In 2020, the Sundance Film Festival happened in person; no one had really heard of the accursed new coronavirus. However, unbeknownst to us all, it was later understood that COVID-19 was in fact on the ground and transmitting across Park City.

By 2021, the virus was everywhere, and Sundance went virtual. As per normal indies and longer for docs, most films premiering at the fest had been in post-production for a year or longer. With some exceptions, the vast majority of Sundance 2021 films had wrapped production pre-COVID.

Enter 2022. We’re seeing that this year, films at Sundance represent the first indies to figure out production under COVID-19. In fact, many films had to abruptly stop shooting and then pivot on how to finish.

These independent filmmakers are the few who were able to find a way to finish.

So there’s a lot to learn.

51833276579_77296c89e4_cCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Rude awakenings, or how to deal with your film getting shut down

You’ve been planning your film for God knows how long. Once you’ve mustered the psychological stamina to begin production—BAM.

Julian Higgins, Director/Writer/Producer, God’s Country

“We were about halfway through the production schedule when the pandemic hit. We had to shut down with half a movie in the can. On top of all the general uncertainty about the future, we also wondered if we would ever be able to finish the project. I'm very grateful to be able to say that the producers never for a moment considered throwing in the towel.

For over a year, we were in constant touch, strategizing how and when we would be able to get the team back together to finish. Finally, in February 2021, a window opened up when it would be possible. This was pre-vaccine, so we had to implement the most rigorous testing and safety protocols to keep everyone healthy, but we pulled it off. 367 days after we shut down, we started rolling again, and we made it through. It was incredibly cathartic.”

Even just the fear of being shut down can make for productivity and commitment.

Krystin ver Linden, Director, Alice

“Knowing that at any minute the film could be shut down added a unique layer that forced me to keep a very hyper-focused composure and a mission to make a very creative atmosphere for my actors and crew pandemic be damned! And also shooting in Georgia during the Presidential election. I would see far-right protests on my way to the set which only fueled my need and desire to make Alice even more.”

51717718207_bb7027ff07_c'Alice'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Stage two of pandemic shutdown: SOS (send out smartphones!)

Remember when everyone was teaching their talent how to shoot themselves on an iPhone? Well, for many, it worked.

Tonya Lewis Lee, Co-Director, Aftershock

“When COVID first hit, I was like, 'I don't know how this is going to work.' But we came together. We were like, 'Let's get iPhones. Let's get iPhones and get them in the hands of our subject collaborators so that they can document what's going on while they're at home.'"

Paula Eiselt, Co-Director, Aftershock

“We had to finish what we started, and honor these women. Our driving force was to keep going, no matter what. And get creative. Those limitations allowed us to, as Tonya said, get iPhones for our sort of collaborators. We have amazing footage. And some of the footage that we would not have gotten if we didn't have to think outside the box like that. ”

Katie King, EP/Showrunner, We Need to Talk About Cosby

“This project began shooting in early 2020, and we were in the middle of a shoot in mid-March when the pandemic really hit. I remember standing next to Kamau [Bell] at our hotel in Philly when March Madness was canceled, and we knew shit was really going down. I think we did what most docu crews had to do when the pandemic hit—be a bit flexible and innovative with how to continue to operate but still keep everyone as safe as possible. [...] For some even more scaled-down shoots, we had the talent set up their own iPhone and Zoom and were fully remote. When COVID cases were down and vaccines were in arms, we returned to shooting in-person, but still masked and with all safety protocols in place. We tried to make the best of imperfect conditions.”

When in doubt, wear a hazmat suit from a Steven Soderbergh film

Simon Lereng Wilmont, Director/DP, A House Made of Splinters

“The orphanage did not use much masking equipment, because they pretty much closed themselves off from the outside world. This was great for the film, because it made it more universal and not COVID 'time-stamped,' but super hard for me. At times, I had to film the kids going about their daily lives, while I was wearing a hot and uncomfortable contagion-like outfit, which wasn’t exactly making me invisible to my surroundings. Of course, the kids couldn’t stop laughing, when I was trying to film them. Eventually, we managed to overcome it, and the absurdity of those moments brought some much-needed levity to the whole situation.”

Aftershock-still-1_51721265024_o'Aftershock'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Dealing with life (and your film) after you test positive for COVID

Olive Nwosu, Director, Egúngún

"It was a Saturday. I had some collaborators [who] were flying in from the UK, and they had just shut down travel in the UK to Nigeria. We would have to do our seven-day COVID tests. And they came back positive. We literally were supposed to shoot on Monday and it was Saturday afternoon, and our actors had just flown in from another city in Nigeria and we're literally about to enter our home when we got the test results. I was like, 'We can't let them into this building, because apparently we all have COVID in here!'

