INSIDE WUHAN: A short-turnaround, undercover investigative documentary from Canada: Case Study

INSIDE WUHAN is a Case Study in how hard times bring out innovation and flexibility from filmmakers.

The producer/ director Craig Thompson discusses his 22-minute, short turnaround special, commissioned by CTV-Canada’s W5 and produced by Ballinran Entertainment and White Pine Pictures.

Tagline

INSIDE WUHAN is an undercover documentary that foreshadows a world under quarantine and offers lessons on the future of remote filmmaking.

Elevator Pitch

A Canadian goes undercover in Wuhan to capture daily life during the COVID-19 lockdown. What seemed severe at the time soon became the norm as quarantine orders followed the spread of the virus throughout the world.

Trailer

Key Idea / Inspiration:

Craig Thompson says:

  • When Wuhan began to enforce draconian quarantine measures on January 22nd, we suspected that this was going to evolve into a much larger global story.
  • Our initial idea was to document daily life in a city under lockdown from the perspective of one Westerner and one Chinese.

Immediate Challenge: Access

  • We have experience making documentaries in China and enjoy a strong network of contacts there.
  • We soon found out that Wuhan was off-limits to foreign journalists: Even our friends who worked with China’s state media organizations could not gain access unless they were part of the government’s approved media pool.

Research

  • WeChat is China’s ultimate social network, so we joined the group “Canadians in China”.
  • We posted several messages looking for Canadians in Wuhan with an interesting story to share.
  • This initial phase of research evaporated as all of our new contacts jumped on the first evacuation flights out of Wuhan.
  • We had to start again. “Are there any Canadians left in Wuhan?”, we appealed. “There’s one guy” said one WeChat poster. “He might be the one”.
  • It turned out that C.R. Holmes was the one: He is a former Canadian Forces avionics technologist, ESL teacher and truck driver – with some photography experience.
  • We gave him his initial assignment: to document 48 hours in a city under lockdown.

Editorial Approach

  • We wanted our documentary to contain as much original on-the-ground footage as possible and not have to rely on video chat interviews or news footage.

Drone

  • To contrast with the undercover footage gathered by our main character, we decided to use drone footage.
  • We found a husband and wife drone filmmaking team in Wuhan with the best equipment who could get us the footage we needed.

Initial Pitch

  • News organizations were struggling to get original, independent and verified material out of China, specifically from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus.
  • The prospect of having “exclusive access” to an original first-hand account from Wuhan was met with a positive reaction.

Buyer

  • CTV-Canada’s flagship investigative documentary series W5 is the longest-running current affairs/newsmagazine program in North America.
  • Anton Koschany is Executive Producer, W5

Intended Format

  • A Current Affairs documentary (22 minutes)
  • HD

Producers / Talent

KEY CHALLENGES & RESOLUTION

Facing only three weeks from greenlight to delivery, several challenges almost de-railed the project:

Camera

  • R. Holmes lacked the professional camera package we needed for the shoot – a minimum of HD 1080p.
  • Despite the shutdown of Wuhan, we were able to source a Canon 5D Mark III, a microphone, tripod, memory cards and hard drive. These were delivered by a minibike courier to the gates of C.R.’s apartment complex. By that time, social distancing was being enforced.

Documentary Filmmaking 101

  • R. was a photographer with no experience with video production. The test footage he provided did not meet our QC or creative requirements.
  • Using WeChat, we provided him with a crash course in documentary filmmaking with step-by-step shot-lists and director’s notes for each scene or story we were contemplating.

The Lockdown

  • One day into our production, all Wuhan residents were ordered to stay in their homes and not to leave for any reason. This would have scuttled our filming plans, so under cover of darkness, C.R. was able to sneak out of his apartment complex and get out onto the streets.
  • Through our contacts and influence, we were able to find him a room at a five-star hotel that had been reserved for medical volunteers. It also gave us the ability to upload the footage from each shooting day.

Internet Speed

  • Internet access is tightly controlled in China and speeds are often throttled. What would take us a few hours to upload and download in North America, took more than a day.
  • Total footage was about 2 TB.
  • On the Monday before our Saturday airdate, and with less than four days to lock the picture, we were still downloading the final shots to finish the documentary simply because of the time it took to acquire the material from China.

Unexpected Costs

  • Rental of camera package.
  • Hotel accommodation costs that seemed to increase day by day.

Field Production

  • Time in field: 15 days (approx.)
  • The night before each shoot, we would prepare a detailed shot-list and director’s notes and send them to C.R.
  • Police roadblocks and other restrictions, particularly a ban on filming, meant taking risks every day.
  • Some days we were able to gather only five minutes of footage – other days more.

Post-production

  • Timeline: Impossibly tight – five days for Rough Cut to Locked Picture and one day for packaging, colour correction and sound mix.

Music

  • We engaged award-winning composer Michael Vuscan to create a score that reflected the ‘Orwellian tone’ of the doc. He watched the raw footage as it came in, reviewed our desired creative approach and came up with themes that he could size to fit the locked picture.

