Storytelling & Filmmaking in Lockdown: What we learned whilst making our most ambitious film so far

We’re gearing up to release one of our most ambitious films to date. The official launch is coming soon but, in the meantime, let’s take a look at the process we went through to create this project.

We’ve been producing short films for a number of years. So far, a lot (but by no means all) have been short commercial pieces – often targeted for release on social feeds. These films were usually just a minute or so long – mostly static shots with any camera movement generally being created with the use of drone. Due to their very short run time, there was seldom any in-depth storytelling with sound often limited to environmental sounds and voiceovers. In 2019, as we became much more committed and seriously invested in filmmaking, this changed and with this came a push towards longer, more ambitious projects. We took our first steps towards this with our short film ‘The Pivot Moment’, which we released late in 2019 and then with a series of short commercial pieces we produced on our trip to California in February 2020 – whilst these were much shorter, we’d ramped up our pre-production and used more ambitious filming techniques.

Then in March 2020 the UK entered Coronavirus Lockdown. We knew straight away that this was going to impact the way we work – even the way we were used to living our lives. For one thing, any form of travel was off the cards. For the past three years at least, the amount we travelled had increased radically. Typically we’d be on a commercial, international trip every four to six weeks with shorter trips and day hikes in the UK in the spaces between. That was all put on hold for lockdown – indeed, we were due to depart to Lanzarote two days after lockdown began. That trip was, of course, cancelled. In place of all of this, the government guidelines stated we were allowed one exercise walk per day. What’s more, the walk had to be local – you were not meant to drive to get to the start of it.

Image description: A tile of four stills from the film running clockwise from left. An extreme close up of Fay’s eye, backlit in the sun with whisps of hair covering her face. Next: A close up of a natural branch - there seems to be a cobweb attache…

Image description: A tile of four stills from the film running clockwise from left. An extreme close up of Fay’s eye, backlit in the sun with whisps of hair covering her face. Next: A close up of a natural branch – there seems to be a cobweb attached. There is an out of focus background. Next: fay sits on a log in the forest and has back to the camera. The focus is zoomed out to be able to see the forest surroundings and it is a little dull day. Last: Close up of Fay’s hair blowing in the wind as she walks, hair being backlit.

To say the lockdown presented a lot of challenges for us is the greatest of understatements. It was a very tough time and we have touched upon some of the issues that were raised and how we dealt with them in previous articles here and here. However, this cloud did have one silver lining: we discovered the forest! We live in East London and we are relatively close to Epping Forest – a huge expanse of woodland including ancient oaks and preserved Iron Age forts that somehow managed to survive just beyond the bounds of one of the world’s busiest cities (the fact that a large section of the forest was previously a royal game park likely helped save many of the ancient oaks from being felled).What we did not realise, though, was how close the forest came to our house. Looking on a map, there’s nothing to indicate that the forest stretches right down to and even crosses the A406 ring road near our house. Yet it turns out that for all the time we’d been driving away from London looking for wilderness further afield, there had been a vast wooded area right on our doorstep.

We grew to love our walks in the forest during lockdown, relishing in the mindfulness work we’d been doing in the outdoors for years and applying this at great length to our outdoor time. It rapidly became clear to us that the woods would make a perfect subject for a short film – the exact benefits this provided and themes this goes into around mental health and self-acceptance will be drawn into more detail when the film is released. The more we brainstormed the idea, the more we realised that this project would have far more depth and substance than any film project we had previously worked on. For starters, we saw straight away that this project would be longer than anything we had previously worked on. It would give us the option to dive into more involved storytelling and also to introduce more complex camera techniques and movements to make the piece more visually compelling. In short, we looked at all the factors where we felt our previous films had fallen short and decided to build on every single one.

We had two substantial luxuries on this production, and we wanted to take full advantage of these: First of all, there was no client at the time. This film would be our vision and our vision alone. Second, we would have regular, sustained access to our shooting location over a long period of time. The benefit of this cannot be overstated! Normally we’ve found that we structure our film making around an amount of time filming on location and then time back in the studio editing and post producing. For this project, we realised we could work in a more iterative way: shoot, edit, review and then, critically, go back and shoot some more as we saw necessary. This allowed a great deal of flexibility in the production. Of course, it isn’t always possible to work like this: you may have limited access to a location or be time limited by factors like equipment hire or access to products or talent, but we had none of these limits and we knew we wanted to take full advantage of this!

We knew straight away that the project would be on a whole other scale and this was daunting! How could we make sure we shot everything we needed? How could we keep track of what we were shooting? How could we shoot it in the most efficient way?

