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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

What it’s like making a vegan documentary during a pandemic

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I’m filming the vegan documentary Creating a Vegan World, and here’s what I do behind the scenes to produce this film during the pandemic.

Like many people reading this, it was a documentary that helped propel my decision to go vegan. Through the work of Earthlings, Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, and What the Health, I finally understood why going vegan was a decision I could make to improve the lives of humans, animals, and the planet as a whole.

But it wasn’t until years later that I heard the quote: “It’s not enough to simply be vegan. If you want to make a true difference in this world, you’re going to have to do something more.” These words of wisdom helped me begin my search for my niche.

Like a large jigsaw puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces, we all play our own unique role in helping spread the vegan movement throughout the world.

vegan filmThe vast majority of non-vegans might see more coverage about plant-based foods in the news and assume it’s just some trend that appeared out of nowhere. In my early years of veganism, I saw this wave coming from a mile away. But it was still too early to catch on with the masses.

At the time, I knew that there were hundreds of thousands of animal right activists throughout the world holding candlelight vigils, Cubes of Truth, open rescues, disruptions, and other forms of activism to get the message across. In the words of Vegan Launch CEO Mark Winstein: “Movements create markets.”

While the animal rights movement spreads veganism to the early adopters in the world, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are there to create vegan products that fulfil this increase in market demand.

But it wasn’t until I started filming that I learned there are countless other pieces of the puzzle largely hidden from one another.

The idea behind Creating a Vegan World

After spending years doing marketing work for various vegan businesses, in 2019, I made the decision to go out into the world and create something of my own. I threw some ideas out into the market, such as a vegan health subscription box and cholesterol reduction supplements, but it was only after I made a post in a Sydney-based vegan Facebook group that I knew I was onto something people were excited about.

I went into Photoshop and created some sample posters to see which one people would like best. At the time, the documentary was just an idea in my mind, but if enough people showed interest, I’d begin taking it seriously.

sydney vegans
The winner of the survey was the 2nd poster. Photo: Facebook

While it didn’t get hundreds of thousands of likes and shares, in this small community, it felt to me as if it was going viral as more than a hundred people commented on it to give their feedback, and dozens of people messaged me to offer their support.

Among those who contacted me were vegan music producers offering their tracks to play over the credits, graphic designers, editors, and one vegan interior designer named Aline Dürr.

After exchanging some messages back and forth for a couple of days, she was more than excited to be the first person filmed for the documentary.

Recording my first interview

The only problem I faced was I didn’t even have a camera on this side of the world with me. One mindset I adopted from my business background is that I like to jump off a cliff and hope I can build a parachute on the way down. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I am confident in the future and work hard to make sure I follow through.

Fortunately, another member of the group offered to help as she had a DSLR and microphone that we could use to film the first scene. Dürr found a really nice vegan home she designed in the Northern Beaches and made the reservation to use it to film for the day. Unfortunately, a few days before the shoot, the videographer backed out due to other commitments, and I was left scrambling to find a suitable alternative.

Decent camera rentals started off at $400 per day and the one documentary producer I spoke with in the area was unavailable for work. I made a post in the local community group if they knew any videographers available that day and someone pointed me to a man named Scott.

At the last minute, things finally came together — I offered to pay Scott a small sum for his services and help him build his portfolio for his new freelance videography business. A couple of days later, Scott worked his magic, Dürr did an amazing job on camera, and the first interview of the documentary was done.

Hit the ground running or start off with a plan?

At the time of writing, I’ve conducted 15 interviews. 12 of them were online interviews to build out the storyline and three were professionally recorded for the full-length film.

In retrospect, I’d say that Murphy’s Law is true and nothing ever goes to plan. You can spend your time planning for ages, but I’m a firm believer that when you take one step forward, the next will unfold itself when the time is right. The Excel sheet outlining every minute of the film fell apart after the second interview.

I guess there is a kind of spiritual practice to this approach, where some burst of inspiration comes up. And when you act on it right away, good things unfold. To illustrate this point, during the conversation with the original videographer, she said she was interested in learning why plant-based options are more expensive. When you go to the cafe, it costs extra to get plant-based milk in your coffee instead of cow’s milk.

I did a Google search for the answer and came across the book Meatonomics by David Simon. I immediately emailed him asking if I could interview him in my film and we agreed on a recorded Zoom call, as I’m currently halfway across the world.

During that interview, he answered that question. But more importantly, he too resonated with the work I was doing and gave me introductions that led me to interview Paul Shapiro about the cell-based agriculture industry. Those interviews, in turn, led me to speak with a vegan lobbying organisation in Washington DC that is helping shift government subsidies in the US away from meat and towards plant-based agriculture.

I have so much respect for every person I spoke with and the work they are doing to create a vegan world in their own unique way. This work is the metaphorical equivalent of thousands of puzzle pieces that fit into the bigger picture about how the world is shifting to veganism.

As I mentioned before, the mainstream sees the rise of the trend, but it’s this work that is going on behind the scenes that causes the world to change. It is in my hope that this documentary provides a blueprint for how any future social justice movement can create a positive change. All the little things everyone does ties together, even if you don’t see it at the time.

To answer my original question: In many instances during this experience, I had a general idea in mind of what I wanted to create, but the content of the film only started coming together when I ignored the plan and followed the footsteps one interview after another. I was very much against building out a very detailed plan.

Creating a documentary should be taken seriously

On the technical front, I learned through this experience that if I want to get my documentary on Netflix, at least 90% of the film would have to be shot on Netflix-approved cameras, all of which have the minimum requirements of 4K.

Beyond that, one of my friends told me that if I’m putting this film out into the world, I need to do so with professionalism and treat it seriously. While I am a firm believer that one step leads to another, I can’t wing it all the way as I go. I have to do a good job.

The next steps on my agenda are to invest heavily in Netflix-approved cameras. I sought mentorship from award-winning film directors who gave me feedback on the quality of my lighting, ancillary footage and sound. Even the slightest background noise or echoes in my recordings could throw the viewer experience off.

behind the scenes documentaryMy advice for anyone who wants to start from where I was when my documentary journey began?

Go professional from the start. While the route you take to get there will unfold as you go, it’s good to have a general sense of where you are going and the utmost level of professionalism when you interact with the people you are including in the film. When I interview famous doctors and politicians, I feel a heavy level of responsibility to respect the time they are putting towards this and shine them in the best possible light. This same respect holds true to everyone I interact with. The recording of a film should maintain 100% quality throughout.

Momentum builds upon itself. When I got my first interview with the respected vegan author David Simon and the first professionally recorded interview with Aline Dürr, I leaned on this existing momentum which (I believed) helped other influential people in the vegan world take my work more seriously. And it just continues to grow from there.

Now, instead of saying I want to interview them for a film that I thought out in my mind, they can see that I actually have something concrete in the works.

With one final word that I am overjoyed with how warm and receptive people are in helping me with this film, I’d like to move onto another important aspect, which is distribution.

Getting the film out there into the world

Another documentary producer once told me that if I want to get my film on Netflix, I’m going to have to know somebody that’ll get my foot in the door. Either somebody famous attaches their name to the film or I should know somebody who works in the company. Many people pitch their ideas only to not make it all the way to the screen.

I once heard that it helped a great deal when Leonardo DiCaprio became the executive producer of Cowspiracy. One author who just got invited to produce a Netflix series told me she’s partnered with an experienced producer who already had some shows on Netflix in the past.

Aside from emailing some people back and forth for a few pieces of advice, I don’t fall into either of those categories. For this reason, I’m going to rely heavily on my marketing background and take a different approach. Even if I don’t ultimately appear on Netflix, I still want the film to be seen hundreds of millions, if not billions of times.

In the past, I would write a book and then wait to get it out there after it was done. This left a lot of unread books sitting in my garage.

While I build out the film, I want it to be more than just about the end result and more about turning into a movement that involves the whole community. As part of this, I made the decision to release all of my interviews for free on my website and social media leading up to its release.

Most of the Zoom interviews will be re-recorded in 4K when I meet them in person. This way, I build momentum and a following.

In addition to recording, I am seeking the advice of other marketers and branding experts to help build out a movement of (hopefully) millions of vegans who share this cause. If I can approach a large cinema or online streaming service showing I have a following that is eager and ready to watch the film, I feel this will greatly increase the odds of being chosen to be on their platform.

netflix vegan documentaryAnyhow, that’s where I’m at now. Building out my social media channels. Putting together an email newsletter. Scheduling interviews via LinkedIn. Paying out of my pocket for camera gear and freelance videographers to film in their free time. Taking it one step at a time. With the confidence that one day everything will come together and my work will be done.

This is just a small glimpse behind the scenes of Creating a Vegan World.

But most importantly, what I found during my first online interview with David Simon, at the surface, we all might want to start the next billion-dollar company like Ethan Brown from Beyond Meat. But when you go out there and “do something more”, you’ll find that one thing comes most naturally to you. That’s your niche.

We are all a piece of the larger puzzle, working together as one. And one unseen step at a time, this is where the real change will continue to happen.

Andrew Alexander
Since 2011, Andrew has been a marketer helping vegan-friendly businesses launch their brands into the marketplace. In 2017, he started his own business, VeganHealthPack.com, which encourages people to be more aware of the effects food has on their health. In his free time, he enjoys going on day hikes, eating at new restaurants, scuba diving, and backpacking through other countries. As a side project, he is filming a documentary called Creating a Vegan World which outlines the work we are doing behind the scenes of the plant-based movement.