EXCEPTIONAL: How we made the short sci-fi ‘lockdown film’ CROSSOVER POINT

Before you read this, you should watch CROSSOVER POINT on YouTube.

I never wanted to direct.

In fact, when I was shopping around an indie spec script in 2019, several producers assumed I intended to direct, should it go forward, and I said hell no. The last thing I directed was a high school play (sure, it won the annual festival, but that was thirty years ago) and I know how all-consuming features are. I’ve got work to do, you know?

Except.

Except it turns out that there’s a way to do this on a small scale. Thanks to advances in technology that continue to boggle my mind — I’m just old enough to remember a time before home computers, you whippersnappers — it’s now possible to make a film from your house, on the computer you already own. You can write a screenplay, you can edit and grade the footage, you can design the sound, you can score the music, and you can assemble the whole thing into a format that anyone, anywhere, can watch.

The one thing you can’t do is actually film it, which is why the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I live in the middle of nowhere in northern England, an area not known as a hotbed of moviemaking.

When we all self-isolated to avoid being killed by a deadly virus, the thought of making a film — already far from my mind — moved even further away.

Except.

Except I woke up one day with an idea (I know, what a cliché. But it’s true). One morning, I thought: what if you were forced to shoot an entire film using Zoom, the video-calling software with which we’ve all rapidly become so familiar? What if you approached a story with that as a voluntary artistic restriction, rather than the reality of life during lockdown? What kind of story could you tell?

I wrote the CROSSOVER POINT script that day, then contacted my friend, long-time podcast comrade, and erstwhile actor Moisés Chiullan. I kinda-sorta wrote the Dr Jackson role with him in mind anyway, as I figured he’d be up for taking part in something quick and fun that would be a nice resumé piece.

I didn’t write the role of Jamie Clark with anyone in mind, but a stray remark from Moisés made me think of Casey McKinnon. We first met more than a decade ago when Casey interviewed me for a pop culture web series, and we’ve kept in touch as her acting career progressed. The idea of working together hadn’t come up before, but (again) I figured she’d be up for making something quick and fun. She was — and not only that, she’d produced indie shorts before and could navigate the union paperwork, a task I was more than happy to delegate.

So began pre-production, something I’d never done in my life (except for those high school plays, I suppose, but let’s be real). Turns out there’s a lot. Honestly, if I’d known just how much prep would go into making even a seven-minute short filmed via webcam, I might never have started. But I did, and one of my more annoying quirks is that when I commit to something, I feel an ironclad obligation to follow through. Especially when other people are involved, as they now were with this film.

I began listing all the tasks I’d need to do. Technical tests to figure out how to record a Zoom call. Ensure the actors knew how to make separate audio recordings. Write a checklist of computer settings they’d need to apply, and steps for all of us to follow during each recording. Discuss costume/clothing, hair and accessories. Make sure the performers had access to suitable room backdrops for their character, without being too demanding. More checklists: the recording procedure for each take, reminders to get B-roll of the actors simply looking to camera, room tone for audio, the foley effects I’d need to make, the music to source for that final cut.

Ah, the music.

Part of the original lying-in-bed conceit was how the final song would be recognisable enough there could be no mistaking the implication. But this project had a grand budget of $0.00. I had no money to license any song, let alone one that was popular and well-known. I’ll be honest, at this point I stumbled, and considered writing off the whole project. Sure, there’s freely available music out there in the world of creative commons. I have friends, composers and musicians, who I know would write thirty seconds of original music for me just to take part in something fun. Hell, I’m an occasional musician myself; I could have put something together. But I didn’t want that. I wanted a song people would recognise. And that was impossible.

Except.

Except apparently it’s not, because my despair-fuelled searching took me to MobyGratis.com, where Moby — yes, that Moby — has made a huge chunk of his library freely available to non-profit indie filmmakers and artists. No, Play isn’t there. Of course it isn’t. But there’s a whole lot that is. Including his song A Softer War, which was kind of perfect. Fast-paced, noisy, and recognisably Moby. Things were back on track.

Until I discovered Zoom had disabled HD recording.

