How We Produced an Impactful Docuseries During a Pandemic


May 24, 2021

Written by guest writer Shelby Black
5.24.2021, New York

A Pennsylvania-based film company takes on the challenges of shifting online during the pandemic for their docuseries Dismantling Democracy

From the election, coronavirus pandemic, and Black Lives Matter protests, the year 2020 has made all of us take a good look at our current political climate and its future. The concept of democracy is a controversial subject in the United States today. That’s why Pennsylvania-based film company MAKE/FILMS is determined to dive into it deeper and help us learn a lot in the process.

“When I look back at the last two years of production and post-production of Dismantling Democracy, it makes me really proud to think of what we’ve accomplished here at MAKE/FILMS, University of Virginia’s Center for Politics , and Virginia Public Media,” says Derek Dienner, Executive Producer and Founder of MAKE/FILMS.

Dismantling Democracy Director Allen Clements on set with Executive Producer Glenn Crossman from UVA’s Center for Politics

MAKE/FILMS doesn’t have the pretension that you may find in some production companies based in larger cities such as Los Angeles or New York. Instead, this company is nestled in picturesque Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and employs an impressive team who is responsible for telling huge stories. Their latest is arguably the biggest yet. In Spring 2019, the company landed a three part docuseries, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, on PBS exploring the role of democracy in the United States and beyond. Over the next year, they hired crews in different cities, traveled across the country, and interviewed experts including the likes of Senator Tim Kaine, journalist Jamelle Bouie, Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz, and CNN political commentator Tara Setmayer as narrator in order to fully dissect the origin, structure, and current state of democracy within our country.

Senator Tim Kaine on the set of Dismantling Democracy

MAKE/FILMS’ crew members Steve Buckwalter, Lisbet Byler, and Allen Clements on the set of Dismantling Democracy with Ann Dowd of The Handmaid’s Tale

As a local film company, MAKE/FILMS didn’t have the extravagant budget that you might find in larger-name production companies. So, in order to deliver the most high-quality, informative, and thorough docuseries they could produce, the widespread team kept in mind daily budgets throughout the entirety of production. Due to a lot of context footage such as photos, particularly international, archival producers would tally up each expense to decipher whether some imagery needed to be replaced in order to fit into the per-episode budget. However, judging by the final product, it’s clear a talented team and clear vision always outweighs any possible budget obstacles.

Filming took the team to the hub of politics of the nation, Washington D.C., but one year later in March 2020, right when they were wrapping up filming, the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. Due to mandatory lockdown and shelter-in-place orders, their production halted from March to May as the state of Pennsylvania completely shut down. As the pandemic continued, MAKE/FILMS’ team had to wrack their brains in order to figure out how they could meet their deadline while simultaneously adhering to safety protocols and guidelines.

“The biggest thing that we lost was the ability to talk to each other,” says Allen Clements, Director of Dismantling Democracy.“ The amount of time it takes to export, explain what you’re trying to get at, try it this way, get it to the other person. It was such a time sink.”

Dismantling Democracy Director Allen Clements meeting with Editor Jordan Graff

Fortunately, they were able to find a solution. Determined to bring this story to light, the team proceeded to make swift changes to their plan in order to make this docuseries a reality. While all working remotely, they exchanged video edits with one another electronically, changed Setmayer’s role from host to narrator so she could send audio clips to the team remotely, and emphasized graphics throughout the docuseries for impact. The result? An intensive and digestible deep dive into what creates a democracy, an oral history of its origin, and factors that could either make it flourish or fall.

By examining the creation of democracy in America, its controversial state in the country today, and exploring the rise and fall of democratic systems across the world, this documentary breaks down all the factors needed to not only create a democracy, but also destroy one. While the docuseries focuses mainly within the United States, they also discuss systems in other regions including China, North Korea, and Venezuela with help from their inside photo team. This comparison to well-known democratic systems across the world and other regions who have been denied democracy by authoritarian leadership provides viewers with a side-by-side analysis to how easily a democratic system can fall in a relatively short time. Thanks to the partnership with UVA’s Center for Politics, the experts featured in this docuseries are able to explain core elements of a democratic system in an understandable and clear way.

“In terms of learning about democracy, doing a documentary is a great way to do it because it’s not something I have a formal education in,” says Jordan Graff, Lead Editor of Dismantling Democracy. “I’m listening to all these experts talk about what they’ve learned, their opinions, and their ideas on what democracy is. That’s been really beneficial.”

The impressive list of experts, combined with high quality graphics and a big-name narrator, makes this docuseries a contender with more high-profile documentaries that came out of 2020. Perhaps what deserves even more applause is that this compelling film has come from a local film company. The success of Dismantling Democracy speaks to the trend of independent production studios opting out of stationing offices in well-known entertainment hubs such as New York City and Hollywood in favor of locating in more local areas. It’s a common misconception that many people believe in order to star in, and create, high-quality pictures they need to relocate to these high-profile cities. However, a rising number of production companies are proving that’s far from the truth.

B-roll shoot for Dismantling Democracy at MAKE/FILMS

The movement of decentralization in Hollywood has been a slow and steady process, with the music industry being one of the spearheaders. Now, more film companies are not only choosing more local locations, but also seeking and hiring talent outside of those entertainment hubs as well. This can have benefits for both sides. Not only do production companies not have to break the bank paying high rent prices in large metropolitan cities, but aspiring talent in the film industry have more opportunities to work. Some advocates for this Hollywood decentralization argue that this movement will allow for a more fair, balanced, and equal amount of accessibility to the industry.

This decentralization movement continues to grow, and MAKE/FILMS’ latest project Dismantling Democracy shows success doesn’t need a big Hollywood production name attached to it. Instead, this team of dedicated, thorough, and professional filmmakers with the help of a group of impressive freelancers delivered a one-of-a-kind docuseries that teaches all of us about the ins and outs of the rise and fall of a democratic system.

Dismantling Democracy is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and PBS.