Overcoming Challenge is part of the job

As the Government prepares its strategy for the ease of lockdown, we ourselves are beginning to prepare for our return to work. We spoke to those working in post production about what they have learned their plans for when we emerge and thoughts on how they think the landscape will look going forward.   

Danny Etherington, co-owner of Creative Outpost with Quentin Olszewski, has been like many of us juggling looking after the children whilst maintaining the business. “Thankfully work has been ticking over” he said. “We explored the impact of a possible lockdown quite far ahead, starting when China shut down. We knew if the virus made it to London that we had to be prepared! Then when Italy locked down, from that point it was just a matter of time. We planned for it and got everyone set up at and networked from home, both picture and sound. After that, it was what we now call the new normal.”

Dave Robinson, Head of Sound at Creative Outpost said “In anticipation of working from home, a lot of technical preparation had to be done. This involved designating machines and prepping them with Pro Tools etc, followed by heavy testing to make sure everything was covered when the time came to leave the building. It is not uncommon for home setup acoustics to not be quite up to the standard of the main workplace studio but to help alleviate the issue we have EQ’d the home-based monitor output using audio analysis tools with tried and tested mixes to match the workplace studio as best as possible. Non-recording work such as editing, track laying, sound design, pre-mixing etc has also thrown up a few challenges but overcoming them is part of the job. It has taken a bit of getting used to for all of us but I’m sure we can all navigate this difficult time and come out stronger on the other side.”

Creative Outpost has had a variety of audio projects on the go and has also been sending out a ‘home studio kit’ to V/O’s that aren’t set up remotely. “It’s proved popular and we have had to invest in a second kit, as we send the equipment around London and beyond” said Etherington. “In the most part we’re using Source Connect to our engineers at home and in last ditch cases have had extremely scaled down sessions in the office, as we have the glass separating the booth and control room. As long as the talent can travel responsibly, the social distancing aspect is 100% better than going to the supermarket! In fact, it can be completely ‘contactless’.”

“We’ve kept the team together with regular Zoom chats/drinks and even made the odd company PR films, showing how we can still help service clients. It’s actually been fun shooting and mixing our own ‘infomercials’ if you like.” The normal working day has now taken a different structure with 9-6 now not being the norm but rather ‘always on’ and available.”   

Emma Butt, Re-Recording Mixer, Sound Editor and ADR Recordist, found that work began to trickle off pretty quickly once lockdown happened. “I am starting to see glimmers of hope that there is work on the horizon” said Emma. “Productions that were mid post production and still have ADR to be completed, are trying to find new and inventive ways of continuing. The Space Crate has made itself fully self isolated and Zoom ADR sessions are happening with varying degrees of success.” The sound community has certainly come out to support each other with many hosting and providing training webinars or online networking. “Sites like Pro Tools Expert have taken off their pay wall for a limited time to allow people access to their training videos to keep them distracted and focused” added Emma. “Companies like Source Connect and Avid have tried to provide cost effective solutions to people to enable them to keep working from home if they need to. The best part of this industry, the community spirit, is definitely coming out. The one great thing about sound is that we have always had the tools to be able to work from home, the workflow was always there with most of us operating that way already so that’s not been a huge change for a lot of us.”

Emma has found that the film and TV industry is even more precarious than she ever imagined. “To see the majority of the sectors work force effectively be shut down overnight has been eye opening and shows that positive, big changes need to be made at the other side to protect people more. I think everyone has seen the need for us to work collectively for better conditions and I do think that will happen on the other side.” 

Thomas Dalton owner of Brown Bear Audio, has found it’s been pretty much business as usual. “The basis of our company is remote working so we are ideally placed to help productions in these difficult times. We have seen an increase in enquiries which has resulted in a number of new clients as production companies scramble to finish projects safely. We have also seen an increase in voiceover sessions, all done safely and following government guidelines, for local talent who would usually travel to London and don’t have their own home facilities.”

As workflow at Brown Bear Audio is already fully remote Dalton hasn’t needed to adapt too much.  “With remote working, good communication is paramount and ensuring a streamlined approach to it helps make up for the lack of face to face contact” added Dalton. “We have found that we are communicating more with clients and the team throughout a project and have implemented some new tools for this such as Slack.”

Being in lockdown has enabled Dalton to reboot and position the company as one of the leading providers of remote audio post services. “We have really examined and looked at the challenges that we may be facing as we come out of this. This crisis is going to fundamentally change the way post-production is carried out for the foreseeable future, as some form of social distancing is likely to be in place until a vaccine is developed. We are confident we now have some of the best talent, tools and workflows and are able to offer clients a solution to the challenges they may face.”      

