As we've all experienced this year, our job turned virtual and socially-distanced practically overnight, and many colleagues are struggling to adjust. We asked colleagues working under the new conditions how they're coping and what solutions they've found along the way.
"The technology we have at our disposal can meet much of the need for communication, but it cannot meet the need for close collaboration, for human contact, necessary for filmmaking."
"We already live in a tech-heavy society, so it was really an exploration of what’s already out there and how to utilize that tech."
"I have been impressed with the spirit of collaboration that has been generated within my team and everyone on set."
"Our health and community is most important for survival of the industry."
December 20th, 2020
What are the challenges of remote designing and how do you overcome them?
Dimitris Ziakas studied Applied Arts in Paris, sculpture in Florence and Cinema in Athens in the early 90's. He started working in cinema and theater in 1994. He has worked on several feature films and commercials as art director and production designer.
In our field of work, especially during preproduction, it is essential to go through a long brainstorming process with the director, DoP and production team. Going through it, you realize the actual pace of the film, the potential and the form. You communicate directly with your colleagues and instinctively learn their body language, gestures and expressions. This creates a behavior outline that is really useful when you have to communicate creatively with others.
It’s usual to constantly meet new people with whom you have to work together for long time periods. Last year, due to the coronavirus situation, a peculiar thing started happening - as I had to do a lot of meetings for various projects, I had to follow an unprecedented protocol, which became more and more strict. First with the distances we had to keep around large meeting tables, then with the masks and finally, with the distance meetings through zoom.
I made commercials, where I met the director for the first time on set, after three weeks of pre-production. Little by little I realized that the whole process of meeting remotely is not necessarily unpleasant or dysfunctional. You may be deprived of the physical presence of your partners, but the process forces you to stay focused and watch the conversation more carefully, especially if the wifi connection is a bit unreliable.
The opportunity to be at your place, with your notes and your plans, to wear pajamas and slippers (under your desk, because you are dressed decently from above) and to meet with eight other participants, each from the comfort of his home, sounds rather like an improvement! It would be just an improvement, of course, if it were not linked to this difficult situation that seems to be changing the reality around us.
I use sketches a lot in my work: I sketch in front of the director, I make sketches to share my ideas directly with the construction team and to communicate with the prop master. Having to communicate my ideas remotely, I feel that in order to convey them fully, I need to articulate them more clearly. I feel doubly responsible for every dimension, for every color, for every item I ask for the set. As, under the circumstances, I rarely have the opportunity to visit a construction workshop or a prop store to see on the spot the progress of a construction or the actual dimensions of a piece of furniture, I feel that all the information exchanged must be complete and reliable.
This is not necessarily aggravating when my co-workers also realize this necessity. On the contrary, the growing need for consistency that seems to be emerging increases the need for trust in my team. The real problems relate to operational difficulties, at various points in the work. Limited options due to non-operation of many suppliers, difficulties in finding materials for construction due to restrictions on product movement and the temporary closure of many businesses due to pandemic precautions. This year many such difficulties forced me to be more resourceful.
The way I usually work involves a lot of planning, designing and research - activities that require self-concentration. So I am well aware of the condition of this part of the work and I don’t feel really affected by the current situation. But filmmaking is a collective work by nature. Going on a location tour with the director, talking technical issues with the DoP, setting up with the art department on location or on the sound stage, suddenly has become an issue. Everything has to happen according to rules irrelevant to the actual needs of the project, but very relevant to everybody's health and safety. It seems harder and harder, as previous conditions that were taken for granted are now deeply in dispute.
The technology we have at our disposal can meet much of the need for communication, but it cannot meet the need for close collaboration, for human contact, necessary for filmmaking. But I believe in the power of human adaptability and in the greatest virtues required for this profession - flexibility and patience.
Sarah Frank is currently a production designer on the CBS TV series “Bull”. She also designed the CBS series “Limitless" and has collaborated on numerous projects with directors such as Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Brian Di Palma.
First off, I need to say that I feel fortunate to be working during Covid-19. I am also happy to be reunited with an excellent crew that I have worked with for the past number of years. The benefit of this familiarity is that we had developed a short hand communication that is even more essential since face-to-face meetings are limited.
With all the new safety protocols, the biggest challenge this year is that half my Art Department works remotely. Navigating the amount of information via email and Zoom has become the "new normal”. In certain ways, this makes me focus more as a Designer as I have to really think about how to synthesize my concepts across various platforms.
The days of opening a set and making changes last minute are gone as the Covid protocols require that the sets be cleaned and taped off for the shooting crew hours before they film on the set. My process has always been to show photos of the finished sets to the Director and Show Runner. These images are now more important than ever. Any notes for changes are generated from those photos which enables me to select additional set dressing for the on set crews. This relieves some of the last minute adjustments during normal TV production.
Collaborating with my team over Zoom, I have found a way to make the process work creatively and efficiently within the limitations of working remotely. We are drafting together simultaneously so there is no lag time and less trial and error thus enabling the process to be more streamlined. Once the ideas are developed, the set designers have the time to complete the drawings for my final approval. This has worked well with my graphics team because we do the same “live” designing together.
