This is the second post in the series about filming amongst the coronavirus pandemic and the changes in our industry. Read the first post here. New posts will be published daily.
All of the productions I’ve been involved with during this pandemic have mostly done a good job implementing safety protocols – some were even excellent – but there were still areas they fell short. I say this with full acknowledgement that filming during a pandemic is unprecedented and that all of us are learning as we go. That’s why this feedback is important!
I am not here to complain about production (even though I know that’s a crew’s favorite hobby). I am here to provide practical suggestions based on my personal experience working four non-union, mid-budget commercial gigs. For further context, please read my previous post in this series.
Undoubtedly, you may have had a contrasting experience on a set that was union, in another state, or had a different budget. I urge you to share both the good and the bad you’ve encountered working during this pandemic in the comments below. We’ll all benefit from this shared knowledge.
Much of what I suggest is built on plans already presented by the trade unions of our industry as well as safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. If you haven’t already familiarized yourself with those, please do so.
Instead of focusing on the basics already covered by those organizations, I’m going to consider the specifics of implementing their guidelines, where the productions I’ve worked on so far fell short in doing so, and how projects moving forward have the opportunity to improve.
As a crew member simply pulling focus below-the-line, here are ten of my takeaways on what it would take to operate more safely and effectively in our new pandemic normal…
1. The Most Important Factor is Enforcement
The main lesson I learned over these pandemic shoots is that while everyone says they’re going to implement physical distancing, mask wearing, temperature checks, etc., it’s an entirely different conversation about whether it’s carried-through with any sort of consistency to be effective.
Every one of the four jobs, I watched as crew quickly fell into old habits. Some habits were easy to drop (no handshakes), but the actual working habits we’ve learned over years in the industry are much harder to shake. Often there were still crowds at video village or crew “standing by” in rooms too small to accommodate that many people while still physically distancing.
This became especially true when the end-of-the-day was approaching and there was increased urgency to wrap on time. With overtime breathing on our necks, the safety protocols took the hit.
I do not entirely blame anyone for this. Crew are notoriously stubborn about saying “no” and doing whatever we can to get a shot. We like to please and know how to work effectively. The problem is we all now have to rewire ourselves in important ways to do it safely in the context of coronavirus.
Besides breaking habits, there were other safety issues we’ve all seen in the general public: masks under noses, masks on chins, people touching high-contact surfaces and then their faces, and I even watched a producer hug someone.
These are the kinds of incidents that happen when there is a lack of enforcement. And the shoot most guilty of letting these incidents pile up is the one that had an ineffective “COVID Officer” whose abdication of responsibility resulted in those duties being dumped at the feet of the 1st Assistant Director (1st AD) who was too busy doing all the other things they do to catch safety violations.
2. “COVID Officers” Need to Be Proactive
Every single department head should be shouldering the responsibility of the safety protocols for their own crews – but department heads, like the 1st AD, often get distracted with their own work. So, with guidelines so precise and consequences of an infection so damaging, it’s really an entire job unto its own to communicate, implement, and enforce the safety protocols.
Any set, of suitable size, should have somebody designated as a COVID Officer to monitor and enforce the safety guidelines productions are promising crew.
Ideally, this COVID Officer should:
- have no other roles or responsibilities
- be present on set for a majority of the day (where the camera is, not where crafty is)
- most importantly, they need to be equipped with the authority to enforce adherence or escalate the issue to someone who can and this authority must cover everybody on the set.
This means your Key Set PA shouldn’t also be your Social Distancing Captain. Your 1st AD, who’s now juggling a Zoom call with the director, does not have the bandwidth to also manage the person in the corner who forgot to pull their mask back up after a water break. And if you, the producer, are going to be on your laptop tending to the usual onslaught of e-mails, you must rule yourself out.
What is important is this COVID Officer works proactively to uphold safety protocols and guidance. We’re used to having EMT’s or set medics around, but their job is largely to respond to situations – to be reactive – in which care needs to be rendered. If there’s a coronavirus related emergency happening on your set, the damage is too late – infection has likely already spread and it’s impossible to know to whom or to where it has transmitted without time and testing.
