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Story Publication logo August 8, 2020

Documentary Filmmaking in the Time of COVID

Behind the scenes while filming "Victoria's Foil." Image courtesy of Brett Forrest and Brian Ryu. United States, 2020.

Victoria Isaacson, a 22-year-old wheelchair fencer, is trying to qualify for the Paralympics while...

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No matter how much you research or prepare, it's difficult to  predict where a documentary will take you. Where will the story lead? What challenges will your character face? Is there a natural story arc? When you add a pandemic into the mix, creativity becomes paramount.

Our film, Victoria's Foil, had been in production since November 2019. By the time New York state shut down and Columbia University canceled in-person filming, my co-director, Brian Ryu, and I, had already shot eight days in person.

Typically, eight days isn't much. In fact, it's nothing. It should have been just the tip of the production iceberg. But it was what we had and we were forced to be flexible.

The initial interviews and scenes I filmed in November 2019 were never intended for the final cut, but rather for the initial pitch reel to get a green light for production. Then, due to the circumstances beyond our control, these early days of production soon became integral storytelling blocks.

Once the pandemic hit, Brian and I brainstormed. The film wasn't done. Our character's life went on and we weren't there to capture it on camera. We were left with no choice; production had to continue, albeit virtually.

We maintained constant contact with Victoria and interviewed her several times via Zoom during quarantine. We set up these video calls to take the place of interviews. I'd also record these calls with a separate camera filming the computer in order to integrate varying shot options for the edit. A Zoom call recording proved to be low quality, but if we introduced the Zoom call with my separate camera first, we felt the audience would be more understanding.

We gathered as much archival footage from Victoria, her family, and from her international wheelchair competitions as we could. The film began taking shape as a mixture of verité, archival footage, and pandemic Zoom interviews (as I began calling them).

Once New York state began its phased reopening, Columbia University gave us the green light to film again in person. We had to write a thorough and extremely detailed production plan stating how we would film while keeping ourselves and our subjects safe from coronavirus contamination.

Once approved, we set our final date for production. Victoria, our title character, was moving from her home in Poughkeepsie, New York, to her own apartment in Hamden, Connecticut. She was starting her Quinnipiac University PhD program and it felt like a natural ending for our film. We had to be there on that day, July 18, 2020.

On production day, in order to maximize our time, Brian followed Victoria on her move while I stayed in Poughkeepsie to record all of the remaining pickup shots we needed (exteriors, close ups, shots of the ranch Victoria used to volunteer at, etc.). During my entire shoot I wore a mask and avoided contact with everyone.

In the end, we know this isn't the film we set out to make. How could anyone have predicted the coronavirus to impact the world as it did? In March, I was supposed to film Victoria at a World Cup competition in São Paulo, Brazil. In August, we expected to be in Tokyo for the Paralympics. Instead, we were creating a film over Zoom!

However, this is a documentary. You never know where the story will take you. As a filmmaker, you just have to be prepared and ready to document that story, however it unfolds and whatever it happens to be.

And, despite the challenges, we made a film that we love, and that's something to be proud of.


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