We recently shared a case study on the client experience during a remote shoot, but we also wanted to pull back the curtain to the actual nuts and bolts of a remote shoot. Especially since shooting remote is everything right now, which means there’s an increasing need for digital techs that can work remotely, too. Enter Samer Almadani, a rockstar DIT who’s been paving the way for a long time, and has leveled up even more during the quarantine. We’ve done a few remote shoots together since quarantine and they’ve all been seamless (even while hosting clients from multiple states and time zones), so we wanted to give Samer the chance to show how and why shooting remote works so well in these strange times. We love having Samer on our team, and encourage you to reach out to him for your next shoot!
How experienced were you in remote shooting prior to COVID-19? Have you been practicing some aspects of remote tech all along, or is this as new to you as it is to all of us?
Since I work in both stills and motion, I had lots of prior experience with video village, local wireless video transmission, and monitoring. I also often set up local wireless monitors instead of running cables across the set. These practices really helped me prepare for the needs that have arisen because of COVID-19. I was able to take workflows I implemented before, combine with new technology, and produce an efficient, remote workflow.
What was your thought process like in realizing that COVID-19 was going to drastically change production? What was your approach to making this shift?
I always love a challenge and trying new things, so I was excited for the opportunity to develop a new skill set. The first step was pausing, taking a look at the bigger picture, and thinking about a process that would work longtime for a large spectrum of needs. Testing took weeks, but I found an efficient workflow pretty early on and was able to really home in on a direction I wanted to focus. I also feel very lucky to be based in Chicago where the photo community, across all roles, has always looked out for each other and had each other’s back. While COVID has been really rough for most everyone, it was really inspiring to see everyone come together to help one another at this time. The digital techs in town all maintained strong communication, relayed what was working for them, and helped each other out. That is exactly the kind of community I seek to be a part of and feel truly grateful to have found that here.
Can you run through the software that you use and rely upon to make remote magic work? We’re interested in hearing the full range — from big-budget investments that you may have purchased/licensed to any smaller packages that have made remote viewing easier as a DIT, and for the client on the other end.
Just like camera gear, lighting, computers or other general gear, there is no one magical setup that works for absolutely everything. I recognized, early on, that everyone was getting very familiar with Zoom, so I knew it would be important to implement a workflow that clients/agencies were comfortable with and knew how to navigate. The end user comes into the job feeling comfortable with a familiar user interface, most likely has all of the plugins and software needed, and therefore can focus on the job at hand. I always do an overview at the beginning to relay the ability to markup, notate, share screens, etc., and clients are often very excited to learn about these features, and have utilized them on every single job I have teched remotely, so far.
Other software I use includes: TeamViewer, OBS, BlackMagic Media Express, DaVinci Resolve, Teradek Teraview, RED CineX, CORE, QTake, and also a great all-in-one live stream/chat/file management platform developed by a local digital tech called One Set Live.
Are there any of the above (or in addition, if you haven’t otherwise mentioned) that are more budget-savvy? What, if any, are the trade-offs of more budget-friendly remote viewing set-up (e.g., longer delay, not as reliable, glitches, etc.)?
The most basic setup would be using TeamViewer to remote control a computer on set and then pushing a feed out via Zoom. While this is the most cost-effective way, you are limited in controlling audio and video from cameras on set. When there are larger budgets to work with, it’s nice to implement streaming controllers, multiple webcams or iPads on set, individual audio inputs, decimators, etc. For live video streams for motion projects, in particular, Zoom can be very choppy…so it’s often much more effective to use One Set Live, CORE, or QTake systems to have better streaming. This can quickly add up with support needed, but there are also some great affordable alternatives, such as the BlackMagic UltraStudio Mini Recorder for ingesting a live feed to push back out via one of the aforementioned options.
We’d love for you to take readers through the different set-ups on set. How do you start to think about or plan the set-up depending on client and/or creative scope? Ex: For remote shoots, in addition to a live-stream for remote clients to reach the crew, how do you start to think about webcams, additional monitors for socially-distant viewing on set, bolstering wifi capability, etc. Feel free to be as detailed as necessary here!
I often start planning the gear buildout by having a conversion with the producer, photographer and/or DP to gather as much information as I can. There are many factors that determine what equipment is needed vs what can be done within budget.
