Creative Thinking


Video production when you can’t be there in person

by Roy Cohn


We often see them on cable news— experts who join from their home office and appear as fuzzy apparitions with audio distorted beyond comprehension. Welcome to remote video in the time of Covid-19, when quality is at the mercy of balky internet connections, low-resolution webcams and tinny built-in microphones.

While videoconference platforms like Zoom, Skype and Webex may be perfectly adequate for a team meeting or a webinar, they can’t equal the broadcast quality video and audio that most viewers have come to expect. But how can you maintain high production values if it’s not possible to film your subject on location with a professional camera crew?

Recently one of our clients asked us to film a series of interviews with subject matter experts in the U.S. and abroad. Before the pandemic, we would have traveled with a camera crew and conducted each interview in person. But with Covid-19, travel is still problematic and many corporate offices remain closed.

Fortunately there was a way to achieve high-quality video and audio recordings with a commonplace device our experts already had—their own smartphones. Most of the recent iPhone models offer front and back cameras capable of recording high-resolution 4K video. The challenge was rigging the phone to remotely capture the footage and directing the recording as we would with an onsite crew.

The solution was an app called OpenReel. Once downloaded to the subject’s phone, OpenReel allowed our production team to open a recording session and capture high-resolution footage and clean audio locally on the subject’s phone. The app also let us monitor the recording in real time and adjust the focus and exposure of the phone’s camera as needed. After the session, the files were automatically uploaded to the cloud, and our editors could start working with them.

To facilitate the recordings, we shipped an inexpensive selfie-cam tripod and lavalier microphone to each participant. The additional $75 was well worth it, as the external microphone (plus a Lightning to 3.5 audio adapter) allowed us to record high-quality audio directly into their device.

Since the start of the pandemic, OpenReel is one of several good remote production apps that we’ve used. We’ve also worked with Zencastr and SquadCast, two podcasting apps that recently added video capture. Using a laptop’s built-in webcam, these apps can record HD video up to 1080p. We’ve also tested remote recording apps like and Cinebody, both of which offer high-quality recording. The tools all differ in their features, with price ranging anywhere from $20 per month to $12,000 for an annual license.

But a successful remote production isn’t as simple as downloading an app and plugging in a microphone. Without an onsite crew, the interview subject must play the role of cameraman, lighting director and sound recordist—and at the same time deliver a thoughtful interview. This is when a seasoned, virtual producer is needed to help orchestrate the right combination of location, lighting and camera angle—as well as provide direction on content and performance.

As with traditional on-site shoots, we’ve found that successful remote productions require a “location scout” prior to recording. This is a brief virtual meeting in which we review the interview subject’s recording environment and test their equipment. In some instances, where lighting is an issue, we’ve needed to send the subject a small lighting kit. On other occasions, we’ve found that some of the recording apps are blocked by corporate firewalls. We’ve developed workarounds for these situations but they take effort and planning to implement.

It’s important to note that remote recording won’t be right for every job. Dramatic videos with actors, multi-camera interviews, and shoots that require extensive b-roll will all still need video professionals on site. But for simple one-person shoots, remote productions with smartphones and webcams are here to stay. In the time of Covid, it’s the next best thing to being there.

Looking to make your message more memorable?

Sign up for “Creative Thinking”