On one of the jobs I did, our COVID Officer was a set medic who treated the job like any other day. As in: he sat around in case an emergency came up. He never once came inside where we were shooting, he never spoke to the crew about safety measures beyond our initial safety meeting, and he didn’t do any “checks” on how the set as a whole was managing risk of transmission. He acted fine as a set medic, but he abjectly failed in his responsibilities as a COVID Officer. It was a joke.
Whoever is in charge – whether it’s a COVID Officer on larger shoots or you, the producer, on a crew of less than 10 – they should be on-set constantly monitoring everyone’s adherence to the guidelines and gently reminding them (or sternly warning them, if necessary) about how to do their work safely.
3. Proper Masks Should Be Worn Whenever Possible
It’s tempting to allow masks to be taken off whenever we’re outside, but too often we find ourselves with a moment away from set only to be rushed back into the thresh of things at a second’s notice. If you are constantly taking your mask on and off, you’re touching your face frequently which would increase chances of transmission of COVID-19.
As I mentioned in the last post, the importance of mask-wearing is paramount:
…when working as close together as we in the film industry do, the science, the studies, and common sense all dictate that it is not only our ethical obligation to wear a mask, but that it is tremendously beneficial for the safety and health of you and your fellow crew to do so.
Wearing a mask is the single most important action we can take to make sets safer. And I am thankful that something as simple, affordable, and easy-to-find as a mask is able to give me the protection needed to get back to doing the job I love to do safely.
Exceptions to mask wearing should be limited to the current CDC guidelines which would allow masks-off in the following situations:
- Meals. Ensure individuals are seated 6+ feet apart.
- Outside for brief breaks. Such as drinking water or eating a snack.
- Outside and distanced for extended periods of time. For instance, an electrician sitting in a condor babysitting a light does not need to wear their mask.
Otherwise, crew should be encouraged to keep their masks on for their own, and everyone else’s, safety. Too often I saw crew step away and take their mask off for a break, but do so in a high-traffic area or in the presence of others they weren’t aware of.
I’d also strongly suggest requiring crew to get approval for their personal masks. Or at least be prepared to request a crew member swap out a less-than-ideal covering for a proper mask supplied by the production. Buffs and bandanas, for instance, are popular, but they come in such a variety of fabrics that some of them may not be effective for the kind of close-quarters work we do on film sets.
Finally, proper mask wearing should be covered at every safety meeting, even if it’s redundant to most crew. I saw too many people on set wearing their masks under their nose or on their chin who need the reminder that when it doesn’t cover both your mouth and your nose its effectiveness is significantly reduced.
4. Crew Need Regular Breaks for Hydration
Anybody who’s ever been on a film set knows that – for better or worse – water bottles are ubiquitous. They are passed out freely and crew are encouraged to stay hydrated– for good reason! When we’re hydrated our minds our sharper, our bodies are stronger, and we work better.
Over the years, like many camera assistants, I’ve formed the habit of keeping water stocked in the Robocup on my focus pulling station, on my camera cart, and in other strategic places so I could steal a sip here and there between takes or setups.
One of the biggest changes returning to work was the inability to drink water freely because it involves removing your mask – even briefly. Now, taking a sip of water means removing yourself from set to do so. As any camera assistant knows, finding any time to step away can be difficult in the middle of a scene or setup. And, especially if you’re behind schedule, you have to prioritize your breaks.
Even while shooting exteriors, having to walk away from others to drink is enough of a moment to not be worth the hassle if you’re waiting for instructions from the DP or need to be available to slate.
Several times, in the thick of a setup and too busy to step away, I became acutely aware of how much less water I was drinking simply because my mouth was covered. Until I spent 12 hours in my mask, the thought of becoming dehydrated never occurred to me.
So, crew need to be prepared to be more conscious about drinking water. When you get the opportunity to do so: chug a good amount. Like drink those mini-bottles all at once. Chug half a full size bottle. Don’t hold back and take small sips because you won’t have as many moments to do so.
But this is also an area where production especially can help us: encourage your crew to take breaks to refuel. You don’t have to make this a timed break, but if you see an opportunity for a few moments of downtime, encourage your crew to drink water. You will make back the brief time this takes by having a crew that doesn’t feel the sluggish effects of dehydration.
