Remote Filming in a Pandemic

Filmmaking in a pandemic requires a healthy dose of creativity — and technology.

The Challenge

In early March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the US, and the quarantines started later that month. Our busy spring season, which had begun ramping up, abruptly stopped, new equipment sat unused, and boxes of DVD cases piled up, unopened. One client even offered to pay in toilet paper and I thought he was joking — until I visited the grocery store. Federal and stage governments began offering grants and loans, but support fell flat because there were not enough resources for the huge demand. Finally in late April, I was able to get a PPP loan through Kabbage. The loan was forgivable if 75% was spent on payroll within a 2-month period. But, how could we spend money on payroll when there was no work?

Preproduction

After emailing back and forth for a while, scriptwriter Mya Montgomery proposed a short film about a college student, alone in her room, dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 epidemic. Her inspiration came from the 2018 thriller Searching which takes place entirely on screens. I loved the idea - not only was it creative, but it also complied with the Maryland quarantine and with CDC prevention measures.

Script in hand, we set about finding actors who could do a good job capturing their performance remotely. Mya evaluated their performances and I focused on video and audio quality of their monologue, which was to have been recorded on the device required for their character. Mya also created social media pages for two of our characters. We hired actors that we found through WIFV-DC and on various casting websites, then moved into production.

Production

What continually amazed us was the uniqueness and individuality of each person’s knowledge and use of technology, including our own. Every interaction posed new challenges. First, we needed to be able to direct the actors remotely. We originally planned on 3-way FaceTimes, but unfortunately my iPhone turned out to be one model too old to work with that feature. Not to be deterred, I tried using my laptop, but whenever I received a 3-way call, all my devices rang, and then the calls crashed. So we filmed our first actress with Mya directing visually and me listening in on FaceTime audio.

Our second actress was Zoom-proficient, and a 3-way Zoom conference worked much better. However, she was only able to provide a Zoom video recording of all 3 faces in a single 1280x720 screen (Note 1 below). When we realized what had happened, she had to re-record her performances on her own devices.

Our third actor preferred Google Meet, which also worked well once we all figured out the app and how to get on the call. We watched from his laptop as he recorded a FaceTime call on his cell phone. After he texted the first round of videos, we were able to give immediate feedback for additional takes.

Finally, it was time to record our lead actress. Much of her performance involved reading and commenting as she worked on her computer. She had a 2017 MacBook Pro and was able to send beautiful 2856x1742 screen recordings. We had been especially concerned with audio quality, so we provided a USB microphone (Note 2). It worked well in some applications, but didn’t always record during the screen recordings. This actually had an unexpected benefit because she rerecorded the audio while also filming herself using using her Photo Booth application. We hadn’t initially planned on getting those shots, but they proved to be a great addition to the film.

Postproduction

As we started the edit, we realized some of our lead actress’s screen recordings didn’t include the material we needed. We tried to replicate some of the shots ourselves, but our video was much lower resolution (Note 3). We had to ask for a second “shoot” to capture the missing shots.

Editing software was a choice I might have made differently in retrospect. For the movie Searching , the live action shoot mostly with GoPros in ~16 days, but post-production required two editors over a year. Half of the editing was in After Effects using dynamic link to Premiere because they needed to recreate much the computer screen for sharpness when they zoomed in. I’m more efficient in Final Cut, so I began the edit there. However, moving between FCPX and After Effects eventually became cumbersome as we zoomed in on shots and moved around on multi-layered screens.

Working with the screen recordings, I also learned something interesting — viewers do not move smoothly around the screen as they surf the web, and the internet often does not respond smoothly, either. Scrolling is inherently jerky, and objects coming into view may be missing for the first few frames. Unless the editing incorporates these artifacts, the result may not seem real to viewers.

Conclusion

As with all filming, there are things that could’ve been smoother but there are also plenty of things we did well. We got some really good performances and made a pretty creative film. In the end, our mistakes not only gave us something to learn from, but solving these problems made us much more inventive while finalizing the film.

Notes

  1. On a previous project, two musicians had given me side-by-side HD Zoom recordings to edit (basically a 4K screen). Why did this not work for us? One of Zoom’s support pages (https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/207347086-Group-HD) says full 1080p HD requires a Business, Education or Enterprise account and must be enabled by Zoom Support.
  2. We bought an Apogee iOS/USB microphone for this project. When my audio engineer husband tested it and couldn’t get it to work, we learned it was really more of a computer peripheral than an audio device. It needed to be enabled in System Preferences before the computer would recognize it.
  3. We learned later that a Quicktime screen recording is recorded in the resolution of the screen being recorded. Our actress’s MacBook Pro had a 2,560x1,600 display resolution. Unfortunately, the screen resolution didn’t carry over to her Photo Booth recordings, whose video resolution was only 1080x720.
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