Secrets to Success in Filming Ads Remotely

By Mark Sharwarko  | 

The global pandemic forced an evolution in the ways we communicate. From videoconferencing to working from home to redesigning office spaces in support of a post-Covid-19 world, things don’t look the way they used to—and that extends to advertising. Lockdown measures, quarantine restrictions and slashed budgets meant traditional ad production done in studios or on-location largely ended overnight once the coronavirus hit. In its place came new filming innovations developed by a nimble industry that pivoted quickly to meet evolving needs while keeping pace with client demands. Here, industry experts share a few secrets for successful remote filming, plus some of the memorable ads that resulted from those efforts.

Communication is Key
When standard shooting rules no longer apply, communication is essential to maintaining schedules and keeping parties on the same page. “The biggest obstacle we overcame was last year when global production was only just starting to resume, and Covid safe shooting practices were still being developed in line with Covid risks in production,” said Gareth Williams, senior film producer at London-based M&C Saatchi. Determined to make a creative spot despite numerous logistical limitations, the team rigged cameras “Googlebox-style”—aka, in a way meant to mimic the popular, eponymous British reality TV show that features families and friends reacting to television programs from their own homes. Small crews sporting hazmat suits set up the cameras, which were operated remotely from vehicles. Continuous communication thus became imperative, as various teams plus the campaign director reviewed footage from several locations and offered feedback in real time.

In similar vein, Apple worked with award-winning filmmaker Lulu Wang on an installment of its “Shot on iPhone” campaign, which was filmed with a crew on the ground in China while the rest of the team communicated from LA. The result is “Nian,” a fantasy coming-of-age tale about a girl and a monster that debuted for Chinese New Year. Wang worked with old-school hand-drawn storyboards, giving direction to crew members half a world away and shooting an incredibly cinematic four-minute spot without fancy equipment, using only an iPhone.

Be Adaptable
When Neale Horrigan, executive creative director at London-based ad agency Elvis, began concepting a spot for Cadbury’s “Match and Win” campaign, he knew the logistics would be tricky. Several Premier League football players were meant to be involved in filming, which is a massive undertaking even under normal circumstances. “We knew from the outset that demonstrating action and giving direction would have been impossible via Zoom,” said Horrigan. So the team adapted to the times by planning ahead and making GIFs to show the players exactly where to stand and what to do. Content was then reviewed via WhatsApp, providing instantaneous feedback.

Ditto Waste Creative, which shot a social campaign called “Deal With It” for Britain’s Grosvenor Casinos during the height of UK’s first lockdown. It features comedian Dom Joly giving tongue-in-cheek advice to fans about how to handle lockdown life. Rough scripts were drafted in advance and props were makeshift, as opposed to mind-blowing. “With everything being remote, having an element of flexibility wherever possible seemed sensible,” said Alistair Campbell, executive creative director at Waste. 

Embrace the Possibility of Serendipity
For New York’s Mischief @ No Fixed Address agency, remote filming became a blessing in disguise. A series of chilling “Dictators” spots shot for anti-corruption group RepresentUs came together in a quick 10 days, from script approval to shooting final product, “largely due to the fact we were all able to review together in real-time remotely,” said Mischief vice president Will Dempster. Likewise, Miller Genuine Draft’s “Unapologetically Beer” and Shutterfly’s “Make It a Thing” spots that were shot remotely, which allowed them to invest more in what was seen on-screen as opposed to spending on agency or client travel costs. Sometimes, a period of creative destruction can have lasting impacts. Dempster is one of several industry insiders to speculate that future filming will offer a mix of “remote and IRL shoots, with a purpose and time for each.” The show, as it were, must always go on.

Mark Sharwarko
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