5. We Need Time for Cleaning Gear & Our Hands
We know two of the most important things we can do to mitigate spread of coronavirus is to frequently wash our hands for at least 20 seconds and sanitize high touch areas. However, depending on the pace of your shoot, it can be difficult enough to find time to run to the bathroom and wash your hands, let alone sanitize high-touch, in-use items like cameras and monitors.
A huge help would be regular 5-10 minute breaks where crew are encouraged to wash their hands and sanitize their most interacted-with gear. These can happen concurrently with water breaks.
Yes, crew should be taking responsibility and doing these things throughout the day, but when production is pushing us to be ready ASAP, we tend to fall into old habits which, traditionally, hasn’t involved wiping things down.
Even if crew don’t wipe their gear, just asking everyone to wash their hands or apply hand sanitizer every hour or two would be a great idea.
One thing productions need to realize is that safely filming in the age of coronavirus probably means moving slower.
If you make cleaning a habit of the entire set, you will have a safer set, but unless someone higher up specifically says to take a break to do these things, many crew will use those breaks to work ahead, socialize, go to crafty, or catch up on other priorities.
6. Require Hand Washing Before & After Meals
On that note, one great idea I saw a producer execute was to go around when lunch was called and ask (force) crew to sanitize their hands. She carried a hand sanitizer pump to spew it in our hands.
After lunch, she would return and do the same thing since, while eating, everyone had their hands close to their mouth and nose – potentially holding onto infectious droplets.
This is such a simple, easy protocol to implement. You could even ask catering or a production assistant to stand by the table where lunches are available to ask each person to sanitize.
If you’d like to take it a step further, however, washing hands is even better. According to the CDC:
When hands are heavily soiled or greasy, hand sanitizers may not work well. Handwashing with soap and water is recommended in such circumstances.
So while sanitizer is great for someone whose hands remain relatively clean between washings, like talent or the script supervisor, it’s probably not going to be as effective for the grips moving c-stands or the electricians pulling stingers through the parking lot.
7. Treat Maskless Talent Like Firearms On Set
Since we want our projects, mostly, not to carry a time-stamp linking them to the era of coronavirus, it makes sense that our actors and actresses don’t wear masks unless it’s for a story-reason. That, of course, presents increased risk both for talent and those of us working close enough to them. Think about how close you have to get to talent to slate, to lay marks, or to measure focus distance.
If mask-less talent stays in one place, the risk is easy to work-around, but I found that talent would often get called over to warddrobe, makeup, or the director and start walking nearby other crew without their mask on.
That’s OK if crew can prepare for it and give the requisite 6-feet of physical distance to talent who need to step behind the camera, but sometimes I’m too busy adjusting a cable, battery, or something on the camera to notice their mask is off.
That’s why it should be announced when talent is removing their mask, just like how guns get announced when they come onto set. Or, similarly, it should be treated like a closed set, and announced as such, so that essential crew can be sensitive and aware.
8. Shoot Outdoors Whenever Possible
While the world is still rapidly learning about coronavirus, a picture is starting to emerge that transmission risks in outdoor spaces are substantially lower than indoor areas. This is most likely because outside the air we breathe isn’t recirculated. Now this doesn’t mean we get to relax other safety protocols – physical distancing and masks will still be needed, but productions should make every effort to shoot outside for these key advantages:
- Lowered transmission risk due to wind dispersal and sunlight
- More space for physical distancing (generally speaking)
Of course there are potential complications as well, mainly:
- Weather (wind, rain, inconsistent light, heat)
- Noise (traffic, lawn equipment)
It’s impractical for all shoots to take place entirely outside, but look for pieces of your story that are malleable in that way. For instance, can a conversation inside of a car take place outside of the car? Can the B-Roll of grandma reading to her grandson happen on the front porch rather than the living room? Does that bar scene have to be all the way in the back room or can you set it up at the patio bar?
If exteriors isn’t an option, large studio spaces would be second best because of their tall ceilings and generous space. Many studio spaces are taking extra measures to be safe during the pandemic: Pinewood in Atlanta has invested substantially to increase their safety measures and even the local studio miles down the road from me has installed a HEPA-filtration system that eliminates a majority of viruses from recirculating in the air.
At the bottom of your list should be tight interiors, though I fully acknowledge it will happen. It already has to me. One of the shoots I did last month took place inside an average sized living room. In those cases, do what you can to stage crew, talent, and anybody you can outside. Keep the minimum amount of bodies in that room as you can and be diligent about it: if somebody isn’t actively working, they should be stepping outside. This is where your COVID officer can really earn their day rate.
