Making documentary films during COVID-19: Insight about remote film production from a DOP

Pivot… If there is one word that describes 2020, it is the word pivot. I went from travelling all around Europe non-stop the first quarter of 2020 to a total shutdown of all documentary and factual productions in a matter of days.

Very shortly after the lockdown, my Food Stylist wife and I started producing food content remotely from our home. Since our clients couldn’t be anywhere during the lockdown, I researched a way to live stream what the camera was seeing though my computer to our clients with amazing success. This of course quickly pivoted to the remote Zoom interview that has become working practice these days on documentary film production.

First doc crew to hit the road in Canada
On March 13, 2020 (yes, it was a Friday) we stopped production (in the middle of a shoot day) of an episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date. It was 4 months later when the summer drop of COVID-19 cases in Canada lead to a loosening of restrictions and opened the possibilities again for documentary production. Our crew gathered at an almost empty Pearson International Airport to fly to Vancouver with no blueprint to work with other than the one production and the crew developed. We drew on our research from past project proposals to be shot in viral hotzones, protocols from provincial governments and plain common sense to become (to my knowledge) the first Canadian production to hit the skies. There is a lot more information for documentary production crews now. Here is a great resource; the Documentary Organization of Canada’s Covid-19 production guide.

We fundamentally retooled decades of experiences and ways of working to protect our subjects and the crew. Even the simple act of a crew member grabbing a piece of equipment to help out had to be unlearned and everything that was visually integral to the format of the show had to change; from blocking the subjects’ interactions (which we never did in this series), changing the interview set-ups and even changing how we recorded the travel to the various locations. Beyond safety to everyone involved, as a director of photography, I understood the risks the producers were taking as there wasn’t any insurance that would protect the production from an entire crew having to stop shooting and quarantine in their hotel rooms for two weeks. It was a high dive into a damp sponge.

Political Blind Date producers and crew developed a protocols of wearing PPE, daily Covid assessments, strict rules about handling camera equipment and that all shooting in the summer of 2020 was to be outside at all times.

Toronto based Zoom interviews in studio for foreign productions
I started to find clients reaching out from abroad asking me to set up interviews in Toronto to be conducted remotely. It was certainly a new experience as I worked with directors in one country, producers in another and the subject sitting in front of me in Toronto. Two shoots even had me in another room monitoring and controlling focus remotely. Streaming interviews on Zoom and allowing remote direction has become the new normal as the second wave of Covid-19 infections washes over North America.

From not knowing one thing about Zoom before May, I was surprised on how easy it was to interface a USB camera connection from the SDI port on my Panasonic Varicam LT into the Zoom software and how stable and versatile Zoom has been for me. I even find the way the software allows you to switch video and audio sources separately very useful as the remote director can jump in and chat with the subject before everything is fully up and running.

These days there seems to be a bit more comfortability in having the interview subject in the room not wearing a mask as long as the camera operator and sound recordist are distant and wearing proper PPE. Or at least I am getting comfortable with this scenario as long as I am wearing an N95 mask and following solid post interview protocols with the equipment.

Travelling 2 person crew in the United States doing remote zoom interviews with subjects
December brought a new challenge to conducting remote interviews when a new series for PBS and a Canadian broadcaster wanted interviews for a new history doc series to be filmed mainly in the US. We played out all the options, from me supervising crews working in the various towns to being a “one man band” and traveling alone. The best solution that we chose was for me to travel with a dedicated sound recordist in a social bubble. We could assure the producers and our subjects (many were between 65 and 95 years old) that we were being safe and constantly mindful of our protocols as a team rather than picking up crew along the way.

For 10 days I traveled by minivan from Atlanta, Ga to Manhattan as a bubble with an old friend and colleague Paul Adlaf. The bubble part being important so we didn’t have to wear masks as we traveled together and we could help each other with the equipment without concerns. The expectation was feature doc quality 2 camera interviews with the added complication of having the director back in Canada. Between the setups, the tear downs, disinfecting, DMT work, standing in line for Covid-19 test and trying to find a meal… we were pretty busy during the waking hours on this shoot.

Because of the disruptions of the pandemic, there was a lot of last minute producing happening almost in real time. Not only was the director working remotely, but remote producing was happening in tandem. Producers viewed the interviews in their living rooms and watched proxy rushes the next day that I uploaded overnight from my hotel room.

One of the things that I have learned in making documentary films in 2020 in a pandemic is that everything takes more time, energy and headspace. I found myself adding extra setup time to everything on and off set. It felt a bit strange and excessive, but we ended up needing every second and yet I still found myself running a few times to get done before the interview subject arrived. You simply can not get done in a day what you use to get done and still be safe.

The other thing we learned is what it is like to “get the Covid goodbye”. This is when your subject finishes their interview, gathers their things and says goodbye as they are walking out of the room without lingering one second. I also saw the subtle hurdles directors face conducting their interviews over a screen. All the cues we read in person (seeing what is happening outside of the frame) is lost and I noticed how difficult it was to quickly make a connection with the subject and get people to be at ease when I am wearing a mask.

Sometimes I feel like a masked thief these days, stealing stories rather than a filmmaker making connections and it will probably stay that way for at least the next 6-8 months. I see that documentary filmmaking was impacted in the same way as we have been in our personal lives… Beyond the physical blocks of just not being able to be somewhere, there has been a severing of connection with strangers and friends as we get to know them to learn new things. That is what I miss most with my job and I will anxiously await for the return of the days I can fully be with the subjects of the films I help make.

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