In a bid to raise money for its beloved horses, Ontario Equestrian recently launched an initiative entitled The Herd.
Entire communities have been built around the horses, and many people have devoted their lives to teaching kids and adults to ride. And the people who run stables, they have come to consider the horses to be part of their family. But with the farms being deemed unessential businesses, they have lost all income and the means to take care of their animals, putting their lives at risk.
Jesse Hunt, a director at Toronto production studio Sequoia Content, found out about this story via another initiative called #CreativityForGood. “It was a resource for local companies and organisations that were looking for creative solutions for problems they were facing due to the pandemic to partner with freelance creatives that, let's face it, had a lot of free time,” he says. “Without knowing much about it or anyone involved I decided to reach out and offer up a helping hand if they were trying to do any remote style shooting, which at the time was all that was happening.”
He was contacted and told about the plight of Ontario Equestrian’s horses. At the time there was zero creative attached to the project other than Jesse and others agreeing that making a video was the best way to spread awareness and attempt to raise some funds for the organisation. At first they were experimenting with making a short documentary that could be done completely remotely with Zoom interviews and some content captured from a distance. “As the idea developed a little more we began to realise that unless you are truly passionate about the organisation itself, it may not resonate in a way that would generate the funds needed to keep them afloat,” Jesse adds.
Luckily for Jesse and the crew, shooting restrictions began easing just as they planned to begin production. It didn’t mean that visitors could visit the farms (and generate income) but it did mean two things could happen. Importantly, volunteers were allowed to come and care for the animals. It also allowed Jesse and the crew to approach the project with a less restricted mindset and completely pivot the creative as they explored the possibilities of having a small crew and shooting something that was more commercial-like and ultimately more engaging. From there, Jesse wrote a short script that encompassed everything they were trying to draw attention to - the people behind the facilities, the community and of course, the horses that are at the centre of it all.
The production ended up being one of the first to shoot in Ontario, Canada once restrictions began lifting. “Right from the beginning, safety was our number one priority,” says Jesse. “We engaged a producer that is a good friend of mine that I collaborate with often and we looked at this as a way to begin enforcing many of the rules and regulations that we anticipated seeing on future productions. He did a great job of setting a standard of safety early on, which made myself and our small crew feel comfortable.”
For the most part, as everything was shot outdoors or in large, airy farm buildings, social distancing wasn’t too tricky to observe, says Jesse. “We made sure that there were never more than 5 people at any given time in one area. Usually, it was just me, the DP, our AC and talent moving from spot to spot. Even still, we used walkies to communicate with each other so our core group was never close to each other. If we ever needed anything like a battery, for example, we'd radio for it and someone would bring it over and then someone, either myself or our talent would take a short walk so that we didn't overcrowd the spot we were in. I also had our wardrobe stylist on FaceTime to help me make final selections on wardrobe during the day.”
Jesse worked with DP Mat Barkley, who he has a close working relationship with already - something that came to be particularly beneficial on such an experimental shoot. “It made a huge difference on a shoot like this,” says Jesse. “I could still direct semi-remotely while he'd relay any specific directions to the talent since he was often standing the closest and they'd adapt together. Many of the shots that we planned out in advance were structured in a way that Mat was able to shoot from a safe distance on long lenses.
“We made sure that everyone felt comfortable being vocal if there was ever a moment when they were feeling unsafe but more as a way to avoid those situations altogether,” adds Jesse. “Communication was and will be a key component to safety on sets in the future.”
The overall process was a learning curve for Jesse and the crew. “The trickiest part had to be wrapping our heads around the new level of over-communicating,” he says. “ Since everyone was covered in PPE it's very hard to read people's faces, gauge their emotions or get a sense of what they might be thinking. You have to be willing to say exactly what is on your mind - no one is going to see that subtle grin or smile under your mask and not knowing what your collaborators are feeling in the moment can have a negative effect on a project's overall creative execution.
“It was all interesting to observe, to be honest,” Jesse concludes. “Everyone was very respectful of each other's safety and worked together collaboratively to execute this spot given the less than ideal scenario.”