How lockdown forced a revolution in remote production

Filmmakers Alan Griswold and Richard da Costa share the innovative workarounds that kept their productions moving throughout global lockdown. Could remote production be here to stay?
Two presenters sit on deck chairs inside a restored barge that is being used as a production set.

The past year has forced us all to change the way we work. In the film industry, lockdowns brought productions to a standstill around the world. The shifting sands forced production companies and filmmakers globally to get creative and find innovative ways to work safely within restrictions.

"The rug was pulled out from under everyone's feet," says Richard da Costa, director of production company Floating Harbour Films in Bristol, England. "In the first few months everyone was kind of shell-shocked."

With international and live events coverage on hold, Richard found himself specialising in virtual events – including working with Wildscreen Festival to produce a week-long virtual wildlife film festival featuring huge names such as director James Cameron, broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

Another filmmaker who faced production challenges was Alan Griswold, director of photography and owner of LA-based production company Monkey Deux, which produces the popular Our Star Wars Stories series for Lucasfilm and Disney.

"One of the biggest things about film production is the sheer number of people involved," says Alan. "The idea that people couldn't be together was a massive shakeup for that industry." For Alan, a remote workaround using Canon EOS R cameras and Canon's EOS Utility software was the key to keeping his series going.

Here, the two filmmakers explain how they kept the cameras rolling, how the filmmaking industry has pivoted and why some forms of remote working might be here to stay.

Has Covid-19 changed video production forever? Hear the conversation in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

Filmmaker Alan Griswold sitting beside a Canon Cinema EOS camera on a tripod.

A cinematic aesthetic has always been important for Alan Griswold and his company Monkey Deux, who shoot on Canon Cinema EOS cameras and Cine Prime lenses wherever possible. The first season of Our Star Wars Stories was filmed on two Canon EOS C200s and a Canon EOS R, before the series went remote, pivoting solely onto EOS Rs. © Alan Griswold / Monkey Deux

A diagram drawn in chalk on a blackboard, depicting a remote production setup.

When moving to a remote production, Alan says, there were two competing mandates. "One: we needed to make sure the cameras were as solid as possible from a production standpoint, so we could rely on them and the whole system working as best they could. And two: ease of use. Ultimately, it was EOS Utility which gave me that kind of control." Pictured: the workflow design for Alan's remote shoots. © Alan Griswold / Monkey Deux

Our Star Wars Stories: a new hope

Our Star Wars Stories is an original digital series which sees host Jordan Hembrough uncover heartfelt tales of fans who have found inspiration in the galaxy far, far away. It's streamed on the Star Wars website and to 3.5 million YouTube subscribers.

"Our Star Wars Stories is one of my favourite projects," says Alan. It was originally a roadshow, with a small crew of four touring the United States in a van, filming interviews in fans' homes. Alan shot the first season on two Canon EOS C200s and a Canon EOS R, selling Lucasfilm on the Cinema RAW Light codec, and added a third EOS C200 for the second series.

"It was a very down-and-dirty production," says Alan. "We had one day to shoot an episode, including B-roll. It was one of those exciting things where everybody had multiple jobs to do. And then it just came to a grinding halt."

To complete the series in the new normal meant repositioning into a virtual workflow, which called for a rethink on both kit and creative. "We wanted to embrace the fact that this was something entirely new, not mimic what we had before," says Alan.

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A store dummy's head sits on a box on a chair with a remote shooting rig on the table in front of it.

A store dummy's head sits in as a model during the testing process to develop remote shooting packs to send to Our Star Wars Stories' contributors. "One of the big complicating factors was that Lucasfilm wanted an over-the shoulder shot of the subject," says Alan. "Our main camera was looking at the subject. The subject was looking at the host on the laptop in front of them. The actual set-up had to have an aesthetic elegance to it." © Alan Griswold / Monkey Deux

A collection of laptops on a desk all showing the same image of a group of people chatting remotely.

Ensuring everything would work smoothly on shoot days required rigorous testing for Alan and his team. "It was important for Lucasfilm to lean into the fact that we were doing this remotely," says Alan. "That was the impetus for developing the kits that we sent out, the workflow and the type of production we ended up making." © Alan Griswold / Monkey Deux

After six weeks testing different methods, he developed filming kits to send out to interviewees – with Canon EOS R bodies at the centre, thanks to their ability to be controlled remotely using Canon EOS Utility, which he'd previously used for tethered stills shooting.

"As we were developing these kits, it became about what would be the most reliable and the highest quality," he explains. "Where the Canon EOS R and EOS Utility ended up winning was that we had the most control over the highest quality camera."

On video calls with interviewees, Alan would build a rig himself, alongside them, so they could see how to put everything together. The EOS R plugged into a laptop, where it could be remote-operated using EOS Utility software and by accessing the interviewees' computers using TeamViewer. Atomos Ninja V recorders were also sent out in the packs, to get the 10-bit colour space from the recording for better quality.

During the interviews themselves, Alan was operating multiple cameras to capture two angles of the interviewees, as well as the host. He describes the process as "completely nerve-racking", but the series was a standout success in its new form.

An array of Canon EOS R cameras, tripods, lights and computers on a desk.

