How Sandwich Makes High-Quality Commercials with Totally Remote Shoots
The team at Sandwich has figured a lot of stuff out.
By "stuff" I mean commercial video shoots in the time of coronavirus. They've found innovative ways to continue working despite COVID-19, while maintaining a standard of quality and creativity and also keeping their staff as safe as possible.
You might know Sandwich. Founded in 2010, the advertising company has become well known for working with apps and start-ups that are now pretty much ubiquitous. Some of those brands include Slack, Square, Airbnb, Warby Parker, and Lyft. Their content tends to be colorful, charming, and fun as well as informative.
Of course, they've been affected by the pandemic, just like everyone else. But they're still producing and shooting high-quality spots, including one for Slack that they made right after they closed their offices. The big question?
How did they do it?
To learn more about their process, we spoke with Sandwich founder Adam Lisagor (who has also worked as a VFX coordinator), EP and post-production head Zach Hobesh, and director of photography Lowell A. Meyer. Check out the Slack spot below, then dig into how they pulled it off.
The inspiration for a work-from-home shoot
It seemed to hit the team just as COVID-19 spread through the United States. How were they going to keep working?
"There was this conversation, that was like, 'Wait a second, what does this mean for us if we can't actually shoot?'" Lisagor said. "That's weird. Because it had never crossed our mind even in the initial news cycle of coronavirus. And then when we had to close the office, it became real."
The day before they closed, however, Lisagor realized they would be relying heavily on Slack to communicate and keep working. He wondered if the company might want a follow-up to their original Slack spot, which went viral in 2014. The new spot got the green light.
"By the time we were ready to start writing and thinking about shooting, it wasn't a matter of, 'How do we do this with a small crew?'" Lisagor said. "It was, 'How do we do this with no crew?'"
"It wasn't a matter of, 'How do we do this with a small crew?' It was, 'How do we do this with no crew?'"
Lowell was tasked with creating a small production kit and educational videos explaining the kit, while Hobesh had to figure out how to make elements of real-time collaboration (like streaming) work remotely.
"And then it was like a fun science project, to be honest," Lisagor said. "From there on, we were inventing. With a time constraint and also this feeling, always kind of with one eye over the shoulder thinking, 'Someone's going to do this. Someone else is working on this very same thing.'"
That was true, but other agencies were relying more heavily on iPhone shooting or other micro-production set-ups, while the Sandwich team used high-quality gear including LED lighting kits, C-stands, portable Zoom audio recorders, and boom mics. They shot on Blackmagic 6K cameras and were able to stream the footage to YouTube for a kind of remote video village. Each kit was sanitized and delivered to an employee, who was responsible for learning the gear and filming themselves at home.
Lowell said they also wanted to maintain high production standards and the level of craft the team was accustomed to.
"The main thing I think, from a production standpoint, that we wanted to still hold onto despite the really uncertain times, was that this should still feel like a commercial," Lowell said.
The team felt the pressure to make the spot look, sound, and feel good enough to prove to their other clients that they could continue to work under extremely unique circumstances. And, if you even glimpsed the video above, you can see they succeeded in creating a slick, fun proof-of-concept for this style of shooting.
Lisagor said they've replicated this process on four different shoots already.
What was different (and the same) about these shoots
From a production standpoint, the team said they approached things the way they normally would, just remotely. They scouted locations within each employee's apartment. They collaborated on the script. They used, as mentioned, high-quality gear kits.
"All the limitations that we had to overcome were latency things that were the nature of working remotely, over the internet, and being at the mercy of the last link of the chain, which is somebody's internet quality," Lisagor said.
Lowell, as director of photography, had to be willing to share his wealth of knowledge and de-mystify the cinematography process in order to teach coworkers how to light and shoot their own scenes.
"It felt almost more collaborative than a normal shoot."
"What it turned out to be was like doing my job, but doing it with my hands tied behind my back," he said. "And doing it strictly with my ability to communicate something as best as I can, either the day before the shoot, or while we're actually on set. I think as much prep as I could have done to instill the knowledge and the confidence in the cast was by far the most helpful thing. And just having a cast and crew that was willing to do the work."
Lowell shot about 70 minutes of instructional video to introduce the gear and give the crew an at-home boot camp in setting up and using the kits. (Very No Film School of them!) Although the whole team is involved in making videos every day, Hobesh pointed out, a few of them had never shot anything before, and getting involved in the process made it more of a team effort than usual.
"Even though we were working remotely, it felt almost more collaborative than a normal shoot," Hobesh said. "I think literally everyone who worked with the equipment on 'Slack' is somebody who normally sits at a desk and is either working in accounts or working in post. None of us actually handle equipment on a day-to-day basis."
The shoot took five days, start to finish, shooting two members per day.
