Chris Crisman Puts Safety First with Virtual Production Shoots

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The past year has been particularly challenging for creatives whose work involves collaborative production shoots, the logistics of which almost always defy the concept of social distance. Philadelphia-area photographer/director Chris Crisman experienced this dilemma firsthand last March, as the projects he was up for began to fizzle. “We had a bunch of things on the fence right when the rumblings about COVID were starting,” he explains. “I was just hyper, and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do? Given what might be happening, how are we going to work safely?’”

Rather than succumbing to panic over the inevitable lockdown, Crisman vowed to come up with a plan to overcome such roadblocks. He was in his suburban Philadelphia yard, watching news helicopters report on the closure of his kids’ elementary school, when he first mentioned remote access shoot production in a phone call with his digital tech. He elaborates, “We regularly did creative calls for our advertising projects, and for a number of years, I had felt that video calls would work so much better, allowing us to share visuals in real time. We had talked about it, but we could never really get clients on board. This became an opportunity to open that door.”

Photographs © Chris Crisman

Above photograph: Boatman portrait, captured virtually on the Yamuna River, India

Putting the Concept into Practice

Crisman and his team quickly set to work, developing processes to transform traditional shoot production tasks successfully into a virtual, contactless experience. “Everyone bought into the idea, and we just dove in,” he says. “We met every day and team-worked over Zoom. We explored how to improve communications when working remotely and talked about how to make things contactless during a shoot. We asked ourselves if we could eliminate everything we had done in the past while still delivering the same quality of product. Then, we broke off into smaller groups to focus on specific problems. Every department we would normally work with had to change their process, so it was pretty intense,” he adds. “For me, there was also the goal of keeping a lot of people employed or funded. All the while trying to find some PPP and making the shoots finance through.”

In this video from March 2020, Crisman explains how he and his team worked to build solutions for continuing to move forward with projects during an extremely challenging time for photography production.

The area of hair and makeup was particularly tough to adapt to a contactless system. “So, we established the idea that when casting or working with talent, the hair and makeup artist would essentially coach them through doing her job,” Crisman says. “She’d do a couple of sessions with each model prior to the shoot, to show them the process and try to convey our goal. Then she’d create a custom makeup kit for each talent and send it to them.”

While Crisman admits this strategy might not work for couture or high fashion due to the level of detailing required in those genres, it was very effective for his purposes. What’s more, it provided added workdays for hair and makeup artists at a time when they really needed it. “For the first several months of the pandemic, there were a lot of people who didn’t have many opportunities,” Crisman says. “We tried to take the process of a virtual shoot and make it special for everyone involved. Additionally, we tried to get good enough on the back end to make the cadence of the job appear as familiar as possible to the client.”

Three Tiers of Access

Within a matter of weeks, Crisman and his team had produced a promotional video to demonstrate the benefits of virtual shooting, which was posted to his website by mid-March. “The first video was really clean, because we didn't really know how extensive the virus was at the time, and masks weren't the clear and obvious direction yet,” he says. “It was a really good basis but, soon after we released it, I was already feeling like we didn't forecast exactly how we were supposed to behave.”

Environmental portrait of Nancy Poli, pig farmer at Stryker Farms, composited from multiple image elements

By the month’s end, Crisman was once again asking himself how he could shoot with safety being paramount. “We entertained some strange things,” he admits, suggesting, “Did I need to be in a plexiglass box, with an oxygen feed, before the talent comes onto the set? And then we came up with more cameras, and more networking, and more overall production in coordinating all the people involved.”

Crisman’s virtual shoot concept is broken down into three tiers, with Level 1 being entirely contactless, Level 3 involving a more normal level of distanced contact while minimizing unnecessary interactions, and Level 2 adopting some of the procedures from a Level 1 shoot, mixed with safely managing increased contact between crew members and talent. Within any of these scenarios, Crisman views the key to success as thorough preparation and a lot of practice. He says, “There are a number of limitations, and we’ve made changes and adaptations for every shoot we’ve done. Basically, we’re trying to find the merger of what's affordable, safe, and reasonable in getting the expected outcome or success out of each picture.”

In Crisman’s experience prior to COVID, the biggest challenges to complex creative projects were always related to communication. “When planning for a shoot, a lot of decisions tend to get left to chance,” he explains. “You’d just say, ‘We'll figure it out on the shoot,’ which is the equal opposite of ‘We'll work it out in post.’ But in a virtual shoot, pre-production becomes a final decision-making process. As a result, I think that my communication with my team, with clients, and particularly with people I'm photographing, has gotten a lot better,” he attests. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to become a better communicator verbally, and with the use and timing of words, and those kinds of things. That has been a big improvement, and that's really directing. I feel like this whole process has allowed me to practice directing.”

Promoting Efficiencies for the Client

Over the past 12 years, Crisman has developed a specialty in pharmaceutical work, an advertising niche that, by necessity, involves a great deal of scrutiny, so attention to detail is critical. He describes his style as, “a blend of portrait and lifestyle photography rooted in post-heavy tactics. We use CGI or complex retouching in the lead imagery for a lot of campaigns,” he notes, “but you still need other supporting images, so it's a good mix.”

Crisman’s Paper Airplanes image is a composite of images shot on location and a studio portrait with CGI elements.

The amount of restraint required during such shoots is often hard for outsiders to fathom. “A client or a brand could spend an endless amount of money on a project and have it killed by the FDA for overselling, or misrepresenting the limitations,” Crisman says. “We’re constantly thinking about how and where to be risk averse. Like, can we show someone walking, versus jogging, versus running, versus biking?”

In the midst of a campaign, he and his team have often been faced with submitting images for review on quick turnaround, only to be informed at the last minute about an element that can’t be used. “Then you have to scramble to find a new frame or composite pieces back together to make something work,” he explains. “In that process, we try to get ahead of problems, showing that we can be resourceful, but sometimes it's just a matter of nimbleness based on experience.”

Virtual shoot production is particularly well matched to such advertising projects, where everything hinges on multiple levels of approval and sign-off. As Crisman explains, “Because virtual shooting was such a cool new thing, we had all the players in the Zoom during a few of our shoots—the brand team, multiple extra people from the agencies, even the legal review, the doctors, the lawyers—everyone. The people who needed to say yes or no were there during the shoot, giving us real feedback. That gave us a sense of how efficient things could be for the entire process.”

Virtual Shooting via Zoom

Crisman points out that although remote shoot production allows for certain efficiencies in communicating with clients, a contactless shoot means more responsibility on the part of his team. “Besides added duties for our normal digital tech, we also have a virtual shoot coordinator, who is essentially like a producer in a broadcast booth. They make sure all the cameras and microphones function properly. Then, there are two producers on our end in the Zoom meeting—one is more attentive to the virtual studio room, and the other is more focused on the client room.”

In a video from April 2020, Crisman explains the benefits of contactless production shooting, allowing for only one individual to be in the studio at a time.

On set, a single assistant sets up the camera, grip, and lighting gear in the studio and exits prior to the arrival of talent. Crisman generally works from a remote computer on location, but in a separate room. “There’s a lot of networking involved in a virtual shoot,” he points out. “Essentially, we built separate stations for the talent, including a holding room, a prep room, an area for wardrobe, and a makeup room set up at the mirror, with Livestream PTZ cameras set up at every station for remote viewing of the whole.”

In the virtual studio, Crisman is able to devote his full attention to directing the talent in consultation with the art director. With his Sony a7R IV tethered to an Apple Mac Pro desktop, he can fully control all camera settings and work the shutter remotely using Capture One. He says, “My first assistant is also in the Zoom studio, in case something should go wrong. When it's time to look at some pictures, I call out the frames that work, which are sent in real time from our tech to our retoucher. So we shoot, review the images, and then we get moved back to the client room to discuss what we’ve shot and get feedback. By then, our retoucher has some comps ready, and we show pictures as we go.”

PTZ camera and studio setup for contactless shooting

While he’s never found communication with talent to be an issue in the studio, Crisman decided to put an external mic above the set to ensure that he can hear what’s being said from his remote location. Even more important when it comes to remote connectivity is getting advance confirmation that all participants in the virtual shoot can use Zoom, the platform his team has used almost exclusively for remote shoot production. Crisman tells of a hiccup that occurred leading up to one of his biggest shoots, when a client mentioned that they were not allowed to use Zoom just 72 hours before the shoot. “We had another service as a backup, but we needed to build custom specs for how things would happen, and it just didn't feel right,” he says. “I think we ended up using Microsoft Teams, and at the time, the breakout rooms in Teams weren't as flexible. With Zoom, I would normally get ported back over to the client room after shooting virtually in the studio, but we couldn't do that. So I literally had to switch computers and my whole setup to move back and forth between the shoot and the client.”