So what have we learnt and what are we doing in preparation for when we emerge?  “Some picture projects are definitely slower” added Olszewski. “Do the work, make a file, send it, wait, get group feedback, do the change, make a file, send it, wait for feedback. Client home internet restrictions too. It will never beat looking over your shoulder and saying “what do you think of this?” The collective, creative bubble when clients are onsite is diluted I think and the jury is out if that affects the end result. For the extra time it takes, there will never be more budget to compensate those remote processes that benefit from clients attending.  But remote working does open up the doors to working with talent that is not in London and that is a big plus.”    

There’s a thirst for creative work waiting to be quenched! Once the lockdown eases, by all accounts the consensus is to prepare for an eruption of fast turnaround work. “We’ve seen shooting guidelines published in other markets and that’s starting to get picked up here. I do wonder what can be shot over the coming months though, as the distancing production rules will still be stringent.”

“I really hope that all post companies survive this ‘storm’. It’s a tough time and I want to see us all dusting ourselves down and pushing on again. We believe that this tough decision to lock down has been necessary though, for the health and safety of all. I think after some initial caution, people will start to relax, but hopefully not too much too soon. We need to remain mindful of this period and how damaging it has been and not risk another lockdown. We foresee an initial burst in advertising as projects fire up, but possibly work with messaging that may only be relevant for a few weeks and need refreshing sooner than normal. If you think back over the last 4 weeks and how much has changed already. The new wave of ads using home shooting styles, whilst reactionary under the conditions, is already feeling a little repetitive. About this time of year we’re normally thinking about Christmas advertising too and that will be completely different I imagine. How can we predict in advance if the Christmas blockbuster is relevant with the country’s situation then? It still will be assessed on a month by month basis until mid/end of the summer I feel.” 

As for planning for when the tap goes back on, Creative Outpost is fortunate being a Picture and Sound post supplier as one can feed and support the other. “We’ve seen an audio booking everyday and we’re just looking at how we promote our social distancing for client visits in the future. I think we’ll be scaled down for a while onsite with client meetings and the like, so Zoom/Teams will continue as the norm for sure.  Longform wise we want to keep pushing that, but I wonder how long until we start to see the need for ADR on new shows. I can’t wait to get back to the office and albeit great to eat dinner at a reasonable time again, I do need the buzz of being back in the eye of the creative storm in Soho.  Unfortunately though, Soho’s other great industry won’t be open anytime soon. A pint with clients, friends and colleagues, chasing sunny street corners, is a long way off I fear!”

Emma feels that Factual and Entertainment TV is going to come out of this stronger than ever. “It’s the sector that can get back to work and back shooting fairly quickly” she added. “I think Drama, which has been booming over the last year or two, will be slower to get back on its feet. Our usual annual time line, especially for sound, which was quiet summer but busy and far too hectic August to December period, won’t happen as it usually does.  We will either get a very condensed busy period from about Sep / Oct till December, or we will see that work trail on into next year. What I’m really hoping not to see but it is a worry, is undercutting and rates drops. As soon as that happens, it’s a race to the bottom for everyone. The longer productions aren’t shooting, the longer people have to survive before they can start working.”

Diversity in the industry, in sound it mostly comes from the younger generation. “I’m hoping we still see them here on the other side of this, but they need support first. Otherwise we are going to take quite a few steps back as an industry before we can move forward again.”

As for preparing for when we emerge Emma is taking the time to rest when she can. “This is probably the only time in any of our careers where we are being forced to stop and catch our breaths. We may not have chosen to but it’s the situation we find ourselves in. I’m trying to make sure I stay calm, try to keep as stress free as I can under the circumstances and go back to work healthy, happy and energised because the work load on the other side of lockdown will be immense.”

Dalton believes that the industry will be in a state of uncertainty for sometime as we learn what the new world is going to look like post Covid. “Initially I think there will be a shortage of work as the knock on effect of the pause on filming filters down to the post-production sector. Production companies will need to adapt from traditional ways of working and establish new workflows that will ensure the safety of their staff. As the new world settles in we will see production pick up again and the work start flowing but I think it will be a difficult few months ahead for a lot of companies.”

As for preparing for when we come out of lockdown, Brown Bear Audio has been expanding its network of remote talent to ensure it continues to offer a high quality service as well as to be able to meet the increased demand. “We have also been researching and implementing new tools for our workflow that will make the process of remote working more streamlined for clients as well as upgrading equipment and systems to ensure we are able to complete work quicker and more efficiently” added Dalton. “On the business development side we have been reaching out to potential clients to let them know that we are here to help them in any way we can.”  

The past few weeks has proved the viability of remote audio post and Dalton thinks that there is only one way the post sector is heading and that is more into the cloud. “Production companies are now seeing that much of the process can be done remotely and the time saving this can bring. The tools for remote collaboration and review now make for a seamless experience where clients feel like they are in the same room as you so I think we will see production companies adopt a hybrid workflow that combines remote and traditional working. There will always be the need for attended sessions but for the large majority of projects the whole post process can be done remotely bringing a cost saving at the same time.”