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  • Writer's pictureRobert Nelson

Acting Alone, Together

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

An exploration of remote shooting as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, from the perspective of young actors.

As we near the one year anniversary of lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, production companies in the entertainment industry have begun using creative new approaches to content production. While larger organizations might have the money to create a group quarantine for a full cast and crew, many smaller productions with tighter budgets have had to look to other solutions, such as remote shooting. This innovative practice allows directors and crews to record actors from a secondary location using cameras controlled remotely and video chats for communication.

Several actors who worked on Sideway’s upcoming web series Hartley offered some reflections on their experience with remote shooting. “It’s weird,” says Gabriel Matthews, who plays Noah on Hartley, “You don’t realize how much you don’t know about the technical side until you have to do it… a tripod is much more complicated than you’d think.” While he had a crew to instruct him on what to do via video chat, Gabriel had to handle all the equipment himself. Even though Gabriel was aware that this shoot wasn’t a typical experience, he saw the whole process as a learning opportunity: “I just felt so involved in the process that I completely forgot we were shooting this way because of the pandemic."

Gabriel Matthews during a remote shooting session.

Actress Celina Atangana (who plays Amy on the show) had a similar reaction, saying, “the whole thing was so well organized that you never even think about the fact that we’re doing this because of COVID. It just feels like a new way of doing things.” All of the actors agreed that the limitations created by COVID-19 actually helped to inspire new creativity. “[Our director] definitely didn’t have to do this,” Celina said, “but I think he knew how well our story worked remotely.”

Celina had been a part of several projects when the lockdowns initially took effect, and was a firsthand witness to the way everything changed. “A lot of people didn’t know what to do, so they didn’t do anything.” Tara Rose Schreiber, who plays Natalie, had a similar experience: “After COVID started, everything kind of became a question mark for everyone. It was a nice break for two weeks, but after that, I definitely started going a little stir-crazy.” Both she and Celina began being able to self-tape auditions to submit a few months later, and soon got the casting call for Hartley.

Celina Atangana performing in a video call scene.

While safety is an obvious benefit of this method, the actors also stressed how stimulating it was for their creativity, all mentioning the difficulty that comes with acting over a video call and missing the element of real-time interactions. So much of the show unfolds over Social Media, however, that remote shooting also made it easier for the actors to get into the right headspace for their characters’ situations.

Gabriel and Tara recently filmed a video chat scene together for Hartley and agreed that the element of actual separation made it easier to replicate a realistic video call. Gabriel also voiced that he thinks remote shooting can be a tricky way of running things: “most of the reason it went so well was because of how well organized the shooting was. If that organization wasn’t there, I don’t know how any of this would’ve gone.” Other actors voiced the same thought, remarking on any lack of organization would likely threaten the efficacy of remote shooting completely.

But still, there were clear downsides. “Even though I loved learning about the tech and everything,” Gabriel said, “it sucked that we couldn’t see everyone. When we finished shooting, we always just said ‘bye’ and hung up. I was kinda bummed we couldn’t have those little moments of talking after takes or grabbing dinner or whatever.” Celina agreed: “I mean, as an actor, being able to feed off each other’s energy is so important. And that’s just… different over Zoom.”

While remote shooting was a backup plan that was brought about by the pandemic, the benefits to this method (lower cost, ability to use talent in any location, etc.) make it likely that some companies will continue to use this medium even after normal productions can resume. Despite the challenges of not having the crew and talent together in person, it is a promising form of content creation that allows for interesting new possibilities in front of and behind the camera.

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