Both wonderful leads sat outside in the sun as we had a production meeting to decide what to do. Obviously, we had to postpone everything. They flew back home that same day. And then we were ill for 10 days. Finding the momentum to get back up and going was hard. For me, it really highlighted how much filmmaking is a collaboration. This film could not happen without that team spirit, and play and belief. And so, if, if there's a lesson that's the lesson."

Creative location scouting: film in Finland

Or someplace where the COVID rates are low.

Riley Stearns, Writer/Director, Dual

"One of the things we decided to do was shoot in Finland due to their handling of the spread and relatively low numbers. While it was definitely out of our comfort zone initially, Finland ended up being a dream location to shoot and benefited the film not only in regards to the safety of our crew, but also creatively and I can't imagine shooting it anywhere else now.”

51723458314_ebfd448105_c'The Panola Project'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Creative decisions: keeping the mask on

Eyes are the windows to the soul, right?

Jeremy S. Levine, Director, The Panola Project

"We kept our crew small (it was just Rachael [DeCruz] and I), made sure to keep up with vaccinations and boosters ourselves, and filmed outside whenever we could. We also remained masked. Dorothy, the star of the film, did as well. At first, we weren't sure how well a film would work if the audience never got to see the protagonist's full face. But for a film about the pandemic, it worked. It's amazing the way people compensate for the mask by making larger expressions—and so when Dorothy showed up in a mask, she really lit up the room. Masks also don't hurt when you're stitching scenes together in the edit!”

Budgeting all over again to account for COVID-19 testing and compliance

The daily COVID testing? It's expensive. Not every film could handle the burden.

Adamma Ebo, Director, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.

"It made it more expensive."

Adanne Ebo, Producer, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.

"We actually worked with an organization called Project Indie Hope that really bore the brunt of what would've been astronomical COVID costs. It made production a little bit slower, but because you can't just have people walking around all willy nilly jumping in vans together. Everyone has to arrive slightly earlier because they got to get tested in the morning and stuff like that. Eventually, you get used to it. Luckily we had a great COVID compliance team and people got the swing of it."

Chloe Okuno, Director, Watcher

"We shot, I think March, April, of 2021, on location in Bucharest. The cases at the time were pretty high. People didn't really have access to the vaccine yet. And just on a basic practical level, it becomes very difficult. You have to portion a lot of your budget to things like testing and other measures. And it just means that you feel like you're on even more tenuous ground and the movie could be shut down at any moment."

Somethinginthedirt_sundance2022'Something in the Dirt'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

When COVID meets DIY, put yourself in every role!

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, Co-directors, Something in the Dirt

“Making this thing during full quarantine, we had an in-person cast and crew of three, total, and a hardworking remote art department that would drop our props and set dec each morning. Performing every single role on a set in a single day, every day—actor, director, camera, sound props, makeup, wardrobe, continuity, catering—was simultaneously the most exhausting and most rewarding thing we've ever done.”

Utama-still-1_51707424304_o'Utama'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

When you get stuck at home or stranded abroad, make use of precious time

This might be the only silver lining of the pandemic: time for solitary work on the computer.

Alejandro Loayza Grisi, Director, Utama

“We were lucky because we were editing when the pandemic started and I got stuck in Montevideo [Uruguay]. I was there for eight months because there were no flights back to Bolivia.

But it was a good thing because I got to do the entire post-production there. We took longer to edit. That was also a good thing. We have a couple of laughs at first, because we said, 'We're making the first pandemic one in Bolivia.' Of course, then it went horrible as it did in the pandemic, so it's not funny anymore. But it was also with very luck that we got to shoot for and then do the entire post-production during the pandemic. Then we had the film ready, and we stayed with it like a long time before the release."

William David Caballero, Director, Chilly and Milly

"I know COVID was a hurdle for just about everyone who's a live-action filmmaker, but it was almost the perfect time for an animator like myself. There's no excuse not to just sit in my apartment in front of a computer for 10 hours animating and putting everything together. There are no parties I had to go to, no get-togethers, no gatherings. It was a time to really focus on the art."

Do you have a pandemic production to share? Are you one of the many filmmakers yet to finish a film due to COVID-19? We'd love to hear about your experiences.


Check out even more great coverage of Sundance 2022 from No Film School.