9. Plan for Individual Transportation
Carpooling in transport vans has always been an attractive option for productions for many reasons: they help crew arrive on time, there’s less concern for parking, and its eco-friendly. The problem now is that you’d have a bunch of people coming together to share a small space inside the vehicle.
Shared transportation should be a last resort. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting into a passenger van full of other people whom I may have just met 15 minutes ago.
As part of their preproduction paperwork, one of the shoots I worked on included this line item:
Each person will be asked to travel individually to set, ideally in his or her own private vehicle. Public transport will unfortunately not be an option for anyone attending a shoot (for the time being).
Productions should anticipate every crew member arriving on their own. Restricting crew from public transport (as the shoot I worked on did) may be too heavy-handed, but I imagine, in most markets, a plurality of crew would chose to drive themselves. In turn, locations managers should pull permits or find ample parking to accommodate this. Location scouts should consider available parking a valid concern alongside the other practical limitations COVID imposes.
10. Keep the Bathrooms Stocked and Cleaned
Shared bathrooms don’t have the best reputation. The idea of sitting your naked butt onto the same seat as someone else’s naked butt feels entirely too intimate to be totally comfortable with it, so add in the risk of coronavirus, and, well, bathrooms are a challenge. Because the thing is: we all need them. If you’re working a 12-hour day and you don’t have to use the bathroom at some point, you need to drink more water or eat something or both.
Unfortunately, bathrooms are full of high-touch surfaces: toilet lids, flush handle, soap dispensers, faucets, and door knobs. Pair that with research showing that flushing the toilet can aerosolize any viruses in your waste and I wouldn’t blame you if you brought your own bedpan to set.
Fellow focus puller Brian Aichlmayr shared with me that one of his sets encouraged them to wait a minute or longer between bathroom usage and to lower the toilet lid before flushing. Additionally, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to leave any bathroom fans on constantly (sorry sound) and/or open any windows to keep air circulating.
One of the shoots I worked on dedicated somebody to cleaning the bathrooms. I never got the details on her schedule, but she appeared to clean it once or twice an hour throughout the entire day.
Lastly, make sure the bathrooms are stocked with enough hand soap and paper towels for crew to wash their hands. If these supplies run low, you risk crew forgoing one of the crucial ways that we can lower transmission: if there’s no paper towels or no soap, they may simply rinse their hands with water (or not rinse at all) and head back to set.
What About Pre-Shoot Testing?
In “The Safe Way Forward” joint report of safety guidelines from the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and Teamsters, testing is the “cornerstone” of their plan to return to work safely:
We believe strategic testing for the presence of COVID-19 is critical for a safe return to work. Without such testing, the entire cast and crew would be asked to work each day in an environment of unknown risk; a single confirmed case would lead to a quarantining of all who came into close contact with that person. This could potentially lead to shooting delays, and—should that person be a key actor/performer or director—to production shutdowns, not to mention the real possibility of illness and death. Our belief in regular, consistent testing is based on the best available public health science.Source: The Safe Way Forward production guidelines, Page 2
The document does acknowledge: “Turnaround time for testing, which can range from hours to days, will be a key factor in determining when and how often tests are administered” and “…our expert consultants believe testing scarcity will be resolved in the near future, which would address the primary question of testing availability.”
Unfortunately, that has not come to fruition, at least in the United States. “The Safe Way Forward” was put out over a month ago before the country started to see a dramatic rise in cases.
(It’s also important to note that this document addresses a “safe way” forward that’s meant for the workflows, habits, and resources of feature film and episodic television production. There is currently a group of IATSE members petitioning for better guidance and stronger guidelines, including testing, for commercial productions and music videos.)
Without faster tests and better availability, I don’t know how testing would be effective on short-term productions. Because of the spike in cases in the US, test results have seen delays with timetables measured in days, not hours. Unless you have access to rapid testing like what’s available in hospitals, there’s significant lag between test collection and receiving results. While that may not be a huge deal to someone who’s tested because they’re presenting symptoms (and thus likely already self-isolating), it renders testing useless unless your shoots are taking place over weeks or months.
