Challenging times call for innovative approaches, and the non-fiction content production industry has applied that maxim repeatedly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the July 4 holiday weekend, A+E’s History premiered the first episode of its three-part limited docuseries, America: Our Defining Hours — a series that was created, commissioned and produced by UK-headquartered Nutopia entirely during lockdown. Here, series producer Johanna Woolford Gibbon provides details of the process and the challenges involved in producing during a pandemic.
COMMISSIONING: “A TOOLKIT FOR TROUBLED TIMES”
“Over the Easter weekend, when everyone in the UK was just going into lockdown, Mary Donahue at History approached [Nutopia's] Jane Root and Ben Goold, asking ‘What can you do fast?’ They had an idea for giving the audience ‘a toolkit for troubled times.’ And Ben and Jane realized that many of the stories they’d told in the Emmy-winning America: The Story of Us laid out inspirational lessons of leadership through adversity which were never more relevant than today. So Ben sat down over that Easter weekend and wrote a treatment based upon those stories, which reflected America being born from adversity; of facing existential challenges and emerging stronger. And those became our themes for the three feature-length episodes in the miniseries.”
While the themes explored in the new series were inspired by those explored on Nutopia’s America: The Story of Us (also for History), more direct inspiration came in the form of dramatic recreations pulled from that series and other Nutopia productions, as both turnaround time and restrictions on shooting curtailed any thought of shooting new recreations.
“We used the premium drama footage from America: The Story of Us as our backbone, our ‘go-to’ resource for action, excitement and that immensely powerful cinematic feel,” says Woolford Gibbon. “But we also leaned into other premium sources: Nutopia shows, like Mankind and Promised Land, as well as some other material. Using these premium high production value sources was crucial to attaining visual depth, giving us the bedrock for the new interviews which are really the core of the show.”
CAPTURING THE CONTRIBUTORS
“[History's] Eli [Lehrer] and Mary [Donahue] really wanted a glossy premium timeless look to our interviews, so immediately anything that said ‘We filmed this in lockdown’ – like iPhones or Skype/Zoom type solutions – were ruled out of our R&D process,” explains Woolford Gibbon. “We settled upon using drop-kits provided by U.S. company Hayden 5: pre-assembled trolleys containing professional camera, lens, sound kit, lighting and a laptop – all set up and deep cleansed prior to filming.”
With experts contributing interviews to the series from across the U.S., the team located technicians in assorted “safe hubs” who could get the kits to contributors “in a way which adhered to all national and local COVID-19 laws, regulations and recommendations.”
In delivering the kits to experts who would then be tasked with self-shooting their interviews, nothing was left to chance, according to Woolford Gibbon.
“The technician would assemble the kit on the driveway, deep-cleanse it while wearing PPE, wheel the trolley to the front door, ring the doorbell and retreat to their vehicle,” she says. “The contributor would then collect the trolley to wheel it over the threshold and into the pre-arranged position for interview. It meant even the simplest set up could be thrown off course by a set of steps up to the front door… all of a sudden we have an extra layer of logistics to think about.”
The experts then used Zoom conferencing with the director of photography, director and sound technician to conduct interviews remotely, while also troubleshooting bandwidth, lighting, set-dressing and anything else that would emerge during the self-shooting process.
“The only thing [the contributors] had to do was put on their microphone and pan or tilt the camera to get the perfect set-up,” says Woolford Gibbon. “When finished, our contributors would simply wheel their drop-kit trolley over their threshold, and our waiting technician would collect it for another deep clean and to wrangle the data for upload to our edits.”
But while the process was thorough, capturing the contributions from the experts still posed additional challenges.
“Very quickly it became apparent that we weren’t going to find a ‘one size fits all solution’ when we were filming across 10 states from Florida to Minnesota,” the producer recalls. “The drop kits were great but each had to be tailored to both the location and interviewee; some interviewees had underlying health conditions we needed to consider with respect to the deep cleansing protocols; each state – in fact each county – had slightly different COVID-19 regulations; and the situation was changing hour by hour. So we needed to be supremely flexible. Because of our tight schedule, we sometimes needed to record interviews with different kits, on different coasts at the same time – so our teams, though based on London time, were working with troubleshooting on U.S. East and West Coast times. Those were some long days, redefining how powerful a substance adrenalin really is!
“We were about 70% of the way through our filming when we learned of George Floyd’s killing and the subsequent curfews and civil unrest, and we had two interviews yet to film in key protest areas Minneapolis and Manhattan – but with patience and a lot of flexibility, we managed to develop a protocol that allowed us to film,” she adds.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
“In order to deliver to such a fast-turnaround schedule, across the series we had 10 offline editors working with six edit producers – so from the start we knew we’d face two challenges: communication and technology,” she explains. “So we worked very closely with everyone at Nutopia and History to make sure everyone had the media they needed when they needed it.
“We reviewed cuts and sequences over Zoom, to get us working as close to ‘being in the room’ as we possibly could, given everyone was in a different location – not just within London, but across the entire UK, and in the U.S. The potential communication bump had a more human solution: we were lucky enough to tap into a team of people who had worked at Nutopia before, and had worked with each other on different projects in the past – so they already had the kind of friendly ‘shorthand’ that makes collaboration easy. Every single one of our edit producers had been a showrunner of their own series, so we had an incredibly high level and talented group to work with.
“Keeping the dialogue open constantly (multiple Zooms at the same time, phone calls late into the night) was the key to making sure we all developed the same coherent series style,” she adds.
Final post was done in London at Halo, with efforts undertaken to ensure that as much of the grade and sound design could be signed off remotely, “only coming in person to a review suite for one final social distance-compliant PPE’d session.”
SHAPING THE “NEW NORMAL
“Undoubtedly, we’ve learned lessons in producing this series in extremis which can be applied going forward,” Woolford Gibbon offers. “We feel as though we’ve been shaping ‘the new normal’ as it’s emerged. There’s probably much less reliance on a central office as the hub of a production – creative people gain much by being able to work remotely, to be more freely in charge of their time, perhaps to have a better work-life balance as a result. [But] far from wondering if people would work less, we’re having to make sure they’re not working too hard and too long.
“Editing can certainly be achieved remotely, yet that ‘extra 10%’ in terms of the magic that happens when editor and producer spark ideas face-to-face is something we’ll need to factor into specific parts of the edit schedule – it’d be a shame to miss that joy.
“The key to producing content in the future will be flexibility, and if this series has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing talented film-makers love more than an impossible challenge.”
America: Our Defining Hours continues on History with new episodes on July 12 and July 19.