How I Made a Short Film Over Zoom: One Actor, One Shot, One Room, and No Crew

'Everything Is As It Should Be'Credit: Kylie Murphy
This is how I made my tiny budget short, Everything Is As It Should Be, entirely over Zoom.

This post was written by Kylie Murphy.

The premise was simple: a meditation guide lives alone in the pandemic. We hear the meditation she records as we see micro-vignettes of the past year of her life. I knew it would be one shot, jump-cutting through the days. Locked down like us.

I only wanted one person to do this: Giselle Bonilla, a fellow filmmaker and unfellow actress I met once in person at a festival where our films played back to back. As my dad likes to say whenever we see Olivia Colman on screen, “Whatever it is, she’s got it.”

One room, one actor, one shot. Simple, I told ya! Except… she’s in LA, I’m in NJ. The world’s crumbling around us. I haven’t left my house in a year. How are we going to make a movie together? Let’s find out!

Here’s the final film in all its Zoomy glory. Hope it brings you a smile today!

The Camera

My ultimate goal was to find a way to be on Zoom together that let me see and hear through the camera we were recording on. The one small blip: I didn’t know if this was possible.

These are the qualities I was looking for in the camera of my dreams:

  • Flexible: Autofocus and auto exposure.  
  • There For Me In Dark Times: Performs well enough in low light.
  • Energetic: Runs on AC power. No battery changes.
  • Sees the Big Picture: A wide-angle lens with a wide depth of field.
  • Easy to Connect With: Hooks up directly to Zoom.
  • Stable: Can’t move. Can’t even think about moving.
  • Good Listener: Records audio from an external mic.
  • Up for Long Distance: Can be controlled remotely.
  • Here for the Right Reasons: This is something they always say on The Bachelorette, so I feel like it applies.

After much research, only one low-maintenance camera fit my high-maintenance glass slipper—the trusty, rugged GoPro.

Credit: Kylie Murphy
I dove into GoPro YouTube, but few folks went in-depth on indoor or low light. That’s not what the camera is made for, after all. It’s made for bungee jumping on a snowboard in Bali while breathing fire.

On my first attempt to get advice from the GoPro subreddit, a fellow quickly told me I’ve made the worst possible choice for my task at hand. Had I heard of something called a mirrorless camera?

In fact, I had! Before COVID, I’d been working as a freelance DP for over three years, primarily in the low-budget run-and-gun game. I own a darling Sony a7iii, which would have produced a gorgeous image.

But mounting? Concern with exposure, focus? I didn’t want any barriers to come between me and Giselle. I wanted her to be able to turn the camera on, press record, and forget about it. After all, I wasn’t going to physically be there. So everything needed to be simple, and I needed to know how to do it all from another room across the country.

'Everything Is As It Should Be'Credit: Kylie Murphy

Test, Test, Test

I scored a GoPro Hero 9 during a Black Friday sale. I always wanted to own one for the future fantasy me who lives in New Zealand and does timelapses and speaks multiple languages. I just had to keep testing and researching until it checked all the boxes.

Locking the camera down was my biggest obsession. With about… beep boop beep… 120 jump cuts in the final film, I needed them to be seamless. The camera couldn’t move one millimeter over multiple days, and I needed a surefire way for someone else to secure it. I was stumped until I came upon GoPro’s glorious suction cup, originally intended for withstanding high-speed winds on your motorcycle or sailboat or motorboat or sailcycle. I tested it on my window where it stayed unflinching for three days. Stable? Check!

GoPro has an app called Quik where you can control most settings, like changing between exposure presets. After testing, I built the main daytime preset, Epic (insert hang ten emoji): 5500K white balance, flat color profile, 24fps, 4K resolution, and an ISO max and min. I let the shutter speed stay at auto so the camera could change that on its own.

Testing the lav mic and daytime preset in direct sunlight. That part of Giselle’s house only got indirect sunlight, but I set up backup presets that would better preserve highlights just in case.Credit: Kylie Murphy
The nighttime preset was the same, but with a 3300K white balance and a fixed shutter speed of 1/48.

From my testing, I knew that when it starts to get dark, the GoPro will compensate with very slow shutter speeds to let in more light, resulting in lagging movement. Above 800 ISO, it creates too much noise.

So if we can’t bring the GoPro to the low light, we gotta bring the light to the GoPro.

Testing the nighttime preset.Credit: Kylie Murphy
I dug around in my closet until I came up with a DIY filmmaker’s favorite, the foolproof paper lantern, plus a 125-watt bulb and a dimmer.

I just had to bring up the ambient light in the room, so I thought we could hide it in the front corner, a task made easier by the 4:3ish aspect ratio, but harder by Giselle’s cats, who made their feelings about the intruder known.

