Necessity is the mother of invention, and nothing proves this proverb more true than the evolution of film and television production technology in the age of COVID-19. While the field has always changed rapidly even in normal times, the pace of change and adaptation has accelerated over the past six months.
This adjustment has posed many questions. Beyond personal protective equipment, mandatory testing, on-set safety monitors, walking lunches and corona contingency fees, will the pandemic have enduring effects in the creative, collaborative endeavor that is filmmaking? The technology to work remotely has essentially been in place for some time, but will the pandemic finally push us over into a new normal?
Numerous existing technology trends are being suddenly supercharged by the necessities imposed by the coronavirus. Shooting close to home has never been more appealing, and that impulse aligns neatly with ongoing advancements in LED backings and virtual production. In the world of image processing, connectivity solutions such as those offered by Moxion, Frame.io and Sohonet were already bringing immediacy and super-high resolution to a wide variety of devices without regard to location — and now those virtues are suddenly in much higher demand. And remote collaboration solutions including PIX are looking positively prescient.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser, an Oscar nominee for “Lion,” has been pioneering virtual techniques with his work on “The Mandalorian,” and more recently, “Dune” and “The Batman.” He says that on recent commercial productions during the summer months, COVID’s initial peak, the restrictions have been very smartly managed.
“There are definitely small compromises that need to be made, but we are always making compromises in some way, shape or form,” he says. “You don’t have the money or the time, or the freedom. You’re always juggling different factors, and in that sense, this is another factor. It’s not easy, and I’m really looking forward to the day when we can walk onto a set without masks and give each other hugs. But it’s not life-changing or industry-stopping. We all have to take responsibility for our actions much more than we ever have.”
Fraser adds that the methods and tools he used on “The Mandalorian” have continued to evolve, and filmmakers’ skill and understanding of how to exploit them grows with every application. In many cases, COVID may be accelerating that process. One particular tool that Fraser has found especially handy on those commercials was a 3D virtual reality headset showing faraway location images shot with a 360-degree camera.
“On ‘The Mandalorian’ we worked quite a bit with 3D VR headsets,” he says. “Now, I’m using them to go on location scouts. We did a commercial in Atlanta, and the location manager could walk around while sending a live feed to me in Los Angeles. It’s a massive game-changer. You can spend a day scouting multiple locations instead of sitting in a van or a plane for much of that time. VR scouting with 3D models, which can be blended into actual location imagery, is also an extremely efficient way of working. I’m using it as much as I can, frankly.”
Remote collaboration solutions have been around for some time, but the pandemic has made such communication tools essential. Director David Fincher’s team found that the PIX production backbone, a tool they’ve helped develop over the years, facilitated safe group creativity but also enhanced efficiency on the forthcoming “Mank.” All production information is made available to principals, from casting photos and script versions to dailies and VFX pulls.
“Fortunately, we have not missed a beat,” says producer Cean Chaffin, who has made nine films with Fincher.
“We are working now exactly how we mostly could have been working the past 10 years, which is working from home during post. Even when we were in the same building, David was often responding exclusively through PIX. His preferences and concerns are there for everyone to refer to. You don’t have to go find that one email, or remember a comment someone made on their way out the door. Many of our collaborators are working in a variety of locations and countries, and David needs to be available to them, and them to him.”
Post supervisor Peter Mavromates says: “It’s easy for David to get opinions and feedback from the people that he trusts because they’re only a click away, even if they’re a world away physically. Information is flowing.”
Pandemic concerns are affecting on-set choices as well. On the set of “Them: Covenant,” director of photography Checco Varese found the right remote head to be a crucial tool made even more essential by social distancing. On that shoot, he carried two Arri SRH-3 stabilized remote heads — a tool that previously might have been brought in to accomplish a specific shot.
“Using these remote heads means that the dolly grip no longer needs to be in close proximity to the actors, who are the only people on the set who cannot always wear a mask,” Varese says. “It helps put everyone at ease, which is a major concern with the actors. And in reality, it allows us to work more efficiently while creating a more cinematic feel for the show. These remote heads are great tools even without COVID. Even if the pandemic were over tomorrow, I’d still keep it on all the time. We’re not shooting television anymore. The quality expectations are continually rising.”
DP Lawrence Sher, Oscar nominee for his camerawork on “Joker,” recently finished helming three episodes of “Rutherford Falls,” a comedy for Peacock created by Michael Schur (“The Good Place,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Sher also made extensive use of remote heads, thereby minimizing the number of crew members near the actors. The relative lack of control and unpredictability of shooting on location was counteracted by stage work whenever possible. Even transportation on the single day of practical location work was exponentially more complicated.
“We did all the daily testing, and we used the pod system,” Sher says. “One of my concerns as a director was that with masks, you can’t see each other, you can’t read faces as well. You can only see the eyes. But we were still able to convey our meanings to each other. I think that after the pandemic, having a single camera operator might find its way back in, because you still need the humanity. But in the short term, the remote heads allowed us to accomplish the shoot and stay safe.
“The experience was both surprising and hopeful,” Sher adds. “Even if some of these restrictions are going to be with us for a while, at least it shows that we can still keep making content and entertaining people and getting everyone back to work, which is amazing. It was weird, but frankly I thought it would be more disruptive and harder than it was. Filmmaking took over. It was a credit to the adaptability of our industry. I’ve always truly admired film crews as some of the most resilient people. They come together with special skills for complex, high-tech, multimillion-dollar operations that spring up overnight, and solve the problems. And I think the way we’re dealing with COVID is no different.”