See, at first I thought, ‘We all have HD webcams these days, so at least the picture quality will be good.’ But when I did a technical picture and sound test, something seemed wrong. No matter what options I checked, it seemed to make no difference to Zoom’s recorded footage. Even using the ‘Speaker View’ feature, where the camera focuses only on whoever’s talking, didn’t change things.

Allegedly HD test footage. Call me skeptical.

Frustrated, I searched and searched online to see what I was doing wrong… and finally found a forum thread of people having the same problem, with a link to Zoom’s help page for ‘Group HD recording’. It stated — in plain text at the top the page, not called out in any way, thanks a bunch — that due to the massive surge in usage they’d seen since the start of global lockdown, HD recording had been switched off.

In a strange way, this was a blessing. Another thing tech tests revealed was that Zoom’s ‘Speaker View’ takes a moment to recognise who’s talking before it switches to their video. It also has a habit of switching away from the speaker if someone else makes a noise. I contemplated having the actors clap or shout before each line to make sure they were being recorded, but that would have been a massive disruption to their performance. And it still ran the risk of focus switching away from them if I breathed too loud.

(I’ve since learned about Zoom’s Pinned Speaker function, which theoretically solves this problem. Call me cynical, but I don’t think I would have trusted it anyway.)

So where’s the blessing? Well, it turned out that, owing to the lack of HD, the recording resolution in ‘Gallery View’ — where every participant is shown throughout — was the same quality as in speaker view anyway. So I decided to record each call that way. It meant I’d have to zoom and crop each take in post, to remove myself from the picture, but I wouldn’t actually lose any visual information from the actor’s side. More importantly, I was 100% certain they would be in shot the whole time.

Each shooting call was between the actor and me, rather than them playing against one another. This was mostly down to their schedule and availability, but also my own reckless confidence I could edit the two separate performances together well enough that nobody would know.

(Until I wrote this piece and just told you.)

Why was I so confident of this? As I mentioned, I’m an occasional musician, with a particular interest in the production side. And since 2015 I’ve also been a regular podcaster, editing many of my own shows. By now I’ve processed and edited around 200 hours of podcast audio, all of it multi-person conversations, and some with rather poor guest audio quality.

Casey and Moisés (himself a podcasting veteran) were both able to record their own high-quality audio, in addition to the Zoom video recording, so I knew I could make them sound good. And while I’d never edited a filmed performance before, I figured twenty years’ experience of writing graphic novels — as well as anecdotal knowledge gained from a longstanding film-nerd interest in editing — gave me a leg up.

So I shot both actors separately, cueing their counterpart’s lines myself. We did four to five takes, each a complete run-through — or in Moisés’ case, a run-through until the point where his character has a costume change, and then several more takes from there onward.

Moisés and Casey sent me their footage, and separate audio files, via Dropbox. I then had the dubious pleasure of going through those takes one by one, making notes on shot and performance in a Numbers spreadsheet and striking anything unusable. For example, Casey had a couple of takes where her cat wandered in and out of shot, while in one take Moisés accidentally mussed up his hair halfway through, making the remainder impossible to match against other takes. We muddled through.

As with the extent of pre-production, however, I wasn’t quite prepared for the length and tedium of footage review and shot selection. It took two days to go through every take, marking in/out timecodes and making performance notes, before finally narrowing down the selections. I finished with, in most cases, the best two takes of each shot — giving me alternatives if at any point my first selection turned out not to fit so well when edited, which was the case on a few occasions.

(Anyone familiar with performance won’t be surprised by the notes in the below picture. The first one or two takes are always effectively a rehearsal, even for experienced actors.)

Shot selection, complete with notes on surprise felines

Next came audio processing. I imported each sound file — one per take, plus thirty seconds of ‘room tone’ from each session — into Logic Pro for first-pass editing. This involved cutting out any parts where my direction was audible, then applying basic EQ and audio processing. With that done, each performance track was exported as its own audio file.

Processing raw audio in Logic Pro

I also recorded foley at this stage. Again, prior audio experience was useful here. I have a good mic and setup, and know my way around filters and processing sufficiently to record, isolate, and process the sounds I needed. Mouse clicks, keyboard taps, scribbling notes with a pen… it’s not showy, but it needed to be right. As with visual effects, it’s the mundane things that can trip you up. The audience will instinctively recognise when something ‘real’ feels fake.

