Where Are the Biscuits?
What does a remote shoot mean for the agency and production house relationship, by Binaifer Dulani, Group Head, Copy and Ronak Chugh, Director and Founder, Ideating Media
Even before the camera is set-up at a shoot, the chakhna table is. Think bakharwadi, chips (in flavours ranging from masala to mascarpone), all sorts of biscuits, chaklis, cheeslings… the works. Once this is done, the production house pulls its second master move. To place the agency seating (and client seating) right behind this table. The ploy is simple, sedate them enough to ensure they are not unnecessarily jumpy (read: give feedback even before the director okays the take, backseat-direct for no reason, or worst of all, ask for ‘safety’ shots at the risk of letting the production schedule go awry).
But a remote shoot means no chakhna table, leaving the production house tactless. The only way to make this relationship work is to work on the relationship itself.
When the sci-fi thriller Contagion became the world we live in today, Ronak headed back to his hometown in Madurai to live with his folks, and school them on the intensity of the pandemic.
A month into the ‘lockdown’, he had convinced himself that this was the start of an indefinite, forced sabbatical, and started on some fiction writing, which he had been putting off. Just when he started getting into the ‘routine’ of writing, a few briefs for films that could be shot remotely came in. Most of these didn’t end up getting made.
In the meanwhile, team Uber at Dentsu Webchutney was conceptualizing the lead asset for the #SaferForEachOther Campaign. Unlike the normal world where the only limit to an idea is your imagination (some may argue budget and timelines, but workarounds eventually come down to imagination), in the COVID-world, there are more filters to what constitutes an ‘ethical idea.’ It’s one that embraces the special times we live in and ensures no one is put at risk. And so, a big part of the conceptualization of the film tried to ensure that it did not require anyone to leave their homes, as far as possible.
In the very first briefing call with Ronak, there was an intuitive understanding of what we were going for and how we wanted to do it. We collaborated right from the early stages and decided to create an intimate, handmade film, in the way it was shot, but not in the way it would be put together. That’s where the idea of the jumping aspect ratios came from.
But there were many questions that needed answers. How would Ronak direct actors remotely while they also operated the camera? How would we get a live feed of the performance? But clearly, it was all doable.
A-Team Check: Ronak got Ayan Saxena (DoP) whom he had collaborated on several projects on board first. Ronak, Ayan, Karishma and Binny came together as ONE team.
The pre-shoot: We were still not 100% sure on how the film would flow with so many different characters completing each other’s sentences. So we decided to put together a scratch film with Ayan, Ronak’s mom and sister, and a few enthu friends acting in it. Basically anybody around us. Making the film before the film, gave us an idea of what the edit would look like, and everything that could go wrong. Especially the tech glitches we had to watch out for. This scratch film not only helped us figure these fixes, but also became a far more effective version of the PPM deck. We had a film very close to our final film, even before we went into shoot. It also gave a solid reference to score music (Sameer Rahat, Mumbai) and do the animation (Rishabh Malhotra, Delhi).
This was our scratch edit:
The digital recce: The recce turned into a digital walkthrough, where the cast would walk us through different parts of their homes, balconies and verandas. Show us every pretty nook that we could shoot them against.
The cast selection: The regular casting brief now had add-ons. Does the person have the right kind of smartphone? Do they have pretty corners in their homes that would make for an interesting frame? Were they easy to talk to, and more importantly, would they follow technical direction? Our cast ended up being from across the country. Kapurthala to Mumbai, Siliguri to Chennai.
As part of Ronak’s process, he tries to make the actors least conscious of the process, the camera and their marks. Especially, if they are non-actors, like a lot of the people in this film were. But this time, the actors were the ones framing, rolling camera, going back to position, rolling sound, clapping for sync and only then saying their lines. We eventually decided not to cut at all once we rolled. More work for our editor, Farooq Hundekar (Mumbai). But this ensured the performances were as authentic as they could be.
Shoot day: Showing up on set meant logging into zoom. The first leg of the shoot was frustrating to say the least. The live feed would lag, the actor’s phone would heat up, people in their homes would barge in, a dog would start barking. Basically everything that could go wrong, went wrong. But the only way to move forward was to embrace these things and learn to adapt to the situation. Fortunately, all the other parts went pretty smoothly, because we were on exactly the same page on what we were going for.
Post-production discoveries for life: The last day of production on a commercial is usually strenuous because you need four departments to finish your film for you. It’s normal to jump from studio to studio with hard drives to get stuff done. But this time, we had colour grading, animation, music and sound design happen in parallel. It was now possible to toggle between studios with just a click, while they screen shared on a Zoom call. If you’re a Production House, maybe you want to try this out, even when the world slips back to normal.
All in all, we’re proud to say that in spite of the lags, glitches, bloodshot eyes and NO CHAKHNA, we ended up with a finished product that we were happy to put out, and now write about for our diary.