Is Crew In A Box Coming For Your Job?

In our work, we’ve used cameras like Panasonic’s AW-UE150K PTZ (Pan, Tilt, Zoom) for the past couple of years. Have we even used them in place of a live camera operator? In 2021 and forward though, does this even matter? What about a box that replaces the entire video location crew?

The problem has been that since March of 2020, the world has been on lockdown with basically little to no traditional video/TV/film production being done. Sure, there have been some large studio shoots for television and features that have started back up with very expensive workflows for keeping crew and talent safe that involved isolating the entire cast and crew for weeks, sometimes even months, with hundreds and even thousands of Covid tests administered over the course of production. This has proven to be relatively safe and fairly successful, which is why some of my colleagues and friends have been employed the past few months. This process is significantly more expensive, though, especially on union shows and features, so its adoption as a new standard working protocol has been limited to projects with fairly high budgets.  

I don’t generally shoot features and only an occasional TV show though. So, what about all of the small crew people in our business who work on EPK, BTS, corporate and documentary type projects? How has work been going for them? In a nutshell, not great. Last year, I shot zero EPK, one promo piece for Sony Home Entertainment and two corporate pieces, and that’s it. A normal year for me would contain more like 20 to 30 similar projects. In speaking with a lot of my friends and industry colleagues, I heard much of the same from them. Everyone I know in the business did some work last year, but it was overall a year of terrible financial loss for most people in many parts of our business.

Lately, I’ve been receiving offers to write articles about a new production innovation that has come out of the climate of not being able to shoot regular video production during the pandemic. This innovation is called “Crew In A Box.” Have you heard of it yet? Some very enterprising and entrepreneurial individuals took it upon themselves to address a need and solve a problem. These are typically the most popular reasons entrepreneurs and inventors think about when they invent a solution—it’s to solve a problem. 2020 and the Pandemic have definitely presented a bonafide problem for studios, ad agencies, PR firms and corporations who still have a need for video production and video assets as parts of larger marketing, advertising and corporate needs.

Meet the Crew in a Box. This is a high-end, sophisticated remote production solution that was introduced to the market in 2020. It features a Blackmagic Design Pocket 6K camera, teleprompter, Interrotron, microphone and integrated LED lighting system.

Crew in a Box is a product created by Ira Rosensweig, a Clio Award-winning commercial director and owner of LA-based production company Wavemaker Creative, award-winning DP Dallas Sterling and Emmy-nominated VFX artist Jeremy Fernsler. If you haven’t seen it, essentially the product is a self-contained mobile video studio that’s delivered to the talent. The talent places it on a table, chair or stand, opens the product and boots it up. From then forward, a remote crew controls every aspect of the Crew in a Box. Built around Blackmagic Design’s Pocket Cinema Camera 6K to provide high-quality footage, each Crew in a Box comes equipped with the camera, a built-in teleprompter and Interrotron that allows direct communications with talent, a three-foot-wide three panel LED light and professional microphones. The remote crew controls all aspects of the lighting, camera and sound and, based upon some of the sample stills and footage I’ve seen from the product, the end result can be quite good. Although like every product, I’m sure that the best of the best images have been used while many of the average or below average shoots/footage aren’t shown in the promo materials, understandably.

An overhead view of the Blackmagic Design Pocket 6K camera used in the Crew in a Box. The camera is located behind the teleprompter/Interrotron screen.

Just like with a real crew on location, the quality of the end product is more dependent on the skill of the crew members than on the equipment itself, assuming decent gear is being used. The Crew in a Box contains quality products that are remotely controlled by a professional team, so the end results are generally pretty good. What I find intriguing and more than a little disconcerting is that with a product like this, once it becomes affordable, is it going to replace a lot of us in our bread-and-butter jobs like interviews and talking heads/spokesperson video shoots?

Right now, this product isn’t inexpensive to rent/hire and you’re still paying for a crew of professionals (they haven’t published a rate card, but I’ve heard anecdotes of costs and it’s not inexpensive). There is a need and a legitimate market for shooting with talent who doesn’t want to be exposed to others at work or in their home. I’ve run into this in my live streaming work. We have done similar setups to Crew in a Box except we aren’t as high tech. We knock on the door of talent, they greet us and let us in, show us the location (typically in their home, like a home office or living room), then the talent goes to another part of the house or location while we set up a camera, lighting, sound and a laptop hooked to their modem/router. We then leave the location and talent can sit down in front of the camera and mic themselves and we can remote record them or live stream them into our productions for clients. It works well, and it’s low to no contact.

A rear view of the Crew in a Box that shows the integrated Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro switcher that’s remotely controlled by a camera operator and technician, along with FIZ control on the Pocket 6K.

Afterward, though, we have to return to the talent’s location to fetch the gear, which is a bit inconvenient, but it worked for all of 2020 and we’ve even done this a few times in 2021. Crew in a Box is just a slicker, more sophisticated way to accomplish the same thing we’ve been doing to adapt. Now that producers, talent and clients have experienced working this way though, do you think that remote unmanned production could continue on in this way? There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to remote production. As of today, it doesn’t really offer significant cost savings over sending a small live crew of say, a DP, sound mixer and a producer. Using Crew in a Box, you still have to hire the same type of crew and it’s possibly even more expensive than having a live crew.

Crew in a Box was used to shoot this promo with Vanessa Hudgens for MTV.

I think it portends an interesting future though, especially for interviews that have to be conducted remotely because they’re difficult to reach or in dangerous locations. Obviously, Crew in a Box needs internet access for remote monitoring and device control. This obviously limits its practical use to locations that have decent high-speed internet. In the bigger picture, though, especially for interviews, do you think products that are like this—in a couple of generations when they become smaller, lighter and cheaper—could eliminate a significant number of crewed shoots and crew positions? In our live streaming company, we own three PTZ remote robotic cameras. I will say that even though the PTZ cameras have interesting remote capabilities, we rarely use them as the picture doesn’t look as good as our regular cameras, they aren’t as capable in low light, they don’t accept XLR input microphones as our regular live streaming cameras do and the controls, even though they’re functional, are coarse and not very precise or responsive compared to a human camera operator.    

What do you think? Are tools like Crew in a Box going to replace or supplement camera operators? Will remote camera operating become like being a military drone pilot where the position becomes a legitimate, technically accomplished career path that’s mostly done remotely or will most of the work of remote camera operating be put off on production assistants or other entry-level crew? I don’t see these sorts of remote solutions replacing handheld, feature or TV level ops anytime soon, but sit down, static single-camera interviews are a huge market. I’m not sure where we will end up with remote production yet, but it’s obvious that it seems to be coming to a shoot near you soon. It’s up to us to find the opportunity in solutions like this.