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Opinion: Is Remote Working the New Norm for Production

With the entire advertising industry working from home at the moment, Onagh Carolan of TBWA\Dublin wonders if remote working is the new norm for production?

Say you asked me in February 2020 if I could produce & shoot from a child’s desk in my small bedroom with a remote crew and team, I’d have known you were joking. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like to work miracles but there are hard limitations when you can’t leave your house except for necessities. Two weeks’ lockdown turned into two months (and beyond) and here I am, here we are, actually lucky to be able to work from home, cheering frontline workers from our windows.

What we know now is that everything has changed. This is the new norm and the advertising industry, like our clients, like everyone all over the world from healthcare workers to advertising agencies, must adapt.

Of course, not everyone has the ideal space or circumstances to adapt, some of the most vulnerable people are not only on lockdown but locked-in-with a person, or persons who may be abusive.

It was an imperative therefore that TBWA did not baulk at its first ‘lockdown challenge’. This was to shoot and produce a domestic violence commercial for our client the Department of Justice. The piece needed to be excellent despite the challenges because frankly, lives were depending on it. In the end we managed to shoot and produce this commercial entirely in-house … or more precisely ‘in home’.

So, how did we do it?

Firstly, we looked for the cast online. We needed a couple who lived together, we asked them to audition from their homes. This self-taping method worked well, and we found our couple.

Secondly, on the shoot day we directed the cast via Zoom with the director and creative team all using the technology (gallery view anyone?). As to be expected, there were a few false starts. Rupert, our director, had to juggle several means of communication simultaneously and yes, directing without being in the physical presence of the actors and location is tough but as most creatives will tell you necessity is the mother of all invention – great ideas came about as result of the restrictions. Once we got to grips with it, everything ran smoothly.

Thirdly, we captured all the footage and audio through FaceTime. This gave the ad authenticity in terms of picture and sound quality. We could have had the actors record themselves with their phones but FaceTime gave it more realism, more impact.

The result? An emotive and powerful piece that resonated across the globe.
What struck was how natural it felt to produce a commercial this way. The advertising industry is an agile one after all, post-production has already seen innovation over the past few years and has become incrementally cloud based, using collaborative systems internal teams & clients. Editors & CG artists work from their homes with agency & clients dialling in. Voiceovers can be directed from their own homes or recording studios operating without the engineer & voiceover being in the same room. It got me thinking, is this the new norm or was the shift to remote production already established before lockdown?

But the question now is what will shooting be like when restrictions lift?

CPI (Commercial Producers Ireland) plan a phased return to bigger shoots and have published protocol guidelines. Since each script has its own requirements we advise engagement with the agency producers and production companies as early as possible to ensure all scripted action is possible with regard to new protocols.

Shoots will require more planning to make sure they are well prepped, for example, moving location on a shoot day which is always time consuming, will now be doubly so. All personnel on set will need to be inducted to each location. We must factor in more time for staggered breaks and sanitisation. Only essential personnel will be on set, so prep will take longer with less hands on deck.

For agency & clients? There will be remote viewing and the production companies are looking at various streaming systems, all of which vary in stability & cost.

There will be no cast members over the age of 70 on a film set. We are seeking clarification on having minors on set as risk assessors may not sign off on productions where minors are participating, outside of their own home and in their family unit.

But the show goes on, yes in a new way, where the safety of everyone on set is paramount.

And the show goes on at home too. Most of us have set up office in corners of our houses that were previously ornamental, now the hub of business. We juggle kids, home schooling, family life & pets. We try not to be fazed by seeing our loved ones on screen only. I have learned to check what’s behind me before I turn video conferencing. Putting away the laundry can be as simple as moving it from the bed to an out-of-sight chair. I’m embarrassing myself less as we approach the third month of WFH. I keep my finger hovering over the mute button in case my son bursts in or there’s a tuneless rendition of ‘Angel from Montgomery’ from the shower. And most of the time I remember to unmute before I speak – chatting away to yourself is not a good look on Zoom.

At TBWA we are getting to grips with the new routine. I miss the inspiration that comes from spontaneous chats with colleagues, but there’s still a great feeling of camaraderie online. Actually in the Broadcast Department we have mid-morning coffee-break Zoom calls where we catch up on life as well as the work. We will continue to make time for informal chats, incidental brainstorming and of course, friendship.

Onagh Carolan head of production of TBWA \ Dublin