Reel-life stories: Lockdown filmmaking and how it's adapting to changing times
While mental strength, hobbies and some homebound activities were a boon during lockdown — one has to concede that most of us survived the lockdown thanks to OTT platforms. The coronavirus pandemic may have brought the global film industry to a grinding halt but the increase in content consumption has never been higher. And encouragingly — the creative minds in the industry have not stayed idle. Although the first few months of the lockdown saw films shot virtually and using at-home setups (CU Soon, The Gone Game, Home Stories, Putham Pudhu Kaalai), with the restrictions eased, the on-floor shoots that have earlier been stalled have resumed alongside new films that are going on floors (Bell Bottom, Drishyam 2, Sulthan, Pisaasu 2). However, in light of the risk of contagion that still exists, shoots that are back on track face the need to strictly adhere to certain on-set safety guidelines (from deep cleaning props, disinfected costumes to using separate make-up kits on actors), as put forward by the Producers’ Guild. We speak to some of the industry insiders who have rallied together by supporting fresh content and by executing them in creative and responsible ways.
Despite the trying circumstances and many restrictions, one wonders how the quality of the eclectic range of films and features have not faltered. LA/Mumbai based filmmaker Sahirr Setthi who virtually directed Out With It, one of the four films in the Netflix’s anthology Home Stories, tells us how. “For the first time, I directed a film from home, away from my actors and the cinematographer. It was a unique challenge, but we tried to circumvent it by getting into a very detailed prep where I had a 300-page look book and a very detailed shot list. An entire team of producers and assistants were available on call to keep the communication going. Arjun Mathur (actor) and I had detailed conversations about the character, what kind of movement we want and the emotional craft. We were shooting at his place itself and the DOP, Jay Oza happened to be Arjun’s neighbour, so that was happy serendipity. The entire cast and crew treated the project as an experimental film and that helped us to execute it in a satisfactory manner.”
Less is more
Jimshi Khalid, the cinematographer of Khalid Rahman’s lockdown feature, Love, says the film was his most challenging project ever. “Working on Love was more exciting than doing a conventional story. Almost 95 per cent of the film was shot within a flat with hardly five characters. It was challenging to manage a 90-minute feature in a single location. Our resources were also limited as we worked with the crew of just 30 people. That said, I’m a person who likes to work in a minimalistic way, so it was a chance for me to avoid unnecessary crowds and work peacefully,” adds Jimshi, who’s also worked in Kappela, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, among other films.
When asked if there are concerns over compromising video quality, since the photography will have to rely on lesser sophisticated equipment, he shares, “Things would not have been the same if this were the film era, but in this digital era, with all the technology that is now available, anything is possible.”
Closer home, most sets saw blurring of lines between designations. While Filmmaker and actor Suhasini Maniratnam, who wrote, directed and acted in Coffee, Anyone? one of the five shorts in Amazon Prime’s Putham Pudhu Kalai roped in cousin Anu Haasan and niece Shruti Haasan for her film, director of Ilamai Idho Idho, Sudha Kongara multitasked by handling makeup as well as lighting, and pulled off creative experiments like using skateboards for dollies, and creating artificial rain using a water tank and pump, the filmmakers had revealed in earlier interviews with Express.
Currently waiting for the release of actor Suriya's Soorarai Pottru, and another Netflix anthology where she did the costume designing, stylist Poornima Ramaswamy worked on the short Ilamai Idho Idho as a costume designer and inadvertently as the production designer. Talking of her experience where they were not allowed more than 10 people on the sets, she says, "Though art and costume are interlinked, this is the first time that I am doing a production design. Even getting the costumes was very challenging and we could not get tailors for last-minute fittings. Many actors brought their own clothes and I had to choose from their wardrobe. I had to dip into my own wardrobe for clothes and jewellery and in fact director, Sudha also lent out her jewellery. Rhea Kongara (part of the production team) and I were washing vessels and mopping the floor to get the sets ready for a retake or the next scene. We were even holding lights for the cameraman!"