Distribution

  • Premiere: CTV W5 Saturday March 7, 2020 – television and on-line
  • Outreach: Press release and promo spots prepared by Bell Media

Audience

  • Ratings – 923,000 TV
  • YouTube 66,000 (confirmed)
  • PVR and CTV Web Site – 125,000+ (approx.).
  • Total viewership: 1.25 million – the highest rated episode of W5 in the current season.

Initial Budget

  • US$30,000

Timeline

  • Initial Idea: Thurs. Jan. 23, 2020
  • Soft Pitch to CTV W5 – Tues., Jan. 28, 2020
  • Research – Tues., Jan. 28 – Thurs. Feb. 6, 2020
  • Casting – Fri. Feb. 7 – Mon. Feb. 10,2020
  • Budget, Creative Pitch, Sample Footage – Tues. Feb. 11, 2020
  • Presentation to CTV W5 – 5:15 PM Wed, Feb. 12, 2020
  • Greenlight – Thurs Feb. 13, 2020
  • Filming – Sat, Feb. 15– Sat., Feb. 29, 2020 – 15 days
  • Footage Processing and Assembly – Wed. Feb. 19 – Sat. Feb. 29, 2020
  • 30 second promo edit – Thur. Feb 27 – Fri. Feb 28, 2020
  • Promo and press release drop – Tues. Mar 2, 2020
  • Editing – Rough Cut to Picture Lock – Sun. Mar. 1 – Thur. Mar. 5, 2020
  • Post-Production – Sound mix, colour correction, packaging – Fri. Mar 6, 2020
  • Broadcast – 7 pm – Saturday Mar 7, 2020

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Craig Thompson, Producer / Director, Ballinran Entertainment

We are facing an unprecedented global disruption. Yet, we must still be able to tell stories.

INSIDE WUHAN was a successful experiment in remote filmmaking. Technology, production equipment and expertise now make it possible to gather footage from anywhere. While under ideal circumstances a director wants to have a close relationship with a subject, what if that is not possible?

We may be entering an extended period of documentary filmmaking where content is gathered from afar, directed remotely, aggregated, curated and produced by professionals working from their own homes, studios or workplaces.  That in turn will demand more of internet bandwidth, technology, creativity and innovative thinking to bring content to the screen.

Peter Raymont, Executive Producer, White Pine Pictures

Craig’s contacts inside China, his journalistic instincts, legendary tenacity and the collaboration of a broadcaster who appreciated the extraordinary tight turnaround of getting this documentary shot, uploaded from Wuhan, edited at White Pine Pictures, and to air in record time, were the magical ingredients that made this possible. Viewers were desperate for an intimate, personal insight on what was happening inside Wuhan that only a point-of-view “Citizen-Journalism” documentary offers.

Anton Koschany, Executive Producer, CTV W5

Right at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, W5 began monitoring its spread and, particularly, events in China. Our concern throughout was that this disease would turn into a pandemic and drastically affect Canadians. We all know how that turned out.

Watching the lockdown in China and particularly the city of Wuhan only furthered our interest in telling this story, even though it was still happening half a world away.  The little news clips coming from China’s state broadcaster only provided fleeting glimpses of doctors and hospitals and politicians, but little of daily life.

One of the biggest challenges was that with China locked down how could we get into the epicentre. Discussions with Craig Thompson and Peter Raymont framed up what we would need to make this documentary: a crew on the inside to show daily life.

Where we once thought it would be a professional crew who’d do the filming, in the end it was a newly minted citizen journalist. His everyman story, caught in the eye of the storm, is what made Inside Wuhan so powerful. It also helped that the images appeared as everyone’s apocalyptic nightmare – a world where the humans were gone and our cities were ghostly monuments to our civilization.

W5’s broadcast of Inside Wuhan aired on March 7 with a Saturday night audience of nearly one million Canadians tuning in. I believe the exclusive material and the ability to take the time that a W5 episode can give to a topic made viewers sit up and take notice. There literally was nothing like this documentary on television – anywhere in the world.

Inside Wuhan once again pointed out that Canada has top documentary producers, journalists and in W5 a news and current affairs program that is among the tops globally.

NOTES

  • INSIDE WUHAN was produced by Canada’s Ballinran Entertainment and White Pine Pictures.
  • Produced and directed by Craig Thompson, a former CTV and CBC journalist who established his company Ballinran Entertainment in 1995 and has produced numerous series and long-form documentaries over the last 25 years.
  • Recent credits include: Game Changers, a look back at television game show history through the eyes of Alex Trebek; and The Truth is in the Stars with William Shatner, which included one of the last in-depth interviews with Stephen Hawking.
    • Husband and wife production team of Craig Thompson (Researcher/Producer/Director) and Wei Hu (Consulting Producer/Visual Research)
    • Decebal Dascau (Creative Director/Editor)
    • Michael Vuscan (Composer/Sound Design)
    • Lingxi Cui (Assistant Editor/Translator)
  • Executive Produced by Emmy award winning documentary filmmaker Peter Raymont, President of Toronto’s White Pine Pictures.
  • Recent credits include Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, which was selected as the opening night film at the 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, and a documentary on the acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood.
    • Peter Raymont and Steve Ord, Executive Producers
    • Stephen Paniccia, Financial Controller
    • Kevin Shak, Post-production Supervisor

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