While most of us have been binge-watching shows in lockdown, actress Shreya Dhanwanthary was busy making one.
On March 28th, a few days after the nationwide lockdown came into effect, she had a curious idea for a web series which could be made from home. The idea came to her after a conversation with filmmaker Raj Nidimoru, of popular filmmaking duo Raj and DK whom she recently worked in the Amazon Prime Video show The Family Man where she played intelligence agent Zoya.
With his guidance, she began writing a 'micro-series' with episodes of less than 10 minutes each. They then assembled a remote cast and crew, which includes actors Sharib Hashmi, Amol Parashar and Mohit Raina among others, and began shooting.
The result is A Viral Wedding – a 9-episode show which was entirely conceptualised, written and shot remotely, all within two weeks. Shreya is the show's writer-director, and her crew is made up of a team of people working remotely from across the country, many of whom have never met. "My music director is working in Bangalore, my co-producer Pratha is in Mumbai. I have a sound designer working in Orissa, one of my actors is in Ghaziabad and we have another editor working in Kalyan, and I'm coordinating with all these wonderful people" says Shreya.
A Viral Wedding is not just a show made in lockdown, it's also a show about the lockdown. The series follows a social media influencer who, like the rest of the country, watches the lockdown announcement on March 24th and realizes the Prime Minister just inadvertently cancelled her wedding. Along with the hilarious consequences of the big Indian wedding coming undone. "With all the frustration of people being cooped up inside, this show was a sincere and genuine attempt to make people smile. The characters are going through the same thing as the viewer at the same time, which I thought that was a great concept" she adds.
The series is currently being edited and is nearing completion with Raj Nidimoru, who's overseeing the project, currently in talks with platforms to get the show a quick release. I spoke to Shreya and her team to get the lowdown on what it takes to create a 'home-made' web series from scratch – from writing to shooting to post-production and beyond – in just 2 weeks.
Writer-director Shreya says the main challenge of writing the show was designing the screenplay in a way that all the characters could only interact with each other through phone calls, Skype and FaceTime.
"I wanted to do a little more than just the Zoom call idea which is where most people's heads would first go to…I wanted to break away from that singular format so it's a lot more ambitious," says Shreya.
With the script in place, an essential part in putting the ambitious project together remotely was the coordination. "I talked to the crew through phone calls, voice notes, video calls… everything. Different people are comfortable with different things. Some people prefer WhatsApp or FaceTime, and others prefer written communication through email or SMS. So we've tried everything," she says.
The pre-production took place within the span of a week. This included shot breakdowns and rehearsals with the cast on Zoom. "Two days before we were scheduled to shoot, I sat with the team and did the whole shot breakdown – every single thing. We did rehearsals, talked about costume, hair, makeup, angles, how to make the most of natural light. Then we had an extra buffer day where we could prep and have further discussions before shoot." Raj coached them on finer details of shooting like the FPS (frames per second), resolution or even how to use steel plates to help light your face.
Actors filmed their individual portions and sent the footage to Shreya for feedback and direction. "They would film a take and send it to me on WhatsApp and we would dial it up or dial it down, or film it in a different angle or try it another way if something wasn't working…my phone was basically our version of having a monitor," says Shreya.
The main challenge was that cast members all had different phones with varying camera quality. They also had access to different spaces and light, so achieving consistency in the footage to make it look like the same show wasn't easy. "Especially with sound because you have to match the different atmospheres and ambiences with the different houses and randomly, you'll have a cooker whistle and things like that to contend with," she adds. But Shreya says the team decided to embrace the constraints and use them to add to the character and feel of the series. "There were a lot of real-time things that we had to contend with but I kind of liked the idea that people can see the difference in the phones, so you know they are not in the same place," she says.
To combat the issue of poor camera quality, Raj says that they built constraints into the lives of the characters. "For example, one of the character's phones is actually quite shitty but it's okay. It goes with the character and works for him," says Raj.
For the actors, the challenge was not only focusing on their performances but also to serve as their own crew and shoot themselves.
"Shreya spoke to me on the phone, gave me a sense of how she sees the character and then had to trust me to interpret it well. I sent her a couple of early shots just to get a sense if we are going in the right direction…and then I took off from there" says actor Amol Parashar.
Actor Sharib Hashmi had to shoot over three nights, after his kids went to bed because he had to take care of them in the day. He would shoot his takes, send them to Shreya for her feedback and then shoot the final take. "This was completely different to what we've done in the past, from choosing the costume to the location to figuring out the framing… doing everything on my own was difficult but it was amazing and I'd love to do it again," he says.
But how do you act in a show entirely built entirely on conversations between characters when you don't have a co-actor to play out the scene with? "It was tough because there was no one to give me cues, so I just kept pausing for other people's dialogue which I'd say in my head and then I had to react to it, so it was a very different experience," says Sharib.
The footage had to be transferred back and forth across cities for editing and the various stages of post-production for which the team relied on WeTransfer and Google Drive, despite uneven internet connections. "One of my cast members was literally uploading her footage through her mobile network and that ended up taking longer than the shoot itself," says Shreya.
In terms of the editing process, once the footage was locked it had to be sent to Orissa for sound, then to Bangalore for background music, and then back to Mumbai for further changes. Raj feels the team greatly enjoyed the process of being forced to find new ways to be inventive. "We're thinking of doing another one now that we know the logistics of it. It's great that we have something to do," he says.