Clearly crowding up the sets is not an option — and hence screenwriting for a lockdown production also followed certain adaptations. Currently developing a TV series and an independent feature, Sahirr tells us, “One overcomes these limitations with meticulous planning and discipline. There are certain things you need to keep in mind, for example, you will have to avoid writing scenes that require large crowds or locations like a club, places that could lead to a risky shooting environment."
The pandemic plays truant despite all the restrictions and rules, we find. When his parents tested positive for COVID and recovered recently, actor Arjun Chidambaram had to give up a project in Mumbai in the bargain. Arjun acted in the anthology Addham during the lockdown and describes how in these trying times, work gave him a sense of purpose even though one of his biggest fears was bringing home the infection. "While going for the Addham shoot was challenging, the sheer joy of going back to work was more compelling," says the actor. Talking about the lockdown, he says, "Though I learnt to stay still on one side, on the other hand, I dug deep into the things I really like. Being a self-taught musician,I used lockdown to hone my guitar skills and managed to produce music and I am now setting up a studio in my house!" Currently sporting long hair for his role in Ponniyin Selvan, the actor says that since he has avoided going to the hairdresser his tresses are way longer than they were meant to be.
Art director DRK Kiran shares that it would take time for people to get used to the new norm of wearing masks, sanitising hands often and staying conscious of not touching or leaning anywhere. “If one of the technicians gets tested positive, not only they have to be replaced but those who worked with them will have to be quarantined before joining the team. And if it’s a star who’s been infected, the whole production will be stalled leading to a delay in release date, producer losing money, and moreover, the labourers losing their job because they depend on this for survival” adds Kiran who is also working on Shivakartikeyan’s Doctor apart from other TV shows and commercials and Mani Ratnam’s Netflix anthology, Navarasa, where the restrictions on outdoor shoots is further delaying the productions.
“With the new guidelines, we have to work with a very small crew and avoid nights. The sets that used to take only a week to be built, now take up 12 days to two weeks to be completed. The task that needed 50 people earlier has to be done with 20 now, and we have to make sure to follow social distancing, which becomes hard when labourers are involved,” shares Kiran, adding that the safety protocol requires each prop used in the set for every single sequence to be disinfected.
Talking about disinfecting, Fashion Designer Chaitanya Rao who is working on the wardrobe for Nayanthara's latest also recently worked on actor Madhavan's wardrobe for a TV commercial. says, "When you send any material or clothes to the actors or to the sets, we had to meticulously wash, sanitise the items, pack them and sanitise that package before sending it across."
Besides following the sanitising protocol another challenge was ensuring the perfect fit. "Nayanthara had a subdued colour palette for her role in Netrikann where she plays a visually challenged character. Making clothes remotely was not a challenge for her because we have worked with her regularly over the years and her fitting sessions were not required in person. However, with Madhavan, we had to go in person to do the fitting and that was tricky."
From a distance
Meanwhile, most will agree that the success of the Amazon Prime movie CU Soon (starring Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran) relied heavily on Mahesh Narayan’s crisp writing and razor-sharp editing. The filmmaker had revealed that test shoots were done prior to the actual production with the actors accommodated in different apartments of the same building.“Being a screen-based movie, CU Soon was difficult to make. The actors were not familiar with the format and technicians were clueless at first. Anyone who is not the part of the crew watching it getting filmed from a distance will feel that it’s complete madness!” Mahesh had said in an earlier interview with Indulge.
Sharing how his work has been affected post lockdown, music composer Justin Prabhakaran chips in, “Most composers love to record in person while keeping eye contact with the musicians. That way, it’s easy to convey our musical thoughts to the artists. Because of the lockdown, we work remotely with artists recording from homes and we communicate via Zoom calls. The technology has helped a great deal to pull off studio less recording. Personally, the lockdown has helped me with comfortable working hours, making my days more productive,” adds Justin who’s working currently on Prabhas-starrer Radhe Shyam apart from an untitled movie featuring Fahadh Fassil and two other Tamil films.
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(With inputs from Sabrina Rajan)