This is the third post in the series about filming amongst the coronavirus pandemic and the changes in our industry. New posts will be published daily.
Earlier this week, I shared what it felt like pulling focus in a pandemic on four non-union commercial jobs spread out over several weeks. In that post, I wrote that our jobs were, mostly, the same. The skills that we, as camera assistants, have cultivated in our careers are still relevant with a face mask on. That doesn’t mean there aren’t adjustments to be made. Coronavirus will disrupt every single department on a film crew in some way and the camera department is no different.
For starters, we work with some of the most high-touch equipment on set including cameras and monitors that are constantly surrounded by a carousel of crew and talent. When “action!” is called, it’s the camera operator who stands closest to unmasked talent with their eye in the viewfinder. And there’s plenty of departmental interactions as well from reloading the camera to changing lenses.
The work is the same, but we’re obliged to rethink how it could be safer in the context of our current pandemic. I don’t have all of the answers. We’re all still learning what’s good, bad, safe, and unsafe.
If you haven’t yet already, take the time to read guidelines put out by our industry trade unions, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization. Their knowledge is a good first step towards finding some answers and much of their protocols inform what productions are currently doing as well as the advice I’ll impart.
Everything I discuss below is safety-related, though I tried to concentrate on the practicalities and obstacles of the new COVID safety measures rather than the “how to be safe” messages we’ve been hearing for months (and that I already wrote about). After all, it’s important that we not only work safely, but also learn to work effectively while incorporating these new protocols.
So, after four shoots and countless bottles of hand sanitizer thus far this pandemic, I’ve compiled these twelve lessons learned for you mask-wearing camera assistants…
1. Masks Make Communication More Difficult
Before I continue, do not interpret any talk about the obstacles masks pose as justification for ignoring them. Without masks, we aren’t even on set. And just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome. It bears repeating again from my initial pandemic post because it’s so crucial:
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.
That said, while masks are the most important safety measure we have access to, they do present a few drawbacks. Besides potential dehydration, they can make communication difficult in two ways:
It’s harder to speak loud enough.
A proper mask with enough layered protection also stunts sound waves on their way out of your mouth. That makes it harder to hear those speaking. You also can’t see mouths moving, so if you don’t hear the person talking, you may not even be aware you should be listening.
Even in the best of times, sets can become noisy environments, especially on MOS shoots where crew know sound isn’t being recorded. I found it particularly difficult to hear instructions from the Director of Photography (DP) when, for instance, he was at video village across the room video-conferencing with the director while I was minding the camera. It was not uncommon amongst any of the crew to ask for something to be repeated, or have to repeat ourselves, once, twice, three times.
You can’t read lips.
At one point during one of the shoots, the director pulled me aside and asked me to roll the camera during rehearsals in case talent did something worth capturing because he was worried they would tense up during a “real” take. I told him no problem and put my finger on the run button ready to go.
When “magical” things began happening, the DP turned toward me with a look of urgency on his face. Not wanting to reveal we were recording to talent, I turned to the DP and mouthed: “Rolling”
Except I had a mask on.
I realized almost instantly and felt like an idiot. So I quickly took one hand off the follow focus to give the universal “rolling” hand signal (point your index finger up and spin it in a circle.)
This was just one incident, but it turns out I have a habit of communicating in this type of silent mouthing way. And it’s a hard habit to break, damnit!
One tried and true method to combat this is hand signals. Many camera assistants are already aware of some, such as counting hand signals, but you can also make your own. One particularly great example I came across was on an episode of Keeping It Sharp with Joshua Cote (around the 36 min mark) where host Meghan Commons explained how she uses the sign language signs for “battery” and “card” for silent communication with her 2nd AC.
Additionally, walkies, Eartec headsets, and other wireless comm systems can enable us to speak to each other without having to yell through masks.
2. Disinfecting Gear is Extremely Time-Consuming
I quickly learned on the first COVID-job that it’s a fool’s errand to disinfect everything constantly as the day goes on. There isn’t enough time to be a camera assistant and Mr. Clean and perform both tasks to an acceptable standard. A more practical approach is to focus disinfecting high-touch items like:
- Camera top handle
- EVF eyepiece
- Monitor screens
- Follow Focus
- Tilt and Pan locks
- Matte box filter trays
- Exterior buttons on camera body
If you try to disinfect every piece of gear throughout the day, you simply won’t have time to get anything else done. Even at the end of the day, when there’s no pressure to “get the shot,” the pressure to wrap before clocking overtime makes it extremely difficult.