Another change in Covid-era production is with scouting. Prior to Covid, I used the time in the van to respond to emails and calls. Now that I am required to self-drive I have more time to think about my design concepts for sets and locations.
Although working under Covid conditions has been stressful, I have been impressed with the spirit of collaboration that has been generated within my team and everyone on set.
Lisa Myers is a Brooklyn based production designer. With a passion for composition and story, she likes to focus on projects that are accessible, meaningful, and visually arresting. Recent projects include "Gregory Crewdson: An Eclipse of Moths", "Modern Love (Season 2)", "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens", "The Last OG (Season 3)", "Lost Girls", "Luce" and "Someone Great".
Like most in our industry, I spent a good chunk of my down time this summer trying to wrap my head around how to get back to work. Finding new ways to communicate from a distance with the other key creatives, and then how that would play out once we were physically putting sets together. We already live in a tech-heavy society, so it was really an exploration of what’s already out there and how to utilize that tech.
My starting point was listening to and feeling inspired by our peers. The various art department online groups and networks that were heavily active this year were great resources and a place of solidarity in general. Our union's (Local USA829) tech group and those members were extraordinarily generous in sharing information and ideas. I had (and still have honestly) probably a low to slightly above low level understanding of a lot of what’s happening now in terms of rendering, photogrammetry, game design etc. but through that group I found some good access points to learn and develop.
After quite a bit of trial and error and lots of time learning and unlearning a few things, some wasted money on programs and tools I won’t use and spending plenty of money on things I will - I’ve landed on a system for myself that pulls together a smattering of what’s possible that works for me. I create “virtual tours” of set designs using a combination of drafting, rendering, and tour software. This allows me to communicate with directors, showrunners, other department heads and my team almost exactly how I want the set to look from a variety of viewpoints. With some guide buttons, they can walk through my sets designs via links I make accessible on private pages on my website. Initially, it was just a great way to communicate remotely for discussion and approvals, but ultimately became a tool my entire crew would rely on. I’d walk onto a set being dressed and the dressers would be using my tours to solve some dressing questions that can’t necessarily be translated from a floor plan or even a 2D rendering/drawing.
My “virtual tours” are really a convergence of two different things I was exploring. A light dabbling in Matterport gave me a taste of all the exciting things that are possible with photogrammetry, but ultimately not something that is that useful to me on my current projects. More importantly, it piqued my interest in the idea of creating a “tour.” Simultaneously, I had been exploring Unreal Engine - which is just a massive massive platform. I went in with a goal of creating set designs that people could throw on a VR headset and “walk around in.” But that would require everyone having a VR headset… even if I could load a set for people to see onto a headset or figure out how to output those sets to a host site… what about the inevitable changes and edits? The time and difficulty of all that would cancel out its usefulness. So I knew I had to pare it down. As all designers know, sometimes editing a concept is the hardest but most necessary conclusion. So I used some familiar tools for modeling, learned a rendering program that allowed me to take panoramas, and started to use those panoramas to make tours.
Beyond the tours my process hasn’t changed that much. More time working remotely, more time on Zoom (ugh Zoom) and FaceTime. I always believe in very open and consistent communication within my department and with other departments, so I tend to lean into anything that makes that stronger. Emailing, shared online storage, shared documents have always been part of what we do, so there wasn’t any reinventing the wheel there. I’ve been focusing on TV the last few years so a lot of communication with showrunners and directors often happens remotely even under normal circumstances.
What a wild understatement it would be to say this year has been rough. I can’t even begin to touch on some of the loss and suffering. But I’m thankful that some of that stress for me translated into learning something new. I’m thankful for having the resources to do that and thankful for our design community. I’m excited to see what others have come up with, curious to see how this has reshaped us.
Stephen Beatrice is a film and television production designer whose career includes films such as "American Buffalo", "Girlfight", "Julien Donkey-boy", "Roger Doger", "The Messenger", "Adventureland". His TV credits include the shows "White Collar", "Power" and "Mr Robot".
After 25 years of production designing based out of New York City, I found myself burnt out and questioning the city and craft I loved. I chose to relocate to Los Angeles in search of a new beginning. I’ve had different experiences every time I’ve gone to LA. This round, to my surprise, I rediscovered myself and found my tribe again. And then as soon as I was in a stride March 2020 hit and everything shut down. I’m by nature a hermit so I welcomed the months of isolate. Then I began to receive phone calls all for episodic television back on the east coast. I had a lot of reservations. I am blessed the third call was from Jim McKay who would be directing and producing a show for NBC/CBS. Our conversation and his pitch was pretty funny. Neither of us had worked for the past year and we were entering unknown territory.
Would we prep the show and shut down due to a second rise and wave of CoVid?
Would we prep the show and get the first 2 episodes he was directing in the can?
Maybe we shoot 6 episodes which takes us to Christmas if we practice safe protocols?
