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‘Crew-less not clueless’: iPhones, video calls and jugaad…how a web series was shot during the lockdown

How does one shoot an entire web series without a director or crew physically present? According to The Gone Game writer-director Nikhil Bhatt, it takes weeks of preparation, a carefully crafted script, a number of virtual recces, a detailed workflow, and the latest iPhone.

It was mid-April, and everyday life was starting to seem like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie. An invisible-but-deadly virus had just begun to tighten its grip on India and in another ominous 8 pm address, the Prime Minister had extended the innocuously named ‘Janata Curfew’ to try and rein in the growing contagion.

Actor Arjun Mathur’s average day during the initial months of the coronavirus lockdown began much like anyone else’s. Most mornings were the same — dishes were scrubbed clean, meals were prepped, floors were swept, laundry was folded and breakfast was eaten. But once each backbreaking chore was ticked off his list for the day, Arjun’s airy Mumbai apartment was transformed into a makeshift film set.

The actor worked on two big projects during the nationwide lockdown — both were shot entirely at home without a crew and were set against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. In Voot Select’s latest four-part thriller series The Gone Game, Arjun plays Sahil Gujral, who succumbs to Covid-19 under mysterious circumstances, leaving his family to pick up the pieces.

But how does one shoot an entire web series without a director or crew physically present? According to the show’s writer and director Nikhil Bhatt, it takes weeks of preparation, a carefully crafted script, a number of virtual recces, a detailed workflow, and the latest iPhone.

“Some of the first few questions I was asked by the show’s producers were — how is your internet speed and what devices do you have at home,” “Thankfully I had an iPhone 11 Max and an Apple MacBook Pro.”

The iPhone-only rule was not an act of mindless Apple-elitism by the show’s makers. They chose the device for two reasons — to ensure that the footage they were receiving was of the same quality, and because of the phone’s inbuilt simplicity. The actors were asked to download FiLMiC Pro, an app that essentially turns your smartphone into a professional camera by ramping up the quality of footage.

Since the actors could not be present in the same room for scenes, video calls were central to the plot of the show. The makers relied heavily on footage of WhatsApp video calls and group chats between the Gujral family to navigate through the winding story.

“This was an unprecedented situation. There have been other projects, which have been filmed only on laptops and phones, but most of these happened on sets with a full crew present,” the film’s director Nikhil Bhatt explains. “We were a crew-less shoot on set. Crew-less but not clueless,” he clarifies.

“We did a complete workshop with the actors for three or four days to teach them how to shoot on their phones. I wanted them to enjoy the process. I encouraged them to go around their own houses and use their cameras to get comfortable,” Director of Photography (DoP) Piyush Puty recalls. “We also asked the actors to bring at least one other family member to attend the Zoom workshops with them, so that they could help them shoot their scenes.”

The cast-members were made to take Nikhil and Piyush on virtual house tours, so that they could choose the right setting for each scene. Every detail was looked into — if the team felt that a room needed something to brighten up the background, then a lamp was promptly sent over to the actor’s home. If a scene required a wall-mounted TV screen beaming the news, then the production team found a way to get one delivered as soon as possible.

But as far as they could, the makers relied on the age-old tried-and-tested art of ‘jugaad’, Piyush said. One such instance of on-the-spot ingenuity involved veteran actor Sanjay Kapoor, who played the role of the unscrupulous patriarch, Rajeev Gujral, in the show.

“Sanjay sir’s character was supposed to be stuck in his house in Gurgaon when the lockdown was announced. The only issue was that from one side of Sanjay sir’s house you could clearly see the sea in the distance,” Piyush explains. “So we had to ensure that his scenes were all shot on the other side of his house so that our audience wasn’t suddenly thrown off.”

According to Arjun, a typical day on ‘set’ first began with a long video call with the team. Once he received his instructions for the scene, he would then start the elaborate process of setting up for the shoot. His silver MacBook Pro was carefully placed on a table nearby, giving Nikhil and Piyush a birds-eye view of his every move, as they watched him prepare each frame on Zoom call.

Furniture was painstakingly shifted around and lights were adjusted until the frame fit the director’s specifications perfectly. He would click a photograph and send it to the team on WhatsApp. If they green-lit the frame, he could then begin the gargantuan task of filming the scene. The actor was fortunate. His neighbour and closest friend, ace cinematographer Jay Oza, volunteered to help him with both his lockdown projects. “He is one of the best DoPs in the country right now. If anything comes my way, he helps me out. I’m really lucky that way,” Arjun admits.

Some scenes demanded a professional camera. Once the lockdown restrictions were slowly beginning to be lifted, Piyush was able to send basic cameras to the actors’ homes. The drill remained the same — they filmed their scenes, and then transferred the footage either via WhatsApp or email depending on how heavy the file was.

“It was quite a task for the actors. They had to play production designer, costume designers, set up their lights and then perform also. We could not have pushed them for more than eight or nine hours,” Nikhil explains “So we divided each day into two halves — we would have one actor film all their day-time scenes during the first half and then do a bunch of night shots in the second half with another actor.”

Finally, after around a month of filming, and a few weeks of editing, the web series debuted online on August 20. According to Arjun, filming a show such as this one is not for the faint-hearted. It was years of working on the sets of low budget independent films, first as an Assistant Director and later as an actor, that prepared him for the experience.

“I will say that I don’t think every actor is cut out for it because it really requires a mindset of ‘jugaad’. Any actor who finds it impossible to perform without their frills in place will not be able to pull this off. For instance, in my case, three people who were in the house were doing the work that 10-12 departments would normally do on a film set,” Arjun says.

“It takes a very sharp mind to pull off something like this — which Nikhil has. I did a whole feature film with him called Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, and he is by my observation one of the sharpest minds I know,” the actor says. “Both the movies were tight productions, low budget and so often you are faced with situations where you need something and it won’t be there — this could be a location, prop, or even an actor. But Nikhil is someone who always finds a creative solution.”

But from his work during the lockdown, Arjun has realised how heavily he has had to rely on other people to get his work done — his partner, who he lives with, and his next-door neighbour and best friend Jay were instrumental in making this production happen. “I have decided if anything ‘work from home’ comes my way after this, my charges will now include a helpers charge wherein all the people who actually help me will get remunerated,” he says.

As the country enters the fourth phase of the nationwide ‘Unlock’, the Indian film industry is also beginning to slowly adjust to the ‘new normal’. But Arjun is not particularly eager to return to film sets just yet. “I know shoots are back on, but that’s just us being impatient.

We’ve got lockdown fatigue, that’s what’s happened. The unfortunate thing is that it’s not the smartest thing to be doing, we still need to be under lockdown to be honest,” he points out.

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