BEHIND THE SCENES: How I Directed A Short Film During Lockdown

Like all directors, I’ve been itching to get back to production for a long time now. Naively, during the early stages, I was secretly hoping that the coronavirus pandemic situation would be sorted in a few months and everything would be able to back to normal. How wrong I was. The short film I had written prior to lockdown was doing nothing but collecting dust.

It soon became obvious that there would be no way safe way to go back to directing films any time soon. If I wanted to do what I love best and direct a short film, there was only way to do that in this lockdown — remotely.

Before we go any further. Please take 3 1/2 minutes out of your day to watch the short film which I discuss in more detail below.

The Concept

I knew that the concept for the short film had to be built around the limitations that I was facing during the lockdown. It was all well and good creating an ambitious story which would involve multiple locations, ambitious crane shots and stunning cinematography. However, being in a lockdown, this wasn’t the reality I was facing.

My first thought was to create a short film without any actors, or limiting the cast to myself. I knew I couldn’t act (at least not well!), so the question of using myself was out. And I could create a film with voice-over only, but I wasn’t overly keen to explore that area of filmmaking at this stage… I knew that there must be another way.

I decided to create a simple concept which was built around two actors. Keeping the number of actors involved to a minimum would make co-ordinating and directing simpler. Working remotely is difficult enough, without having to create additional limitations for yourself.

Considering that I would be asking the actors to film their scenes by themselves, I also decided to minimize the number of locations required. This would reduce the burden on the actors. If you ask someone to film a scene in a single location, rather than several, they will be more likely to agree to be in your short film. People are busy. They don’t have time to dedicate multiple days to your short films and travel to multiple locations to get all the necessary shots. Plus, with the role being remote, I didn’t know what locations the actors would have access to. I wanted to keep it simple and ensure that the role could be shot in a single location and take no more than one day.

I also decided that I wanted locations to be accessible to the actors. So I decided that each actor should be able to film their scenes in their own homes. I didn’t know how strict the restrictions the actors would be facing (as the role was advertised internationally), but filming in your own home is the one thing everyone could do.

Lastly, I decided that the shots needed to be simple. I didn’t know how much experience the actor’s had with cinematography, but I wasn’t about to confuse things. I wanted to keep the shots as simple as possible. Therefore, the script had to be fairly straightforward. I knew that I could spice things up in the editing room, but the raw footage had to be easy to shoot.

The Script

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As I wanted to keep the short film’s runtime under five minutes, I knew that I had to make sure the script was approximately five or less pages.

I re-wrote the script several times in order to focus on the following:

  • keeping the length of the script to a minimum;
  • keeping the props and locations to a minimum;
  • ensuring the dialogue was straightforward. I wanted the intent of the scene and the characters’ motivations to be incredibly clear from the script. As I wouldn’t be there for the usual discussions with the actors, I needed a script which was open to minimal interpretation; and
  • Being as descriptive as possible in the action lines. It should be clear what action the character needs to take and how it needs to be performed.

Casting

As the parts would be self-recorded, for the first time in my career as a director, I had the opportunity to be able to cast internationally. Maybe creating a short film during lockdown wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

I’ve always found that the best way to cast actors is to use casting websites as a starting point. It is so much more effective than just posting on social media as everyone on the website is there for the same reason – to either advertise roles or find acting roles.

When deciding which casting website to use, I settled on StarNow, which is a website I have been using for a number of years. It has an international database with actors from all over the world – making it perfect for casting remote roles. Best of all, advertising on this site is FREE. A word which is like music to independent filmmakers.

StarNow also allows you to ask questions during the application stage, to vet out any actors which might not suitable for your particular role. One question I asked actors was whether they had camera equipment to be able to shoot their roles and whether they had anyone around who could help them film. Logistical issues like these are always easier to solve upfront, and a lockdown brings it’s own unique set of challenges.

I was dubious about the amount of applications I was going to receive. But after advertising the roles for just a week, I received 182 applications! There was clearly demand for remote work out there. It looked like actors were just as keen to get back into production as I was.

Communicating

As the actors were shooting their roles separately and by themselves, I knew that it was important that I communicated my vision upfront.

I ended up creating a pretty hefty document which communicated what I wanted clearly. After considering whether I should just discuss the points with the actors directly, I decided that it was better to create a reference document which the actors could refer back to.

I created two documents: one for each actor, which was specific to their roles. This document covered the following topics:

  • Reference material for their characters e.g. as Matt’s character identifies as an Incel, I asked Matt to watch a specific documentary which I had come across which gave him an insight into to the world of the character;
  • Character backstories, motivations and descriptions;
  • Descriptions of the locations and why those locations had been chosen;
  • Specifics on production design;
  • Wardrobe decisions;
  • A shot list;
  • Framing/composition of the various shots (tip: include reference photos! Some actor’s may not know what a cowboy shot is – a picture is worth a thousand words);
  • Lighting suggestions;
  • Number of takes needed;

I emphasized to each actor that the above was a suggestion, not gospel. If they didn’t feel like something worked or they had alternative suggestions, I was more than happy to talk these through with them. In my experience, filmmaking is always best when it is a collaborative experience.

Post-production

Once I received the footage back from the actors (who did an incredible job), it was on to everybody’s favorite part of the filmmaking process… post-production.

I won’t get into too much detail in this section as the vast majority of post-production is no different to what you would expect on a non-remote short film.

However, there are a few points to note:

  • Be creative with your editing! I ended up cutting out a significant chunk of dialogue, cutting out a lot of the footage from my first cut and completely re-creating the film compared to what I intended during the script writing process. For example, the last part of the film with Stacy acting over Matt’s voice-over is something I decided during the editing phase, and in my humble opinion, the film is a thousand times better for it. So, lesson being, don’t be afraid to experiment!
  • You will have to record all wild-sounds yourself in post. This is just a given. Most actors won’t be using separate audio equipment so any wild sounds picked up will be of low quality. Just trust me on this one.
  • Don’t expect to be able to color grade the footage much. Most actors won’t be shooting on an Arri Alexa or a Blackmagic 4k. They will be using their phones or an entry level DSLR. While I did color grade my footage, I was limited on how much I could do.

Final thoughts

I know that some of the skeptics among you will be arguing that the above isn’t real directing or filmmaking.

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I’d have to disagree. If it wasn’t for me coming up with the concept, writing the script, getting the actor’s together, coaching them the process and putting the film together – the short film wouldn’t exist. I know that sounds obvious. But I’m a creator, who had created something. Is it perfect? No. But am I proud of it given the limitations? Absolutely. Creating a short film isn’t easy at the best of times – if you manage it during a lockdown, you deserve to pat yourself on the back.

Filmmakers should make films. It doesn’t matter if they’re without any dialogue, without actors, feature length or just a short film – the lockdown is just another obstacle. There will always be problems to overcome.

In case you can’t be bothered to scroll back up, here’s another link to the short film.

My goal over the last few years has to be begin production on my debut feature film. Consider supporting me in my goal by clicking here.

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