Zoom calls, empty streets and TikTok: 7 true tales of production in lockdown

Production: coming up with solutions to new problems
Production: coming up with solutions to new problems

Agency leaders give a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how they overcame lockdown restrictions to make work, plus the production lessons learned along the way.

Despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, creatives and producers have continued to make work – albeit rarely in the way they had before. Here are seven stories of how productions overcame restrictions to keep going, plus the lessons learned along the way.

Sam Hawkey, chief operating officer, Saatchi & Saatchi London 

"Do what you can, where you are, with what you have." 

Never has that been truer. But when it comes to production at this moment in time, it can seem like you don’t have much at all. Of course there is animation, illustration and design, but given where we’ve come from that feels restrictive – does it have to be? 

This is the question our teams have been wrestling with over the last few weeks, allowing clients and creatives to open up all the executional options available rather than shutting them down one by one. 

Right now, we are in production using portable kit sent to locked-down actors who are being directed over Zoom. No creative compromise, high craft, low cost. That’s what I call working from home. 

Our latest spot for Marie Curie went from paper to screen in a week by using found footage, a great track and some intelligent editing and animation. Just as critical, of course, were the creative and curious minds, the real energy behind this – and every – production project. The team’s conviction and commitment resulted in a powerful and important message with beautifully crafted work that packs a real emotional punch.

So, we’ll keep finding footage, reusing designs, changing channels and re-editing old content to reinvigorate past executions and make them relevant for today. And when it’s over, we’ll have learned to ask whether we need to create from scratch and always do something new, arguably becoming more considerate and more accountable as to what we put out into the world. 

Our industry has always had these techniques at their disposal but has lacked the attitude to apply them more readily – an attitude that means you can make more for less and faster.

There could lie the lesson for us all.

Andy Nairn, founder, Lucky Generals 

There are lots of things we’re doing to work around the current production constraints. For instance, once Co-op decided it needed another route for Easter, we had just days to get something made. First, instead of the usual campaign encouraging people to buy Easter eggs, we all decided we should take the opportunity to think of others and donate the media space to food charity FareShare, which Co-op has worked with for many years, donating millions of pounds' worth of food.

Given the message was all about co-operation, we then actively embraced the medium of the moment: the video call, which meant the multi-person interface was actually a great fit, rather than second best. It also allowed us to use Co-op colleagues (who have been working wonders up and down the country). This still left us with the task of recruiting the right mix of people and capturing them authentically (leaving in a few bloopers helped bring some charm). But with a great team effort, we got from brief to play-out in seven days.

Meanwhile, we took a very different approach for our Vonage client in the US. It is a business-to-business comms provider, so knows all about helping businesses keep in touch. But it wanted to stand out from all the cheesy tropes of that sector. Ironically, we found that playing with stock footage was not only helpful from a production point of view, but it also allowed us to have loads of fun. We’ve created 14 films, using old film of everything from aerobics classes to dogs and cowboys, to promote our serious product points (a particular favourite was a montage of pastries, accompanied by the jaunty jingle: "These pies, these pies, not as good as our APIs!").  

The point is, you can work around these things and still do really fun work – you just have to be positive and see the constraints as potential opportunities.

Christopher Ringsell, creative director, Engine Creative 

When you see an idea like "The lockdown" for Women’s Aid – an idea so simple, powerful and poignant at this time that you know can genuinely do something good – you have to go for it.

The galvanising spirit that is inbred in creatives and makers going after the same idea can be unstoppable. I knew a friend and director, Max Fisher, who would love the thought and had the gusto and vigour to go all in. 

After the fifth Zoom call in an hour and with WhatsApp alerts going off like a continuous siren, we already had some of adland’s finest willing to share their talents and kit across the production process. 

A process like no other, condensed into one week, without any of us meeting face to face. We self-shot, reshot, edited, continuously chatted and shared across the first couple of days.

In the absence of storyboards and shoot boards, the narrative of the film developed quite organically, dismissing ideas as fast as we had them. 

Once we had our footage and a powerful narrative arc, we Zoom-called our way through this new process on a daily basis. 

Zoom… Rebecca Luff edited from her living room. 

Zoom… Ben Leeves created the sound design from the studio set-up in his lounge.

Zoom… James Bamford coloured remotely (in his study from the look of it) and The Mill worked behind the scenes in various studies and spare rooms to help shape the spot.

After a hard push from the account teams and media companies, and thanks to the generosity of brands with their media inventory, we managed to get this work from idea to all media in seven days.

And what an inspiring seven days! 

I salute all involved – let’s hope it does some good out there.

Anita Osborne, director of integrated production, Above & Beyond 

No industry has gone unaffected by the current pandemic and within adland production has taken one of the hardest hits. As teams continue to rebrief, repurpose and restore ideas, there is a powerful weapon in every agency’s arsenal: the producer. 

More than ever, producers and creatives must come together. 

The best producers are natural trouble-shooters and great creative thinkers – both core skills that are more essential now than ever before. When it comes to elastic thinking and staying positive with a can-do attitude, a recent lingerie shoot we have just completed is a case in point. 

The work had been eight months in development, so we were keen to see it through. But as Covid-19’s grip on the country tightened, we faced a steady stream of obstacles. 

Agencies and production companies can’t insure against the virus, so we needed our client to sign the new Advertising Producers Association addendum to agree that any coronavirus-related financial consequences or a relocation, postponement or cancellation would be their responsibility. It was a big ask, but after open, honest conversations and a clear drive to mitigate costs where possible, our client signed.

