This guide is for keen filmmakers who want to keep creative during coronavirus. It assumes you have no budget and want to produce and distribute a web series in lockdown anyway — like I did with Retcon, a sci-fi series about a time travel agency.
Synchronous video tech would be ideal — there are a few rapidly improving streaming options — but Zoom is easily accessible and more understood. It’s also the one with which I have the most experience.
1. Write it.
Easier said than done but just write a good episode. Good story is always key and can transcend nearly any medium.
2. Cast it.
Cast actors that have some experience with Zoom. It’s a not as organic as real conversation but it‘s lockdown friendly and can give you some aesthetic options we’ll touch on later.
3. Shoot it.
a. Technical Preparation
Check your Zoom settings. On a Mac, open up Zoom and go to Preferences > Recording. Make a note of where your recordings will save down to, and make sure you tick the following boxes:
Record a separate audio track for each participant
Optimise for third party editing
b. Host The Set
Host a Zoom call then invite your cast and crew to join. Jump in, catch up, and get used to how the latency feels, especially if you’re shooting with team members overseas.
c. Table read, if you haven’t
This can be a good time to do a few unrecorded runthroughs as a table read if you haven’t done one already. If you haven’t, add some extra rehearsal time to your shoot schedule.
On Retcon, we shoot 6 page scripts in two hours, with half an hour at the front to rehearse and run technical tests.
When you go to record, turn your own camera off and hide non-video participants. Then start rolling in Speaker View.
When you record that call, the recording will save down what you see on your screen as the local host. Once you’ve started recording a Zoom call, you can Stop Recording to ‘cut’ that take. You won’t receive a file immediately but, when you end the Zoom call and it saves down, each of your start-stop ‘takes’ will save in a separate folder in your Zoom directory.
If you have paid for Zoom, we’d suggest starting-stopping your takes like the above and saving them all down at once at the end your shoot.
If you haven’t — and this guide is for you—we’d suggest just shooting in thirty minute takes so you don’t run overtime of the limit. This gives you natural breaks between your different ‘setups’.
Record clean takes of Speaker View with yourself—assuming you’re directing/producing and not onscreen talent—muted and hidden from video after you call action. Run through this master shot a few times and, when you’re ready to move on, pin on your talent in Speaker View and go top to bottom with them. Repeat for each cast member.
You could also get coverage in Gallery View if you’re working with a few cast but editing this way could get tricky.
The .mp4 file you’ll receive when you save will export in 1280*720. This means you’ll have to upscale the image to fit a 2K or a 4K frame but this also options up some fun options with the real estate behind the call windows.
Retcon scales the video up 500% to fit into a 4K frame with some room around the edges, then layers the characters’ respective desktops underneath the windows. It’s a fun effect and it’s a great chance to show off some sweet digital art as backgrounds too.
It will also save your talents’ mic inputs as separate tracks which is helpful for sound mixing. Record some room tone at the end of the shoot in case you want to fill but the characters’ mics will naturally pick some up between lines anyway — a quirky advantage of the lag.
4. Cut it.
I use Premiere but, at this point, you’re just dealing with regular clips and regular audio files. Start with your unpinned Speaker View takes to get a rough sense of the scene’s rhythm, and then start actually cutting with your pinned takes.
This is just artistic now rather than technical and the fundamentals of video editing are out of the scope of this article.
Add VFX, SFX, music, colour, titles as you go and you’ll wind up with a cool pilot ready for the limelight.
If you were just making a short film and reading this article anyway, enjoy.
If you’re making a web series, rinse and repeat this process for each episode. But how many episodes should you make? Depends on the story but it also depends on your release strategy.