Sandstorm shelters from Lockdown by moving into the office

By Nick Batten on 26 November, 2020

In March 2020, with 38 productions ongoing, Swindon-based Sandstorm Films decided the best way to safely complete the projects during the first lockdown was for some of the team to move into the studios to finish the work. 

The company made full use of its studio which features a custom-built set of stages in the Cotswold countryside, with accommodation, luxury VIP spaces for clients, a bar, kitchens, sauna, massage therapy and a members’ club.

Established in 2000, in Soho Square, Sandstorm is a small independent film production company which focuses on commercials and digital content. 

Tom Ward, Managing Director of Sandstorm, explained, “We have created a real production facility where clients can come and make entire campaigns without leaving site, on the best kit, with a highly skilled mix of freelance and full-time crew.

“So, in lockdown, when toilet roll seemed like a luxury item, why would you sit at home and wallow when you could move into a fully functioning studio complex with pretty much every amenity we could desire? With on-tap beer and an in-house chef also staying at the studio, it was less a hardship and more a chance to enjoy hotel quality amenities while getting on and making films when the rest of the world seemed to just shut down.”

In March Sandstorm decided to put a number of processes into place to mitigate any risks or disruption to the business. Two weeks before Boris Johnson made his announcement, the firm had 38 projects on-going, with three due to be shot before the impending (albeit unknown) lockdown.

The films were shot with the bare minimum client attendance, with most decision-makers logging in to the shoots remotely. 

According to Tom, this turned out to be more effective than having all the clients on set. He said, “A client watching the final film is a client not distracted by the wonder of a film studio.”

Because of this success, Sanstorm opted to embed a five-man crew at the studios, to live there throughout the pandemic. The five ‘valiant’ volunteers provided a full in-house crew for all the productions they had booked in – meaning that work could carry on with zero disruption for clients.

However, once Lockdown began, 29 of the 38 productions were cancelled. 

But despite this, Sandstorm decided to carry on and shoot the remaining projects, all via live stream to clients and their agencies. With the directors and directors of photography also logging in remotely.

Around six weeks into the process, the team found a way to get presenters back into the studio using motorhome rentals to give them a place to stay on-site as well, meaning they could shoot single-person productions. 

Eventually, Sandstorm decided to use the weekends to shoot amusing update videos for clients. 

“This was certainly the big turning point for us,” said Tom. “Probably the one thing we were able to do over and above other companies, completely safely, was to have some fun.

“The more light-hearted the films became, the more views and the more, it seemed, that we were cheering up other people in lockdown.” 

So, the series continued and by May, with most of the productions now complete, Sandstorm moved its ‘weekend entertainment’ into the week giving themselves more time to shoot each film. 

In total the team shot 11 separate lockdown productions – the first three being piece to cameras to update clients on the progress being made in the studio. But as the comedy levels dialled up, so did the adventure levels. By week five, Sandstorm ran a piece to camera that featured the company’s motion control robots appearing to have a battle. 

In week six, the videos announced the reintroduction of actors on set. Week seven provided a very basic tour of the site as viewers wanted to see where the team was living. In week eight they shot a comedy food show and by week nine – by now very fed up of lockdown – they shot a “dodgy” horror parody. Week 10 was a take on Sky Sports ‘Sandstorm vs Lockdown’ the boxing match. 

By now many clients had begun recommissioning work and June and July were exceptionally busy. 

Tom said, “We decided to shoot, what we hoped was a final ‘Week Whatever’ lockdown film, using a set we’d built for a client’s shoot. This film was to say, in short, that we felt production was now at a ‘normal’ stage. You could get crews back in the studio once the government’s ‘if you can’t work from home’ started to become interpreted as ‘get back to work.’

“We had proven on 12 paid productions and 11 somewhat self-indulgent lockdown films that filming in lockdown was possible and could actually be a lot of fun. What started as a bit of fun quickly became a well-followed and upbeat set of films, a chance for us to experiment and more importantly, an opportunity to try and cheer people up.”

With August being reassuringly quiet, the team decided to move out of the studio and by September they were almost fully booked. Although they had scripted a final 12th lockdown episode – shooting it seemed unnecessary once people were back to work. 

But when lockdown 2.0 happened, the first week of November became a pretty open diary for production. So, in under a week, the 12th film in the series was produced.

Tom concluded, “As for the future of lockdown, it’s very difficult to say for sure. What made our company so resilient to Covid and to lockdown and that strength in many ways was also a weakness. We were ready, but nothing else was – having a full team, all the kit and post in one place – would make us completely immune to ever stopping, right? Wrong. In the end the issue we’ve had this year has been access to hotels, wardrobe, props and most concerning of all, food. What a strange world we live in.

“To end on a positive note, we will be putting a lot more accommodation on-site next year, to complete the experience here. If you’re going to come out to the Cotswolds to make films, you should be able to relax and enjoy the site in the evening too.”

See below for the most recent video. You can watch the whole lockdown series of films on Sandstorm Films’ website.