How do you make a film on lockdown.

It’s a compelling subject, you know that, but under lock down conditions, and perhaps too not being an essential service deliverer trying to shoot the film may land you in trouble with the police.

This is one of the challenges tens of thousands of professionals, and students face finishing their final projects in video formats. So what are they to do? The creative mindset is “Start from Zero”.

In my last post, “Start From Zero — Journalism’s Innovation When its Back is Against the Wall” I spoke about making no assumptions, citing pioneer Rear Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper who said: “The most damaging phrase in the language is we’ve always done it that way”. She was referring to how after WWII computing introduced new systems into warfare, which some military brass unsurprisingly were reluctant to accept.

Hopper is the mother of (computing) innovation.

Not so long ago, at a cinema near you, Ridley Scott, the director of such critical films as Aliens (1986)and Blade Runner (1982) produced a film called Life in a Day (2011). It was a bold exercise in filmmaking in which users anywhere in the world sent in their clips from July 24th 2010 for 24 hours and this was woven into a narrative.

Here’s Scott talking about his motivation filmed before Covid-19 and then the trailer

User Generated Content here required no instructions. This was an artistic endeavour and the emerging film depended on the internal logic and narrative pattering of the filmmaker. It was directed by Loressa Clisby, and the Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald behind One Day in September (1999)(yep there’s a theme here, but September is a completely different film). This documentary was a hit with audiences at SXSW and Sundance.

Some stats: Some 80,000 people from 192 countries submitted around 4,500 hours of footage. If that tells you anything about filming ten years on it is that in 2010 people from around the world were versed with creating video and I hedged a bet the vast number were not from film schools or journalism courses.

Ridley Scott did not go to film school.

If you’re producing a film for a dedicated theme or subject under today’s conditions then a rally for any footage may not be your answer. Last week Channel 4 News proved how it could be done. Almost lost in the voice-over to an item on care homes coping with the Corona Virus, was that the workers at Rahielee had, as this clip says filmed the piece themselves for Channel 4 News over seven days.

You can find the full film made on Monday 6th April on Channel 4 News which goes out at 7.00 pm by going to Box of Broadcast

How is this possible? Some instructions on how to shoot using a mobile phone, such as keeping the camera steady for instance, can take less than a day. You can direct staff by showing a short film and various pictorial frames.

I worked at Channel 4 News for five years until 2001 as both a freelance producer and videojournalist (camera operator/ director) and as a freelance producer at BBC Breakfast. I came across a running order shift of me working at Breakfast news (see below) which reminded me of exchanges with camera men and women I would have spoken to about shot lists.

Whilst it wasn’t the norm to instruct non-professionals it was not uncommon to request photos or any personal videos a subject might might possess that fit the narrative of the day. That is standard practice today.

The relationship between the subject and storyteller is one of trust. In the Channel 4 News story, Rahielee Care Centre would need to trust that the newsmakers would put out the story they’d talked about in advance. As a reputable brand the station exudes this, but it still takes time to walk people through what you have in mind, so bear that in mind when you’re staring your own film project.

Interestingly, because it was shot over seven days this would compensate for any shots that you’d expect could not be used, or were poorly filmed.

But what if you’re a student and you’re not a brand like Channel 4 News? You ring up and have a lengthy discussion with your potential subject. How can you build up trust very quickly? I’ve argued that a one page bio from your blog/ website, sent to your subject that exemplifies your professionalism, will help. Three examples below: Daria (2012), a leading Russian multimedia journalist now completing her PhD; Nasma (2018) from when I led the dislab storytelling platform who is now a digital producer; and Lei (2014) a visualist and coder who is now one of the BBC’s leading architects in voice smart labs.

Then this today from my friend and mentor Michael Rosenblum. Nikki Kay a multimedia journalist covering sports Spectrum1 in LA is an alumni of Rosenblum’s bootcamps.

Faced with the challenge of producing a sports piece and considering her safety what did she do?

Rosenblum reports on his site

The story above, a profile of an LA women’s basketball player in lock down was not shot in LA, where Nikki reports. Instead, it was shot in Texas, where Natalie Cho went home to sequester with her mother.

And it was her mother, with instructions from Nikki, who shot the footage at home. Nikki did the interview on Skype, then wrote the script, narrated it, edited and produced it in LA.

