Anirban Roy Choudhury

The anatomy of shooting an ad film… at home

As advertisers make do with available resources, a new crop of ‘home-made’ ads is ready for harvest, one that, in coming years, will remind us of our time indoors.

Lights, camera, action! Ranveer Singh has a smartphone, with the MakeMyTrip logo displayed on its screen. The camera is closing in. The background lights illuminate the poster boy of Bollywood. As the camera moves closer, a man (focus puller, to be precise) is seen adjusting the focus. Meanwhile, a second camera attached to the jib is dropping down, too. The director of photography (DOP) is checking the white balance on his monitor, while the director is overseeing all this. There are people to hold reflectors, and dismantle and set up units. There are makeup artistes, too, ready to wipe away any tinge of sweat on Singh's forehead. They’re all tired, yet standing still. There’s pin-drop silence. Someone’s holding the boom rod with the mic to record the dialogues. "And cut it, we have got the shot."

What you see during commercial breaks on television, or as interruptions while watching videos on streaming platforms, takes a lot of effort to shoot. The MakeMyTrip ad featuring Singh had 60-plus people on the set at any given point in time. Production value is the new ‘ad-renaline’ rush. Well, that’s nothing new.

What's new now is the DOP 'video-calling' the model and taking a virtual tour of her/his home. Using different apps, the DOP gets a sense of the lighting and suggests where the model can set the camera, and its angle. The model then does her/his own makeup and poses in front of the smartphone camera, which is on video-calling mode. The DOP, from his home, shoots the model’s mobile screen with his DLSR camera. The portfolio then goes to the agency. Welcome to making ads from home during the ongoing nationwide lockdown.

Left: A normal shoot. Right: Work from home photoshoot
Left: A normal shoot. Right: Work from home photoshoot

It is that time of the year when the Indian Premier League (IPL), dubbed as the Super Bowl of India, hits screens. About 10-12 sponsors save product launches for this period, as the 10-second slot, worth Rs 7 lakh, tends to garner a huge number of eyeballs. The IPL could not kick off this year, as the country, like many parts of the world, has come to a standstill due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. However, products are still being launched. It’s the holy month of Ramadan. Brands are telling their stories of help and gratitude, creative agencies are cracking briefs sitting at home, and production houses are executing plans while dealing with movement-related restrictions.

Rohit Raj
Rohit Raj

“It's doable,” says Rohit Raj, co-founder and chief creative officer of The Glitch, a creative agency which has now been acquired by GroupM. “The technology is there, it always existed, but because we have an abundance of people in India, we never tried it. We are used to having five people assisting the DOP and four assistant directors on the set... you won’t believe it, but there is one person just to check that the continuity is maintained,” he says.

Brands are mostly using archive stock footage. A common format is using a series of still, ‘file photos’, with music in the background. Another format involves short clips of pre-existing brand videos used as a montage of sorts. And the most commonly seen format is the classic, post-COVID-19 ‘home-made’ ad film. It is shot indoors by the actors themselves, using mobile phones and all available sources of light, natural (sunlight) and artificial (i.e., the light the blank screen of a TV set throws can be used to illuminate the subject). This is the kind we’re most interested in.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spotted hot-at-home ads by several brands, including Dettol, Surf Excel, Honda, DishTV, to name a few. We’re sure that dozens more are being created as you read this.

“Take Prasoon Pandey’s (founder of production house Corcoise Films) ad involving film stars, for example. It is a very well-made film and he has played it smart by using black and white, which reduced the stress on colour correction,” says Raj, referring to the video titled ‘Family’ that went viral a few days ago. It is a public awareness campaign supported by brands like Sony TV and Kalyan Jewellers.

Meanwhile, automobile advertisers and their agencies are experimenting, too. Ogilvy made an ad for Honda UAE brand Civic, using miniature cars. The film was promoted like this: “This is the first car commercial to be written, directed, edited and watched entirely from home.”

“We have used miniatures before, too. Though they have shot the ad very smartly without making it complex, you can tell that they are actually using a miniature. You just can’t get down to detailing if you are not using enough lights and an actual vehicle,” says Shivaji Sen, a DOP who has worked on a wide range of ads for Amazon Prime, among other brands.

“Anyway, the time is not ideal for in your face product advertising, and brands and agencies are aware of this. They’re smart enough to understand this,” says filmmaker Vasan Bala, who has directed ads for brands like Surf Excel. He adds, “I don't think anything but the story and message is priority to them (brands).”

Vasan Bala
Vasan Bala

Meanwhile, the ad, after it’s filmed, goes to the voice-over (VO) artiste. Normally, the artiste would go to a soundproof studio and read the lines in front of a highly sophisticated microphone. Typically, the audio is recorded in the system and the sound engineer uses heavy software to process it. Cut to the current scenario: Unless the studio is a few steps away, there’s just no way the artiste or the engineer can go there.

So, here’s how it works today: “Agencies send us the film over e-mail. We watch it and then record the VO on our phones and send it to them. Once they give us the final go ahead, we record the final VO and send it to the sound engineer, who then processes/edits it at home. The internet is a big enabler during this tough time,” says Arshad Iqbaal, a renowned VO artiste who has worked on ads for Havells and DishTV during lockdown. This is a far cry from his usual way of working: “I would normally never send voice notes over the phone, even for approval. It just kills the art…” But this is the new normal, concedes Iqbaal.

While the restriction on shooting outdoors is a big inconvenience, Bala believes it will fuel innovation. “See, it’s a level playing field now, as all have to do it indoors. It would take as much planning as a normal shoot. And as brands are aware of the lockdown, the production values would be high on innovation and not on budget,” he says.

Some experts believe that even post lockdown, when one can again shoot outdoors, the ad industry will have to depend on innovation with limited resources, at least for the foreseeable future. “We are not going to Cape Town (South Africa) that frequently anymore,” smiles Raj, “It’s time for us to get used to green screen (Chroma) shooting and filming with smaller units. See, this has taught a lesson. We’ll now ask ourselves - do we really need it?”

Since most ads are being watched on phones today, some questions may come up: What is the actual video quality needed? How many people are actually needed in the filming process? How many lights must be absolutely used? Even the cues of hierarchy will change. Previously, the more lights a DOP used, the more accomplished he or she was deemed. This is expected to change. After all, a good photograph taken with an iPhone (camera) can actually be magnified to fit a hoarding.

But, each time a model does her own makeup, the makeup artiste loses his/her wage. Each time an ad is filmed at someone’s home, the studio loses money, and the same goes for professional photographers and their assistants.

“You will never get ‘that’ quality if you are shooting from home,” says Sen, missing the pre-COVID-19 era. “These ads have a very do-it-yourself style about them and are ‘indie’ in spirit,” Bala adds.

But, it’s the best we can do with the resources we’ve got.

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