Channeling LIDAR

Crisman’s favorite aspect of virtual shoots is what he refers to as, “Directing in 3D. Imagine a scene with someone at a café with tables, and a barista behind the bar,” he explains. “You need to do a lot of measurements to place people virtually in those types of spaces. In order to have the models set in the right location, with normal depth of field, I need to know the associated heights of the figures and the free space around them, as well as what lensing I'll need. And, when you have multiple people in the frame, or if the two models are having an interaction, you have to triangulate spacing, and calculate the eyelines as accurately as possible, essentially marking them in the space. We may pre-shoot using a stand-in, such as the head of a modeling figure based on the height of the support talent.”

Behind the scenes of a virtual shoot, showing marks for talent blocking and movement

His experience in conceptualizing scenes that merge photographic elements through advanced post-production has been an asset in directing talent during virtual shoots. “I’ve found that I can virtually translate the amount of movement I need a subject to make so that it’s clearly understood. For example, asking them to move over three inches or back six inches to line up with where the head is positioned against the other composited elements.”

This extent of measurement and mapping of space has much in common with a remote sensing method known as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, which is Crisman’s ultimate technological dream. “In a perfect world, we'd have a studio that would allow us to create a 360-degree depth map for every shot and every space,” he says enthusiastically. “Ultimately, I think there are ways to mirror whatever camera we need to use. Maybe it's building software in the actual camera or using an app to measure the space in a way that incorporates any physical barriers, to really have the measurements and eyelines work.”

Virtual Shooting with a Global Scope

In addition to his commissioned work, Crisman shoots personal projects that incorporate the same high production values and heavy dependence on complex compositing and retouching. In his most recent series, he relies on virtual production shoots to create heroic portraits in far-flung locales such as Dubai, Korea, Portugal, and India.

The beauty of virtual shooting is that Crisman and his team can seamlessly marry elements shot in-studio with backgrounds shot on location anywhere in the world, such as in this composite portrait captured virtually on Jeju Island, South Korea and in a Philadelphia photo studio.

To facilitate the image making, Crisman works with a local contact to scout locations and set up a tethered camera under his direction. “Normally, I’d like the same camera to be used for all of my pictures since they all have slightly different specs, and pixel depths, and unique aspects like that,” he says. “But, at this stage I’m comfortable using the best camera we can get wherever we're shooting.”

As in his client work, Crisman uses Zoom for remote communication with on-site contacts. He says, “Even in all the international locations where we’ve worked, we've relied on a cell phone signal to connect into Zoom, with multiple people in multiple places. We’ve had very few issues, but if we wanted to put more budget to this, we could easily get equipment that would facilitate stronger, guaranteed connections.”

This latest video describes how Crisman and his team accomplish virtual production shoots in the studio and in remarkable locations all over the world.

Looking ahead, Crisman is planning to continue working with virtual shoot production, both for client projects and in his personal work. “I could see us doing a personal project in India with virtual shoots,” he says. “Alternatively, since it's 2021, I was thinking perhaps we can do virtual shoots in 21 different countries this year. We're already at six.”

Virtual Production in the Wider World

Although Crisman developed the concept of virtual shoot production to minimize risk in continuing to work during COVID, he views this method of remote access production as having both wider application and continued relevance. At its most basic level, he draws a comparison to using a cellphone for visual note taking.

Composite portrait with elements captured virtually in Delhi, India, and in a Philadelphia photo studio

He elaborates, “I feel like this method of working can also be useful in a lot of industrial applications, like for people who need to drive to three different locations in one day to evaluate a work site. If you've got a skilled team, you could easily manage 20 to 50 percent more projects by staying in one place or dedicating yourself to one location a day. Being able to direct someone about what you need to see, or experience, or observe is hard, and it can be clunky, but if you put some focus to it, it becomes very workable within a matter of days. So much of this skill is in using your senses to evaluate a scenario, and the seeing sense is pretty huge.”

What are your thoughts on virtual shoot production? Offer your opinion in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

Awesome work to the team, resilience and perseverance.

Hi Kevin, thanks the compliment on Chris's work with remote production shoots. He and his team are most grateful for your comment, and we are too ... many thanks writing in, as well as for reading the Explora blog!

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