Remote filmmaking: how film sets operate now

Concepts like remote filmmaking and virtual production are becoming more prevalent, even as skeleton crews return to production studios, masked and sanitised

December 11, 2020 06:45 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 05:51 am IST

Clockwise from top left: A still from ‘Mismatched’, Shruti Hasan shooting for ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai’, and stills from ‘WW84’ and ‘Home Stories’

Clockwise from top left: A still from ‘Mismatched’, Shruti Hasan shooting for ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai’, and stills from ‘WW84’ and ‘Home Stories’

In London, director Ben Hume-Paton sits in front of a computer screen and says, “Action.” Over 10,841 km away, in Singapore, co-director K Rajagopal relays his instructions to the actors and crew filming an advertisement for Interpol. In Lyon, France, the client watches in real time, while in Puducherry, producer Samir Sarkar, of Magic Hour Films, ensures everything goes seamlessly. All over Zoom.

This is the new reality — of remote filming, which is growing in popularity worldwide in these times of quarantining and social distancing. Cutting-edge technology and software mean that commercials, shows (and sometimes, feature films) can be shot with a skeleton staff on ground, and the rest of the crew sitting elsewhere. “Tech such as QTake [which allows a director sitting anywhere in the world with a good internet connection to see a high definition, real-time view from the camera lens], or even more general platforms like Zoom, Google Meet and Amazon Chime are now being used to facilitate the remote export of creativity of a director, along with the supervision of the client, without having to step on to a physical film set,” says Sarkar.

On ‘The Batman’ set in Liverpool

On ‘The Batman’ set in Liverpool

Shot from afar

Many production houses have been quick to adopt (and adapt to) such technology. The new TV advert for Mercedes-Benz, for example, was made by Kiev-based Radioaktive Film — with the director sitting in Ukraine and the crew in China — using QTake. “I think the pandemic has made many productions realise they can work effectively using advanced remote tools. Just imagine what a waste it is to move the crew around the planet and accommodate them in every location, when most of them can sit in their office and collaborate on multiple projects remotely,” says Vlado Struhar , the Slovakian film director and programmer, who developed QTake as “an on-set tool to capture takes, and provide playback, editing and compositing”, over email.

But is what’s good for ads also good for feature films and shows? Movies such as WW84 , and the new Jurassic Park and Batman , have used QTake (from and similar software while filming this year, points out Struhar. Closer home, we’ve seen several early experiments of remote filming, done at its most basic during the early days of lockdown. Think C U Soon , the Malayalam film starring Fahad Fazil, which was shot on an iPhone, or Home Stories , Netflix India’s tetraptych anthology. For the latter, filmmaker Anubhuti Kashyap recalls how she sent actors Imaad Shah and Saba Azad, who live together, a Canon EOS-1D C camera and some lights, and guided them over Zoom (along with her DoP) on how to frame the shots, where to place the lights. “They would record the footage and send it to us for approval. You can only plan certain kinds of shots and half the time we were working blind,” she laughs.

Now with studios reopening, new patterns of working are being established. “Filming is a physical as well as a mental and creative process. Creativity can be exported remotely, but the process of filming itself has to be handled physically on location,” says Sarkar. So directors are back on sets, with their masks on, and just the essential cast and crew (such as the cinematographer) on hand.

The changing face of filmmaking

The changing face of filmmaking

Movie making distilled

Limited footprints on set are a given. “For Scam 1992 , there was a minimum of 100 people on set,” says Jai Mehta, who shot portions of the SonyLIV Originals crime drama during lockdown and did much of the post-production remotely. “Now I won’t have more than 40 [except for sequences that require heavy production, costumes and lighting, such as songs or action sequences].” I like shooting with a smaller crew, but it will also be sad. It will be a different feeling to not have passionate people around.”

Investment in technology is another essential. Options like virtual production (VP) can be called an indirect advocate of social distancing — allowing filmmakers to create movies without having to cram people on to a set. “Virtual production has been around for quite some time, with the original Avatar [James Cameron’s 2009 film] being a major milestone. In the last two years, we’ve seen the evolution of the tools in the VP toolbox take off, and the pandemic has only served to accelerate that trend,” says David Conley, executive producer at Weta Digital , the New Zealand-based digital visual effects company co-founded by filmmaker Peter Jackson. “LED walls have captured the buzz at the moment because of cost efficiency for certain types of projects, and because you can reduce on-location requirements and the number of crew on set.”

Famous Studio in Mumbai has an LED floor. So, more the merrier? Cost could be a deterrent, but Conley says, think of it as “shifting that cost into pre-production, building the assets you need earlier for the virtual stage”, and it is a long term investment. “A lot of people look at remote filmmaking as a step back, but I see it as a step forward,” shares Mehta. “It is a way for us to plan better and do things we would not have done otherwise. You can criticise it, but the fact is that we need these interventions. Films are changing, filmmaking is changing and we need to evolve.”