Macaroni planning and launching an attack.Credit: Kylie Murphy

Audio

A lav mic was the obvious choice. I needed something simple, portable, and discreet that could capture Giselle anywhere in the room, no matter her distance from the camera. I went with the RØDE Wireless Go lav mic and transmitter and receiver. I purchased a GoPro Media Mod which added an audio jack as well as a micro HDMI input. The lav receiver would connect directly to the camera and become the GoPro’s audio.

For the voiceover, the mic had to look and sound like it belonged to someone who was at least semi-professionally doing voiceover work. I know they’d never record out in the open but hey, suspend your disbelief for me, would ya!

I found a condenser mic on Amazon for $99 and added some accessories: a pop filter, isolation shield, and stand.

I recommend this virtual assembly exercise for your next corporate team building retreat.Credit: Kylie Murphy
Quick note: I opted to buy the equipment outright because it made sense for me to invest in this gear for the long term. Rentals would have been an easy way to slash the budget.

For reference, the lav system totaled around $280. This same kit is $18/day on Sharegrid.

Directing and DPing a Shoot from Across the Country

It took me weeks of research to solve the trickiest piece of the puzzle: how to connect the GoPro to Zoom.

I was stuck. At the eleventh hour, I exchanged emails with a kind GoPro YouTuber in Australia (s/o Danny Black) and a nice man on Reddit. Together they helped guide me through the process of connecting the GoPro to the computer as a webcam.

I needed one more (extravagant at $129) purchase, the HDMI capture card. And it worked! On Zoom, I was able to select the capture card as my camera and audio source, where it let me see and hear through the GoPro. This all went through the micro HDMI port, while the other port let me keep the GoPro plugged into power. When it was time to transfer data, we just plugged that USB power cord into the computer and uploaded it to the desktop Quik app.

Credit: Kylie Murphy
Also: this works with other cameras too! I just tested it out on my Sony. You need a micro HDMI port, micro HDMI to HDMI cable, and an HDMI capture card. I went for the top-of-the-line Camlink because I couldn’t risk any problems, but Amazon sells some for $20.

What a nice and cheap way to have a monitor on set! Just bring your laptop, open Quicktime player, and select “start new movie,” then you can select the HDMI capture card as your source, and voila! The LCD screen on your camera will go black during recording.

Credit: Kylie Murphy
Before shipping, I tested out the whole system with my sister down the hall, having her set it up over Zoom so we could see where all the gaps were.

I created a Google Slides presentation with every step of the process, labeled each piece of equipment, and sent it on its merry USPS way, resilient paper lantern smushed atop.

Giselle and me at 'Everything Is As It Should Be' orientation.Credit: Kylie Murphy

Shooting 50 Different Days in One Weekend

Let’s add to our little adventure the fact that the film spans about 50 different days and we are shooting over one weekend.

Each day needed to feel distinct, and there also needed to be a sense of an overall passage of time. And... we couldn’t shoot the scenes in the order they appeared in the script.

Here’s what it looked like all set up on Giselle’s side of the world. Please note Pete and the outdoor cat (Pete’s tethered?) having a showdown.Credit: Kylie Murphy

I had to stagger the order so that there weren’t back-to-back scenes shot at the same time of day with a similar layout of the room. But I also had to create an order that caused Giselle the least amount of pain in terms of wardrobe and production design changes between scenes.

If I shot the third scene and the 28th scene with the same position of the pillows or the same shirt, that would be fine. But the third and fourth, not so much. You know how numbers work.

With the help of my two wonderfully smart and patient producer pals Camila and Frances, we laid all the scenes out chronologically on Google Sheets, then created columns for different production design elements. We identified actionable adjustments for different parts of the room to ensure that each scene would feel like a different day when it all cut together. Beforehand, I tried really to fine-tune the rhythm of the script to minimize potential restructuring later in the edit so that these details would pay off.

Columns included: coffee table, blinds, fireplace, mantle, couch, lighting, furniture, puzzle status, cat tree, and more.

I also made sure to vary her relationship to the camera: foreground, mid, background, as well as the time of day. We then carefully reordered the rows, grouping non-sequential scenes with similar elements together so there could be the least amount of changes between them.

There were also those larger continuity threads to indicate the passage of time, like the flowers, puzzle, and the cat tree. If the puzzle was started on D22, every scene after 22 needed the puzzle in the shot (we put it on top of a frame for easy carrying in and out).

Day 2 schedule before the shoot/after the shoot. Lots of scenes migrated over from Day 1 after a late start. We shot everything on here!Credit: Kylie Murphy
After Giselle and I worked through a few bumps in the setup process, we got everything running smoothly and breezed through the packed schedule. For scenes that were only a few seconds long, we’d do one take and move on (safety sacrilege, I know). We didn’t strictly follow all the columns, but I made sure every scene looked distinct.

