. If a freelancer gets sick, they are not able to work at all.
PH: Where do you think you think mobile production is doing? What could be better?
Nic Dugger: I feel like we have kept mobile production safe. We are doing everything in our power to make sure our people have a clean and reliable environment they can work in. One of the things we have struggled with most is keeping a positive attitude. With so many projects cancelling, and so much of our community falling on hard times, we struggle everyday with seeing the bright side and keeping our eyes to the future…and it is hard to hide this frustration at times.
This has become the age of technical creativity in mobile production. We ask ourselves every day - how can we do this? How can we get competitive events to the fans? How can we keep our crew and our client safe? How can we continue to produce Emmy winning television without putting our teams at risk? Lots of brainstorming, lots of conversations, but unfortunately very few solutions. Clearly REMI/ At-home style production is going to become more prevalent in our world.
PH: What do you see as the business model for the rest of the year?
Nic Dugger: This pandemic is not over. Far from it. We all need to be prepared for less work overall, modified working conditions, and the very real likelihood that our lives will never be the same. Now is the time to train, learn new skills, and make sure that when a client calls we are ready for any challenge.
Josh Greenstein: We were fortunate that last year we also built two outdoor LED screen trailers that we call "Thistle Vision". As schools, cities, and restaurants start to figure out how they would handle graduations, town meetings, and entertainment in outdoor venues, we were there ready to deploy TV-1 & TV-2 to meet those demands. We have done roughly 28 outdoor events since the beginning of June with our Thistle Vision screen trailers.
PH: So what are some of your feel good moments?
Nic Dugger: The PGA is BACK! And for that, we are very thankful.
Josh Greenstein: We have really great and talented staff members who have all stepped up together to make these projects work, both technically and logistically. We also have great ownership who have bent over backwards to keep the company running, despite these challenging financial times, even keeping staff employed even when the work initially slowed down.
PH: Parting thoughts?
Nic Dugger: The vision for mobile production remains a giant question mark, and it could change any moment. We see groups that are doing well, and we see groups experiencing outbreaks. Our attitude is hopeful, but realistic. This pandemic could have the same devastating effect on the sports work just as it has had on our entertainment division. But this is a time for cleaning. A time for training. And a time to support one another and be very thankful for the opportunities we do have.
Josh Greenstein: We are happy to be busy and to have clients that continue to innovate and trust us to adapt with them to produce the level of content they have come to expect.
Both remote production companies have taken some serious steps to ensure the safety of their crews. Their pictures tell that story. But there is more. These companies adapted. They made some major adjustments and dare I say, are doing ok. To me that is a win! But there is still work to do. COVID is not going to take time off and neither can we. Due diligence must be our battle cry. Production professionals will no doubt have some tough choices to make. We know that. Be safe out there.