Instead, I believe disinfecting gear is best left to the rental houses.
Proper rental houses will be inspecting gear anyway and, hopefully, have greater resources to disinfect effectively. After all, I can wipe a camera down, but as soon as someone comes and starts operating it, there’s no guarantee it’s still sanitized. Whereas in a rental house environment, with their employees following best practices, they can wipe the camera down and have it packed away in a case, wipe that case, and the camera will stay sanitized before its next user.
There are always exceptions: if someone comes and sneezes on the camera or maskless talent starts laughing close to the director’s monitor, it’s absolutely worth cleaning up. I also made it a point to disinfect any contact made by someone outside of camera department, such as the director adjusting the pan handle or the sound mixer fiddling with camera menus.
As a department, our efforts at sanitizing are best spent on ourselves. I kept a pump of hand sanitizer on the camera cart and near my monitor that I would use liberally whenever I handled gear. I would also offer it to the DP often. If we prioritize the hygiene of our department, which is handling all the gear, there is a decreased need for constant sanitization of the equipment itself.
Be diligent, but selective, and focus your cleanliness on your own persons rather than the gear or you’ll drive yourself into exhaustion trying to disinfect every piece of kit after every single instance that it is handled, touched, or breathed on.
That said, if you have the time, resources, and supplies to disinfect, absolutely do it, especially when receiving hardware from a third-party you’re unsure you can trust or returning gear to somebody else.
For best practices on how to disinfect all different types of gear, Roger Cicala, the founder of LensRentals.com and a former physician, wrote a great tutorial and hosted a podcast on the topic:
3. Check Rental Houses for Their COVID Policies
Rental houses are often organized, but they aren’t always clean. I don’t mean that to knock them, it’s just that so much equipment that comes through there is handled, operated, and transported by a small village of people before it’s repacked for your job. How many hands touch your average C-stand throughout it’s lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands?
There have been days in the past, after leaving the rental house, that I’ll wash my hands and watch in horror as a froth of gross grey water circles the drain. Gear is dirty, man! And we touch it all day.
As I discussed above, it’s difficult on set, under the time constraints placed on us, to disinfect everything. So, imagine the gear that has come back from another job where they didn’t make or take the time to do so: now it’s up to the rental house to pick up the slack and do the disinfecting.
Take that seriously.
Now more than ever, be cognizant of the procedures rental houses are taking to clean and disinfect the cameras and equipment you’ll be renting from them.
And if you don’t care whether the rental house is disinfecting their gear, consider others in your department who do and have to interact with it:
- the operator who will spin the wheels on the head
- the DIT who will be using the Teradeks
- the 2nd AC who’s poking around the menus on the monitor
- the director who wants to look through the finder.
Consider their desire to know that what they’re handling is starting from a place of cleanliness and exercise your best judgment to ensure the rental house is doing their part responsibly.
How do you know?
Are they posting about it on their website or social media profiles? When you ask them what they’re doing, do they give you specifics or is it a generic platitude? When you show up to prep, are they cleaning other prep bays and cases? Do they “flip” gear in front of you, for you, without disinfecting?
On one of my jobs, I had to pick up walkies and was impressed that each battery and surveillance headset was vacuum sealed in its own baggie with a note saying it had been disinfected.
I’m thankful that both of my local rental houses are on top of it. I urge you to confirm yours are too.
4. Wireless Follow Focus is a Must, Wireless Everything is Ideal
At a minimum, a wireless follow focus is a must-have for any sets employing both a camera operator and a focus puller. This prevents the operator and 1st AC from spending substantial amounts of time close to each other, close to talent (who may be maskless), and allows the focus puller to position herself with plenty of physical distance, leaving more space for other crew to do their jobs safely.
Ideally, wireless monitoring would also be deployed to avoid crew from touching BNC cables that get laid on the floor and stepped on by shoes that can potentially carry infected droplets from home, bathrooms, or outside. As a bonus, wireless monitoring allows quick repositioning of video village if physical distancing becomes difficult in its original placement.
For shoots with higher budgets, remote heads that enable camera operators to do their jobs removed from talent provide even greater protection.
All of these options are designed to get you and your department safely distanced from other crew, talent, and people on set. And with wireless technologies, not only will you be distanced from the main hubbub of the set, you can be isolated from video village and other staging areas.
