How EW shot a digital cover with 10 drag queens — while in quarantine
When EW first started talking with VH1 about a Pride month digital cover honoring the cast of RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars 5, the world looked a little different. The tentative plan was to photograph the queens at RuPaul's DragCon LA in May — but then the first wave of coronavirus-related shutdowns led to that massive event's cancellation. No one was going anywhere anytime soon.
But we knew we absolutely still wanted to celebrate and chronicle the tenacity, creativity, survival skills, and culture-changing careers and lives of these accomplished drag queens. So the photo shoot — and the cover story — evolved.
To manage this next-level challenge, EW brought on Scheme Machine, a production company founded by photographer Robin Roemer and director Carly Usdin. Roemer and Usdin are also married — and they actually first met while both working at Logo TV, where among other projects Usdin worked on promos for early seasons of Drag Race. As producers, the two conceptualized how to represent such a large group of talent on one moving digital cover — 10 queens, plus of course RuPaul — and then strategized how to source, ship, and help the All-Stars set up lighting and backgrounds wherever they were sheltering at home.
That was the hard part. The rest? Not so much. "One of the reasons this cover worked as a remote shoot is that drag queens are uniquely positioned in the world of entertainment to be people who can do their own hair, makeup, wardrobe — because they've had to do it for such a long time," Usdin says.
Plus, Roemer adds, "Working with people that just want to perform for you — it's great." (The best question possibly ever asked on an EW pre-production call with talent: "What about using a wind machine, if I have one? And is glitter okay?")
During each shoot, Roemer and Usdin helped direct the queens (and sometimes their housemates) to finalize ideal lighting and framing of the shots, confirm all settings on the equipment, and experiment with a range of movement for the motion portraits. For Ru's center square in the design, EW worked with World of Wonder to find fully glammed-up footage, and then the post-production team at Good Company worked with EW's designers to create a final version that incorporated dozens of total takes.
One additional note: these shoots were done over the course of a week in early May. In honor of the vital role that drag queens and trans women had in fighting back against police oppression at Stonewall in 1969 — the original angry spark for Pride celebrations — and in support of the Drag Race queens who are protesting for Black Lives Matter right now, I am donating today to The Okra Project and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
Cover produced and directed by Robin Roemer & Carly Usdin for Scheme Machine Studios. Additional production by Good Company.