11 min read

Great Big Story Tapped Into The Power of Freelancers To Tell A Different Kind of Coronavirus Story

We see a lot of videos come across our screens at Storyhunter. And since we, like everyone, are working remotely, we are no longer…
Great Big Story Tapped Into The Power of Freelancers To Tell A Different Kind of Coronavirus Story
(Fred DuFour/Great Big Story)

We see a lot of videos come across our screens at Storyhunter. And since we, like everyone, are working remotely, we are no longer physically tapping each other on the shoulder to share a new one. Our CEO sent How Coronavirus Has Changed Lives Around The World from Great Big Story in our company slack channel, and I couldn’t help but recognize that eight characters in it were members of the Storyhunter community. I was fascinated, imagining working with eight freelancers in eight countries on the same project. My intrigue led me to reach out to Beryl Shereshewsky, Great Big Story’s Senior Producer for this project. We talked about how the idea for this video came about, and the experience of collaborating with so many freelancers on one short film.

To start things off, how would you describe a Great Big Story?

“We’re the light in the darkness. We say ‘Tell me something I didn’t know and show me something I’ve never seen.’ There are so many amazing things in this world that we don’t know about. The idea is that you watch a Great Big Story, say ‘Whoa! That was so cool!’ and tell your friend about it. I remember one story we did out of Japan. They take maple leaves, ferment them, batter them, deep fry them and eat them. Who would’ve ever thought? Deep frying leaves? But there’s this amazing history behind them, and they were so good. You watch the video, and love that you did. It’s a positive outlook on life with wonder.”

How does this video fit that mold?

“In this specific example, we wanted to tell the story of what’s happening right now. We’re not VICE. We’re not going to tell a story on the frontlines in a hospital. We’re not Vox. We’re not going to explain what COVID-19 is. We’re a media company that makes videos that make you feel good about the world we live in but in a way where you can see that people do amazing things on their own. In doing this, how do we cover the world that we’re living in right now? The answer seemed to be people, because people are good.”

How did you come up with the idea for this video?

“I’ve been running this series called Around the World. I did the first episode last year for Ramadan. We filmed in 10 different countries, and I really utilized the access that Storyhunter gives us. We’ve done a couple different episodes of this series, and it’s really about the fact that there are so many things in the world, where we focus on the differences between us. My idea was that yes, there are all these things that we think of as different, but the human experience behind it is always the same. At the end of the day, there’s more that unites us than divides us.

(Luca Immesi/Great Big Story)

So when the pandemic started, one of the things that we talked about is that there’s a lot of news coverage from the angle of science. There’s a lot of coverage from the frontlines, inside the hospitals. But there are so many of us who are in home quarantine, not hearing anything other than that we’re just stuck at home. We decided that there was this very real human story happening and that because we’re filmmakers, and all the filmmakers we know are now stuck at home, there was an amazing opportunity to tell this story that hasn’t been told yet. To put the icing on the cake, we were able to give the freelance community, who’s mostly not able to work right now, some work to do.

In short, we needed another story that fits into the Great Big Story theme of seeing light in the darkness. This is a very heavy, sad thing, but there’s also a lot of light moments that we can highlight.”

You wanted to provide freelancers with an opportunity to work again. What do you think that means to them?

“A lot of these people weren’t able to film for a while, and filmmakers love their jobs. You don’t carry around a camera because it’s the best pay in the world. You do it because you love it, you love storytelling, and you love seeing the world through your own lens. And I got to see that there was a little happiness from them being able to film again.”

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What kinds of imagery did you want to show in this piece?

“When we were in pre-production, and when we were talking about it, we knew we didn’t want to show people just sitting around. At the end of the day, we’re not just sitting around all day, we’re doing things to keep ourselves busy. There is a joke about that. A great example of that was the shot of the guy in the Philippines who is working out with his mom and dad. Or the shots of the little kid looking out the window and he bangs his head on it. Or the couple in Hungary doing facemasks together.