The answer – as always – came down to preparation. Fay had started jotting down notes for the film’s voice over shortly after we discovered the forest, and our first step was to turn these into a script. Once we had the script, we broke it down into sections and started to think about what visuals would tell the story we were trying to convey and from here we built our shot list. This was not a short process, but it was incredibly therapeutic.

Image description: Four film stills in a tile, working left clockwise. A close up of flare in the forest and undergrowth. Leaves and branches are in the foreground as Fay zips up a blue backpack that is placed on the forest floor. Next: Extreme clos…

Image description: Four film stills in a tile, working left clockwise. A close up of flare in the forest and undergrowth. Leaves and branches are in the foreground as Fay zips up a blue backpack that is placed on the forest floor. Next: Extreme close up of Fay’s finger tips resting on a piece of wood. Next: Extreme close up with out of focus background of a flower in the forest. Last: Zoomed out shot with lens flare, Fay is walking into the forest, taking in the scenery and has back turned to camera. Wearing a blue backpack and dark clothes.

Instantly, it was clear that there would be a disconnect between the voiceover and the visuals. They seemed too separate. We hit upon the idea of ‘diary shots’ – sections of the voiceover where Fay would talk directly to the camera whilst hiking, thus connecting the sound to the visuals.

It was also clear that we would be shooting a lot more footage for this project than we had done for anything else. How could we keep on top of it all? There’s often a temptation when filming – especially in the outdoors – to just keep the camera rolling and worry about bringing everything together when editing. That may be fine when you’re working on a smaller project, but here we knew there was a real risk that shots would get forgotten or ‘lost’ when it came to the edit.

The solution was to extend our shot list into an on-set logging solution. With every shot we filmed we logged the filenames of each takes – and as we did, we’d indicate which takes were favourites – and made notes about what exactly had been filmed. This logging seemed tedious at first, but it soon became second nature and just another part of the process.As usual, Fay edited the film and remarked that the on-shoot notes made the whole progress – not just file wrangling – much more streamlined.

There were certain technical challenges to overcome: we knew we wanted a lot of camera movement in this film. Previously we’ve used drone shots for this – indeed when it’s safe to do so, a low flying drone makes a fantastic substitute for a dolly or crane shot in a relatively low budget production. However, in dense forest that’s still close to residential areas, flying a drone was totally out of the question – and would likely be illegal too. Our solution was to add a gimbal (electronic stabilisation device for our camera) to our equipment. This would allow us to get smoother hand-held shots and to walk and even run with the camera rolling without producing jerky footage. The Gimbal came with its own learning curve and there were a few days of testing required before we were ready to use it on the film.

The gimbal is awkward and tiring to use. With one of our DSLR bodies and a 24-70mm lens mounted on it, the whole rig weighs several kilos (it’s very top-heavy too) and rapidly makes your arms feel fatigued. It’s slow to set up – you need to run through a lengthy balancing process each time – and can’t easily be slung into a backpack to carry between locations. All of these negative points are fairly well offset (but not entirely, as it is such a clunky piece of kit) when you see what it can do for your footage. Jerky hand-held shots give way to smooth, fluid movement. The footage just feels slicker. The bulk of the project was shot with the camera on the gimbal. It isn’t appropriate for every scenario, but in this instance it shone. This one piece of equipment really did make the film possible.

Beyond this, we really wanted to elevate the post-production on the project. In terms of colour treatment, you’ll no doubt know that most of work features bold contrast and colours, but that didn’t seem appropriate for this project given the tone of the piece. We’ve worked together on a softer feel for the colours in the film: less intense than our normal landscape work, but still unmistakably ours. We’ve worked with composer Barry McKenna to produce a beautiful original score for the film. Beyond this, Barry also mixed, and post produced the sound design. The post-production process has lasted far longer than usual from a want to get it right, but also because we’ve allowed ourselves breathing space with the production and post production: a luxury that we don’t often have and have really enjoyed.

The film has certainly been a learning curve for us, but the process has certainly been rewarding. We’ve stepped up our production values and ambitions, but still managed to maintain a small, mobile team. Our mantra throughout has been that this should be a learning experience and that everything we learn and every mistake we make on this will make our future films even better.

Since we wrapped filming in the forest, lockdown has eased, and we’ve been able to make our first international trip since February. We went Lanzarote – the trip we had to cancel at the start of all this. Whilst there, we made a very different kind of film. With just one day in each location, the iterative workflow we used in the forest was not possible, but none the less, we used our experience to build our shot list and we stuck to it. The project we have shot in Lanzarote will be vastly different in terms of content and pacing to our film produced in lockdown, but the lessons we learned in the woods will still feed into it and the way we develop further as image makers.