How We Made a Film Remotely (And It’s Not Another Zoom Film)

Credit: Mathilde Suissa
We decided to push remote shooting even further. Here's how.

This post was written by Mathilde Suissa.

You’ve seen those films taking place only over Zoom, like Host, Unfriended, and countless others. Our film, Depart, while still virtual, is different. We decided to push remote shooting even further: no Zoom, no contact, high production value, and an impactful story, during an unprecedented pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic, something we continue to face, left artists, performers, and filmmakers displaced from the work and jobs we love. To create in a world where everything was frightening and uncertain, where we could not work together safely, director of photography Jennifer Liu, actor and producer Lauren Sowa, and I (Mathilde Suissa, writer/director) set out to make a film entirely remotely while in quarantine.

'Depart'Credit: Mathilde Suissa
Over the course of a week in October of 2020, and previous weeks of logistical planning and pre-production, our three-person all-female team crafted a story about loss, grief, and futuristic uncertainty during a time in our lives that mirrored these themes.

Jennifer and I made out a plan to extensively prep and map out the production since they would not physically be present on set. Lead actor and producer Lauren Sowa took on the task of shooting the film remotely in her home in the Bronx, NY, with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, paired with Canon lenses and a tech integration that allowed for Jennifer and me to be “present” on set and connected to the camera.

Here’s how we did it.

'Depart'Credit: Mathilde Suissa

Script and Story

From the start, I knew that the script would have to be written around many restrictions. One actor, no on-set crew, one location, and realistic expectations with one person behind the scenes. With those guidelines in mind, the story actually came quite quickly to me.

The pandemic largely influenced this story, but I wanted it to resonate with an unknown and still remain a relatable societal issue. Global warming and an uncertain future remains a foremost issue, coupled with the pandemic, so anxiety and isolation were at an all-time high. I channeled these themes in the script, but ultimately, at its core, Depart examines grief and loss during a time of instability, like so many still continue to face right now.

With this story in mind, it enabled our team to craft the narrative while staying virtual. 

Credit: Mathilde Suissa

Virtual Pre-Production

Preparation

The script was broken down and turned into a lined and shooting script. A blueprint of Lauren's home was made and used to make precise overheads for mapping out each scene and shot. Lauren's blocking, camera placement, and lighting schemes were detailed in the overheads.

This enabled Lauren to easily place the camera/tripod and lights in her home, like using a virtual map. Using the blueprint, Mathilde drew out storyboards specifically drawn to Lauren's home, which gave Lauren a clear frame for what each shot would look like, along with information about which lens would be used for each frame. 

Credit: Mathilde Suissa
Shooting schedules were made like any other shoot, grouping locations together and simplifying set-ups based on camera placement and focal length. Knowing we could only have a static camera, Jen and I created a vision and shot list that would reflect solitude, loneliness, and emptiness through still shots enclosed within door frames, long single takes, and wide angles, juxtaposed with hectic and anxiety-inducing close-ups and ECUs.

Close-ups of grabbing and packing items, strange and futuristic objects, and Lauren’s facial expression and emotion allowed us to slowly build up tension. We had to simplify our shots since only one person would be on set. Many set-ups were used for multiple shots, only changing levels and lenses to create a focal distance.

Credit: Mathilde Suissa

Tech

Jennifer and I and Lauren both own the same camera, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, which enabled seamless tech support and camera instruction from DP Jennifer to Lauren. The camera rig was built with Jennifer and Lauren via Microsoft Teams a week before the shoot, which allowed for lessons and troubleshooting. 

Prep also called for multiple camera tests prior to the shoot, so clear framing and lens choice could be established, but also allowed for difficult scenes to be rehearsed and blocked prior to the shoot so Lauren could focus on her character and performance. Lauren and I planned all of her wardrobe and the production design just like a normal shoot, making breakdowns and costume sheets with each item and scene. I have been a professional production designer for many years, so I was able to communicate with Lauren which areas needed to be set dressed beforehand and created the key props. 

Credit: Mathilde Suissa

Gear

We shot at a constant of 400 ISO on the Blackmagic, primarily taking advantage of natural light along with softbox lighting units. We utilized two tripods, a photo and video fluid head. The photo tripod was primarily used for the overhead shots, as the tripod head can be tilted parallel to the floor.

  • Camera: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K, external V-mount batteries, rods, 4K capture card, SSD mount
  • Media Storage: 2 CFAST cards 2 x 128gb and SSD 500tb
  • Tripods: Video fluid head tripod and photo tripod
  • Light: 2 softbox light units with dimmers, lighting stands, silver, gold, and white reflectors
  • Lenses: Canon 35 f1.4, 50 f1.2, 85 f1.2, 17-40 f4
  • Sound: Zoom recorder H4n Pro, 2 Tascam lavs DR-10L, and batteries

Credit: Mathilde Suissa

Virtual Production

There were two crucial components: a 4K Capture Card and Microsoft Teams.               

4K capture cards are very popular within the gaming and streaming community, but to put it simply, it’s a device that’s used in conjunction with a computer to capture on-screen content and encode it for playback in either a livestream or a high-quality video file.

Capture cards can be used with video game consoles new and old, as well as computers and cameras. The purpose of a capture card is to take a video feed from one device and transmit it through an HDMI cable to another device so that it can be encoded for playback or streaming.

In our case, using a 4K video capture card gave us the ability to turn our laptops into video village, integrating the camera feed and allowing all of us to see video and playback on our own computer screens remotely.

Microsoft Teams is a digital workspace that has video conferencing, file storage, and application integration combined. Using Microsoft Teams for the shoot allowed for seamless communication (both chat and video), file sharing, and 4K video capture integration.

Lauren would connect the BMPCC 6K camera to the capture card, which was plugged into her laptop, while using Microsoft Teams as our video calling software. While in Teams, changing the video input settings to the BMPCC 6K instead of the laptop camera gave us access to the camera’s screen for video feed and playback for the entirety of the shoot.

Credit: Mathilde Suissa
Each shoot day was planned with a production schedule, shot list, and overhead diagrams, but with such a unique production and only one person physically on the set, we took it one day at a time.

Lauren had the most difficult role, having to slate, run sound and her lav, prepare props, adjust lights, but the extensive tech preparation allowed for her to focus on her performance and character.

After slating, Lauren would take a few moments to herself, and walk on in character. We had ample breaks throughout the day for Lauren to adequately rest and discuss character notes. Screenshots were taken by Jennifer and me in Teams for each scene for continuity and reference.

We averaged around 10 shots per day, which encompassed a total of five days to wrap the film. Lauren's skill as a professional photographer with knowledge of cameras and lights made this ambitious venture possible. 

Credit: Mathilde Suissa

Post-Production

At the end of each shoot day, Lauren would dump footage onto her hard drive and wipe media for the next shoot day. After wrap, Lauren was able to send all the footage using WeTransferPro, which allows for large size transfers and file storage organization.

I knew I was going to act as editor and colorist, as I have for many of my passion projects.

My editing and color grading software is DaVinci Resolve. For the most part, I have switched over my editing workflow to DaVinci Resolve from Premiere, it allows for an absolutely seamless transition into color grading, VFX, and sound editing. We treated editing just like the shoot, remote editing sessions to show new cuts and get feedback. 

'Depart'Credit: Mathilde Suissa
The pivotal role of the news anchor ties the film together in a powerful way. Lauren and I knew casting the right actor would be crucial. After receiving many talented auditions from voice actors, Natalie Abruzzo stood out as the clear choice, and she was cast immediately. Natalie is an on-air journalist and host, therefore her ability was natural. After a few sessions with my direction, Natalie recorded her voice over at her home booth and sent the audio to me, which was also mixed in DaVinci Resolve. 

All that to say, it was a wild ride! How we grapple and aim to tackle closure with such a global event remains an unknown process for most people, but with this film I hope to connect to others going through loss and grieving during an unstable and uncertain time in the world. The process of how we made this film shows that despite distance, human connection perseveres.

Depart will have its North American premiere at the Peekskill Film Festival, screening at the historic Paramount Theater, on Aug. 20.     

Mathilde and Jennifer are a director and DP called Take Two XX, where they focus on narrative and commercial projects. Lauren Sowa is an actor and producer based in NY, and is also co-president of NYC Women Filmmakers.

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