They’re personable, down-to-earth, and 100% professional.
Jason Reynolds, CCHD CARES Act Manager
The Charles County Health Department (CCHD) is a government agency in Maryland that seeks to promote, protect, and improve the health of the citizens in it’s area. In addition to being the main artery for disseminating COVID-19 information to local organizations and citizens, they provide family planning, ensure restaurants are up to code, support substance abuse programs, and so much more.
In early December 2020, we received an email from the CCHD saying they were interested in telling the story of COVID in Charles County. They wanted a short documentary approximately 16 minutes in length or so. Their goal was simple. They wanted to capture a historic event. They wanted to put faces to the people behind the data, the scientists who frequently get passed off as propagandists, and they wanted something special to show the citizens of Charles County that they truly care about the community. They also wanted to build confidence in the upcoming vaccine. Oh, and they wanted it finished in six weeks 🙂
In documentary time, six weeks is like giving birth six months early, even for a short film like this. Nevermind that ELM shuts down the offices for a mandatory week off at Christmas. With a deadline of January 15 and the time off, we had even less time. Our contact at CCHD was fantastic to work with and more than willing to go above and beyond to support the cause to get us what we needed. But there still wasn’t a lot of information about the story itself. Who was our main character? What government official was going to go on camera with this short of notice? What was the narrative arc?
There was a lot to do at once. We needed to start booking interviews right away but didn’t know who our characters were. Thankfully, CCHD provided a list of officials to start with which at least got the crank turning on the motor. Through a series of pre-interview phone calls we were able to get more names of people and businesses who might either be on camera or help point us in they right direction. Of course, COVID-19 has affected everyone, so it was not too difficult to find stories.
We also needed to refine an internal strategy specific to this project in order to meet the deadline. We would have to be editing as fast as possible, so we needed to find a way to write as we shot. We decided we had roughly two weeks to film and could still make the deadline. One person should be in the field producing the shoots, looking for threads to pull, and conducting interviews. Each day the producer in the field would download the footage, kick out audio files of all the interviews, and send them off for overnight transcription. A separate producer at the studio would take all the transcriptions and the notes from the field producer and begin highlighting the best stuff, eventually using these soundbites to build a rough paper script. By the time the shoots were over, much of the scripting work was already completed. At that point, an editor could begin compiling the first cut while simultaneously, another editor was building out graphical elements and the producer was looking for music and other supportive elements. Go Team Go!
The real story did emerge suddenly for us on the first day of filming, as it always does. It was in the first interview in fact. When we interviewed Amber Starne, head epidemiologist for Charles County. She became emotional when the producer asked her what has been the most challenging part of the thankless and energy consuming job of being the central character in charge of getting crucial information to a frightened community.
“People are mean” she said as she wiped away a tear. She went on to describe how difficult it is to do her job in such a politicized environment. We realized immediately she would be a central character, someone who people could identify with and understand on a human level.
CCHD eventually had a few more people who needed to sign off on the film than originally anticipated bringing us a few weeks passed deadline, but that’s to be expected from government work. Also, originally our ending was community testing at Blue Crab Stadium, not mass vaccinations. At the time, a vaccine was just being introduced to the public and not yet widely available. Dr. Abney, CCHD’s director, had the brilliant idea to bring us back for a day to film mass vaccinations for first responders. It was a great idea by bringing the story to a natural end while also showing the brave men and women in uniform in getting their shots and setting an example for the rest of us.
In the end, as always, we would’ve loved to spend more time excavating the narrative and fine-tuning the film. But through teamwork and heavy leaning on our engrained storytelling expertise, we were able to create something we all feel proud of in a very short amount of time. Our client expressed how mightily pleased they were with the film as well. We hope that it encourages more people to take the vaccine and get our country and world back together again (in person).
Please enjoy “A County Against Covid.”
If you’re interested in telling your story, shoot us a note.