When students imagine a career in film, they might fantasize about the sets we pass on the streets of New York, complete with trailers, lunch tents, and cables snaking down the road. Or their aspirations might be more immediate: checking cameras, sound, and lighting out of the equipment room, and enlisting friends and classmates to translate a creative vision into a piece of art that can be shared.
But the pandemic changed that. Making a short film without being able to be on location, without a crew, and being physically distanced from subjects is exactly what many film students experienced this past spring semester when their classes were moved online because of COVID-19. Films that had been carefully planned, budgeted, scouted, cast, and crewed were halted as access to places, people, and things became impossible. This dilemma will persist into the coming fall semester, and in some places, perhaps even well into next year. Many students will not have access to university equipment centers and will need to rely on the devices they have on hand — a mobile phone — or more sophisticated equipment they can afford to purchase or rent.
It’s a daunting scenario, but using what is on hand and production within the limits of what is available is a robust tradition in filmmaking. In other words, a DIY approach and attitude is consistent with good filmmaking: being persistent and adaptable often results in unusual achievements. Certain genres, approaches, traditions, and methods will be more immediately achievable than others and those that are actor and dialog driven will require more ingenuity and experimentation.
But I anticipate that boundaries will be broken in the coming months as filmmakers confront the challenges faced by the current societal limitations.
We can foresee that work produced under COVID-19 conditions will be edgier and will rely heavily on mash-up techniques. While students can work independently and film in their immediate surroundings and neighborhoods, they will also rely on shared, found, and stock footage, as well as screen recordings of interviews conducted via video chat. Think Vito Russo’s 1995 queer film classic The Celluloid Closet.
Being “on location” is already acquiring new meaning. There are creative options for dialog set-up and recording that could potentially also be done via a conferencing app. The now ubiquitous Zoom can by employed to include a director to discuss a scene with the actors, logging off the session during the performance/record, then resuming communication via a phone call during the takes.
Improvisation and creativity will be key and it is likely that strategies explored during these times will set new precedents for filmmaking.
Filmmakers may also choose to adapt to their circumstances, and an uncertain future, by working alone. Documentary and experimental work is particularly friendly to the first person narrative mode (with or without audio), using visuals that present the past, present, and future through POV shots filmed without a crew.
In both technique and tone, such films naturally draw on observational and self-referential modes. The preponderance of recent short poetic works seen on social media, composed of shots of the emptied streets and public spaces during quarantine and lockdown periods, provide examples of this (such as this one by television producer @akfasso). Many subjects can be approached in a diaristic or confessional film style, in which the filmmaker appears as an anonymous and off-screen character and/or narrator, while planning and executing other aspects of production such as scripting, shot planning, and recording.
Locations, depending on the needs of the film, may be the easiest aspect, even though we are restricted in our movement. Outdoor and public areas are safe; differently, so is the time-honored apartment or bedroom “studio” set. A living space can support techniques and set ups that require a static environment, and working at home can hone skills for working on small scale “sets.” Stop frame or stop motion animation can be a viable approach for some projects, whereby objects – or subjects – are filmed in various positions for a minimal number of frames, which are then sequenced together to produce an animated effect.
Practicing these techniques reminds us how much important work has been produced this way. Formally, they precede film, and became prominent again in the 1960s with films like Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts. The “creature effects” and commentary on the effect and its process is elaborately remade in Michael Shanks’s 2019 short film Rebooted. While this film did involve high end production techniques and required more extensive locations, and crew, the set top work of stop motion artist dina Amin did not. These short works employed a variety of materials and easily obtainable cameras, apps, and software, sourcing many of her music tracks through Creative Commons.
And what about found footage, a longtime staple for both documentary and experimental filmmaking? Re-photography techniques that make use of printed photographs and text provide imagery for filmed story sequences. Historical and news footage has traditionally conveyed the truth value associated with straight documentary, while a collage method that juxtaposes image and sound or overlaid text produces more experimental results.
This latter method is best associated with Surrealist art installations such as Christian Marclay’s, The Clock, (2010). A 24-hour film composed of a montage of shots sourced from film and television featuring clocks, it is sequenced and synced to a 24-hour period and therefore functions as a clock itself. Similarly, the creation of fake found footage has underwritten horror and science fiction films, beginning with The Blair Witch Project (1999) by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez .
In-camera editing is another technique that may be utilized out of necessity or for stylistic effect, whereby each shot is set and recorded precisely in terms of its duration and the start and stop of any action. Although most smart phones have accessible video editing apps, and students may still have access to affordable or school-provided editing software, this technique can be an artistic choice.
The cinematic and quick cut sequences being produced via TikTok provide an example of how to turn free software to the purpose of real filmmaking. One example is history student Laura Piszczatowska, who began with single image work on Tumbler and Instagram (@geminnorum) and is now producing highly stylized video work on TikTok (@un_charlatan). The composition and settings within her frames, along with the camera movements and duration of the cuts mimic in camera editing and follow many of the tenets of cinematic process and style.
But you don’t have to work alone. Collaborative or participatory techniques whereby more than one filmmaker contributes footage for a project, provide another highly viable option for thematic projects that require input from multiple locations. The YouTube Life in a Day project directed by Kevin Macdonald and produced by Ridley Scott (now accepting entries for its July 25, 2020 iteration) can be emulated on a smaller scale, accomplished in a semester, and be based upon a pressing social, political, even philosophical or personal concern.
Finally, the creative use of the multi-block screen that Zoom and other video conferencing apps entail can be repurposed to produce recorded takes and scenes. The simultaneous recording of several to many “screens” reminds of the 2000 film by Mike Figgis, Timecode, which uses the split screen technique to present interrelated stories among the film’s characters. While this film utilized editing to arrange the four screens together, the content for each screen was shot on video in real time. Multiscreen video conferencing produces the same effect, but without editing.
This also permits a larger cast to perform together. When Jimmy Fallon and The Roots performed “Stuck in the Middle With You” via Zoom in late March, I noticed the possibilities for subjects to interact and perform dialog scenes. With pre-planning, rehearsal, and test recording, individual settings could be dressed to simulate a common location.
And because of last semester’s lockdown, people are already doing it. Several of the methods I have described are available in a recently created online archive produced by a colleague, professor, and filmmaker Lana Lin and students at the School of Media Studies at The New School. At the time of this writing, Unprecedented Media features 35 short works produced under our current extraordinary circumstances.
With “the quarantine film” now becoming something of a genre — for both students and the industry — a look at some of the traditions underling solo production techniques are providing new “takes” on these strategies. Confined to a variety of domestic spaces with limited contact and outside access, our attentions are very much centered on what is essential to our lives, what we have, and what is missing.
You are making your film — but you are also contributing to an archive of a moment in which everything, and everyone, is changing. These experiences can be as inspiring as they may be daunting and the drive to create — which always involves experimentation — not only allows for reference to established methodologies but an opportunity to expand upon and even transcend them.
And this is what good filmmaking does.
Dawnja Burris is an assistant professor and associate dean of the School of Media Studies, The New School.