During the making of this four-episode series, the director and the director of photography never met the actors, who were 'locked' in their respective houses.
If you have ever visited a set during a shoot, you know there are lights, cameras, and hundreds of people operating them. There are two or three people around the star cast. One does the makeup, while the other ensures that the character is wearing clothes according to the scene.
There is one designated individual, called the 'focus puller', who adjusts the focus of the camera. The boom rod, which has a mic on its tip to record dialogues, is operated by boom boys. Then there are trolleys, jimmy jibs, tracks, men in harness equipped with heavy cameras and, at times, there are drones and choppers too.
Francis Lawrence, the award-winning Austrian-born American filmmaker, once said, "I think the movie business and film crews are a little bit like the circus, in that we travel around like a pack and we're a big family for a finite period of time. We roll into someplace, cause a bunch of damage, and then roll out."
Now imagine making a four-episode series, with the director and the director of photography (DOP) never meeting the actors, who are locked in their respective houses. No fancy lights, or sets, and mobile cameras as the only lens.
Viacom18 has just announced its next release 'The Gone Game', which will stream on its premium offering VOOT Select. Set during a global pandemic, with a nation in lockdown, the story starts with a mysterious disappearance. Did he fall prey to the virus? Or, is there something more sinister at play? Produced by Bodhi Tree Multimedia, it is a thriller involving many characters.
"Early into the lockdown, we realised that full-scale production will remain a challenge for some time. So, we started putting our minds on what we can do during lockdown," says Ferzad Palia, head – VOOT Select, Youth, Music and English Entertainment, Viacom18.
Each actor used his/her iPhone and MacBook to film the scenes. The DOP first took a tour of the characters' house and then, depending on the lighting, suggested the time of the day when the filming could take place. "The director, DOP, and creative producer connected with the actors on Zoom calls," revealed Sukesh Motwani, of Bodhi Tree Multimedia.
If someone did not have an iPhone, the production team arranged one for that person. "We selected that device as it enables us to use certain professional software," informed Motwani.
Whenever the DOP asked for more lights, the actors asked their family members for help. This was not a DIY (Do It Yourself) video they were shooting for their next user-generated content upload on YouTube, or TikTok. This was a show in the making for VOOT Select.
Launched earlier this year, VOOT Select is a subscription-based offering by Viacom18. Available at an introductory price of Rs 99 per month and Rs 499 per year, it competes with the likes of Disney+ Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, SonyLIV, ZEE5, and ALTBalaji for cash from customers.
"This is a full-blown show, surrounded by mystery," says Palia, adding, "When we look back now, the way we pulled it off, the director, the cast, and the creative team deserve a lot of credit. Every shot was far more detailed and difficult to execute. The actors had to do their own makeup and styling, and they were filming themselves. It must have been a difficult time for their families."
So far, all the streaming platforms have claimed that their subscription offering is premium. The production quality has been the selling point. Big Bollywood name as a show-runner, and plenty of money put behind a magnum opus set or exotic locations. In other words, premium meant cash splash, at times, even north of Rs 100 crore for a show.
Here, the DOP was shooting with mobile cameras from a remote location, "If I had not told you, you would not realise that the scenes were shot under the circumstances we mentioned. The story itself did not require too much of outdoor shoot. There has been no compromise on lighting, or quality," asserts Palia.
So, does it redefines premium? "Premium, for us, has never been throwing ridiculous amounts of money. It has always been (about) the story. We did not make this show just for the sake of making something during lockdown. In fact, I think this is one of the best stories we have ever told," Palia opines.
For the makers too, it was a different experience. Bodhi Tree Multimedia pitched the show after the lockdown began. It was a "unique experience", says Motwani. As they kept moving ahead with the episodes, the cast and crew got used to the new techniques and adversities. Motwani concedes that things could have been better had they got their sets and usual workstations. But the final product, he says, is a commendable one that can live up to expectations.
Motwani reveals that there wasn't much difference in the cost of production, "There wasn't a set, but then there were longer hours and days. If we saved on sets, we spent on people. So, it all got balanced."
Currently, digital contributes to eight per cent of Viacom18's Rs 4,000 crore turnover. The premium offering VOOT Select is the network's attempt to up digital's contribution to 24 per cent of the Rs 8,000 crore turnover by 2024. For it to happen, VOOT Select will need to rake in paid subscribers. Will 'The Gone Game' help? Well, it remains to be seen.