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This May Be Production’s “New Normal”

Looking to an immediate future where smaller productions hold sway and innovative ways of telling stories might evolve

Opening image from ITV’s Isolation Stories

The industry is returning to work under strict health and distancing guidelines in which a production set is likely resemble the moment when E.T was on life support.

Life support is what many productions, as well as theaters, are in danger of relying on as the pandemic continues to restrict all scripted film and TV shows outside of animation.

Even if production is able to restart in June, the underlying effects of the shutdown will be felt in the scripted TV market for the remainder of 2020, and well into 2021, finds Ampere Analysis. It expects 60% of all scripted productions to be delayed and that the world’s top TV commissioners will release 10% fewer new scripted titles per month going forward.

Different countries, even different U.S. states, are moving at different paces of resumption. In each case though, government or industry authorities have issued guidelines for working with Covid-19.

Read more: Tyler Perry Says Restarting Production Is Imperative for His Crew — but Not Without New Health Measures

Read more: Tyler Perry Reveals Details of COVID-19 Production Protocols

Read more: Georgia Governor Releases Best Practices Protocols For Film and TV Sets

Read more: Australia Sets Production Safety Guidelines for Post-Coronavirus Era

Among those issuing documentation: Film Florida, the AICP (Association of Independent Commercial Producers), the Czech Film Commission, CCHCST in France and, in the UK, guidelines from major broadcasters in concert with indie producers body Pact.

Let’s try to synthesize the key points of these guidelines and look to an immediate future where smaller productions hold sway and innovative ways of telling stories might evolve:

No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Just as no production is the same, so there’s no cookie-cutter approach to staying safe on set. All the guidelines caveat their publication by stating quite reasonably that everything needs checking and updating regularly.

That said, they all follow similar health and hygiene protocols. Chief among these are maintaining social distancing, wearing of PPE, the individual wrapping of everything from a lavalier mic to a prawn sandwich, and working remotely to a far greater degree and with fewer people in one location than before.

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What Does (Will) Video Production Even Look Like Now?

The production of Netflix series Katla gives a clue: It’s managed to keep the cameras rolling on location in Iceland, partly because the country has kept cases very low, but also because of strict filming rules.  As detailed in The New York Times, these include wearing color-coded armbands to determine who is allowed to go to which area, temperature checks each morning, doorknobs sanitized every hour, and craft services dulled down to unsexy box lunches.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Testing

Crew will be obliged to wear masks and gloves at all times on set, changing gloves repeatedly during the day.

“If you’re running a production you should be exploring supply chains to provide these items for the near future,” advises Atlanta-based branded content agency Bark Bark. “Expect a pre-call an hour or two earlier than your normal call to check-in, get your temperature taken, wash your hands, and receive your PPE for the day. Key decision makers and contributors should have a replacement ready to fill in if needed.”

On-screen talent will be exempt from being required to wear face masks and production shoots—but they should be tested regularly. When the production needs to shoot some “intimate” scenes, the actors will be retested.

Bring Your Own… Everything

Talent may be advised to do their own hair and make-up prior to arriving on set but if not possible, then the hair or make-up artist should wear appropriate PPE and use single-use brushes and applicators (increasing environmental waste in so doing).

Props could be supplied from an actor’s own possessions (e.g a phone); similarly, wardrobe specs could be altered to use more of the actor’s personal clothes.

Keep Your Distance

Scheduling should be altered to stagger call times and work day start and end times should avoid rush hour commutes. Dressing and lighting of sets should be done separately to minimize clusters. A temporary clear barrier between actors is suggested while establishing marks and positions – to be removed at the last moment.

Talent and crew may need to be quarantined together for the entire duration of the shoot to avoid them returning home. The cast/contestants and crew for the Spanish version of Banijay’s Temptation Island are being quarantined for two-weeks prior to shooting in July in the Dominican Republic.

