“Shoot With a Stopwatch, Then Go Nuts With Unplanned Improv” — Director Chris Strong talks to LBB

Director Chris Strong says unplanned awesomeness can happen even more when shooting remotely. He shares his top tips for remote directing and why technology has a big role to play in the future of production

Award-winning director Chris Strong is a multi-disciplined talent, specialising in live-action with extensive experience of both location and studio-based filming as well as post-production, animation and experiential. He has written and directed TV commercials,  music promos, sponsorship idents, branded content, AR and VR for worldwide brands such as Mitsubishi, Visa, Virgin Media, Heinz, and Certsure, to name but a few.

In this interview with LBB, Chris Strong reveals his best remote practices, the software that’s been helping him overcome lockdown challenges, and contemplates the future of production.

Q> How have you coped with working from home?

Chris Strong> It’s taken some adjusting to, but all in all it’s been fine – obviously having the lovely weather has been great, and I’m lucky enough to have a back garden which has helped immensely. I find regular exercise has helped immeasurably, plus regular walks and bike rides. However, I have missed being on set, working in person with crew and actors, in a studio or on location.

Q> What have been some of the biggest challenges of directing remotely?

Chris> One of the things that has been difficult is that I like being there in person to convey what I am trying to achieve on a project. One of the key skills for any film director is to be able to make everyone else working on your project see what you’re seeing as a finished piece of work, before it’s finished, and continually at different points through production.

Q> What tech have you been using to help you overcome this?

Obviously working and collaborating with all creatives and crew throughout a project, you have to make sure there is synergy between all departments. Plus being there in person on set, it’s far easier to convey to an actor certain subtle nuances you may need to achieve from their performance – getting that across remotely is a challenge, but with ClearView Flex from Sohonet it is made far more achievable. The smoothness and ease of use makes it an ideal production tool for such times when you are unable to attend a grade or shoot in person.

A recent project where I really benefited from ClearView was working with the fantastically talented Senior Colourist Matthieu Toullet from MPC. Under lockdown it was impossible for me to attend the grade in person and Matthieu was working remotely too, however MPC suggested I use the ClearView app through my Apple TV and it was excellent, allowing me to obtain a direct feed from Matthieu straight to my TV!

Q> Are you well set up at home?

Chris> I don’t have anything fancy, an iMac, iPhone, Canon 7D and Apple TV, this works perfectly well for what I need at the moment.

Q> As the structure of production shifts after the lockdown and we see less people physically present for meetings and on set, do you feel that you will be relying on remote tech even more now?

Chris> Yes, almost certainly, I think remote tech will be a very useful tool for us to use going forward. But also a point worth noting, even as we come out of lockdown and hopefully eventually return to some sort of semblance of normal – which I hope happens soon as ultimately I do think it’s still important for us to be physically present with each other when we can be – I do think remote tech can continue to help in different ways. Perhaps taking pressure off of the environment by requiring us to travel a little less, and also perhaps allowing us to efficiently juggle more work at once even from different territories – which could prove extremely useful for freelance directors and creatives unable to be in multiple places at once, particularly after the actual shoot – during post.

Q> What are your best tips for directing remotely? Do you have to approach it in a different way?

Chris> Communication, planning, communication, and more planning. Just make sure you have run through it all with every key player involved beforehand, and plan it meticulously. I always like to create timed-out animatics or pre-vis’ before every one of my shoots to make sure each scene is bang on. Obviously the reality is that things can change even if you map it all out, for example the angle may need to change on the day or you may actually need to combine shots if something isn’t working in the location. However if you’re more prepared I think it actually allows you to have more headspace to think creatively around any unexpected problems that sometimes arise.

I also like to shoot with a stop-watch to make sure each scene is performed to the second, I find this reassuring because I know I have the shot length I need for the edit, even with handles on. That’s not to say you can’t allow actors to ad-lib and try different things and experiment – that’s part of the collaborative fun, but best to do that after you’ve made sure that you’ve got a good take that is the exact length you need with the pre-planned action/performance. Then go nuts with some improv and see what unplanned awesomeness you may or may not get. This all applies even more so when directing remotely.

Q> Your work Lawsuit was shot in lockdown over Google Hangouts, what was that experience like? Was this project originally planned pre-lockdown and adapted or was it created during the pandemic?

Chris> I was actually approached about the project right at the start of lockdown and was unsure initially how we might be able to do it and even if it was at all possible. However, as things developed more and we realised there were ways that we could still shoot it responsibly without putting anyone at unnecessary risk, we got excited about the challenge of doing it at such an unusual time.

In a way it was one of those times where we turned a disadvantage to our advantage, creatively thinking around it to create something unique for this point in time. It was only through further discussions with the DOP and team at Cliqq that we decided it was probably best to dial in over Google Hangouts on this occasion. It worked very well, mainly because everyone was so well prepared.

Q> What are some of the other projects you have been able to work on in lockdown?

Chris> Developing some long format scripts for future feature projects I’m hoping to get going once the industry picks up again. Plus other bits of work, more design based, a big rebrand job for a financial software company. Film stuff seems to be slowly picking up again- I’m hearing whispers, and getting more enquiries again.

Q> Have you had time to pick up any passion projects during lockdown?

Chris> Ha! Not as much as I would’ve liked, but yes I have dipped in and out of a few things I’m trying to get off the ground, a feature Documentary, a comedy short and a scripted feature are just a couple of things I’ve been looking at.