Actors, Writers, Creators - Now is your time!
After winning a bid to write and produce a five part low budget series for a client - the pandemic hit. Sets were shut down, and even when they started to come back, the cost of operating a safe set was way out of our budget. So I had to get creative. I came up with a plan for filming, without putting myself or others at risk, and executed it through delivery. Spoiler alert - you’re going to have to learn how to do a lot more departments roles. But it’s possible! Here’s what I learned from that challenging and ultimately incredibly rewarding 6 month process.
Screengrab from my show "Miss Information"
... but one that adheres to a few simple locations such as a backdrop or green screen, or create a set out of locations in your home. Otherwise do you have friends with businesses that are shut down or empty that you could use for a scene? General rule of thumb is to keep it simple, and focus on the dialog and plot. You really don’t need much to make a great project - but what you do should be done well. Keep in mind that you may be able to rely on editing tricks and stock footage to fill in what you can’t accomplish on your own.
When it comes to your characters, try to write the least amount of face to face interaction possible - unless you’re working with actors already quarantined together. Or better yet, perform it yourself if you can. Can your roommate or partner act? Now’s the time to find out. Maybe you’re quarantined with someone who has a great voice that you can incorporate as a narrator, or a musician that can help with scoring? Keep in mind post production is pretty simple to do remotely and you can always hire someone to help out (see 5).
Also when writing a concept, prioritize additional characters that can be filmed remotely in multiple locations. Can the actor you want to work with film themselves? Can you work it into the plot naturally with a Zoom call or FaceTime? Or utilize the same set, location, or places around the house. Try to keep intimacy and group scenes to a minimum or, even better, don’t use them at all.
Need a good idea? What is a character you want to play? How about that last funny story you told - can you develop it? Or use what you are struggling through right now, and personify it. What would you say to that one person if you could? Script it out. Edit and re-edit so you can get your idea as concise and poignant as you want to. Professional content is well written and has a unique point of view. Write and rewrite until it’s just right. If improv is more your thing try recording audio or video of your improvisations and develop scripted content from the playback. If none of that is working for you - see number 5.
It is possible to find funding for creative projects, even in the pandemic. Many state and local programs offer art grants that you might be a fit for. Check out your local art and film non profits for more resources. Can’t find anything? Many film festivals have pitch opportunities, or script competitions - try to drum up as much buzz for your idea before it’s even made to find funding and support.
Crowd funding is always an option. Personally I feel that since everyone is struggling at the moment it may come across as a bit tone deaf if done wrong, and you may get further by approaching a few people individually, but I’ve definitely seen it done respectfully and successfully during these times. The common thread on those projects is that the idea is really good, tells a unique point of view, and/or supports a community that needs more representation in film and media.
In kind donations also help - do you have friends with gear you could borrow? Are there local companies you could partner with for gear? Maybe you can work something out to create some content they can use in exchange? Or perhaps you can work out a deal for credit on the project? You don’t know if you don’t ask.
If nothing else, consider what brands would fit naturally with your ideas or characters and see if you can find some sponsorship for the content. Keep in mind this way you may need to give them the right to use your work as advertising, and all particulars should be negotiated in advance so there are no surprises on the back end. When sponsorship is well done, this can be a fun wink to the audience, because - hey we all have dreams to fund.
My friend, director Layne Marie Williams helping me film exteriors
Obviously the camera you use is important, but lighting can make or break it no matter what you’re working with. There are so many good cameras out there, and they are getting cheaper and cheaper. In fact, most of us have incredible cameras already in our pocket. If investing or renting a nice camera is out of the scope of possibility, use what you have. Either way research videos on best practices and settings for cinematic looks, and consider investing in or renting lenses, decent lighting, a good tripod, or possibly a gimbal.
If you’re filming yourself, you’re going to need a monitor facing you to minimize running back and forth behind the camera - trust me on this one! That can be a huge time suck. I used my Canon 5D Mark IV (w/ 24-105mm lens) which can send the camera feed to my phone through the Canon Camera Connect app, and it worked great for all my needs. Some of you might say, but I have a front facing camera, won’t that work? Front facing cameras tend to be a lot lower quality than the main cameras and thus aren’t recommended for creating more professional looking work. Not impossible, but make it fit with your storyline if you are going for that look such as a video call.
I cannot stress how important lighting is to your final product. Do your research to find best lighting set ups and practices. In a pinch paper lanterns work great for a soft even light, and they’re cheap too. Hopefully you wrote yourself minimal set ups, or a main “set” which will be a corner of your place that you set up. Once I dial in my lighting I mark off where I placed my lighting on the floor so I can easily re-create the same look for additional scenes or re-shoots. If you are dressing parts of your house to be your set, you’ll want to black out any windows to maximize control over the lighting. You can easily do this with muslin or blackout curtains. I made the mistake of leaving these up between shoot days, so I didn’t have to re-do it, and honestly it got a bit depressing stuck in a dark windowless apartment. We need all the serotonin we can get right now, so don’t do what I did.