Natalie’s mother with directions from Nikki shot this video. There are similarities with Channel 4 News’ output. The assumption that neither the Care home staff or Natalie’s mother have shot professionally is most likely true.

But what if you’re a student shooting around 12–15 minutes for a feature or 30–45 minute documentary? How do you accomplish this? Remote directing, yes, but unless you’ve pre-visualised the film with a plan, the risk of not getting the right footage and having to wade through streams of it, like Macdonald (which takes time) is real.

In a forthcoming seminar I’ll talk about planning a shoot using mobiles to mimic cinema journalism. Shooting on a mobile is to be treated like any camera, with a few caveats. The real magic is in the language or style you’re using.

For instance can you guess which of these clips (part of a film) is shot on a mobile? Answer at the end of the post.

Here’s a ten point approach broken into two parts.

  1. Before any filming, research potential interviewees for your story. Speak to the interviewees taking notes so you can craft a synopsis on how they’re addressing your questions in your story. This is an inductive process in as much as their responses guide your narrative.
  2. How do you get to speak to your interviewees? Twitter, Instagram, emails, or otherwise ringing them up if you can find their phone number. Remember they don’t know who you are, so have your pitch ready calmly speaking or if you’re writing an email, a three para email stating how they can help you. It’s not uncommon to go through a few before you get your list.
  3. Map out a general flow of how your story might evolve. It’s important you take this first step and try and do it yourself. Your actions fall into schema called “desirable difficulties” in which you’ll retain important information towards problem solving in the future.
  4. Construct a pre-shoot script, which will guide the direction you want your story to take and with this set up a meeting with your supervisor/ exec producer/ lecturer.The pre-shoot script will document how your narration (voice over) leads into any interviews. And by the very nature of using voice-over ( you don’t have to) you’re getting around to the point of consider visuals. An example of a pre-shoot script can be found below.
  5. The pre-shoot script is somewhat like reading a feature from a newspaper. In fact it’s a favoured approach by feature makers, who are influenced by the newspapers and magazines. On the left is the script before shooting, but garnered through interviews and visualisation. Note the annotation following our discussion. On the right is the final shoot. There were two edit scripts in between these two over six weeks.
  1. Interviewees are generally surrounded by a sequence of relatable visuals which drive the story, or you could say visuals can often be pierced by an interview. Either way what are those visuals?
  2. There are two approaches here. The standard one is to come up with a batch of relatable wide shots, middle shots or close ups of your sequences. If you have a limited knowledge of these frames that you could pass on. The wide shot is to establish where you are, as well as relating people to their surroundings. The close-up is for detail particularly in communicating expression on faces and the medium shot lies in between these two. So there’s a reason why you use these shots.
  3. The problem with the standard approach can often be its invisibility when you’re trying to coach someone to film for you. Most people don’t register cuts in news, because the visuals don’t themselves communicate meaning in themselves. Why is it that visuals schemas may not often d sit at the heart of documentary form, as much as the words do. I had a fascinating conversation with one of the UK’s most respected film experts Mark Cousins. ( see below). Many people watch dramas and cinema. So if you’re at the stage when you’re looking to coach someone to remote film, ask them about their favourite film or drama. By pulling shots from these (as stills), it makes it easier to communicate visual ideas.
  4. If you are asking someone to remote film remember the chances of them filming exactly what you want may not go according to plan, so tease out the filming process. Let them film more than you consider would originally be adequate. Remember Channel 4’s filming process.
  5. Having built your pre-shoot script, previsualised the filming language, it’s time to build your gantt chart or filming diary. This will provide a disciplined framework when shared with your supervisor/ exec producer about how long the documentary should take, to, for instance shoot the media, build your first post-shoot script and how you edit down to your final product. This usually takes more than one attempt.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a Creative Technologist, Cinema journalist and Lecturer at Cardiff University in Emerging Journalism and AI and Foreign News Reporting. He’s a Visiting Prof at UBC, (Canada) and is one of the top writers in journalism on Medium for his blog “Forethought”. He’s a member of the advisory board for the British Library’s 2021 News Exhibition.

Answer to above. №5 It’s a film from Travis Fox, one of the best videojournalists who now teaches drone and cinematic filming.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.