Let's examine the important elements you need to know in order to create a successful short film using Zoom technology.
Storytelling has always been adaptable. From etchings in caves to radio waves. From the large screen to the small screen to the portable screen, one thing is constant: people need a shared experience. We are in a particularly difficult time when cinemas are dark and people are isolated. However, our need to connect is still vital, and artists always come up to the occasion.
The Practical Hero for Filmmakers is a program CEO Eric Yuan created when he was trying to connect with his long distance girlfriend. Zoom was literally started to write a love story. The company was launched in 2012 as a cloud-based video, voice and content sharing platform for businesses and organizations. But it's also a natural medium for filmmakers who are struggling to connect with their talent and reach out to audiences.
The platform may be unusual, but the content requirements remain the same. You can't fix an idea in the mail. Everything starts with the material. In any short film, you look for a simple plot and complex characters, a compelling conflict, and a surprising but truthful solution. The additional consideration with Zoom is that the action is limited and your script is dialog driven. Director Alfred Hitchcock once said:
Dialogue should simply be one sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouth of people whose eyes visually tell the story.
That brings us to talent – the key to script-to-screen success.
Don't turn on your roommate or neighbor. Virtual filmmaking actually makes it easier to find the right cast. Your actors can literally be anywhere in the world. I directed from Dallas while my actors were in Los Angeles.
Good actors want to work on good material. If your script is exciting and your artistic vision is clear, you will likely find actors ready to carry out your project. So much can technically be forgiven, but poor performance can kill any script. Do your script homework, know what you want, and cast actors who can deliver. Here is a scene with actors Sasha Roiz and Julie Benz.
A beautiful night shot on Zoom with the actors Sasha Roiz and Julie Benz.
Minimize technical aspects as much as possible
When choosing a narrative project about Zoom, social distancing is an immediate precaution. This forces your actors to become your crew. If you've followed the advice above and are working with seasoned performers, they will be used to recording auditions on their own. This means they should have adequate sound, video, and lighting, and a thorough understanding of best practices. If not, then you need to set them up with an upgrade that won't overwhelm them and put them in a technical mindset rather than an artistic mindset.
Built-in computer webcams are compact, as are their lenses. This limits the amount of light they can capture – a problem, especially in low light. External webcams offer better performance. Some even have wide-angle lenses. They also give your actor the ability to adjust the resolution, frame rate, color and brightness.
Although external webcams often come with dueling microphones, sending them a lavalier can be a good investment. The actor can hide it in his dressing room and provide a clean, clear sound. Good, natural light can go a long way, but a lighting kit like an LED ring light or a lume cube can make a big difference.
Here's the good news! They don't burn a movie. You're not paying a lot of money to a crew or a site. Time is on your side and a spectacular return on your investment is spending that time in preproduction. I would approach it three ways: set / costume, filmmaking, storytelling.
Chances are, your script is dialogue driven and your location is a room in your actor's house or an outside area nearby. The clothing will likely be her own unless it requires something specific to the character, like a uniform or costume. Keep it simple In general, solids work better than patterns, which can be distracting. Make sure the colors contrast with the background so that the actor stands out, unless you like the neutrality. Personal preferences should be your guide. Trust your eye. Your frame will likely be medium or close-up, but take the time to add more depth by using the backlight. This gives the picture a better sense of place. Make use of the natural light that falls behind the actor. This creates a dramatic contrast between the subject and the background.
Use natural light whenever possible.
If you are shooting at night, play with hands-on exercises. In a Zoom project that I was just shooting, we spent a fair amount of time playing with light. Notice in the screenshot above left that we turned off the light on the bedside table because it was too bright, but we put a floor lamp right in the frame next to the door to add some pop to the background. On Julie's side, we chose to leave the wall sconce light on the wall, mainly because their location offered much more depth than we could see into the living room and kitchen. Each actor had a key light on his laptop.
On an initial rehearsal, we used computer sound that was below average. We then sent the actors a lavalier that they placed just outside the frame and on top of their shirt at chest level. This worked fine for the most part. There were occasional drops in sound due to movement within the frame, but this reflected the natural experience and did not affect the overall quality.
We adjusted her frame size and played around a bit with the correct eye line. It'll take a bit of trial and error. See the sample screenshot below, where a solar flare disrupts Julie's background and Sasha's placement within the frame is not the same size as Julie's. In addition, its webcam angle is too narrow and the background is not flattering. It shows part of a second door over his right shoulder and far too much room for the bed and lamp behind him over the other.
Make sure the backlight is correct and the frame sizes match.
The most important part of the preparation is artistic. This is a very unnatural way for actors to work. You may want to suggest that they put a piece of paper over their own image on the screen. This will help them be less confident – in no other medium can the actor see himself while recording. When Sasha suggested this, both actors felt much more comfortable playing off each other.
Know your talent. Mine loved the luxury of rehearsal. Both of them often work on television, which often doesn't have much time to block the camera. It was valuable to be able to discuss the beats and motivations of the story.
One benefit of Zoom is that the director can record and view any shot live by muting their audio, turning off their video, and choosing "Hide Non-Video Participants". When the video is processed there is no indication that anyone other than the cast was present. You can pause and discuss between settings, then hide again and continue with another setting.
The director can record and follow every recording live.
If you are particularly interested in high quality, you may not want to use Zoom's built-in capture feature. Instead, try a screen recording program like Camtasia or Screenflow. This allows you to capture crisp, clear screen video by resizing your capture dimensions at original size or at 100 percent scale instead of being restricted by the zoom's own capture function.
If you go for the built-in zoom functionality, which actually works quite well, there are some tips in Settings to get the best video and audio results.
Turn off the noise canceling function. Automatic zooming reduces background noise. However, this can do more harm than good to quality, especially if you want to hear a guitar playing in the background, for example. On the Setup Video tab you want to make sure you Activate HD, choose camera for external camera feed, and that the aspect ratio is 16: 9 widescreen. Zoom also has the function Touch up my appearance. According to Zoom, this feature retouches the camera's feeder with a soft focus, essentially smoothing out the skin tone on your face for a more polished look. In your recording settings, make sure they are optimized for a third-party video editor and record separate audio files for each participant.
Video settings from zoom.
When you're shooting with zoom, an oner can be very compelling, especially when the storytelling has numerous revelations and twists. Multiple views are stimulated to capture moments you didn't get from the first view. However, don't be afraid to edit. Most people are used to jumping cuts and you have three angles to use – a split screen, two shots, and the two singles. What helps the flow is when you pause the action, which can be as simple as shifting your sitting position, interacting with a brace, or making hand movements.
Cut down on action to aid the flow of your developing story.
Remember, you are leaning into the technology. When you zoom a movie, it becomes a character on the screen. Disturbances as well as breaks in light and sound can contribute to reality. Focus on the qualities people care about – a well-told story brought to life through truthful presentation – and you will keep the viewer investing in the journey.
Here's even more about how to turn your movie from a script into a success: