SAINT JOHN — When Covid-19 first took hold in New Brunswick in March last year, Greg Hemmings wasn’t sure the film production company he spent over a decade building would survive.
The global pandemic shook up the entire industry, from the world’s biggest production companies and movie theatre chains to smaller, independent shops like Saint John-based Hemmings House.
“At the beginning of Covid, we didn’t know if we were going to exist in a few months, just because we had no idea how this was going to turn out,” says Hemmings. “But we very quickly shifted gears into creating a remote production process.”
Early in the pandemic, Hemmings House was working with Moncton-based Hawk to film a commercial for Royale featuring Canadian tennis legend Bianca Andreescu. Which was great, except for the fact it was being filmed out of Toronto. With the new inter-provincial travel restrictions and physical distancing guidelines, that wasn’t going to work.
“Usually when we do TV ads with celebrities, there are so many people on set,” says Hemmings. “You have handlers, you have the agency, you have the client, you have the production company. There can be 50 or 60 people on the set depending on the scope.”
So in order to film the commercial, Hemmings House turned to the technology offered by Prince Edward Island-based company called Onset. The technology gives companies like Hemmings House remote access to everything happening on a set, including what the camera is seeing.
“We were able to shoot a high-value TV commercial. The agency was in one city, the client in another and the production company in another,” says Hemmings. “All we had on set was a director in Toronto, camera, sound, a very minimal crew of freelancers we hired in-market. We used this technology to bring this all together.”
Onset’s technology helped the shoot happen without a hitch, and also provided some unexpected benefits.
“It works like a charm. It saved money because of travel and our carbon output as well. It was so crazy efficient,” says Hemmings. “We never would be allowed to do that in the previous world.”
Hemmings House brought this approach to its next big project, a film with the Net Gains Alliance, which a collective of NGOs and associations who are committed to ocean sustainability. The film aimed to encourage more people in the fishing industry to start capturing and sharing data.
Using the Onset technology Hemmings House has filmed in Seatle, San Francisco, Texas and Maine over the last few months. The company hires local crews on the ground the do the work while overseeing filming from Saint John.
“There’s nothing new in that, but most people would choose not to do that. They would just choose to fly and go capture themselves. That’s what we typically do. That’s why you see Hemmings House travelling globally often for our productions. We usually send ourselves out to get the story,” says Hemmings.
“But this is a complete pivot in the way we approached storytelling. It allows us to find production talent all over North America we otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to work with. It’s upping our production quality.”
With the pandemic bringing more acceptance to remote filmmaking and with technology that enables it to be done just as well, Hemmings hopes its model they can continue to use once the pandemic is over.
“If the market can see Hemmings House as the company that will be accountable to telling their story and honouring the elements of the story that are necessary, and to trust us in finding the right production style and the right production crew to produce something, then I feel like we really won,” he says.
“Because if it’s all expected to be produced in-house, everything is going to look the same. But there’s burn-out and there are capacity issues. So this has really forced us to get the position where we can do a whole lot more now that we’ve been encouraged to broaden our network of professionals.”
Besides successfully directing two remote projects, Hemmings House was also involved in a production at home last summer. The company was the co-producer with Toronto-based Marble Media for the upcoming CBC reality show, Race Against the Tide.
“We were one of maybe only two large budget TV Shows being shot in all of Canada this summer when we did Race Against the Tide. This is us pivoting with Covid and figuring out how to be the safest production company to work with. Bringing people into [New Brunswick] safely, get them to quarantine for two weeks,” says Hemmings. “We had Canada’s top reality TV production producers and crew come live in Saint John.”
As the new year begins, Hemmings says he feels hopeful and optimistic about the business. His goal is to push more of the company’s original content into the U.S. market. This means creating films that are funded by investors and organizations that see the power of film to make change.
“I’m really excited to really push more of our original content side of the business. Hemmings House is known for commercial work, brand content and brand-storytelling,” he says.
“Which is awesome, but we’ve also been making documentaries, TV shows and short films that are funded by people that really care about the subject matter. That’s the side of the business that I’m really excited about for 2021 as the regular business continues to grow and thrive.”
Read Cherise Letson’s full feature story HERE.