Corporate stories in a pandemic

Secrets of producing a corporate drama with Skype

Storytelling is the technology that allows us to run modern societies as if they were villages. 

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar observed a correlation between the size of a primate’s brain and the average size of its social group.  He reckons humans have evolved to live in groups of around 150.  As human society grew, we therefore needed to evolve laws and enforced norms to maintain a stable cohesive group.  Storytelling is a tool from this box. 

With teams spread to the four winds there’s a particular need for communication at the storytelling level. 

I make corporate video drama.  I’m usually tasked with influencing behavior.  This week, people have been asking me how to get around the restrictions of the pandemic to make video drama.   

In this article I’ll:

  • Set out what you can do to successfully complete already established video drama projects
  • Show how you can make effective corporate drama using Skype and other video conferencing services. 

Adaptation

At time of writing, some people are still going to work, so we can still legally film stuff, but bringing a team together for a drama is nevertheless challenging.  Even for a small production gathering crew and cast into a relatively small space presents risks.  Plus, one of our team may have to self-isolate at short notice.  And then there’s the make-up. 

Video conference drama – can it really be done?

More exciting is the prospect of making a video with the restriction of having to film it through Skype or Zoom.  Any good student of film-making is drawn to the challenges of making a film with major technical restrictions.  ‘Phone Booth’ (shot in a phone booth), Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ (set in a lifeboat) and ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (95% set in one room) are all examples of movies famous for having been produced within profound technical restrictions. 

But what my clients really want to know are the technicalities.  Can this really be done?  Will it be any good? 

But what my clients really want to know are the technicalities.  Can this really be done?  Will it be any good?  So, here are some reflections on how we can actually to this thing and why it can make excellent content.

Sound Recording

Sound is the first thing people mention when we talk about recording Skype, “it’s so bad!” they complain. This is easily solved.  You can use a phone in front of your actor, or even better a digital recorder. Zoom and Tascam models are available from £80 on Amazon.  You can post one to each of your cast. 

Zoom recorder

Audio Enhancements

We can improve the sound quality of voice recording by using a headset mic directly into a recording device rather than into the Skyping computer.  Rewiring may be needed.   

We can also make a room less echoey with soft furnishings, coats, curtains or blankets. 

Camera Work

A director of photography (DoP) isn’t much interested in the mechanics of a camera, they are interested in light.  And, with no professional equipment whatsoever you can control the light.  This is what the DoPs did on Dogme films – those Scandiwegian movies made on a shoestring with their famous ten rules or “Vows of Chastity” mainly consisting of technical restrictions.  No 4 on the list said “Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)”

The Dogme crews therefore used what they had, – curtains, room lights, positioning cast in relation to the light, and sheets of board and to block and reflect light. 

All of these are available to us.

Casting

All the casting I do nowadays is online.  Most cast have showreels and you can always get them to do a reading over Skype. 

Of course, this is an unusual casting call.  We’re looking for people who have technical know-how and a willingness to be responsible for using it while filming in their own homes.  A challenge plenty of actors will jump at.  It sounds a bit ground-breaking, don’t you think? 

Costume

We use costume to tell the story.  Clothes help describe the character, and they show time moving forward. 

Problems arise for us if the actor hasn’t got any clothes remotely representing the character you’re trying to portray.  On the one hand, everyone looks the same when they’re in a T-shirt and jogging bottoms.  Work with what you’ve got or order more costume online and have it delivered to an actor’s home.

Script

Now we bring all this together and really get to think about what we can do with it.

Ideally, of course, your script shouldn’t just be quickly adapted from one you have been planning to make, it should be written afresh. 

Suddenly we have a positive use of the new medium that is intrinsic to its character, easy to do and fun to watch. 

Let’s pretend some of the participants in your video conference are messaging each other in parallel to the conference discussion.  Suddenly we have a positive use of the new medium that’s intrinsic to its character, easy to do and fun to watch. 

The problem of not being able to show anything outside of the video conference also presents possibilities. It brings to mind an epistolary novel – naturally episodic. 

Directing

I studied Hitchcock to get into filmmaking.  His movie Rear Window uses a great device we can play with.  A couple cooped up in their apartment due to sickness (hang on!) look out from their balcony at a whole village of characters and relationships in apartments across the way.  The shots across from the balcony are small in the frame to keep that point-of-view feeling.  Watching tiny figures from a distance is like holding someone’s attention with a candle at the end of a room.  The little, blurry images of our cast have a mystery that can be exploited.

Still from Rear Window
Still from Rear Window

We may not have fancy lenses but there’s still plenty of scope to work on framing.  Someone’s funny because their head is always out of shot, another person paces, someone is faceplanting.  There’s drama in them there Skype recordings. 

The fact that this lo-fi medium provides the viewer with an experience very much like their real life experience can work to support our suspension of disbelief.

When directing I try to think about what’s going on outside the camera’s frame.

When directing I try to think about what’s going on outside the camera’s frame.  We are only ever focusing on a tiny detail of a big organization, but what that society is affects what goes on here. By thinking in this way, we suggest a bigger world in the viewer’s mind.  Having a limited frame is not a negative.  There’s so much outside of it we know is there but can’t see.  That’s an opportunity. 

Set

The set is another storytelling tool.  It’s a challenge when the room our star has to offer doesn’t tally with their character’s, but there are solutions: 

  • Assign your cast to characters after you’ve seen what set elements they have available 
  • Shoot against a plain wall, it could be anywhere
  • Arrange the furniture and lighting to change the feel
  • Suggest set with light and dark

Makeup

We don’t use make-up to make actors look beautiful, but rather to make them look unremarkable insofar as they appear appropriate to the setting and story beat.  Most actors have some makeup training – they’ll just have to do it themselves! 

Editing

I’ve had several editors over the last few days remind me that they are completely self-sufficient, with their own high-powered machines and high-speed internet connections.  Finding editors isn’t a challenge for a project like this.

Communicating with the editor, apart from by Skype, by email or pigeon post, can be done very nicely using Vimeo’s review function.   

With feedback incorporated, your video is now complete and ready to publish.

Summary

Looking back over what I’ve written, the whole enterprise rather reminds me of that scene from Apollo 13 where they had to make an air filter out of a loo roll and some gaffer tape. A challenge under stress, but an exciting one. 

Since I began writing this article we’ve just won a commission to produce our first video conferencing drama.  I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun.  I’ll leave you with this wonderful clip from Modern Family. This entire episode from 2015 was constructed from video conference calls and is a great, comic example of what can be achieved.

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