Finally, it was time to put the whole thing together. There was just one snag; I’m not a video editor, and before April 2020 I’d never used an NLE (Non-Linear Editor) software package.

Except.

Except there are, incredibly, free video editing suites out there, along with video tutorials on how to use them. I settled on DaVinci Resolve, an ‘all in one’ NLE that handles AV syncing, editing, colour grading, audio, and animation effects all within a single app.

Syncing video and audio over multiple tracks in DaVinci Resolve

This part was way more fun. I synced up the WAV files with each take, loaded the combined performances into a massive timeline, chopped out the takes I’d already selected, and edited the two sides of the conversation together. Some parts of this process were prosaic, like dealing with a dozen or more video and audio tracks and making sure everything synced up. But overall this was by far the most enjoyable part of post-production.

There’s an old saying that every film is written three times: first in the screenplay, then during shooting, and finally in the edit. Putting CROSSOVER POINT together, I realised just how true that is. I wasn’t moving scenes around, or excising whole lines of dialogue, as often happens on full-length features. In a short like this, there’s no scope or room for edits of that size. But I did cut words and pauses, added pauses in other places, inserted reaction shots and looks-to-camera, and adjusted the pace to an extent I hadn’t realised was possible.

Timing everything to keep the flow and rhythm of the dialogue was extremely rewarding, and being able to mask edits with cutaways was like watching a magic trick come together before my eyes.

Starting to assemble the cut from raw footage

Colour grading was less fun. The grading in CROSSOVER POINT is fairly subtle, partly because the picture resolution is relatively low. If you mess around with things too much, artefacts and colour bands begin to appear, like a bad JPEG. Some of that was unavoidable, and not all of it undesirable; after all, I wanted this to look like a real video call. But I also wanted it to ‘feel’ like a film, and true colours rarely look good in cinema.

Colour grading Moisés’ footage (before: left, after: right). Colour and contrast normalisation, skin tone isolation, desaturated shadows, a slight ‘filmic blue’ tint, and a subtle vignette to focus attention on the performer

That’s also why the frame rate is a theatrical standard 24fps, even though webcams record at anything up to 60; we’re so used to seeing movies in 24, higher frame rates risk looking like a daytime soap. Not the look I wanted at all. Striking the right balance took a couple of days, and several missteps, before I was satisfied.

Title animation was a ton of fun, but also extremely frustrating as I fought my way through Resolve’s ‘Fusion’ interface, evidently designed by engineers rather than artists. I managed, though, and was able to create the rudimentary-but-fitting CROSSOVER POINT titles.

By the way, I did all of this on a venerable 2014 iMac. Sure, the processor strained and wheezed at times, but it worked. That’s impressive.

At this point I want to give shout-outs to Resolve’s developers, Blackmagic Design, for the app’s extensive manual and their lengthy video tutorials; as well as thanks to YouTubers Daria Fissoun, Waqas Qazi, Casey Faris, and MrAlexTech for their invaluable videos on various aspects of editing, grading, animation, and using Resolve.

At Casey McKinnon’s suggestion I made custom closed captions in Resolve, rather than relying on YouTube’s automatic subtitles. This allowed me to time the captions precisely, and include important sound effect descriptions to help viewers with hearing difficulty follow the story better.

Finally, I made a poster and YouTube title card from the actors’ headshots (I used to be a pro graphic designer, so that was one of the easier parts!) and uploaded the video to YouTube. Then we sent out press releases, did some interviews, and arranged a ‘premiere party’ event so friends and fans could all watch it together online for the first time with myself, Moisés, and Casey in the live chat. It was a lot of fun.

And that’s how we made CROSSOVER POINT. As predicted, it did kind of take over my life for a while. But it was only a short while (apt for a short film) and while it was exhausting, it was also exhilarating — and totally worth it. Not sure I’d do it again, though.

Except…

Author: Atomic Blonde, The Tempus Project, The Organised Writer, lots more. Host of ‘Writing And Breathing’ podcast. Newsletter at http://ajwriter.substack.com