Viewpoint: CuriosityStream’s Rob Burk on coping creatively with pandemic production challenges

For the vast majority of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our work and home lives in significant and unforeseen ways. The media industry is certainly no exception. With travel ...
October 1, 2020

For the vast majority of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our work and home lives in significant and unforeseen ways. The media industry is certainly no exception. With travel grounded and large-scale productions stifled over the past seven months, we have had to think differently about every aspect of our work. At the same time, quality programming options are an increasingly important part of home life.

At CuriosityStream, we have seen an increased demand for factual programming across all genres — from families looking for content to supplement home schooling, to people seeking a way to travel beyond their ever-present four walls. So how as programmers do we continue to move forward and meet the demand for fresh high-quality content when “business as usual,” is anything but usual? As all good producers know, you work with what you have, pivot at each turn, and be creative.

As filmmakers working with real world events, people and experiences, we are used to the unpredictable nature of life, leveraging technology, and working remotely – often in less than ideal conditions. It is certainly no surprise to me that the non-fiction production community is rallying to find innovative and creative solutions that produce surprising and effective results.

From syndicated talk shows to daily news casts, consumer media is adopting a much more personal perspective since the pandemic began in late winter, as sound stages and in-studio productions were traded for home studios, outdoor spaces and virtual formats. At CuriosityStream, we have taken our own approach to this trend. And, when you can’t fly full teams to onsite locations, alternatives become necessary.

With many productions, we’ve leaned into the creative use of filmmaker test footage and user-generated content, transforming them into tools for compelling and intimate storytelling. In our new original production MIA: Hunt for a WWII Plane, we decided to use GoPro footage shot by ex-CIA officer Ben Smith and retired FBI agent Bill Huba when they first explored the jungles of Myanmar, rather than delaying production until we could travel there to film. Combined with new ‘socially distanced’ interviews and archival footage, we were able to create a surprisingly compelling production with a decidedly human point of view.

We’ve also decided to double-down on a strategy we embraced even before the pandemic began, of allowing great filmmakers to tell amazing stories from the areas in which they live and work. This was the genesis for My Wild Backyard, an upcoming natural history mid-form series shot entirely by emerging wildlife filmmakers, using small local crews in and around their home countries. The series was filmed in locations across the globe — from California and New York City, to the fabled mountains of Patagonia, the brushland of South Africa, and the deserts of Mexico. The result is a local’s guide to seldom-seen wildlife and stunning natural habitats. 

With COVID-19, safety requirements need to inform the structure of a production. Techniques such as socially-distanced interviews and bare-bones crews in protective gear are only part of the solution. For an upcoming special about the origins of the Civil War that called for large crowd scenes, our production partner, Wide Awake Films, proved that where there’s a will, there’s definitely a way. With what can only be described as a marvel of orchestration and creative scheduling, a limited number of extras were safely filmed on-set in front of green screens to create the realistic crowd sequences that were essential to the storyline.

And yes, technology also plays a major role in creating, editing and delivering content. Ultimately though, I believe it’s all the connecting, collaborating and problem solving filmmakers and storytellers do that really makes the difference when roadblocks emerge during this extraordinarily restrictive time.

I marvel at how many amazing content propositions continue to come through our doors each day – from long-time production partners and new voices alike. I truly think a new era is upon us.

Ultimately, I believe we will remember this time as one of great creativity and ingenuity. We are all facing and addressing new challenges, and being forced to take step back and look at things in a new light. Obstacles and adversity often give birth to bold new ideas that expand the boundaries of what is possible.  And I am all-in for a healthy challenge like that.

Rob Burk is an award-winning executive producer, writer, and editor with more than 20 years of experience creating compelling broadcast and digital programming for leading factual entertainment brands. He is currently head of original content at CuriosityStream. 

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.