How I Thrived as a Filmmaker During a Pandemic (By Making Really Bad Films)

Credit: Roberto Serrini
Pandemics. They're the worst, amirite? 

We're rounding nearly a year of a "new normal," and while hope is in sight, it's still pretty far off. As a commercial director and filmmaker, this year has been particularly "interesting" for my career, but with a little innovation, some clever marketing, and a very open mind, I was able to make the best of it, and even, dare I say, thrive, even if not how I expected.

Flashback to a year ago, and I was just starting to hit a stride in my career. I had been in SHOOT magazine's Top 30 New Directors Showcase, had my first rep, and was directing broadcast spots for Nike, Google, and Honda. Finally, I thought, years of hard work and dedication were starting to pay off.

Then someone ate a bat bisque, and my life, like everyone's, was put on hold.

A month in, when everyone stopped calling and all active projects were shelved indefinitely, I realized I had to make some creative moves.

The first thing I did was put together a little documentary that I shot with a friend about these funky, rare cookbooks called Italy In Bocca. It was just a passion project, something I could shoot single-handedly about a subject I hold dear to my heart (my stomach), and it just made me feel good to make something heartwarming when the world was falling apart. Call it the filmmaker's equivalent to baking bread.

I built a simple little website for it, attached the World Foodbank to the project, worked with Atlas Obscura in promoting it, and started doing interviews with celeb chefs that now, like all of us, had time on their hands to talk to random strangers. The project raised some money, helped out some people in need, and ended up bringing in some welcome attention that ultimately attached itself to some small projects. Little did I realize that this would be the beginning of a new way of filmmaking for me.

“Starting with something you are passionate about can bring welcome attention to new work.”

It was clear that everyone was looking for new media, so I started reaching out to brands that I really liked and creating content just on spec for them, mostly in trade for a product or a very (very) small budget.

Like most modern filmmakers, I am fortunate enough to be able to do a bit of everything even if not very well. From shooting to editing to even some light After Effects, these days it's easier than ever to have full production capabilities in your living room.

I tried being as creative as possible, working with whatever limitations the quarantine brought. For example, for Aegis, a data security company my friend worked for, I was able to pitch the following idea, using a simple camera trick and remotely directing an actor on his phone, allowing me to safely turn one actor into five.

“Shot on a cell phone with me on speakerphone, you can easily turn one actor into five.

When I had a handful of these self-produced projects completed, I launched onemanonecamera.com, which was my answer to "contactless content creation," a search term I saw skyrocketing in Google Analytics. Before long I was getting calls from all types of brands looking to do a wide range of work, from simple instructional videos to fully budgeted spots.

While my goal as a director naturally has been to focus solely on bigger and more complex work, I now found myself happily playing all the roles in production, using every asset around me to its fullest, and getting to work with new brands every week.

Recently I just finished doing spots for Dosist, an elevated cannabis company, and Dennis Buys Cars, a crazy used-car salesman. Brand-wise they couldn't be more different, but because I was able to offer a one-person production team and hand-crafted concepts, they were equally eager to have content created for them.

I don't think I would have ever had the opportunity to work with either one of these brands before the pandemic; I don't even know if they would have been on my radar. Now, however, I realize the best thing to come out of this whole shutdown has been how it's opened up my eyes to new possibilities by just putting yourself out there, and sometimes trying to make the worst film possible ends up being your best option.

“Good, fast, cheap; pick two doesn't apply when you are trying to make a bad commercial on purpose.”

I know a lot of filmmakers are going through strange times like everyone is. It can be depressing, unmotivating, and devastating economically, which is why I wanted to share my story and offer three key concepts that not only got me through this time but also have let me further my filmmaking career during this crazy slump.

Credit: Roberto Serrini

Take Inventory

Taking inventory of what you have to offer is probably the best place to start if you want to see immediate results in creative productivity. For many of us, we were on some sort of path in our career, but when the pandemic hit, the road forward seemed to end abruptly.

Taking inventory of what you have available is a way to cut a new path forward. What kind of gear do you have, or can have access to? It doesn't have to be a RED or Alexa that you are used to shooting with on set, it could be your phone, a GoPro, or even VHS. Anything becomes a tool when you use it as such.

Do you have access to other professionals or actors now with time on their hands? How about locations? Your living room, a garage, a nearby park. Just taking inventory and making a list will spur creativity.

Credit: Roberto Serrini

Take Initiative

The second most important thing to do is create. Anything. Use everything at your disposal to make something.

For me (because I like to eat) I found it easy to make something about cooking. It was something I knew I could shoot, edit, and distribute without having to rely on anyone else.

If there was something I needed to do, like build a website, now was a perfect time to watch some tutorials and put new knowledge into action. Making something you know you can complete with what you have available to you is key in connecting with new clients and more work.

Credit: Roberto Serrini

Take Chances

One beautiful thing about the world falling down all around you is the ease with which you can take big chances. Normally, if you are on some career path, you want to make "smart" choices. Work with the "right" brands, do the "right" work, so that you can move forward in a specific direction.

For me this was an extremely liberating time, offering the opportunity to take wild chances not just on new brands and clients, but creatively as well. Using new tools I just learned or diving into projects that I had no previous experience on. Reaching out to contact organizations, celebrities, and brands that normally wouldn't be interested or available.

Credit: Roberto Serrini

It's been a crazy, crazy year, without question. For me, that resulted in getting crazy with the work. I've been told before that if you want people to take you seriously, you need to focus on one direction and master it.

It would seem that during this time, the opposite would prove true. Open up your horizons, lend your unique perspective to brands and subjects that you normally wouldn't have considered. I feel extremely lucky to have made it through this rough time creatively, and done some unique work that opened up new doors to me, and what's more, connected me with new people, especially when the world is set on keeping us distanced from one another.     

Roberto Serrini is a filmmaker and editor based in Los Angeles and NYC. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com or his new contactless content creation production hub www.onemanonecamera.com.

You Might Also Like

Your Comment