How We Produced Our Short Film While Trapped In Quarantine

Behind the scenes of We Can't Go On
Indie filmmaking at its core. 

Written by Michael A. Livingston and Amanda Dreschler.

Making a movie in quarantine is perhaps the perfect test for the theory that art functions best within limits.

We produced our own new short film, We Can’t Go On, during the months of April and May when almost every person and business was in a complete state of lockdown due to COVID-19. The anxiety in the outside world was slowly seeping into our apartment and our psyches, and our goal was to use that as a playground for the style of film we really wanted to make: a study of isolation and relationships, with dreamlike sequences, existential horror, punctuated by moments of levity to ground the story.

We wrote, directed, and acted in the film, and Dan Kneece was our remote cinematographer.

Making a film together entirely in quarantine with remote collaborations was a masterclass in doing more than you think you can, working with crew members virtually (which is becoming a more common production practice), and exploring new emotional territory that brings you closer to your art.

In the film, we are introduced as a couple who are under a mysterious, self-imposed quarantine as they await the receipt of a career-changing email. This anticipation, and the lack of outside influence or interaction, begins to weigh on them and opens up past relationship traumas and other idiosyncrasies.

A part of the process that we both enjoyed was determining where we would stick to reality, and where we’d drift into fiction. In reality, we were waiting for an email about a big, life-changing project, Amanda really is that into puzzles, a foreboding crow visits us quite often, and we can all relate to the insanity that a growing pile of cardboard delivery boxes feels like.

Since our typical commercial work was paused with our production company Quick Brown Fox, we had an open freeway of time, but a constriction of resources and space. This push and pull forced us to find new creative muscles and reimagine our development process. But, at the end of the day, we were confronted with the same question that all quarantine creators face: how can I extract value and meaning from this box around me?

We shot suing the Canon C300 Mark II and Sumire Prime lenses.

As a couple in life and in work, intimacy with each other is nothing new. But mining narratives and emotions from our relationship was a first for us, a challenge and an exercise to function on- and off-screen.

In order to build a more complex story that felt emotionally true, we wanted to tap those strong emotions, many of which felt new and specific to the collective experience that we’re all having: a lack of control of the outside world, the changing nature of time during a pandemic, the push and pull between the individual and the collective, and the constantly evolving state of our relationships.

Our film came together through the possibilities of collaboration, some of which were very familiar to us, like leveraging the strengths of our circle of friends and past collaborators. Others were a first, like working with a remote cinematographer that allowed us to achieve the technical and creative precision we needed, and that also allowed us to handle lights and equipment with invisible hands as our guide.

A weird silver lining to shooting during a pandemic was that some of our friends who would otherwise not be available to us were available and ready to work on something.

Our existing relationships in the industry fortunately meant that we were able to bring these amazing folks on with the promise of a production and an exciting creative endeavor.

Michael is already used to wearing a lot of hats, as he was an editor for a long time, so we had our cast, writers, editor, and directors on board. We then brought on producer Michael Valinsky, and then Dan came aboard as our DP.

We shot using available light and practical fixtures.

Through our commercial work, we were able to borrow an EOS C300 Mark II and Sumire Prime lenses from Canon. Our production value was now much higher than we originally imagined, and as the strange mix of excitement and fear set in, we began our planning sessions with Dan.

Dan never set foot into our home, but through a mix of Zoom, FaceTime, and his overflowing cup of patience, he was able to expertly walk us through each setup and to achieve the footage we needed.

We started by sending Dan a floorplan of our apartment and had several planning sessions. We would structure each day in terms of a day or night shoot, and would set a call with Dan for the evening before or the morning of, depending on the day. When we were shooting, we would set the laptop on a stand and point it at the monitor. Dan would watch and tell us in real-time to tweak certain things. Then, we’d roll a few takes without him and call him back, where he would typically give us additional feedback on our mistakes and we’d go back again.

For more complicated scenes, including the final scene, we did a filmed rehearsal to determine the proper setup.

We shot 10-bit for its latitude in post.

Shooting with the Canon C300 Mark II was easier than we expected, and its compact and lightweight nature allowed us to get cinema-quality shots without any crew.

Amanda is not used to shooting and typically has trouble with larger form factors, but was able to use the Mark II in a run-and-gun setting without issues. The Sumire Prime lenses were very lightweight compared to the other primes, and they created a warm, non-mechanical look that transformed the environment of our apartment. 

The candlelit dinner scene was one of the more challenging camera setups. On the night that we were ready to go, our neighbors had a dinner party that ruined our chance that night. In total, we worked on this scene for six nights in a row, then a couple of re-shoots later on due to some out-of-focus shots.

At times we would go a little wide with shots, so we covered scenes three to four times adjusting focus each time. This was challenging but worth it in the final product.

The most complicated scene to light was the lava lamp conversation scene. At first, we tried to just use the lava lamp, but it was dimmer than expected. We brought in a few LED candles around us to add more glow, and we spent a sleepless night lighting this and shot the next evening. That was the most complicated lighting.

Lastly, we often relied on waveforms to ensure that things weren’t getting over or underexposed.

Our advice to anyone who is restless and looking at the coming winter months? Gather your friends (virtually), use your location to your advantage, mine current events for new narratives and themes, and try to do things you typically wouldn’t be able to in another environment.

The creativity in filmmaking we’ve witnessed this year, from shorts and music videos to social video parodies, is more proof than ever that the future of indie filmmaking is up for the taking.     

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1 Comment

"perfect test for the theory that art functions best within limits"
I still want to make a test where I have a ton of money, gear, locations, full crew of professionals and the only limitation is my lack of experience! LOL!

November 25, 2020 at 8:02AM, Edited November 25, 8:02AM

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