Cameras, laptops, tripods, lights and all of the remote connectivity elements were shipped to Our Star Wars Stories interviewees. "As we were developing these kits to send out into the field, and before we'd settled on the Canon EOS R, we tried a number of different camera systems," says Alan. "Many systems were too complex, or the software interface didn't give me the amount of control over the camera settings I felt I needed to operate remotely." © Alan Griswold / Monkey Deux

A man on a makeshift production set standing behind an autocue, with dresser shelves in the background and leafy plants in the foreground.

"From the live production point of view, the fact that we're all doing things through a screen now has meant that we are having completely different relationships," says Richard, pictured on set during a remote broadcast for Bristol's Wildscreen Festival. "I don't think 'massive' is a big enough word to describe the impact lockdown had. Everything was being pulled and we were all working out how we were going to survive." © Richard da Costa / Floating Harbour Films

Taking a film festival online

Richard's filmmaking career began with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) in 2008 and has most recently seen his diving documentary Last Breath, filmed with a Canon EOS C300 Mark II, released on Netflix. He typically works around the globe.

"When lockdown first hit, we were stuck here in the studio, trying to figure out how we were going to do anything at all," he says. "What came out of that was a kind of virtual, remote hybrid for the live production we do."

When Wildscreen Festival wanted to go ahead remotely in 2020, the team decided to have a mix of live and pre-recorded content, shooting on a range of Canon L-series glass. "We're based on a big, old Dutch barge in Bristol Harbour," says Richard. "We kept it here with a live presenter for the week – a critical factor in making it feel immediate and being a conduit between the audience and the content."

Going virtual meant the wildlife film and TV festival was able to pull in bigger names than ever before, including director James Cameron, who dialled in from the set of his next Avatar film in New Zealand. The festival could also welcome more attendees. "Wildscreen has always attracted good contributors, but we surpassed previous iterations," says Richard. "The barrier of entry is lowered. In previous years, you might have 800 filmmakers – the 2020 festival had 2,500 people."

A topless man sitting in a bath wearing clown make-up.

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A man sits alone in a darkened studio with multiple views of him visible on the monitor attached to the camera in front of him.

"I think one of the mistakes that people made at the beginning was to try to replicate what was already there, whereas actually, in some ways, new forms have developed – and the audience experience has evolved along with it," says Richard. "If you can find solutions to getting the production value high, and you've got great content, I think we could see some really, really phenomenal stuff being made that wouldn't have otherwise been made were it not for the situation we've all found ourselves in." © Richard da Costa / Floating Harbour Films

A man wearing headphones working on a three-monitor setup, editing footage of high-profile interviewees.

Taking Wildscreen Festival remote was a boost to numbers – and the festival's environmental credentials and carbon footprint. "It's a big decision if you're going to come from Alaska or Los Angeles or India to come here," says Richard. "That's a big, big commitment, but to be able to get access to that content for the price of a day ticket – it was a massive lowering of the barrier for entry." © Richard da Costa / Floating Harbour Films

Production managing multiple global feeds and pre-recordings, alongside people live in a studio, was not without its challenges. "With this hybrid presentation, there's a lot of moving parts," says Richard. "You've got a combination of hardware and software, acquisition locally through cameras hardwired into a vision mixer, and then that's going into a software-based vision mixer for the programme."

A memorable challenge arose when Sir David Attenborough said he didn't like seeing the return feed during his pre-recorded conversation with Greta Thunberg, as the slight delay was distracting him.

"With anyone else we'd have done a longer setup and been through that, but we had to say we'd turn it off," laughs Richard. "As a result, Greta can no longer see herself on the return feed, so she starts to get lower and lower in the frame."

Laura Marshall, Chair of Wildscreen's board of trustees, with presenters Patrick Ayree and Lizzie Daly on set in front of a large monitor screen.

Laura Marshall, Chair of Wildscreen's board of trustees, with presenters Patrick Ayree and Lizzie Daly at the 2020 Wildscreen Panda Awards. As well as honouring outstanding wildlife film and TV content around the world, these first ever virtual Panda Awards themselves demonstrated one way that productions can become more sustainable. © Richard da Costa / Floating Harbour Films

The workflow here to stay

So, as it becomes possible to travel again, will everyone return to old ways of working? Or do these creative solutions have applications beyond the pandemic?

"We'll probably continue to do remote work even in Los Angeles," says Alan, who has seen kits similar to his used in Hollywood in the film and television industries. "A lot of people are getting used to the comfort of shooting in their own home, but without having a huge crew there. Even with big studio clients, budget is always an issue, and the ability to send something out is a great tool."

Richard sees this as an opportunity to improve his offerings through new technology. "Let's rethink and go forward in a better way," he says. "I'd really like to push the high-end, doing high-quality remote contributor interviews and documentary content you can be proud of. To achieve things you could achieve face-to-face, remotely, would be a lovely challenge."

Richard recently successfully shot a film about timber construction with 11 remote international interviews. "Going forwards, the question won't be, 'Shall we do it remotely?' It might be, in certain circumstances: 'Why would you do this in person?'"

"What I've learned is that when confronted with catastrophic changes, one of two things will happen – there's a mass extinction or an evolution," says Alan. "The elegance of the solutions was really inspiring in a year of less-than-inspiring events."

Lucy Fulford

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