Embracing the Suck—Making a Short Film in the COVID Age

'Tooth'Credit: Chris Donaldson
These filmmakers didn't let the pandemic get in their way.

This post was written by Chris Donaldson.

There’s that dark moment on every single indie production where things seem held together by a single C-47 or piece of grip tape. When the budgets you’ve planned, the schedules you’ve gone over, the crews you’ve assembled, the scripts you’ve polished, and the actors you’ve begged to be in your film seem like they may disappear in an instant.

Credit: Chris Donaldson

If you’ve been making movies for more than a minute, you know the feeling. 

My dark moment punched me in the face at the beginning of COVID. When the pandemic hit, it was mandated by the state of Washington that we couldn’t film. At all. Since a lot of our bread and butter comes from shooting commercials, this was a killer. Clients disappeared, and so did the jobs they brought with them.

So we buckled down like everyone else and rearranged the pieces. Usually, with every commercial project we make as a company, we usually sock away a percentage for passion projects. One of these projects we had to shelve was a personal short film we’d been working on called Tooth.

Tooth was supposed to shoot in the early summer of 2020, and we had the budget in place, the actors lined up, and the tiger team assembled. We were ready to go.

But with the production freeze, all we could do was watch the days slip into weeks into months. It became a blur of not knowing what to do.

Until one day my production partner Julien and I decided to do the one thing that would save the project, and maybe even the company:

We committed to a shoot date.

Credit: Chris Donaldson
This single act was the difference-maker. It forced us to start regaining our mojo and find creative producing solutions to the challenges of COVID. We decided to embrace the suck, as long as we could do it safely.

This involved facing the harsh reality that we’d have to recast one of our leads since she couldn’t get across the border from Canada. She was the perfect "Mom" for our film and it was tough to see her go, but we knew we couldn’t wait any longer.

After multiple Zoom auditions, read-throughs, and rehearsals with other actors, we stumbled on a solution that had been staring us right in the face all along, and we cast the main character’s real mom for the role. Since they were in the same family "bubble," this would minimize their exposure to COVID and had the benefit of an already established acting relationship.

'Tooth'Credit: Chris Donaldson
The next thing we did was counterintuitive to every producing bone in my body. We added a shoot day to our two-day schedule.

With three shoot days, we could buy ourselves the time we needed to focus on a COVID-safe set and be extra intentional around the COVID protocols that have now become habit. We insisted on negative test results from everyone, took everyone’s temperature constantly, and served crafty in individually wrapped Ziplock bags. We minimized scenes that had any extras and kept crew to a minimum. We became religious about hand sanitizing, mask-wearing, and social distancing.

All of which added time to an already packed schedule.  

Another casualty was the budget, which had to be completely retooled. Since we hadn’t worked in a while, we’d been living off what we would usually spend on projects like these. So we were forced to cut everything from the script that wasn’t absolutely needed to move the story forward.

This in itself was a priceless lesson, and nothing else was spared. We shot in our own houses instead of the Airbnb’s we’d lined up, we trimmed down the gear list, we removed even more shots, and we shrank the crew a second, then a third time. The only things that weren’t sacrificed were the lenses, where we scraped every cent together we could to rent Super Baltars to achieve a surreal look for the world we were building.

'Tooth'Credit: Chris Donaldson
Though watching everything shrink was a painful process, in the end, these decisions gave us back the time and space we needed to do the film the right way. And it led to some lucky moments.

There’s one scene in the film where our two young heroes ride a bike under a bridge at dawn. As we were setting up for the shot, we heard the sound of a train in the distance. We looked at each other and knew what had to happen. We grabbed the camera and the talent and everything else and scrambled up the trail, yelling stage directions as we ran. Then we turned, pushed the kids on their way, and got the shot right as the train passed overhead. It was a magical moment. 

What COVID taught us was sort of like that oncoming train, forcing us to make a move and do anything to make it happen. That’s what’s so special about filmmaking, and filmmakers, in general: the undying belief that no matter what obstacles show up, films can get made. 

Credit: Chris Donaldson
And we get it. This was just a short film shot over three days. We know there are tons of filmmakers and artists out there who have taken our small budgets and schedules and problems and multiplied them by a factor of 10. Or a hundred. Who have truly been lost in far deeper woods but have come out the other side. That’s what motivates us. That’s the spirit that keeps us wanting to do bigger and better things.

We got Tooth in the can in the early fall of last year, and it’s now wrapping up the festival circuit. It screened at 14 festivals around the world and won awards for best short at the Gold Coast Film Festival and Open Window International Film Festival. It even played at the legendary Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

If there’s a takeaway lesson to that, it’s to commit to your own shoot date. It’s to double down on your own projects and think about things—even global pandemics—as potential opportunities. There will always be something in your way, so be ready to punch through it and embrace the suck.

Get the cameras rolling.      

Tooth premieres Dec. 23 at www.moment.film/tooth. Check it out and let us know what you think. 

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2 Comments

wonderful data.

December 16, 2021 at 2:21AM

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denverli
manager
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Speaking of embracing the suck. Too bad an ad covered a paragraph of content of this article. I would have really liked to have read it.

December 16, 2021 at 9:08PM, Edited December 16, 9:09PM

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Dave Palmer
Retired Electrical Engineer
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