Pandemic productions: Canadian filmmakers trying to finish projects remotely

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many parts of the screen industry, Toronto filmmaker Barry Avrich was in the middle of making a documentary on Canadian comedy star Howie Mandel.

It seemed the "most bizarre, serendipitous moment in filming," Avrich says, since Mandel had already been practising physical distancing practically his whole life due to his widely known germophobia and obsessive compulsive disorder.

And so instead of halting production on "Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me," Avrich continued to interview the funnyman for the Crave-bound film via Zoom video conference, which suited the star just fine.

"COVID-19 hit and basically his response to that was: 'Welcome to my world,"' Avrich says.

"We've been perfecting the technology and figuring out a way to transmit footage and things like that. But it's working on that end of it. It doesn't mean I won't have to reshoot things, but in the meantime it allows us to move forward."

Like the TV industry, in which some shows are operating remotely, parts of the Canadian film world are also trudging through the pandemic to make, continue or complete projects with teams working from their respective locations.

Developing and writing a project can typically be done remotely anyway, and many editors and composers are equipped at home to work on their own, say those in the industry.

But some filmmakers are getting crafty in continuing with aspects of production or post-production that are often done with physical interactions.

Not that it's without frustration.

Avrich also worked remotely recently to put the finishing touches on his new documentary "Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art" so it could debut through Hot Docs at Home on CBC last month.

He had to figure out how to do colour correction, sound and graphic elements with dispersed teams -- jobs usually done in a room with everyone together.

"If you're sitting in a post production house, you can make changes in real time," he says. "Now, they'll send me a link, I'll watch it, I'll send them 50 or 60 changes and notes, they get very frustrated because the notes and the changes keep coming, and then a link gets sent back to you.

"So it's time-consuming, but you have no choice."

Montreal-based Nathalie Bibeau is also finishing editing her documentary "The Walrus and the Whistleblower" for the Hot Docs online festival later this month, in which Avrich's film will also screen. And she's wrapping another project for CBC's "The Nature of Things."

She's had to go through three different editors, because "everybody had different crises that were coming up" during the pandemic, and worked in a studio with a sound mixer while maintaining a safe physical distance.

"I do feel lucky to be honest, because a lot of people in the industry have been saying that there's going to be a generation of stranded films because of this," Bibeau says.

John Christou, director of operations for the National Film Board of Canada's English program, says some filmmakers are also looking at creative ways to make stuff from home.

"A good example would be trying to put a documentary together based solely on archival footage ... or put a documentary together that's a mix of Zoom calls and social media screen grabs from your computer," says Christou, founder of Prospector Films, which recently released the Indigenous zombie film "Blood Quantum."

Animation is another area that can continue in some respects, particularly for auteur and independent projects -- that is, if contracts haven't dried up and stopped production.

Michael Fukushima, studio head and executive producer of the NFB's English Animation Studio in Montreal, says several of their animation creators are in the development phase, and some projects are in post-production.

"We have a couple of filmmakers who are working entirely digitally," says Fukushima, noting animators using 2D and 3D CGI digital software are largely autonomous enough to work from home.

"They have been able in the past to buy the rather expensive laptops that they need to be able to do the kind of work that they do, so they're doing fine."

But not all animators have laptops that are powerful enough to do production work remotely.

And some types of animation, like stop-motion, can't happen without access to a studio, crews and certain camera equipment.

Fukushima says the pandemic lockdown is harder on larger-scale animation projects with big studios, because they typically need on-site supervision from the likes of a director. They also usually need large software servers that can't be accessed remotely due to security issues.

He predicts the pandemic will lead to a rise in use of expensive syncing software, which allows remote teams to see what each other is working on.

"I suspect every studio now is going to have at least two or three licences of that," Fukushima says.

Over at the NFB's English Digital Studio in Vancouver, they're "ploughing ahead" with several projects that already had teams across the country working remotely before the pandemic, says Rob McLaughlin, the studio's executive producer and head.

Those projects include experimental games, an interactive theatre piece that includes virtual reality, and a co-production with France using augmented reality to detail global financial systems.

"There are new considerations to take into place, like people's home offices are now overrun with children and partners and other things that impact their ability to do work," he says.

"But generally speaking, we work remotely on most of our projects regardless."

McLaughlin says he's seeing more people in the industry realizing "quality work can be done using new kinds of tools and new kinds of processes."

Christou predicts the pandemic will accelerate a trend toward working remotely in film.

But he doesn't think this will "lead to a wholesale change in how production is done."

"There are certain things that benefit from physical interaction," Christou says. "Even meetings are far more effective in person than on Zoom and Skype."

Other projects forging ahead at this time include the newly launched "Greetings from Isolation" series, in which a group of Canadian filmmakers is making a series of shorts.

And CBC/Radio-Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts recently announced a new funding initiative to help the country's arts community pivot work to online audiences during the pandemic.

Bibeau predicts the doc world may start to see "extremely personal stories" come out of the pandemic.

"Like a story about your mom or about your kids or about your husband, because that's what we have access to right now," she says.

"That actually kind of gives me chills, from a creative standpoint -- that we might actually start to dig a lot deeper in our own personal micro-environments and deliver these powerful personal stories, because those are the people we can actually be around."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.

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