September 17, 2020

Creating from a distance: two perspectives

Lee Taylor & Libby Mock

Creative Director & Senior Project Manager

From project management to creative direction, how we’re reimagining commercial productions during COVID-19.

The creative perspective: Lee Taylor

As an advertising art director and creative director, I’ve often heard many equate the process of creative thinkers to that of “kids playing in a sandbox.” While in a sandbox, kids can make whatever they want out of the sand using tools or even their bare hands, as long as they stay inside the box. It’s a visual metaphor people use to remind us all to embrace our limits and create within constraints. And, like it or not, there’s truth to the metaphor. Every day I see how real-world constraints can mold, guide, and, at times, even squash a creative idea. Whether it’s client budgets, subjective opinions, or spontaneous shifts in consumer culture, creative work has a multitude of obstacles to overcome in its journey from initial thought to finished product. But nothing has created a bigger obstacle than the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Notwithstanding the obvious massive public health and economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has also changed almost every facet of how we, in the advertising industry, collectively tell our clients’ stories. The way we create in the sandbox has changed. Even outside the agency team, there are production companies, directors, cinematographers, still photographers, animators, editors, and music composers, all whose collaboration is crucial to making the branded work people see every day. Like many in the industry, I began to wonder how we’d navigate something as complex as film and still-life productions while working remotely. 

I’ve had the opportunity to be in a variety of productions throughout my career and have seen firsthand the delicate dance that is a commercial video production, many times with crews of 15-20 people.  Within the last year alone, I, along with other creatives from our Curiosity team, worked with Farmuse and Reid Rolls on three different social content productions for the same brand, which included still photography and social video. The days were action-packed, but super gratifying when we often captured more shots than we anticipated.

This is a dance that seemed only doable in person.

However, since the COVID-19 lockdown, many production companies (like Farmuse) have quickly adjusted to completely remote and physically distant productions to maintain safety and creative quality. And, like many other agencies, Curiosity has adjusted our creative approach to anticipate the obstacles. During our most recent campaign for Western and Southern, we knew our ability to safely shoot a commercial in-person was unlikely, so we scripted a commercial that didn’t require on-camera talent or dialogue. The commercial, which aired during the Western and Southern Open, emphasizes hope during a time of uncertainty. To bring the visuals to life, we partnered with PFX in Prague, whose team of visual effects artists used computer-generated graphics (CG) and special effects. This commercial helped Curiosity accomplish two big firsts during the era of COVID-19: our first completely remote production, and our first spot built solely from visual effects. 

While the pandemic has disrupted the way we create work, it has also created a lot of opportunities for how we approach creative execution. My personal advice to creatives producing work in the era of COVID is to consider three things:

Change your approach.

Gone are the days of attacking a video script or set of campaign assets from the same perspective. Many agencies, production companies, and brands are not only leveraging CG and visual effects, but also animation, illustration, user-generated content, and still-life photography within the video. Many stock houses such as Getty, Stocksy, and Film Supply offer a higher level of quality footage for commercial use, and platforms like Catch & Release make sourcing user-generated content seamless. With today’s technology and pressures from the global pandemic, new ways to bring a creative idea to life are constantly emerging. Creatives who take advantage of this will ultimately create fresher, more eye-catching work. 

Embrace change, because it’s likely here to stay.

While the lasting effects of COVID-19 linger, conducting productions remotely will continue to be relevant. In fact, remote productions have already presented some lingering positive effects on our industry. For one, remote productions are more sustainable. With fewer people traveling to attend shoots on location, the industry at-large could leverage this new way of working to reduce its overall carbon footprint as well as production costs. Remote productions allow for more team members to participate in the creation of the work versus only a small handful of senior creatives, account managers, and clients attending a shoot. 

Keep it simple. 

Even before the pandemic, smart but simple creative execution was on the rise. Just weeks before lockdown, Wieden and Kennedy produced a spot for Nike with only type on-screen and pre-recorded audio to honor Kobe Bryant. The commercial leveraged a simple style Nike in the U.S. has adopted over the past two years. In addition, The Truth is Hard to Find campaign from The New York Times, which came out two years ago, also leverages a relatively simple execution style of marrying type, pre-recorded news coverage, and simple cinematic shots to convey the anxiety and emotion around finding the truth in a news story. The editorial pacing and audio elements create a further sense of emotion.

These approaches are evidence of how the latest notable work in the industry can be innovative, yet simple.

COVID-19 has forced the entire advertising industry to completely reimagine the sandbox we play in every day, but it has also taught us that when presented with constraints and difficulty, we tend to innovate. As a society and as a creative industry, we always find a way to approach a problem differently. As Darwin would say, we can either evolve or die. And as bleak as that sounds, it’s how we as humans operate. At Curiosity, we base our creative philosophy on a similar notion, one that highlights how problems and curiosity trigger the human brain to be more creative. Scientists have proven that when we are faced with great challenges, our desire to solve them triggers curiosity in our brain and flexes our creativity in all-new ways. Like hunger, our desire to innovate and create in order to solve a problem becomes insatiable. This principle grounds our approach to our work and the pandemic allows us to put that to the test every day.  

The project management perspective: Libby Mock

Normally, creative shoots are cumbersome to plan with all the variables that must work together, like talent, crew, location, equipment, props, stakeholder reviews and client input (just to name a few). However, with COVID-19, these variables require the same level of planning, but multiplied by 10 in order to ensure no one is jeopardizing their health and we are poised to achieve success. It’s an added risk and a unique dynamic for a project manager running a production. 

At one recent shoot leveraging our in-house production studio, Curio, we made it work. And here’s what I learned….

Everything takes more time – plan accordingly.

Our Curio Studio Photographer and Videographer, Joel, would normally collaborate heavily with the creative director at the shoot to ensure everything is set up appropriately, and that we’re gathering the right shots and content we need to produce whatever end deliverable is owed. In this case, for several shots, Joel would ask for our creative director’s opinion, back away six feet, return to the camera after hearing her feedback, and then move six feet away again to shoot. It took more time than one would think for all of this literal back and forth!

Props are hard to find... and keep clean! 

In addition to taking heavy safety precautions such as this, props were more difficult to secure.  We needed to rely solely on items available online that could be delivered one day before the shoot, so we were limited in selection. Delivery changes during the pandemic and product availability changed everything.  Bear in mind, all the items we used in the shoot had to be sanitized individually between shots if anyone had touched them, to ensure germs would not be spread this way. 

To recap, here are my key takeaways as a producer planning a shoot during a pandemic:

  • Order all props online as early as you can. 
  • Cut back on the number of attendees at the shoot by planning and aligning in advance on who REALLY needs to be on set. 
  • Plan all the details and then plan again, paying special attention to all the potential pandemic-related roadblocks that could arise. Bake in extra hours for these pre-shoot planning sessions, and be sure to plan for extra hours at the shoot used to maintain social distancing and ensure germs will not be spread in any way, shape, or form. 
We followed these guidelines, and in the end, produced some seriously beautiful work that we’re all extremely proud of – it just took a little extra effort and a lot of hand sanitizer to make it happen!

While it’s true that the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on 2020 in a big way, luckily, we have found out firsthand that art will always find a way to overcome darkness. And to me, the work we did for Native is a beautiful example of this truth.

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