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For Vietnam's Filmmakers, the Pandemic Brings Business, Impetus to Adapt

Six months have passed since COVID-19 first reared its head, and still its impact reverberates chaotically across the planet.

In this time, we have seen economies shaken, workplaces vacated, and labor as we know it thrown into flux. Adaptation has been a matter of survival, and where some industries have flourished, others have floundered. In Vietnam, on the other hand, it now almost feels strange to talk about the pandemic in a current sense; as the nation’s successful COVID-19 prevention campaign has so far paved the way for a triumphant cacophony of clattering plastic chairs, karaoke classics and một, hai, ba dzô’s.

In the world of film and advertising, the dramatic shift in audience behavior has seen the demand for online content skyrocket, while the need for commercial content has remained as high as ever. Yet, with a mostly incapacitated global workforce, the rate of production has slowed, or even stopped completely, in various places overseas, driving a frenzied search for alternative ways of filmmaking. This has put Vietnam in a unique and advantageous position, as one of the only places on earth that can currently allow a production crew to work relatively safely without the strict moral, legal or social limitations imposed to curb coronavirus spread as seen elsewhere.

“The local production industry seems not to have been affected much [by the pandemic],” says Chi Minh de Leo, executive producer and co-founder of Clubhouse Films. ”I hear that everyone is quite busy, as we only had a little break compared to the rest of the world.”

A Qtake operator manages the software on set.

Like numerous production houses internationally, Clubhouse was forced to surrender to social distancing measures earlier this year, leaving Chi Minh and his business partner, Phan Quoc Viet Huy, with plenty of time to problem-solve. Yet, just a few months on, they are able to capitalize on the freedom that the government’s decisive action has ushered in. A new kind of freedom that feels exactly like it used to, but without the possibility of sharing it with anyone outside of the border.

“All the projects that haven’t been shot are being shot now and we are getting more briefs everyday.” Chi Minh explains. “What’s new is all the foreign jobs from clients and agencies that can’t produce in their home countries.”

With so much at stake and all to play for, Clubhouse has taken the plunge and invested in remote shooting technology; namely Qtake, software that allows non-physical roles to be fulfilled by collaborators overseas. The potential this carries for production houses in Vietnam is huge, with others like 116 Pictures, May Productions and newly opened Vantage Pictures also experimenting with alternate workflows.

“It’s been a huge asset,” Chi Minh reflects with understandable optimism. ”We can offer a full production of any kind with our clients sat at home, but with the feeling that they are on set in our video village.” His sentiments are echoed across the board, with Nghi Dao Kinh of 116 Pictures noting that the only issues for them have been moderately slower internet speed while the system is in use.

The props team standby with the focus puller, camera assistant and steadicam operator.

Zacharia Lorenz of Vantage Pictures also lauds its adaptability, explaining: “Theoretically, most of the key positions could work remotely, though the only positions that can maintain some level of efficiency with remote work are directors and producers. Then clients and agency people if it’s a commercial shoot, since they aren’t required to ‘get their hands dirty’ on set.”

At Clubhouse, Qtake is used in conjunction with Zoom, COVID-culture’s telecommunication platform du jour. This enables live conversations to happen between all parties on and off set via portable devices such as phones, tablets or laptops, as well as wireless headphones. A quick tap of the screen and a crew member's voice is activated in the virtual meeting room, another tap and it is once again muted.

On set at their second remote shoot (incidentally, a commercial shoot for a well-known soap and hand sanitizer brand), for all intents and purposes the process ran like a well-oiled machine. In one Zoom ‘room’ was the producer, clients and agency. In the other, the director of photography, first assistant director, director, and executive producer — with the latter two jumping back and forth to talk to each room when required. Just as remarkable was the diversity of the team. The director was Australian but operating from Bangkok, the client was Vietnamese, the agency was in Singapore and India, and the Clubhouse team was a mixed bag of mostly Vietnamese, but also international members. All parties chatted away as normal, with Chi Minh even remarking that, if anything, remote shooting aids communication on set, as their voices sound directly into each other's ears, thus removing the need to compete with any background noise.

Still, the extent to which the crew were engaged with their phone screens was a little surreal, prompting me to ponder whether COVID-19 hasn’t promoted exactly the kinds of behavior, such as mobile phone addiction and excessive internet use, that was a concern to us not so long ago. Chi Minh and Huy are also frank about how this type of filmmaking is less process-driven and more result-oriented, lacking the levels of camaraderie that develop when a crew works together closely for what are always long days. Though, beyond exhaustive moralizing, the fact is that this technology existed long before COVID-19 came on the scene, and it’s difficult to imagine how much harder social distancing would have been without similar systems connecting friends, family and colleagues all over the world.

The first assistant director maintains contact with the remote director via Zoom.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that there’s a lot to be excited about. At Clubhouse, Huy is busy planning two feature-length films that celebrate the lives of extraordinary Vietnamese people from both the past and present. Elsewhere in the Vietnamese film world, one can only hope that the upcoming releases of Tran Dung Thanh Huy's Ròm on July 31, about a young lottery ticket seller, and Tà Năng - Phan Dũng in October (directed by Tran Huu Tan), "Vietnam’s first survival movie," will do more to bolster the country's filmic reputation than the recent disappointment of Hollywood blockbuster Da 5 Bloods.

“We have amazing locations here, from beaches to mountains to big cities to the countryside. We also have studios where we can build anything, so there is not much we can’t do” says Chi Minh. And it’s not just the physical landscape that he believes makes filmmaking in Vietnam so special. “The advantage of shooting here is that there is a can-do attitude towards any problem, and there’s always a solution” he explains, attributing this to “the resourcefulness of the people.”

“I’m excited for the world to know more about us and to trust us with productions they have never thought of bringing here, as there are so many reasons why Vietnam is a great place to shoot,” he says, ending on a note of promise: “Watch this space.”

Top photo: A cardboard cut-out of the head of the absent director hovers alongside the first assistant director and the production coordinator.

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