So I took a leap of faith and accepted the job and entered the unknown.
Inbal has asked me to share some of what I’ve learned along the journey back.
I am pleased to report much of my process and manner of production designing is still the same.
Prior to this experience I had had 3 horrible Skype interviews over the years. And a handful of zoom conversations in quarantine. I honestly questioned whether or not Zoom would work to relay what we need to communicate as designers to our crews, directors, producers, etc. I am pleased I was proved wrong and will most likely continue operating my department in this way in the future.
I was blessed my art director Charley Beal agreed to join me for his final year before he retires. During the pandemic, he had been teaching classes on Zoom and was able to teach and instruct our dept how to use Zoom effectively.
For the past decade, I generally give up my office and we set up my art dept so we are all faced each other in a large bullpen with a conference table in the center for meetings, layouts, etc. I found this allows me and my dept to be in constant communication. So this structured how we would work remotely - we decided to have an Art Dept Zoom in which the zoom is open all day long. One individual controls the site. If I am discussing plans with one of my set designers we can allow them to SHARE the screen. We then see their screen and the drawings they are working on.
You can also have the HOST set up BREAK OUT ROOMS which sends different individuals in your dept into a separate conversation. This is usually reserved to my coordinator and PAs or my set decorator dept but we all find ourselves in a Break Out room at various times during the work day.
What I have found most useful is this platform has saved me hours at the end of my day.
I used to be scouting for 12 hours a day. I often referred to it as the ‘kidnap van’. Now, at anytime of the day, I can sign in and check in with my dept and review drawings, graphics, samples, etc etc. I believe we are operating even more efficiently and working remotely has allowed my employees the ability to be present in their personal lives saving hours in commuting, etc.
As we set up the dept, we did consider other platforms but came back to Zoom as our preferred platform. Production occasional uses Meetings on Google.
ART DEPT OFFICE
For the most part, everyone is remote. My 2 Art Dept PAs are the only 2 people who i report to the office on a daily basis. They have 2 massive blue air scrubbers that cycles and purifies the air based on square footage.
My set decorator, art director and I all have offices which are for 1 person occupancy only. I have found myself in the office more than I thought I would be. We try to be as remote as a possible.
Director scouting on my job. We all self report in separate vehicles and proceed to each location on GPS or as a ‘funeral procession’. I thought the day of the scout van was gone but we did cross paths with another television show and was shocked to see the producers, director, ADs and production designer all step out of the same Sprinter van. On our show, NO more than 2 individuals can ride in a Sprinter van. Our show has fleets of Sprinter vans and buses. I am amazed by the amount of logistics it has taken from our producers Tom Selliti and Megan Shaffer Zarzar to keep the crew healthy and safe. I believe it also comes from the unity of crew. We were tested 4 times during and after the Thanksgiving break and Tom reported out of our 300 crew and cast tested. We had one positive result.
I am pleased to report we still physically tech scout all of our locations with all of our dept heads. We achieve this by all self reporting to each location. We all gather outside the location in a large self distanced circle and the AD describes the location and then we enter in small groups by dept and then discuss the logistics and concerns together outside.
SHOOTING (Zone A)
Everything takes a lot longer and our actual shooting hours are between 8 and 10 hours in a 12 hour day depending on movement of the crew, daily testing, lunch, etc. I’ve told my crews to be patient and respectful. These are the times we are living in and you can navigate them if you’re smart and use common sense.
The shooting crew is Zone A which is the most vulnerable because they work in closest proximity to the actors who at times are unmasked. Zone A employees must be masked and wear face shields at all times.
PREP (Zone B and C)
Zone B - Production Designers and Set Decorators. Zone B can cross pollinate with Zone A to open set, have discussion with shooting Director, ADs and Director of Photography.
Zone C - Art Director, Set Designers, Set Dressers, Construction, Rigging Grips, Scenic, Art Dept Coordinator, Graphic Artists. When Zone C is prepping a location or working on the stage, they also are required to be masked and wear face shields based on the amount of individuals working in close proximity to another.
Is similar to how we were already operating. My two location managers have a smugmug site. I review choices and send an email with my selections. We then have a zoom location review in which the location manager shares their screen and we review the locations with the producer, director and DP.
SHARING PLANS AND CONCEPTS
Operates in similar fashion. I share plans on zoom with the Showrunner, producer, director and DP through emails and also Zoom shared screen in which I can walk them through the drawings often with one of my set designers or art director navigating the site.
I do believe before you accept a job you should inquire what health regulations and protocols the production is anticipating. Our health and community is most important for survival of the industry. Cutting corners is not. And you need to be protected by producers and studios.
I am pleasantly surprised and blessed to be back working, production designing in the city I love. I can’t believe we are about to complete Episode 205 and have shot one day of Episode 206 which we will complete in January. We are now discussing completing principal photography in May/June 2021.
I hope this helps put some ease and brings some knowledge to help navigate the times we are living. I truly believe it’s not over and will be in this state through 2021. So mask up and be safe everyone.