Pandemic productions: Making do with smartphones and remote direction

Elvin Ng (top left) and Shane Pow (right) filmed in their own homes for 14 Days, a meWatch short drama. PHOTO: MEDIACORP

SINGAPORE - Forget professional equipment and big-budget sets - in a time of Covid-19, the television production industry is turning to everyday gadgets like smartphones, tablets and laptops to film original content.

That was by no means an easy task for local actor Elvin Ng, who repeatedly emphasises in a phone interview with The Straits Times that he is not "tech-savvy".

The 39-year-old star is one of the leads in short drama 14 Days - one of three produced by Mediacorp for its on-demand streaming platform meWatch. It was shot remotely, with actors performing and filming themselves in their own homes. The three dramas - including Bittersweet Love and Who Did It? - premiered on the streaming platform last Friday (June 26).

Though Mediacorp sent Ng better camera equipment like GoPros for the project, he panicked upon seeing the equipment.

He says: "I'm the kind of person who even on Zoom, I'm wondering like 'How do I unmute myself?'"

The crew eventually ditched the more professional set-ups, trading them in for iPhones, iPads, laptops and directing over video conferencing tool Zoom. Ng also had to stage and light his own scenes, set up cameras and do his own hair and make-up. The project was shot in three days.

Recalling the experience, Ng, who is under quarantine with co-star Shane Pow in the story, says: "We had to find places and angles in our own homes which looked similar. Luckily we have the same taste and we even have bedsheets in the same grey colour."

Local celebrity mother-and-daughter pair Lin Meijiao and Chantalle Ng fared better. They are in short drama Bittersweet Love and filmed their portions with more professional camera equipment delivered to them by Mediacorp.

Lin, 56, who professes to be hopeless with technology, left all the camera set-ups to her 25-year-old daughter while she focused on props and dressing the set - which was their own home.

Chantalle Ng (left) and her mother Lin Meijiao (right) filmed Bittersweet Love in their own home. PHOTO: MEDIACORP

Ng says the experience was very tiring for them both.

"It's emotional labour to act and then you have to physically move around too - preparing props, moving furniture around the house, decorating the 'set' and over Zoom, the staff will tell us to move certain items around too. So there's no rest," she says.

Executive producer of mystery short drama Who Did It? Winnie Wong had the largest cast - six members, including the leads Bryan Wong and Desmond Tan.

The veteran producer, who has had 35 years of experience in TV, says of the fresh challenge: "Because all on-set activities were suspended and everyone had to work from home, our colleagues thought up new ways of making a drama and this was a good way of experimenting."

There is also a silver lining for viewers.

Says Ms Wong: "In normal times, Kym Ng and Bryan Wong are very hard to put together because of their busy schedules - and on top of that there's also Rebecca Lim and Desmond Tan - this is very hard to assemble in one drama."

Local production company Refinery Media's chief executive officer Karen Seah had to try something new as well.

Refinery Media, which has produced reality series, like the fifth and sixth season of Asia's Next Top Model (2012 to 2018), had to try and cut costs in light of the pandemic's economic impact.

"Our industry is very reliant on sponsors and advertisers and now budgets have shrunk so we looked for a format that would reduce budgets - by using everyday mobile devices instead of expensive professional cameras," says Ms Seah, 48.

Her company developed Stuck With You, a local reality series filmed at Ascott property Lyf Funan Singapore. The concept was to put six young extroverts, who are strangers, under one roof for a week and rank how easy they are to live with.

Cast members of Stuck With You - a reality series filmed using everyday gadgets like iPhones. PHOTO: REFINERY MEDIA AND EYE CREATIVE GROUP

The cast and crew started filming in phase one after the circuit breaker. According to an advisory by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), during phase one, no more than 30 people were allowed in one locale for a production and no more than 15 people were allowed on one set.

Ms Seah says: "We have only about 15 people in the production team at any one time. And on the set, we only have the cast and one or at most two cameramen."

The show comprises footage from cameras placed around the apartment, videos taken by the cast and what is shot by cameramen.

The production used 14 iPhones, four iPads and three laptops during filming - with editing mainly done live over software that allows for real-time switching among cameras.

Ms Seah says the show, now available in full on the company's site, was actually meant to be live-streamed but transmission was not stable enough. The show garnered 30,000 to 200,000 views on social media platforms and its own dedicated viewing site.

She says: "To ensure that we can continue to make content, we need to do things at a more local level and you have to manage your expectations and be contented with a five-digit budget, for example."

Bittersweet Love, 14 Days and Who Did It? are available on meWatch.

Stuck With You is available here.

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