Our next challenge was to bring the shoot forward, for fear of what the next few weeks might bring, meaning locking in wardrobe and location at lightning speed.

Then things began to get difficult. Rumours of an impending London lockdown meant our client wouldn’t attend the shoot; our chief creative officer had to self-isolate; and the director came down with a sore throat and a fever. We decided she could direct via video-conferencing, with the CCO dialled in and a director of photography and first assistant director on set. 

Despite looking like a Holby City set, with masks, gloves and sanitiser everywhere, the shoot went pretty seamlessly and there was no hint of a creative compromise.

The role of a producer has long shifted from a single format output to an individual working on a much broader level, producing cross-discipline, multichannel campaigns that deliver across each touchpoint. We wear many hats – strategic thinker, organisation junkie, finance whizz, tough negotiator, relationship builder – but most of all we are creative problem-solvers.

We now live in very strange times. Creativity is needed more than ever. To all those creatives lost in endless Zooms: stay inspired, keep those brilliant ideas flowing and talk with your producers at the earliest opportunity. Great ideas don’t need to die just because they need to be produced differently. The show – if safe to – will go on no matter how obscure the situation.

Jidé Maduako, chief executive, Yoke Network 

Producing content with TikTok influencers is useful to advertisers in this time of lockdown and isolation. Most influencers can create something quickly in their own home, producing and posting content within a few hours.

Creative solutions that work incredibly well on TikTok include basic "How to" videos with influencers. Yoke has just worked on one for Hotspot Shield VPN with influencer Bobby Moore. Posted on Sunday, it achieved two million views in 48 hours and more than 50,000 installs of the VPN app.

The emergence of episodic content on TikTik is also providing creative opportunities. The richer production and creative potential of the platform is highlighted by our work with influencer CringeCarter, who talked in a recent post about his daily battle with coronavirus lockdown boredom, to promote video game Terrarium. The post includes game footage, alongside graphics created by CringeCarter.

Another successful creative solution for TikTok involves setting a challenge for audiences. We worked on one of these with CringeCarter again for photo-editing app AirBrush. Called the "AirBrush challenge", it spoofed celebrity make-up tutorials and resulted in more than half-a-million views.

Demand for this kind of campaign is soaring and is also a solution for brands at a time when there is so much pressure on budgets, because it’s affordable and accountable. Brands can see the views achieved by each post and monitor click-through rates, and CPMs are currently a fraction of those for Instagram.

The important thing when it comes to production is to give the influencers an open brief to integrate the brand for their audience. You’ve got to be interested in learning new things from these creative people, otherwise the content won’t fit the platform.

Sam Balderstone, managing director, CYLNDR (BMB's integrated production arm) 

Production is about overcoming challenges. Covid-19 is a particularly unique challenge – both professionally and personally – and requires disruptive approaches and specific expertise to continue to make and distribute powerful content.

We’ve been working on a user-generated piece of Covid-19 comms for LinkedIn, which is about communicating work opportunities in the current environment. A campaign like this would normally take anything from two to six weeks to make, but the speed of response required for this was a matter of days, from creative brief to delivery of a fully mastered film that is broadcast ready. 

Our production speed simply has to match the fast-moving coronavirus situation.

Our team of researchers sourced hundreds of candidates across the social platform, resulting in eight to 12 individuals to feature in the film. Casting was finalised via video call, followed by filming and direction over video platforms, with the broadcast quality footage captured on ECamm.

Editing, grading and sound design were all completed remotely via our London server, which gives us access to all the tools we would normally have at our disposal. CYLNDR has always been set up to work remotely, but it’s never normally our need or choice to use it 100% of the time. Film reviews with teams continue, with creatives remotely accessing editor screens to approve cuts. We’re still working very closely to protect the creative process, just in different postcodes.

For other projects, we are adapting to the current restrictions and repurposing unseen rushes from previous shoots, shooting talent remotely and using illustration and animation to lift the content and stock footage to bring ideas to life. 

Considered, powerful creative, coupled with tech solutions and platforms, enables us to keep on making. 

Roxana Nita, group creative director, Cheil Romania 

It was clear that domestic abuse would tragically escalate during the lockdown, and as we had a long-term collaboration with ANAIS (an anti-domestic violence NGO), we moved swiftly to put together a dedicated website featuring legal and practical advice, and then got to work on an integrated campaign to raise awareness.

With film shoots prohibited by the quarantine, we had to come up with ideas that could be produced by animation and 3D-rendered images. The result was #IsolateViolence, a campaign that was produced 100% remotely in just one week.

Working with Chainsaw Europe, our production partners, we created three animated online films that subvert the familiar illustrations associated with social distancing and flattening the curve, twisting the images to highlight the alternative virus lurking in Romanian homes: domestic violence.

Daily status calls with the production manager and video editor helped keep the project on track. The audio recordings were particularly challenging, with the actors and the music composer in separate locations. The actors recorded their own voiceovers, which were then overlaid in the studio to make it sound like real-time dialogue. 

For the print work, we created a series of stark visuals providing a chilling take on the images of the infamous coronavirus cells, with the spikes replaced by figures recreating scenes of abuse. There was a lot of trial and error. We experimented with different textures and different scenes, and each idea meant a new 3D rendering, so the process was lengthy. 

It was all worth it. We had a significant impact in Romania and the campaign got picked up around the world as the issue became relevant in more countries under quarantine.

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