A deep dive into the various factors to be considered
when planning a remote shoot, with examples.
Remote shooting is quickly moving to the forefront as an important method for content creation, but incorporating it into medium and large scale productions might feel intimidating to directors and producers unfamiliar with the technology. After years of doing things a certain way using only a handful of established filming techniques, how can you make the jump to this new approach?
This article will break down the key technical elements of remote shooting, discussing not only the drawbacks and benefits of each, but also the reason for their necessity in the remote shooting process. The equipment mentioned in this article was all used on the set of Sideway’s upcoming original series Hartley.
The first piece of equipment to be considered is the most important – the camera. The camera is responsible for the director’s connection with the filming process and the image quality that is ultimately put out. While these are two major responsibilities in the scope of a film or television project, funnily enough the camera is also the easiest item to get off of this list, simply because it's hard to go wrong.
In 2021, there’s no such thing as a bad camera. Each brand has their own specialties, but in terms of quality they all deliver crisp, beautiful results. For Hartley, actors were sent the Sony ZV-1, a compact point-and-shoot camera that can record in 4K and is not over-complicated from an operational standpoint. Each camera that was sent out to an actor was preconfigured to specific settings before being shipped, meaning that no preparation was needed for a shoot from actors other than turning the camera on. The one drawback of this camera experienced on set was some minor overheating issues when recording in a warm environment at 4K resolution. However, these issues were easily fixed by switching the battery and waiting a minute or two.
A key feature of this camera (and many other cameras in Sony’s lineup) is that it is compatible with Sony’s Imagine Edge Desktop software. This includes the Remote app which, when tethered to a camera, uses Sony’s Live View mode to allow users to control the camera from a desktop. Combined with remote desktop software – Hartley used the RemotePC service – this setup provides both a through-the-lens view of the scene as well as remote camera operation.
There are of course other ways of going about remote shooting – teaching actors how to operate the camera at a basic level, for instance – but this allowed for the most straightforward workflow for the Hartley crew. For this setup to work, the Hartley camera kit included an inexpensive laptop solely for the purpose of controlling the camera. The production chose not to rely on the actors' personal equipment both for consistency and for privacy (no one wants remote control software installed on their personal devices).
Every production needs its own version of a video village – the place where the crew gets to view the scene and manage the set. Setting up an efficient video village is key for a successful remote shoot. For Hartley, the production used Zoom installed on the personal devices of the cast and crew, as well as on the central machine that connected via RemotePC to the cameras' laptops, which in turn shared its screen over Zoom. This provided every crew member a direct view of the cameras' live feed.
One of the most difficult elements of the remote shooting process is lighting. Even if a production were to invest in lights that could be controlled from a distance, there will always be some elements of the process that require in-person adjusting, such as physical placement and angle. The grips and actors who worked on Hartley were sent two Neewer-brand stand lights, which they had to operate themselves with real time help over Zoom from members of the production team. Once the frame was set and shared over Zoom, the on-set crew was guided with directions such as strength, temperature, and angle. Really any lights will get the job done, it all comes down to what the production is going to need from their lights and if the lights that fit that bill are operable for the people that are on set.
The last items that need to be considered when setting up a remote shooting production are accessories such as microphones, memory cards, cords, and other smaller gadgets. Hartley used the Rode VideoMicGo for scenes with dialogue, which was a benefit because the VideoMicGo draws from the battery of the camera it is plugged into and has no on-body controls, making it one less technical concern for the actor to worry about. Because remote shooting puts more technical responsibilities on the actor than a traditional production, wherever that load can be reduced is an advantage.
When shooting remotely, you need a secure way to send footage from the set to the production team, which is why memory cards and card readers are a vital step of the process. Make sure that you find cards compatible with all the other systems you’re using and that you can get consistent results from them, the card reader, and the computer that is sending the files. At the end of each shooting day, actor on plugged their camera memory cards into the production laptop which allowed the producers to upload the footage via remote desktop to a shared drive.
Just like any other method of shooting, there is no one right answer when it comes to your remote shooting gear. In the coming years we expect to see more equipment come out with features for remote shooting that we don’t even know of yet. Every project will have different results to pull from its gear, so no production should be afraid to mix and match – just always be aware of the higher than usual amount of interfacing that has to occur between these moving parts, because ease of use is the name of the game with remote shooting.
The full Hartley set gear list (and a few tips):
Sony ZV-1 Camera for Content Creators - We have used professional Sony cameras in the past; this is a great and simple 4K camera that supports desktop tethering and costs less than $1000 per unit. The ZV-1 provides great value at its price point. It's fully automated shooting mode worked great for us 90% of the time.
