Making a Feature Film in a Pandemic, 2020

At the beginning of 2020, The Bell Affair team was in full motion. We had major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce a feature-length live action animated film about an enslaved family who sued for their freedom in Washington, D.C. Over three hundred actors responded to our casting call, eager to read for a part. Our script captured the drama and nuance of Black life in ways we hoped would inspire audiences.

Then in early March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation, and our world stopped. The actors were under stay-at-home orders in various states. Our production contractors in Los Angeles and New York were hard hit, unsure how any filming would go forward. It became obvious we could not bring actors from all over the country to our studio in Nebraska for a shoot scheduled in June. Film and media projects shut down around the country. Actors and production companies had nowhere to turn.

At this critical moment, the fate of our film hanging in the balance, Director Kwakiutl Dreher and Senior Producer Michael Burton asked, “Can we produce the film another way?”

We looked for inspiration and found it in places both expected and unexpected. Saturday Night Live at Home debuted on April 11, 2020. And the next morning, Easter Sunday, as Americans turned to virtual church services, the National Cathedral choir and orchestra performed a stunning hymn with 600 participants live-streamed from their individual homes.

We met the next day by Zoom, Monday, April 13, 2020. Stirred by the creative talent at SNL and the National Cathedral, we decided we should try to figure out a way to produce the film in live action animated form without ever having actors be in the same place. Could we create a film entirely in a distributed manner? Would it be as compelling and seamless? Would it meet our expectations? We ran several tests, and after looking at the results, our team was confident we could do this.

So, we are not bringing actors to a studio. We cancelled the June studio time. We shipped all actors their costumes. Our costume designer developed style instructions and conducted virtual fittings with each actor who received a costume at their homes. We provided each actor for each scene a set of technical notes to guide their camera angles for filming themselves. With detailed instructions, actors will film themselves on an iPhone. We’ve provided equipment as necessary. These changes meant we would need more funds on post-production editing to get this right.

But during the pandemic, from March to August 2020, we have been able to pay our talent and production companies at a time when the industry has struggled.

Then the murders of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd cast the importance of our film in a new light. The summer of 2020 brought a wider American reckoning with the sickening callousness, cruelty, and violence against Black Americans extending back to slavery. The actors in The Bell Affair are well aware of the importance of this history in our current moment.

The Bell Affair Table Read, July 13, 2020

So the virtual table reads with our actors have taken on fresh urgency and meaning. Every table reading session, each directed by Kwakiutl Dreher, has produced dramatic moments of personal reflection. At one recent table read, the scene featured the discussion of the Bell family about how Daniel Bell should try to negotiate with a white slaveholder for the freedom of his wife Mary and their six children. The scene takes place around the dinner table. After the dramatic reading, Darla Davenport, playing Lucy Bell, Daniel’s mother, noted, “This is the kind of scene never shown in film. A Black family making a decision. Together. We need more of this.”

Storyboard for The Bell Affair, Act 1, Scene 3.