Having this structure made it possible to be much more relaxed with these changes than I anticipated; for example, rearranging the cat toys on the floor was a quick fix. And they also happened naturally—if she carried a bag in one shot, we’d just drop it on the couch for the next one, which would end up being 12 scenes later in the edit.

The schedule was all malleable. I could reorder things or add a quick scene and still keep track of it all. By the end of the shoot, we got everything in the script and more.

Use What You Got

The shoot was really just Giselle and me in our separate rooms, making the best use out of what we had on hand. So guess who made their screen acting debut as Friend on FaceTime? (I’m currently unrepped!)

For the flashing ambulance lights, we pulled up a YouTube video and put the screen brightness on high. When Giselle tries to get through to her insurance on the phone, we did actually call my insurance company. What you see on screen is that exact word-for-word call with the lines later replicated and dubbed over by a voiceover artist. (You won’t get me, Blue Cross Blue Shield lawyers!)

I didn’t originally plan on having cats as a part of the film, but Macaroni and Pete were absolute stars—and also, currently unrepped! Package deal? They add an infinite amount of fun and freshness to the movie. Giselle already owned the cat tree, and it was a great piece to delineate that passage of time.

I did end up shipping out several props straight from Amazon, like the thermometer and puzzle. What was originally going to be an offscreen beetle that Giselle traps became an onscreen daddy longlegs that she found in her shower and bravely wrangled for its movie debut (very much already repped). She released it into the wild before your eyes. I’ll find out if that restored the karmic balance of all my Amazon purchases when I get to the other side.

Here I am being of absolutely no use silently watching Giselle clean her house for 14 minutes. Completed scenes are highlighted in blue—you can see how we jumped around.Credit: Kylie Murphy

Post Production

Easily most of my money for this project went toward post for the sound mix, design, and music.

The lav audio definitely needed cleaning up, but was entirely salvageable thanks to a talented mixer. No ADR required.

I edited in Premiere and color graded in the free version of DaVinci Resolve. I did some noise reduction to the image, but I wasn’t really trying to hide the digitalness of it all. With the cropped aspect ratio, I could also make the shot perfectly symmetrical.

Editing the film down was a brutal and tough process. As much as there is in the film, there is only that much more on the cutting room floor. Including some of my best lines. Ah, the life of an actor…

Being Present

Because I had worked out every single detail and possible troubleshoot in advance, when it came time to actually shoot, we could just turn the camera on, press record, and forget about it. Which is exactly what I wanted. We could forget we were filming, which was easy to do if you just looked away from your screen for a second into your otherwise empty room. There’s no C-stand hovering nearby to stub your toe on.

I know it’s the nature of film, but I still think it’s a miracle any actor can deliver a performance with a flag being secured two inches from their head by someone (me) who is sneaking bites of an apple (granny smith) between takes.

Credit: Kylie Murphy
Our time together was so easy and so fun. Giselle is gifted with such incredible comedic timing and presence. It was an honor to be suction-cupped to her window. She improvised one-sided birthday calls and was constantly inventing things on the spot. When she did yoga, I was also on my mat, practicing along. When she danced, I danced. When she argued about Robin Wright, I argued about Robin Wright. (And won. Robin Wright is not in The Descendants.)

Shooting the film this way removed all the barriers between me and Giselle except, you know, the 3,000 mile one. Even though we weren’t together together, the film allowed us to be present with one another in a year when it’s incredibly difficult to exist in our current moment.

I had to accept the present circumstance in order to find the solution to making the film within it. As someone who is at higher risk for COVID and has had to be extra cautious, it’s easy to feel like I am behind in some way and will be for a while. I imagine this past year might not feel so different for others who live with an illness, like myself. The isolation, the hyper-awareness of the body. The feeling that we should be using this time to make ourselves better.

With this film, I wanted to explore growth as something cyclical—it rises and falls like the breath. It is made up of so many small and specific and imperfect moments that we cannot see it for ourselves.

The making of this film is a study in making something out of nothing, in a very nothing year. I’m sure my next project will look a little different (I’ll probably have at least one more crew member) but if anything, I hope this experiment is a testament to the value of inventing, of testing and planning, and being resourceful, all in service of being able to be present when it comes time to hit the red button.

This small, specific, and imperfect system I created gave way to something greater. It allowed me to—I’m quoting something I’ve heard recently—be here now.     

View more of Kylie Murphy's work at her website and on Instagram @kypicture.

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I don't know. It is very hard to call 'movie' those webcam, skype, zoom and etc. videos with forced narratives motives.

July 12, 2021 at 10:04AM, Edited July 12, 10:04AM

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