© Stewart Cohen.
After he completed five-day video production for energy company SDG&E at a Dallas soundstage, photographer-director Stewart Cohen posted to his website a behind-the-scenes video showing the precautions his crew took to shoot safely indoors. Having now done other photo and video shoots in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cohen says the extra steps needed to sanitize gear, keep talent and crew members apart, and communicate with clients working remotely all make for long, challenging shoot days.
“I love shooting. It has never felt like work,” says Cohen, a veteran advertising photographer who began directing motion in the 1990s. “But I remember going home after this and thinking: This felt like work.”
For SDG&E, creatives at the ad agency MeadsDurket wanted several different scenarios, so Cohen shot on multiple sets built at MPS Studios in Dallas. His producer, Nancy Williams, researched the most up-to-date COVID precautions recommended by the Directors Guild and AICP (Association of Independent Commercial Producers). “We sent the guidelines to all members of the crew in advance and said: We don’t stray from these, period,” says Cohen. He hired a medic who checked everyone’s temperature each morning before they entered the studio. Masks were required while working indoors. “We didn’t have a built-in recess time,” Cohen notes, “but if you weren’t working you could walk off the stage and go outside.”
Crew members sanitized everything they touched, from door knobs to light stands and props. The teams handing lights, cameras or props could not mingle. At lunch time, each crew member was handed their own pre-ordered box lunch. “There’s no buffet, so you’re not touching anything that’s not for you,” Cohen explains. Grooming and makeup were done in a separate area, he says. “Normally everyone knows everyone, so you wander in to see who’s in the makeup room. That’s no longer happening.”
© Stewart Cohen.
When it was time to shoot, the lighting crew cleared the set before the talent removed their face masks. About directing the actors, Cohen says, “Just projecting your voice all day with a mask on gets stifling, so I found that a challenge.” There was also little on-set banter. “You can’t see people’s facial expressions, so you can’t crack a joke. You don’t know whether someone’s laughing or not.” Plus, his clients could hear everything he said. An iPad next to his monitor connected him to a Zoom meeting with the clients, and acted as a live microphone.
Collaborating with remote clients via Zoom was laborious. The creatives had two video feeds: One showed what Cohen was shooting, and the other showed a wider view of the set. On a typical shoot, Cohen says, “You just look over and say, ‘What do you think of that?’ You do one more take, and you’re done —as opposed to stopping, and going on Zoom, and you wait while they’re talking amongst themselves.” Cohen felt lucky that he had done previous work with MeadsDurket. “If they had been first-time clients, it would have been more of a challenge. There was a level of trust they had in me and also trust that I had in them.”
While Cohen found that working with remote clients was “the number one thing” that slowed the production, he has also been working with smaller crews “to create more space around people on set and just to create social distance.” That means “having to write out a brief explaining how people are going to handle multiple tasks.” During COVID, Cohen says, “Just to capture the same amount of content, everything seems to be taking longer.”
When the SDG&E production was under way, he decided to hire a camera operator and editor to shoot behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Williams, assistant director Jerad Dickey and other crew members about how they incorporated healthy precautions into their workflow. Says Cohen, “A lot of the people I work with realize: If you get sick, you’re not working, and you get other people sick, too. We’re taking this seriously.” Showing that level of care, he says, “made a few clients who were on the fence more comfortable with shooting safely.”
—Holly Stuart Hughes