Making films in times of social distancing: How the Coronavirus pandemic is bringing innovation to entertainment

With traditional production shut down, the fate of scripted television and film content is very much in a flux. But some creative minds are looking for solutions that circumvent lockdowns.

Karishma Upadhyay April 28, 2020 08:17:01 IST
Making films in times of social distancing: How the Coronavirus pandemic is bringing innovation to entertainment

“Don’t stand in front of a source of light; the camera needs to be steady; switch off the fan” — these were just a few of the basic filmmaking instructions that some of the biggest faces of Indian cinema received earlier this month from Ad filmmaker Prasoon Pandey. Titled Family, a short film conceptualised and virtually directed by Pandey features Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth, Mammootty, Mohanlal, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Ranbir Kapoor, Sonalee, Shiva Rajkumar, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

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Short film Family. Image from Twitter

The coronavirus continues to wreak havoc across the globe forcing actors and technicians into exile. With traditional production shut down, the fate of scripted television and film content is very much in a flux. But some creative minds are looking for solutions that circumvent lockdowns. What makes Family different from the numerous celebrity PSAs, that infamous Gat Gadot-led 'Imagine' singalong or the 'Muskurayega' India music video, is that it tells a story. The 4:35 minute film that advocates the concept of social distancing and also supports daily wage earners in the film industry revolves around Bachchan looking for his sunglasses.

Pandey isn’t the only one looking to tell a quarantine story. The Family Man actress Shreya Dhanwanthary will make her directorial debut with a micro-series (each episode is under 10 minutes long) A Viral Wedding: Made in Lockdown. This story of a social media influencer (played by Dhanwanthary), who refuses to cancel her wedding despite the nation-wide lockdown also features Amol Parashar, Sunny Hinduja, Aishwarya Chaudhary, Sharib Hashmi, and Mohit Raina. Like Family, A Viral Wedding is also completely conceptualised, shot, and edited during this period of self-distancing.

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Poster of A Viral Wedding. Image from Twitter

For both makers, it all started with wondering if it’s possible to tell a story during a lockdown. Pandey was quick off the block. “The day after PM Modi announced the lockdown, I wrote the idea and called Piyush (Pandey, his brother and fellow ad man) who loved the idea so we called up Mr Bachchan. He recommended using the film to collect money for supporting daily wage earners in the film industry. When I called Ranbir (Kapoor), he helped rope in Alia (Bhatt) and they recommended making this a pan-India film and not restrict it to the Hindi film industry. We requested Mr Bachchan to call the actors in the other industries and he also helped rope in the sponsors while I figured out the logistics,” says Pandey.

More than the idea and script, it’s shooting and doing post-production in isolation that’s proven to be a logistical nightmare. Dhanwanthary, who is making her directorial debut with the 8 episode micro series, says, “One of my cast members is in Ghaziabad, music is being done in Bangalore and the sound engineer is in Orissa. The internet has been our bane and boon. Everything takes at least twice the amount of time it would take if we were all in the same space.” As for the actual shoot, she did rehearsals over video calls with all the actors and gave him detailed shot breakdowns. “They would shoot a take and send it to me. I’d give feedback if there were things I needed done differently. Sometime, I even gave real time cues to the actors to react to. Not everyone had tripods to keep their phone cameras steady so people used furniture and stacks of books. My biggest worry was getting a perfect take but the camera shakes,” she explains.

Of the 58 shots that Pandey needed to complete the story of Family, only three had glitches that needed to be reshot. Along with the foolproof instructions that he sent to all the actors, Pandey also shot a rough film that had him playing all the parts. “What we sent to each actor was their scenes and the two that precede and follow it. I gave them very precise instructions right down to where the person shooting them should be positioned. Like I wanted a low angle for Diljit so I told them the person should be lying down on the floor. We roped in Dhruv Ghanekar for the music. He didn’t have sound-mixing gear at home so we roped in Farhad Dadyburjor,” he shares.

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Saturday Night Live At Home. Image from Twitter

On the other side of the world, Saturday Night Live, an American pop culture institution, aired a new episode on 11 April. Dubbed Saturday Night Live at Home, with Tom Hanks as the host and Chris Martin as the musical guest, the sketch comedy show had comedians shooting remotely from their homes. These ‘at Home’ episodes have had all the trademark SNL bits with Hanks telling jokes from his kitchen, a sketch on the absurdities of Zoom conference calls featured Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, while Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump popped in to brag about his ratings. Also adapting to social distancing in this coronavirus Era have been the late-night hosts Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon who have been ‘broadcasting’ from their homes for a few weeks now. Like the other hosts, John Oliver is also shooting episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver from his home – but he likes to call it the ‘white void’.

No one knows when life will go back to ‘normal’ or even what life will look like in the post- COVID-19 world. Raj Nidimoru, one half of the director duo Raj & D.K, who is mentoring Dhanwanthary through the process of making the micro-series, says, ‘If we are stuck like this for a while, this will be the only way to make fresh content. We’ll just need to become more innovative. People are not going to sit around waiting for a 100-people crew to roll up to make a show or film. The next micro-series I make will be slightly bigger in scale.” Pandey agrees, adding, “Having gone through this experience, I think it’s possible to do longer content under lockdown. It’ll just need more planning. If social distancing becomes our reality, actors would need to multi-task. We’ll also have to teach actors about lighting because if you have two actors in one scene then the light on them has to match. So there will be technical hitches but nothing that’s not solvable. We could even tell the actors to have a green wall that they act in front of and in post we build in a set.”

There might be differing views on how long this lockdown should continue for, but almost everyone agrees that social distancing is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Shooting actors’ scenes in isolation or composing music over video conference might just be one of those things that’s a necessity in these times, but might influence how content gets made for a long time to come. Crisis, as they say, is always a catalyst for change.

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