Lighting wise I generally used my soft boxes most, since what I was making was a comedy, though this could be replaced with white paper lanterns in a pinch. I also invested in some LED panels that do Bi-color (Daylight and Tungsten) and full RGB color so I have more opportunities to create party scenes, cop lights, or creatively colored scenes and dream sequences, but again you can get creative with gels, or even cloth draped over LEDs to add color (not recommended for traditional bulbs because of the fire hazard).
Oh yeah, invest in good audio, and make sure you are monitoring it. I have a Rode Wireless GO Mic, which worked great, but I didn’t realize every time my hair brushed the mic it made a huge sound we ended up having to fix in post. Other times I was in spaces with a lot of echo that it didn’t work great for, and found that swapping it for a simple handheld microphone actually sounded much better - but of course it fit with my “news” concept. Get creative if you must, but honestly if I could go back, I would have hired someone to do sound, or at least to consult on my audio set up prior to filming. It would have saved me a lot of headache later. Wherever possible, minimize fixing it in post as much as you can. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
Screengrab from my show "Miss Information"
So much comes together in the editing process for a project. The tone, style, pacing, coloring, all of it really makes or breaks the project, and that’s why I believe in hiring someone who specializes in this if you can. It takes years to master this software and find the best practices for the genre you’re going for. If you can’t hire, it’s still possible, just make sure you put in the time to research your software and understand how it works, and give yourself some practice.
Need some inspiration? Watch your favorite projects and look at the pacing, soundscape, and how they transition scenes. Send your rough cut to one or two people you trust for feedback and make any adjustments necessary. Need some stock footage to help tell the story, or illustrate an idea? Consider investing in stock elements through services like iStock and Envato elements.
The important thing to keep in mind when editing is that it’s NEVER going to be perfect. Sure you can re-shoot, and hire professionals to fix as much as you can, but this is a process, and learning this process requires you to go through it a bunch of times before you get really good at it. Hiring professionals will get you closer faster, but also learning editing skills will help you cost wise in the future, even just for being able to edit clips and cut downs.
Honestly I don’t think I’ll ever NOT hire an editor, because they offer a 3rd person perspective to the story that you may be too close to the content to see. Simple things like not liking how you look, or how much time it took you to shoot may shape your opinion about what is best for the project. Hiring people whose opinions and style you trust takes a huge load off your back, and can get you excited about all the work you did when it starts to take shape. I hired my colleague Nick Moore for this. Best money I spent hands down.
Find people that do what you can’t do and pay them. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Where is your time best spent on the project? Burn out is real. Know when and where you need help and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Leave funds for post, sound fixes, foley, score, animations - anything you can’t do. Don’t forget promotion. Even if you don’t have much money to pay, you may be able to find someone looking to level up that it would be a good opportunity for. That being said, please offer people something if you can - it’s highly irresponsible to potentially expose people to this virus, and also not pay them.
The most important thing in filming during this time is finding people who are good at multiple things, to keep the crew light. I have colleagues that made full feature films during the pandemic (see Jon Silver’s “The Scarlet Pirate”), and did it by using crew that could do multiple things. His DP also did all the lighting, and green screen, on top of operating the camera, and I think his AD was in the film as a character. The production sound mixer just did sound because honestly - it’s so important - it’s a full time job. Minimize the amount of people on set and of course please commit to safe set practices as laid out by your state’s film office or AICP, AMPTP, or labor unions such as SAG-AFTRA or IATSE.
Of course there are additional considerations like distribution, which is really anyone's game with social media. When you do release - don’t be afraid to remind people of your project. Sometimes it takes people a few times before they actually engage. You worked hard on it - give it a shot. Consider entering it to festivals and awards programs, or showing it at a local drive in theater! Online viewing parties are always fun too!
The most important part is to believe in yourself, your idea, and don’t give up. Have Fun! It’s going to be a lot of work, but at the end of it - it’s entirely worth it. And hey, you get better and better at it every time. So what are you waiting for?
Ashton Swinford is a former producer for The Onion, the current EP of Paragram Productions, and most recently the creator of the comedy series “Miss Information” a five part satire news show about Media Literacy which she wrote, produced, starred in, and filmed entirely during quarantine. Watch Miss Information here.
“Miss Information” was released as part of the alternate reality game “Dared My Best Friend to Ruin My Life” an immersive cross platform experience of the feature film by the same name, created by DefinitelyReal.com. For more on Ashton visit AshtonSwinford.com or on Instagram @AshtonSwinford or MissInformation.tv. Ashton also works as a freelance Producer, Production Manager/Coordinator, and Union Art Department Coordinator for commercial projects such as Nike, Bud Light, Jeep, and most recently the Travis Scott music video “Franchise”.
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