How their process has evolved
With this style of shoot working well for them, the Sandwich team has been able to make a few improvements and continue their experimentation.
They've added some new gear. Lisagor said they're now using a Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro switcher, which has built-in tools for working with multiple cameras while streaming.
Lowell said the switcher is also helping the crew take away responsibility from the cast. They can control the camera remotely (for instance, setting exposure and white balance).
"I've really tried to make an effort to say, 'We can teach the cast, we know we can do this,'" Lowell said. "But it will be even better if we can keep taking things back so that they have that much less to worry about."
They have also added a single on-location crew member to put the gear together outside the set so that the cast member only has to move it inside their home, or wherever they're shooting.
"Having one crew member on hand," Lisagor said, "as opposed to the 30 or 40 that we would have traditionally—that one extra person that's just dedicated to that one responsibility, who's an expert, is going to make a huge amount of difference for efficiency."
To get a real-time monitor, they're now feeding footage from the camera directly to Zoom for lower latency, rather than streaming it through YouTube.
"I think the breakthrough in latency was treating the camera as a webcam," said Hobesh. "There's multiple ways to make that happen, obviously. But if you can feed your main camera into Zoom as a webcam, suddenly it's a whole lot easier because you can just stay in Zoom for the whole shoot."
Could indie crews pull this off too?
Many of the steps involved in shooting this way are going to look a lot like what you would do for a normal shoot. The development, writing, and post-production process will be pretty much the same. The rest just requires experimentation and a willingness to be involved.
"I think that the biggest distinction is [to] reset your expectations about what's needed to produce something," Lisagor said. "And that's incredibly freeing. It was incredibly freeing for me to realize what we could do, just us, with a very small production package. And I would say avail yourself to that opportunity. The mind reels at what you can suddenly produce by yourself or with a few people."
Hobesh acknowledged that while most on the Sandwich team are pros, some of the cast featured in the Slack spot had never even picked up a camera, so it's very possible to get started at this level and during this strange, quarantine era. He also pointed out the value of working with people he knew well.
"I think another really big benefit that we had was that we were a company that has worked together for years," Hobesh said. "Even if it's a different process, we still know the kind of video that we want to make."
"I think that the biggest distinction is reset your expectations about what's needed to produce something."
Like on a real set, you want to get started on the basic work as soon as possible. Blocking is going to be really important, as well as figuring out what natural light you might be working with. Lowell said that you should do as much prep as you can ahead of time, whether that's on your own or with a team, like doing the educational videos they made for their crew.
"Shorten the feedback loop as much as possible," Lisagor added. "And that can literally mean latency. It could mean, 'Oh, gosh, you're not going to be able to have a very good time giving feedback if there's a five-second delay in the stream.' But also just the communication style. To be responsive and adapt to the constraints of the setting."
Lowell also suggested approaching the shoot as if you're working on a scaled-down documentary crew, rather than a 40-crew commercial.
"We didn't bring in a ton of gear," Lowell said. "We just brought in one camera on a tripod, one sound kit, and one or two lights. And I think that made it very feasible, because we weren't trying to set up dollies and big lighting set-ups. I think we ended up approaching it like how a two-person doc crew would work. I think that made it much easier for everybody to handle. Especially with this being the first and only shot at it we had."
They pointed out that the gear they used on the Slack shoot is relatively affordable and widely accessible, making for a level playing field where indie crews can attempt the same style of shoot.
"Having a camera that shoots RAW is a very specific technical thing that you could emulate," Hobesh said. "And already you're setting yourself up for success because you're going to be able to change the white balance when you get it at the end."
Hobesh also said the restrictions can allow for more creativity. For instance, on a normal shoot, they wouldn't use five locations. But for the Slack commercial, they did, and it worked smoothly.
"For a short film, maybe removing yourself from the whole, 'We can't have a big dolly, and this and that,'" Hobesh said. "There's other creative opportunity if everybody has to stay apart and you can only shoot one location every day. Suddenly, maybe there's more time, or maybe you can get more locations."
"That's right, there's trade-offs," Lisagor agreed. "And analog opportunity in a smaller footprint."
Lowell emphasized the greater importance of what the Sandwich team managed to do—shooting something uniquely in order to keep their cast and crew safe.
"We're also doing this because we care about people's safety, and livelihoods and lives," Lowell said. "I know we're all forced into this. If it isn't clear in the [making-of] video, we did take a lot of measures to sanitize all the gear and make sure, as it traveled from set to set, there was one person handling it. It was always disinfected. If anybody were to recreate this, they should also be doing this in the hopes of keeping people safe, not having to all congregate, and doing their due diligence to make it a safe practice."
Sandwich has added COVID-19 testing to their production process.
If you haven't already, be sure to check out Sandwich's extensive portfolio! Let us know in the comments if you try any of their methods or might integrate some of their tips into your next shoot.