(Jeremy Kruis/Great Big Story)

I think a big thing is that the montage sequence showed this absurdity of everyone on their phones, everyone cooking. There’s the line in there ‘Everyone’s a chef right now!’ We wanted to make sure that we were showing a reality. It was about making the mundane feel more than just mundane. And a lot of that came through in the editing. We had that montage scene that was really fast-paced, had really a big classical music score underneath, ending on this kind of quiet attitude of just sitting around.”

What was it like working with eight different freelancers on this single project?

“It is not an easy feat to pull off working with eight freelancers, knowing that nobody can get in one room and talk together. We had different languages. We had a lot of different time zones. But we were trying to pull off making a cohesive story that looks like it was shot by one person. How do you make it feel like you didn’t just pull in random video from a bunch of different people, and create a storyline that also doesn’t feel like a random hodgepodge of film? We were very conscious in what we asked them to film and what our story was going to be before we got our footage back, so we didn’t come back with a surprise of like ‘Oh, that’s what you guys were doing all day!’ We had a lot of conversations and a lot of planning.”

Did you have a set of questions for each filmmaker to answer, or did you have them just document their homes organically?

“It was a bit of both. We had a set of around fifteen questions that every person had to answer. The questions depended on their living situation, so the guy living in a tent in his backyard in Australia was getting different questions than the woman in Iran who was living with her family.

I set out specific scenes that I wanted, to make sure that things could connect to one another. But overall, I really wanted the filmmakers to have the opportunity to be creative, and there really aren’t that many instances as a filmmaker where you have an unlimited amount of time to film and full comfort in the space that you’re filming in. We were able to get some beautiful and creative shots because our filmmakers were able to take a lot more time than they’re normally given and they didn’t have that barrier of not knowing the subjects too well.”

(David Wardell/Great Big Story)

You documented your own situation just like the freelancers did. Are you used to being in front of the camera?

“I’ve been in front of the camera a couple of times, but I’ve never been in the situation where I’m doing the same thing that I’m asking my filmmakers to do. I’m used to being in the director’s seat and saying ‘Here’s the idea. I need you to help with the execution.’ I was a part of that execution this time, so my goal was to, as the producer, feel natural doing this, and not have it come across forced. This was a little difficult, because I’m not used to being in front of the camera, and I don’t think many of our filmmakers are either.”

Did you ever consider profiling these freelancers individually?

“This is a part of our series Around the World, so the concept wasn’t new. The topic was obviously very different. Another good example of what we do in this series is a video about love. We had all these different stories, but we wanted to create some unity amongst eight seemingly disparate characters. What does this elderly couple in India have in common with a Greek-American couple in Illinois? It turned out a lot!

This was the same idea; I needed all these characters to be in one video because the idea of solidarity only exists if you see them next to one another, the stories incorporated together and the common themes about how everyone is feeling and coping. On its own, this would be a story about a woman in Iran and how she feels on her own. But in the context of a woman in Iran talking next to a woman in Italy talking next to a woman in China, all saying the same thing, it makes the viewer feel more validated in how they feel themselves. They had to exist together for the project to be what I wanted it to be.”

Did you know what countries you wanted freelancers from before you started your search?

“I found that when I had done projects for Around the World with five filmmakers, it didn’t feel robust enough, so I knew that I wanted more than five people. As far as countries go, I wanted to include China. I wanted to include Iran because I feel like it’s not covered enough. I wanted to make sure we were covering the world. One issue I ran into is that when we started production, large spots of the world were not in home quarantine. By the time it came out, tons of places were. For example, we didn’t include India, anywhere in Africa or South America because those places were not closed off at the time we started production. It was Europe, Asia, the US and Australia. So the goal was to hit the countries that were in the middle of a home quarantine, not just ones that were practicing social distancing.”

Why did you decide to work with these eight filmmakers?

“There were certain filmmakers I knew I wanted to work with: Jeremy Kruis in the Philippines and Fred Dufour from China. I had relationships with them through Storyhunter because I’d worked with them before.

Other than that, it was all new people. And one of the things we looked for was ‘Is there something that’s a little different or interesting?’ For example, the guy in Australia has a crazy story. He’s living in his parents’ driveway in a tent. That’s going to be visually different. The couple in Hungary, the fact that they spoke with their neighbors to learn Hungarian across the courtyard. In Italy, the woman is a famous Italian actress, and it’s funny because everyone was like ‘That Italian woman was so alluring,’ and it was her boyfriend, Luca Immesi who was on Storyhunter.”