Lexar Professional 633x 128GB SDXC UHS-I Card - This is a reliable card at good value. It's also easy to order in large quantities and always available with fast shipping, which is important when running low on free storage.
UGREEN SD Card Reader - This supplemented the laptops we chose, which didn't come with built-in card readers. Small, reliable, and cheap.
AFVO Metal Triple Hot Shoe Camera Shoe Bracket - We didn't like how close the microphone was to the lens, especially when used handheld. This provides a bit more distance. We encountered some issues trying to make it lock tightly, but it's well made.
Ulanzi Quick Release Plate - Changing memory cards and batteries in the ZV-1 requires removing the camera from an L bracket or plate due to the location of the card and battery compartments. To avoid having to reframe the shot every time, we used this quick release plate to distance the camera from any bracket, allowing us to make changes fast and without disturbing the frame.
ASUS L203MA-DS04 VivoBook L203MA Laptop - With 10 locations we needed a cheap and reliable solution. ASUS makes solid laptops and it was hard to beat in price and size. We paid about $250 for each laptop, but the ASUS Laptop L210 has since been released at an even cheaper price. Make sure to set aside enough time to fully configure these ahead of time. You will need to disable Windows S Mode to install third party software (like the Sony Remote). Pro-tip: create one Windows account with free OneDrive and put it on all the laptops to make file sharing and other changes much easier.
TPLTECH Micro USB Cable 10Ft - A well made tethering cable that comes in a 2-pack. The red color makes it stand out (which helps people avoid tripping over it and breaking the camera or laptop).
Lykus HC-3310 Waterproof Hard Case with Customizable Foam Insert - A strong case with easy-to-customize foam inserts that fit all the camera gear and laptop we used in the case. With so many cutouts, we used hot glue to connect the top foam layer with the next one creating an easy to remove tray. Pro-tip: keep the box each case comes in and use them to ship the camera to each location (no need to pay extra for packing).
NP-BX1 Newmowa Replacement 3 Battery Pack and USB Charger - We mostly used the original Sony battery that came with the camera but having extras often proved useful, especially when the Sony battery overheated.
ULANZI MT-08 Extension Pole Tripod - This little tripod was extremely useful. Not only was it used in all the handheld scenes, but we also used it in places where the full size tripod couldn't fit.
Rode VideoMicro Compact On-Camera Microphone - A quality microphone with no buttons or other moving parts. There is no limit to how much money you can spend on a quality microphone, but this was a good balance for our needs and it performs well. Pro-tip: don't forget to perform an in-camera sound level check after every scene setup and to record room tone (both of which are easily forgotten when shooting remotely).
Gaffer Tape 2" X 30 Yards by EdenProducts - The only reason this is listed is because it is easy to forget to send it to remote locations, and it can't be forgotten.
StudioFX SANDBAG Sand Bag - Safety first! We made sure every set had sandbags ready before shooting. No one wants an injured cast member from a falling light. Ask your local cast or crew to find a local park for some free sand (or buy sand at a hardware store).
Neewer 2 Packs Advanced 2.4G 660 LED Video Light - With the sole exception of shooting with a green screen, these two lights provided plenty of light and flexibility. We used gels when we needed to push the color cooler or warmer than the light provided but in most cases, the lights' range was enough. Pro-tip - mount the light using the side hole instead of the bottom for a much wider range of motion when the doors are open (but only with a sandbag or it will fall).
Gooseneck Phone Holder - When shooting video chat scenes, we needed the actors to see each other in multiple locations. We did that by having the actors call each other using their own phones. To keep a realistic look, we used the phone holder to mount the phones as close to the camera lens as possible.
SAKOLLA 8 Pieces Transparent Color Correction Lighting Gel Filter - While you can always adjust colors in post, it is sometimes better to use gels to visualize the shot on set and get the right mood for the performance. Pro-tip: when using the camera with automatic white balance, the camera is going to fight your color adjustments, especially when it cannot detect skin tones in the frame. Make sure to color balance only with an actor in front of the camera.
Neewer SL128-A Pocket-Size LED Video Light - We used this light in almost every shot, sometimes as the only light source. It performs well and is incredibly versatile, but don't forget to charge it as it uses a charge quickly.
Universal Laptop Projector Tripod Stand - Tot a requirement but was very useful when shooting in small spaces without an abundance of surfaces to place the production laptop on.
AmazonBasics 60-Inch Lightweight Tripod with Bag - A great cheap tripod when you don't have any camera movement. Worked well for us with mostly static frames but would probably not cut it for more dynamic shots.