With inputs from Susanna Myrtle Lazarus and Nidhi Adlakha

What the others are up to...

Namrata Rao at work

Namrata Rao at work

Cut, paste, work from home

“Remote editing gives you the freedom to work from any geographical location. It is one of the good things to come out of the lockdown,” says Namrata Rao (pictured below), the editor behind films such as Kahani and Netflix’s Made in Heaven . In the last few months, she used Evercast — “much like a virtual edit room, where others can see your screen as you work” (approx ₹73,510 per month) — to do the final cut of Mismatched , Netflix’s coming-of-age romantic drama. “I also did [Yash Raj Film’s] Jayeshbhai Jordaar and I’m working on a docu series now.” But recently she’s begun going to the studio because bad internet speeds and lack of social interaction were making “editing in a vacuum” tough. “I felt like I was slowly turning into Jack Nicholson of The Shining, ” she chuckles.

Her peer, Nitin Baid, echoes the sentiment. “It took a while to get used to editing from home. I was working on Shershaah , the war action film [directed by Vishnuvardhan and co-produced by Karan Johar]. I would do half hour chunks, send it to my assistant for sound levelling, and then share it via Google Drive with Karan and the director.” While he calls the process tedious — bad network meant lags in communication — better software could help sort out the situation. What he is glad about, however, is that it has “opened up the mental block” that you can only work from the studio. “So, if we get hit by a second wave now we can start working without any delay.”

Meanwhile, veteran editor Sreekar Prasad, who earlier this year entered the Limca Book of Records for ‘films edited in the most number of languages’, says security has been the primary concern with taking editing online (in the past). “There is too much at stake with big films. I’m sitting in Chennai and editing Hindi films [on Avid],” he says, adding, “ [from approx ₹1,900 per month onwards] is also being used extensively. You can share your edits with several people at the same time. Earlier, I would send a file via Google Drive, and they would view it and respond via mail. Now the producer and director can type their comments in real time. It is like a more advanced version of Vimeo, but visual.”

WFH isn’t new for him either. “Ten years ago, I moved online. So, in a way, it has always been work from home. I now have unlimited time and can give better output.”

Remote monitoring for an advertisement shoot

Remote monitoring for an advertisement shoot

Advertising goes remote

“India went through several lockdowns and unlocks, and advertising agencies had to adapt to work out solutions for their clients,” says Suprotim Day, Chief Films Office - India, Dentsu. While the creative teams initially fell back on stock images and footage, they soon began getting the help of “filmmakers and production houses — roping in their family members as models to shoot films in their homes with a phone camera or, where possible, a 5D”. The Max Bupa advert was shot on 5D, with Dentsu executives monitoring it via Zoom.

But what about the films shot before lockdown that were stuck in hard drives? “Although client launches had got delayed, we needed to be ready. After some trials with the Teradek interface, for controlling the post-production equipment remotely, we were able to complete the pending jobs,” he says. The process was laborious, though. What used to take four hours now took eight to 10 hours (since they were new to remote editing).

One of the positives that has come out of lockdown, however, is the rise of mixed media and tech platforms. “Examples of a mix of live-action and animation abound, such as BBH’s campaign for Absolut, ‘It’s in our Spirit #togetherIRL’,” says Russell Barrett, CEO & Chief Creative Officer, BBH-PWW India. “Recently I’ve been working with an international tech production house and we are talking about building the work using the Unreal Engine. It is a form of virtual production that allows us to work across geographies without having to include expensive location challenges or complicated post-production. While it might have been built for gaming, it is now a very real option for us to make brilliant work without the physical challenges.”

Directors' speak

Suhasini Mani Ratnam We shot two of the most important scenes of  Putham Pudhu Kaalai  [for Amazon Prime] remotely. I had a good cinematographer, Ajayan Vincent, in Hyderabad who executed what I wanted. Shruti [Hasan] also did online rehearsals with me. But this was done only because of the pandemic; I don’t think it will be the new order. What I do like, however, is the idea of having a small crew and getting the help of other people remotely.  
Gautham Vasudev MenonVaanmagal  [part of Netflix’s Tamil anthology,  Paava Kadhaigal ] was shot just a week before lockdown. It was not easy to WFH on the post-production — coordinating the actors, and dubbing and editing. But it did give rise to the thought that anything is possible and showed us that we did not need so much time for the production of a film.  
Vignesh Shivan When you have good talent on board, the medium of work is not going to bother you too much. Dubbing [for  Love Panna Uttranum , part of  Paava Kadhaigal ] was done online, on a video call. There was no compromise or difference — what we would have done in person, we managed to do remotely.  
Sudha Kongara I did  Putham Pudhu Kaalai  [for Amazon Prime] at the peak of the pandemic, with a 10-member cast and crew. The efficiency I saw on set, with each person taking on a couple of jobs, was something I had not seen with a crew of 185. This indie style of shooting is something I’d love to take forward post-pandemic.  


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