Australian soap Neighbours has been shooting for a few weeks with measures including replacement of background extras with crew members—something that SAG warns against happening here.

The soap’s studio is split into quadrants with no more than 100 people a day in any area. Fremantle Australia chief executive Chris Oliver-Taylor told the BBC, “We’re going to assume if someone does get sick we don’t need to shut the entire shoot – we just close that group and carry on.”

Enter the Safety Supervisor

Putting such protocols into practice is now a priority for producers. The quicker they can get a regimes in place, the sooner production can commence. To coordinate all of this, a new position of ‘quarantine supervisor’ or similar could be designated. Their role is to make sure health and hygiene policies are followed appropriately by everyone throughout the shoot.

Insurance and Travel

The biggest headache for productions of all types is insulating the production from liability if a member falls ill during production and litigates, or if the show is delayed / cancelled as a result.

“It’s a gigantic stumbling block,” John Sloss, principal of media advisory and management firm Cinetic Media tells The Hollywood Reporter. “No insurance company in its right mind is going to insure a production against someone potentially going down [with Covid-19] at this point in time. I don’t even know how it’s a conversation.”

Insurance broker Kingman likens the current era to post-9/11, when no insurer would write a policy covering terrorism.

Travel Roadblocks

The next biggest headache is travel, particularly international. Challenges, notes ProVideoCoalition, include access to healthy local crew, potentially devastated international economies, the impossibility to ensure location cleanliness, access to healthy local crew, potentially devastated international economies, the impossibility to ensure location cleanliness.

“Discretionary travel—travel that could be done through a live feed—all of it will be on the table to reduce if it’s not completely necessary,” says Adam Goodwin, creative director, partnership marketing and creative for Disney Channels Worldwide.

These variables are likely to incentivize producers to mandate that productions stay local where they have more control.

Smaller Productions

In the short term, all of this stacks up against larger blockbusters especially those planned with an international cast and crew or across multiple locations. Mission Impossible 7 remains grounded after photography in Venice was halted in February; production has yet to resume on The Batman in the UK.

The logistics of production under Covid-19 grow exponentially with the size of the show. Would Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night” be shot under current conditions? Perhaps only if the whole thing were CGI.

Conversely, the situation plays into the hands of smaller productions and those able to control a smaller location/studio set. Production company Blumhouse, for whom Jordan Peele made Get Out and Us, is hoping to shoot a new film on the Universal lot with cast and crew living in a hotel nearby. The Blumhouse modus operandi is mid-budget production so it is perhaps in a better position than, say Marvel/Disney, to pivot.

Creative Workarounds, New Stories, Revised Budgets

In eighteen month’s time there may be a marked editorial difference to the original stories on release. You might see this in the visual language of the show. Shooting under Covid-19 rules will require creativity with the set-up of shots. Choice of camera angles, lenses and blocking for example can be used to simulate greater proximity.

Shoots earmarked for residential neighborhoods may have had a hard time finding a license to shoot; scripts may reflect stories filmed in outdoor spaces.

Contemporary situated drama—such as soaps, comedies—will have to consider how to reflect on screen the reality of daily life with a pandemic. That doesn’t necessarily mean a revival of M*A*S*H (hey that would work!) but it might make shows shot largely with one actor (like Locke) or a stripped-down drama could come to the fore.

Fewer cast and crew is a logical consequence but, as Pro Video Coalition points out, a major potential conflict will be with the trade unions. Unions have strict crew minimums, which means that any plan meant to limit the number of crew members on a set will directly affect the mandates set forward by many unions.

Virtual productions that utilize individually shot performance capture mixed with games engine rendered backgrounds and animated characters are another means of avoiding large cast/crew in one place.

Any costs saved with remote production workflows—art direction, dailies reviews, etc.—may be eaten up by longer set-up times, more production days and more time in post.

The workflows that have been honed over decades to remove as much time as possible out of the prep-thru-production to post pipeline has been fractured. Air gaps will inevitably bleed additional cost.