Questions often include, but are not limited to:
- Video, stills or both?
- If video, how many cameras at once?
- Is this in studio, on location (indoors), or outdoors?
- Is the location urban or rural?
- If in studio or indoor location, what is bandwidth for internet and do we have access? Any firewalls or anything we need to be aware of?
- If multiple locations, how quickly is the up time on the next location from first location? This will determine how mobile my setup needs to be.
- Will there be any clients on set? If so, how many?
- Will there need to be a stream out to clients? Do they have preferred software, or are they good with my recommendations?
- Are transcodes or dailes needed?
- Would clients need to have a BTS feed of the set?
- Who else do they need a direct feed to? Hair? Makeup? Wardrobe? Props? Production? DIT?
- For breakout rooms, what are the different groups we need to have? Agency all on one? Clients in another? Crew on its own?
An example of this would be a project I just completed. I was told the job was on location, outdoors, in the middle of Chicago. We were shooting stills and motion (one camera) and needed a live stream to reach the agency and clients in the U.S. and Germany. They wanted to be able to keep each department separate, so they needed feeds to hair/makeup, wardrobe, and photographer/DP. After some follow up questions, I was able to determine that we were in the same location all day, but outdoors in an urban area. This meant I needed a generator for my computer system, long cables to maintain distance, a strong self-sufficient internet signal via internet bonding, video ingest capabilities, an array of software to accomplish multiple tasks, and quite a bit of multitasking.
I was able to set up my station, safely, outdoors in my Village Blackout tent and run a 32’ tether cable for stills to the photographer. The photographer had his own monitor via a 50’ cable I ran for him on a roller stand, to move around as needed. For video, we used a Teradek Bolt 600 system, as we weren’t going to be too far apart, and I had a receiver connected to my system. I used an AJA device to bring the feed into the computer, QTake to do immediate playback, Shotput Pro or Silverstack for ingest, DaVinci Resolve for transcodes, and Zoom for client communication; but we had to use internet bonding solution for a solid stream out to client, since we were away from any buildings for wifi access.
What kinds of conversations might you have with a producer or studio manager prior to set-up for a seamless remote video village? E.g., bandwidth for streaming, cable and power hookups, etc.
I would usually need to know what is needed on the client end, what type of content we are shooting (stills or video), bandwidth on location, and how many clients, if any, would be on set. If there are clients on set, are they in the same room or adjacent room? Moho outside? This all makes a difference. Sometimes if clients are on set in a different building or room, a local Teradek or equivalent video feed may make sense vs full remote. Oftentimes, it just makes more sense to go fully remote.
What readers may not know is that you, personally, are able to control the whole digital set remotely, after setting up in person prior to shoot day. What is this like for you, versus setting up camp on set, as you’d done previously?
This is something that many people are really excited to realize is possible! When an ultra minimal crew is needed, I will arrive the day before or a few hours before the general crew call to set up a computer station on location that includes two monitors on set for the photographer and whomever else may want or need one. I also then set up cameras in multiple desired departments, as needed. I then leave and login remotely, from home or studio, and fully control the computer as if I was standing right there. I can then push a feed out to anyone around the world to work with us remotely in real time. The cameras in each department allow the client to correspond with hair, makeup, wardrobe stylists, food stylists, prop stylists, photographer, DP, or whomever, as requested. I strongly prefer breakout rooms in Zoom to be able to facilitate who is seeing what when as well as corresponding to whomever without interference from other conversations. There is nothing worse than multiple people needing to communicate at the same time but not being able to because of other conversations. I can also control this using streaming controllers, when budget allows. The lag time for controlling the computer remotely is very minimal if there is a solid internet solution on location. Since we are also simultaneously pushing out a feed, a high bandwidth is absolutely necessary.
Finally, what have you learned or been surprised by in the months since actively making remote productions work?
One of my favorite aspects about my job is working together with people from all roles, all doing our individual tasks separately, but together, to accomplish a huge task. It feels like a beautiful choreography with talented people. I was worried about losing that aspect working remotely. However, I have been pleasantly surprised about how deeply connected everyone still is while working remotely. It will never replace being on set with everyone, but with an efficient workflow and streamlined communication, I find I am able to do my job to the full extent while also maintaining connections to those on set.