Need to direct a video shoot from 2,000 km away? Here’s how
It was just past noon on Monday, March 2, 2020 – less than 24 hours before I was due to fly to Bangkok for a shoot – when my client’s customer called to say I wouldn’t be able to set foot in their office for the filming because their company labelled Singapore as a high-risk country.
Didn’t they know that Singapore’s handling of the COVID-19 situation was hailed as “gold standard” around the world, I asked. (Yes, we soon became a “cautionary tale” but my national pride was hurt then).
If the issue is with me stepping into the office, what about changing filming location, I asked hopefully.
No, the issue is meeting face to face, he said. With me. But my local video team is in the clear.
My mind raced through all the options but none were feasible. The filming date couldn’t be moved, and no one really knows how the coronavirus will spread. Plus it was too late to get a local producer that I could trust.
I reluctantly accepted the fact that the shoot would have to proceed without me being on the ground. It was not just a customer testimonial video with interviews shot in the customer’s office but we were also going to film at the customer’s customer – a wholesaler in a shophouse.
This was the first time I had to direct/produce a video remotely while constantly switching between English and Thai during the entire eight-hour shoot. It was not the easiest thing I’ve done and I was just grateful the video turned out all right in the end, although it can always be better.
Here are just three things that I’ve learnt from the process that could be helpful if you find yourself in the same situation.
As a producer, I’m used to having the story arc and shoot outline in my head. Sure, I have suggested scenes jotted down on the storyboard but by and large it’s an intuitive process. You go on-site and get what’s needed, and if you can’t get a particular shot, you figure out there and then what to do.
But if you can’t be on location, then your videographer has to be more than just someone holding a camera awaiting your directions.
Discuss contingencies and alternative shots in advance.
In the time between receiving the news and the shoot, I came up with a detailed shot list, right down to the angle, the framing and, more importantly, why that shot was needed. To make it easier for the local team, I translated the storyboard and shot list into Thai so they could see how the visuals supported the narrative.
It also helped that I had a long chat with my video partner not only to go through the instructions but also to discuss alternatives for various shots if they didn’t pan out.
Trust your local partner
Do all the “over-communicating” before the shoot and, on the day of the filming, just trust your videographer partner. During the shoot, although I was connected with them on a Line call throughout, there were times when he had to disconnect to go film the insert footage. This meant that he wouldn’t be able to call me back until at least half an hour to 45 minutes later.
That’s when I had to fight back the control freak urge to call him every five minutes to ask what he managed to shoot. I had to have faith in him, that he owns the project and will be my eyes and ears on the ground to make any running changes.
Fight back the urge to call him every five minutes.
Even when filming at the wholesaler’s, it became quite apparent that the shop owner wasn’t going to be comfortable responding to questions from a disembodied voice crackling over the phone.
So I left it to my partner to do the interviewing and tease out relevant soundbites. And he did an amazing job because he knew the story we wanted to tell.
Get your face there
If I have to produce a video remotely again, I’d try to get something as close to a telepresence robot on-site. It could be something as simple as an iPad mounted on a tripod. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time or bandwidth to get it sorted out for this shoot.
So much of producing a video is about the non-verbal cues from both the interviewer and the interviewee. For an interviewee who may not be used to being in front of the camera, having a producer who nods encouragingly as he speaks can help things move faster. For the producer, if we see that the interviewee is beginning to tense up, some banter can lighten the mood.
But when you’re reduced to a voice on the phone, you’re left to listen for these cues. Were you reading the script there? Is that a bird chirping in the background? That sounded a bit rushed, can we do it again?
And herein lies the biggest lesson. If you’re putting in 100% of your energy and charm when producing a shoot in person, you’d need to put in 150% of all that when doing it remotely. Be gracious, be grateful and smile so much that they can hear it even if they can’t see it.