Plus, there are some places where testing can still be difficult to come by without showing symptoms. In my state of Virginia, you still need a physician’s order to have a test covered by insurance or else you pay ~$115 out of pocket. There are walk-up testing sites, but, anecdotally, the lines are often hours-long and their locations and availability are inconsistent.
Basically, right now, we still don’t have sufficient availability of fast enough tests to make testing a realistic safety “cornerstone” for short-term production work.
For instance, let’s consider a scenario where you book a job one week away that requires a negative test. So you go get tested the same-day with results expected in 3 days. Well as you’re walking out of the testing site, you get a phone call for another job tomorrow. Work is slow, so you take it.
Three days later, your test comes back negative – phew! Your phone rings again: another job wants to know if you’re available the day before the shoot that required the test. Lucky you – three jobs in one week is good eatin’ in corona-world! Again, you take it and it goes smoothly.
Now that first job comes around and they want your test. And while you have a negative test in hand, in between your test collection and that morning you step on set, you’ve been exposed to two other film crews as well as all the other people you may have encountered on your off days while shopping for groceries, picking up takeout, or shuffling your child to daycare.
After all that, does a negative test really mean much?
Well, one way to prevent that is to require self-isolation between test collection and the shoot. But do you get paid for that? Probably not. That sacrifice may make sense for weeks or months long projects, but is three days of self-isolation worth one day of work?
Let’s assume production says, “Yes, we’ll pay you to self-isolate,” which, realistically, would rarely happen, if ever, for below-the-line crew. But let’s assume it does: so you’re self-isolating; you’re bored, but hey you’re getting paid. And you’re pretty confident your test will come back negative.
Then another job calls and they want you for one-day before the other shoot. It’s tempting to double dip – after all, you feel fine – and those deferred rent payments are starting to pile up. Can we really trust every single crew member to not give into that? I know that sounds crass and I love my fellow crew, but it only takes one person to violate their self-isolation to poke a hole in the parachute. As an example, a music video I was attached to just this past weekend was scrapped because the lead actor lied about his self-isolation and tested positive for coronavirus the day before our camera prep.
What about family members or roommates? Realistically, if my wife gets infected with coronavirus, my exposure risk skyrockets. Does she need to self-isolate as well?
There’s just too many opportunities for test results to be subverted in ways that would render them useless. Unless you quarantine your entire crew or can get test results delivered the night before or the morning-of, it’s impractical in the commercial world. I don’t know any mid-tier production companies with the resources or access to tests that will provide sufficiently quick turnarounds.
And even if all those hurdles are met, “The Safe Way Forward” urges double testing because “a false negative test […] could have devastating effects on a production.”
I have no good answers here.
The bigger budget productions that measure their shooting schedules in weeks and months will simply throw money at this problem and get it solved, but I don’t see testing as a realistic option for low to mid-budget productions that measure their shoots in days.
I wish we had rapid testing and I would love the security of knowing the person I’m working alongside has tested negative, but it won’t happen until the United States can get its act together; of which our leadership is woefully obstinate and parts of our society unshakably opposed to doing so.
Testing, for now, is a white whale. For short-term production work, your energies are better focused on mask compliance, hand washing, and physical distancing. I hope to be proven wrong soon.
Production Should Set the Example
As the work slowly trickles back in, crew, talent, clients, and agencies will be turning to production to set guidelines, enforce them, and lead by example.
All it takes is one producer to not put his mask on to damage everything the safety protocols represent. On the flip side, if you ask your crew to wear a mask and then follow through on it yourself, they will feel empowered, responsible, and obligated to do so.
I don’t envy the position production personnel are in right now. They already manage a tremendous amount of logistics, tight budgets, and spend so much of their time putting out fires. And now they have a heaping pile of Coronavirus Safety Protocols on their plate.
I’m sure it’s hard to be in production right now. I know most people in it are doing the best they can. I appreciate you. I thank you for your hard work. I want you to know that this post isn’t meant to trash all your efforts thus far – it’s meant to improve on it through honest feedback.
As crew, we want to do a good job and turn your project into something you’re proud to show clients. But we want to do it in a way that makes it safe for all of us to go home to our friends and family.
This post is part of a series about filming amongst the coronavirus pandemic and the changes in our industry. New posts will be published daily for the rest of this week.
Other posts in this series: