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January 2022 - BEHIND THE SCENES: Filmmaking in the Pandemic Era

In the pandemic era of lockdowns, shifting safety procedures, and government regulations, filmmaking, difficult in the best of circumstances, can seem nearly impossible. In New Mexico, a state struggling to figure out how to turn a burgeoning film industry into a sustainable indigenous operation, the COVID reality can seem like a death sentence for inspiring filmmakers. However, as is often the case in many walks of life, the greater the adversity, the greater the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.

In film you have a tripod representing three aspects, each of which requires the other two to work: creative, technical, and logistical. Dealing with a pandemic offers opportunities in all three of these areas. The following are just a few examples of how changing the way you think can give you an unexpected advantage.

Creatively speaking, the obvious low-hanging fruit is to write the pandemic into your film. Not only is mask-wearing a different look, it provides creative opportunities such as challenging performers to convey expression in different ways, encouraging writers to move away from using explicative dialog as a crutch, and moving back to more musical blocking and staging. If this approach doesn’t fit your ideas, you can always use clear face shields. You see the actors’ faces and can take advantage of cinematographic opportunities in the shields' reflections.

At the logistical level--planning and coordinating your project--keep in mind that independent filmmaking (and its issues) are similar to Hollywood filmmaking, just on a smaller scale, but that doesn't mean you should copy a Hollywood model. The biggest logistical challenge with independent film-production in the pandemic era is people; they need to be paid and insured, and they present health risks. Solution? Fewer people wearing more hats means less people to wrangle, pay and insure, less waste, greater understanding, and a more overall tight-knit team.

You can accomplish this several ways. For example, craft services are your wardrobe and make-up. The writer, director, and producer are all the same person. If you can program a motion rig then your cinematographer is also an actor. Last but not least, everyone, including the director, is a production assistant. As a director, leading by example is absolutely necessary with small teams. This approach may sound ludicrous, but remember, you are not Hollywood.

Logistical aspects make the technical possible, so not much changes with things like frame rate, aperture, etc. However, you could use changes in these settings, as well as in when and where you shoot, to aesthetically represent the situation we are all in. We have become trapped by the idea that everything must be pristine on-screen. In reality, technical sound and vision qualities are aesthetic opportunities to make your work unique to you, more timely, and thereby more compelling, giving you an advantage.

All said, the truth is limitations and adversity force you to think differently, guaranteeing you won’t be stuck with your original ideas, which aren’t as original as you think. Less money means finding innovative ways of getting the same ideas across. Fewer actors means deeper writing for each character. Fewer crew means a more tight-knit team. It may not seem possible at first, but the solutions you find will be superior to what you thought you wanted to do in the first place. The bottom line is, you can do it! So get out there. Make it happen. Good luck!

Eric Chamberlain is a New Mexico filmmaker, composer and artist.


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