While COVID-19 has caused many filmmakers to take a hiatus, others have found unique ways to embrace these new constraints.
When coming up with the idea for a film back in March, I was inspired by the fact that everyone in the world was on lockdown, experiencing more or less the same thing: Stuck at home, cooking their own meals, washing their hands, wearing a mask, and looking out the window.
These symbols of isolation, my co-director Jacob Jonas and I realized, were universal. We ended up inviting people to document their lives on lockdown, as a reminder that even in isolation, we’re united by our shared humanity.
From what would become a crowd sourced film A Social Distance, to live-action film PARKED, and a branded content piece for SoFi, here’s what the Cash Studios team and I have learned from making three films in the middle of the pandemic.
1. Innovate or Die
At the risk of sounding trite, the traditional way of filmmaking—large crews, bulky gear—is on indefinite pause.
In the meantime, these very limitations can serve as a bedrock for creativity. Suddenly Zoom calls are a canvas, iPhone 11s are a legitimate HD camera, and subjects wear the hat of many departments: lighting, camera, and sound, to name a few.
For our recent SoFi branded content shoot, we needed to interview a range of subjects, from everyday SoFi members to TV and literary icons like Esther Perel. This required researching the highest quality yet easy-to-use gear; a set up that beats a webcam but wouldn’t cause too much friction for the people we were asking to film themselves.
Our technical lead Brent Wilson did a ton of pre-production testing and rehearsing to set up a control room for the shoot, consisting of four iPads and two laptops, allowing us to synchronously view all six cameras from subjects in multiple locations, all in real time.
After hours and hours of testing, the actual shoot days went off without a hitch. The client even said, “This shoot was one of the smoothest I’ve ever been on, and on ZOOM of all places!”
2. Be Specific & Over-Communicate
We live in uncertain times that are taking an emotional toll on everyone. Trying to get things done well during this overwhelming time requires discipline and specificity. Because we’re all stressed, physically distant, and working remote, it’s easy for ideas, plans, or directions to fall through the cracks or get lost in translation if we’re not fiercely intentional.
When planning A SOCIAL DISTANCE, involving over 100 collaborators from 30 countries—my co-director Jacob and I made a highly specified, painstakingly clear brief that included instructions like, “wear black,” “film vertically,” “be in a clean space,” “do longer takes both before and after the scene,” “film during daylight,” etc.
We were as explicit as possible, in order to “dummy proof” everything, and even included visual examples since people take in information differently. (Here’s the instructional guide we created). We even outlined every last detail down to how participants should name their files.
While this might seem verbose, we’ve found more constraints leads to more creativity. The more my team and I were able to tell people exactly what we wanted them to do, the more it gave them a sense of, “Oh, this the sandbox to play in,” conducive to more creativity.
3. User Generated Content → Collaborator Content
The film industry has experienced a lightning-fast shift of embracing UGC (user generated content) since the start of the pandemic. UGC has traditionally meant repurposing amateur smart phone footage, but in lieu of quarantining, filmmakers who can’t be on-site are relying on non-professionals to capture footage for them at an overwhelming rate.
Before COVID, a traditional film was made through a collaboration between many different departments — light, sound, g&e, camera, etc — whereas teams today are much smaller and everyone — especially the people being filmed — have far greater responsibilities. These non-professionals are inheriting an ever-growing list of responsibilities and what we call them should reflect this.
I propose nixing the term UGC all together. Calling people “users” just isn’t a good look and even “subjects” has a passive implication. The very first thing I say to any person we’re filming is, “You’re not just a subject, you’re a collaborator. And we’re going to need an open channel of communication and for you to wear lots of hats. Are you down?”
For the SoFi brand film, we scheduled a full rehearsal day with our subjects / collaborators so they felt comfortable and ready to be active “crew members.” We walked them through how to set up the gear we’d sent them, and answered any questions they had. This gave them time to get up-to-speed and make sure they felt comfortable, so it was never baptism by fire.
These simple actions sets a tone of empowerment, breaking the traditional hierarchy on film sets. It also holds everyone accountable, so the production team can rely on these collaborators. I hope more filmmakers adapt to this approach.
4. Take Risks But Don’t Risk Health & Safety
Filmmaking is not essential work. If you can’t shoot remotely and absolutely must have an IRL shoot, you’ll need to have a uniquely tailored approach and explicit protocol to mitigate any possible risk and prioritize everyone’s health.
PARKED is a socially distanced dance performance by Jacob Jonas The Company that took place in May, 2020, in a vacant parking lot. It featured a circle of audience member’s in cars, whose lights illuminated the dancers. When Jacob told me about this concept, I knew I had to make a film about it.
Despite a momentous team effort, however, we weren’t able to get permission to conduct the performance at any of the 25 vacant parking lot locations in Los Angeles we’d scouted. So we had to make a tough call—move forward with the shoot or scrap it entirely.
To make the stakes even higher, some of the team my co-director Dan Addelson and I had assembled weren’t comfortable shooting if we didn’t have permission, so we’d have to find new crew members.
We ended up moving forward anyway, and risk the production being shut down. We felt the trade off was worth it, versus not trying to do it at all.
One thing we weren’t willing to compromise on, however, was the health and safety of our team, the dancers, and the audience members. With COVID, the stakes of any in-person production are significantly higher, and so in addition to a tech scout and pre-production meeting, we had a full rehearsal so everyone knew exactly what they would be doing.
We also created a list of simple agreements that anyone signing up for the project needed to be on board with. Those included:
- Crew members are asked to wear masks and gloves, and stay six feet away from others. We are also asking everyone to only touch their own gear.
- We ask audience members to stay inside their car at all times, for the duration of the entire performance, and have their windows up at all times.
- Please do not come to this event if you have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
- Please note there are no public bathrooms at the location.
Despite trotting in unknown territory, the production was an undeniable success. The audience stayed in their cars. The dancers all stayed six feet apart and wore masks. The film crew (we had four camera operators) also wore masks and kept their distance from each other.
I couldn’t be more proud of the team for navigating these unprecedented constraints while following health guidelines to prioritize everyone’s safety.
There are a lot of obstacles in making a film (or any creative project) during the pandemic. And the safety of everyone involved absolutely needs to be a priority. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embark upon a new project. Don’t let fear be an excuse for inaction. Go forth, get creative, and stay safe!