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(Jack Davis/Great Big Story)

Was there a specific story that you were really taken by?

“There’s an indescribable feeling that you get from watching these people from all around the world. The woman from Iran was very emotionally open about how she was feeling, and I think that her honesty came through in a way that allowed the other characters, who might not have had an emotional openness on camera, to help make their statements feel a little more powerful. When she said ‘I just wanna hug everybody who I didn’t get to hug before this,’ she taps into this feeling that we all have. I really connected with her, and here I am, maybe a similarly aged woman across the world, but I’d never think we’d have that much in common. But I just found her so relatable.

In contrast, some of the other characters were holding it together differently, even feeling the experience in a different way. I felt that having her in the video being so open helped the rest of the story come together.”

A lot of the family interactions in this video were natural and spontaneous. Why did you ask freelancers to capture those moments?

“There’s a lot of those little moments. One of my favorites is when Jeremy is talking about being quarantined with his parents. He says that it can get annoying and his mom says ‘Don’t say that!’ Jeremy said ‘No, it’s true!’ Another one is in Spain where the freelancer is filming his girlfriend, and she says ‘You’re frowning at me!’ and he says that he’s not frowning, he’s trying to pay attention to the camera. Those attitudes really tapped into the feeling of quarantine, where we’re with these people nonstop, as opposed to the couple of hours/day that we’re used to. It helped illustrate what we’re all feeling without having to say that it gets annoying.”

Is this one of your favorite videos you’ve produced?

“Yes, probably for three reasons: the time crunch, the actual physical parameters of storytelling when you can’t leave your home, and technology. I had to make sure I was actually able to get footage from eight different countries, back to my home base and I’m running off of laptops right now. In total, the project files were about a terabyte. It was heavy. There’s tons of footage, also dealing with translations, trying to get it all together in time for this to still be a relevant piece, it was a really big lift.”

(Masoud Soheili/Great Big Story)

In terms of the time crunch, you mean getting it out fast enough so that it’s still relevant?

“Yeah! Hypothetically, if this was going to come out in two weeks, Spain is opening back up. The world is changing, so we just wanted to make sure that we were telling a story that mattered when it mattered.

When we started filming this, people had just gone into the quarantine as well. By the time it came out, we had them record how long they were in quarantine for, to help make it more relevant because I think seventeen days had passed, and that’s a lot. There’s a huge difference between being in quarantine for ten days and being in for 27 days.”

Have you learned anything about storytelling after working on this?

“In this new world that we’re in right now, we should be looking at storytelling in a slightly different way. We’re used to leaving our homes and going and filming other people. But I think taking another look at what we can do inside, a lot of filmmakers are sitting at home right now with expensive cameras that are just sitting in a box. And what else can we do as filmmakers to keep sharing our world with one another that doesn’t involve going out? I think there are a lot of opportunities to think outside of the box right now. One thing that I hope we all take away from this is that there are a lot of different ways we can tell stories and they don’t always have to involve getting on a plane and going somewhere else. There are amazing stories we can tell just from our living rooms.”

Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know about the project?

“I didn’t do this alone. I had three other producers helping me with the scripting and reaching out to everybody. One person could not have done this alone. That would not have been possible.”

Looking to tell great stories? Get started here.


Lead Producer: Beryl Shereshewsky

Producer: Jackie Omanoff

Supervising Producer: Samantha Stamler

Executive Producer: Sadie Bass

Editor: Marisa Forziati

Graphics: Whittney Suggs

Freelance Filmmakers: Jeremy Kruis (Philippines), Fred Dufour (China), Jack Davis (Hungary), Alex Gatenby (London), Tim Smith (Spain), Luca Immesi (Italy), David Wardell (Australia), Masoud Soheili (Iran)

Additional Production: Sofia Couceiro, Mariano Carranza, Julianne Wilkinson, Sara Miller, Komeil Soheili, Reza Azizi, Amir Atha Soheili, Tahmineh Farhat, Natakallam


Interviewed by Jake Watkins, Head of Stories