Even before COVID-10, the camera department was already trending heavily towards wireless technologies. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that I expect the pandemic to accelerate adoption.
5. Bring As Many Monitors as Budget Allows, At a Minimum Two
Budgets should be adjusted to plan for additional screens on set: gone are the days of a packed video village due to physical distancing requirements. You need at least two monitors, but ideally more. Three may be the sweet spot:
- one for the director and cinematographer
- one for the focus puller
- one for the clients & agency
(This doesn’t include other monitors that crew like the DIT may bring as part of their normal kit.)
Beyond that, adding a fourth monitor would be immensely helpful for hair & make-up, wardrobe, art department, and the gaffer to get eyes on a screen. Often I found these crew getting close to my monitor, essentially breathing on it, while also standing very close to me and watching over my shoulder. In pre-pandemic times, I was used to that and OK with it, but in COVID-world, I don’t want anybody standing that close to me unless it’s my wife or my dog.
What I ended up doing when I had to step away from my monitor was just turn it off so that these crew would use the larger 17″ monitor closer to set. I’m not against anybody using my monitor, I just want it to happen on my terms and having to get too close to someone who is nose-deep in my monitor to ask them to step aside isn’t ideal when I’m trying to physically distance.
For producers, I know this sounds expensive, but putting all these monitors up on set will allow better physical distancing. Plus, not everybody needs the fanciest or biggest monitors. Smaller 13 inch or even 7 inch monitors will often be enough for ancillary crew who need to reference composition (art department) or see if a talent has their sleeves rolled up (wardrobe).
Camera folk: if your department is going wireless for video, consider how many receivers you’ll need and distribution of the signals. Don’t forget that if there is any remote monitoring via Zoom or otherwise that you’ll want to account for that as well.
6. Bring Your Own PPE and Cleaning Supplies
Production absolutely should provide cleaning supplies and PPE, but I urge you to bring your own, especially early on in the return-to-work. In my experience, while production had supplies, the face masks were the cheap, blue, over-the-ear surgical kind and the cleaning supplies were spread out amongst the departments. It’s much easier to wipe the camera if you have your own wipes on the cart and you’re more likely to sanitize your hands if you can keep a bottle of sanitizer in your ditty bag.
Among the items I brought myself:
- Disinfectant Wipes
- Disinfecting spray
- Paper towels
- Hand sanitizer
- Comfortable face-mask
Start buying this stuff now to place in your kit. You don’t have to use it, but there’s a solid chance you will. Charge extra on your kit fee if you do. Leave it in your car as backup.
(One of the shoots actually gave me an extra $100/kit fee to cover PPE expenses on the expectation that production would not provide any. I talked more about that in Monday’s post.)
At the very least, I suggest investing in a good quality face-mask. You’re going to be wearing one of these bad boys for 8+ hours a day, so find one that’s comfortable and doesn’t require a lot of constant adjustment or maintenance. I’ve been very happy with this 4-layer cotton mask (for interiors) and this 2-layer cotton mask (for hot exteriors) from SWRVE.
You may also wish to invest in your own surveillance and earpiece for walkies that way you aren’t jamming unknown germs into your earholes. My setup involves a walkie woogie coil, a simple black ear mold, and this affordable two-wire surveillance mic. It’s more comfortable having my own walkie set and it’s one less thing I need to worry about being cleaned.
7. Beware of Those Who Try to Leverage COVID
I truly believe that the majority of people working in this business are kind, respectful, creative individuals who want to do a good job making interesting work. Unfortunately, the pressures of business can twist decent people into making shrewd decisions. And right now there is unprecedented pressure from the top down to cut costs and remain profitable. While the relationships we have with producers, production managers, and coordinators are human, ultimately many of our interactions with them are transactional, especially when working together for the first time.
So, what I’m trying to prepare you for is: some of these people, representing their businesses’ interests, may attempt to use the worldwide pandemic as a reason to cut costs and remain profitable.
These are a few ways I’ve already seen this happening:
While on set last month, I was speaking with a grip about whether rates will drop with less work happening and he told me about an exchange with a producer when it came time to discuss money.
Producer: “We have a special COVID rate on this job.”
“Oh, that’s great. So like hazard pay, you’re paying more?” the grip asked.
“Oh no,” said the producer, “we’re paying much less.”
Needless to say, my friend turned down the job. And yet I anticipate somebody, probably, eventually picked it up because for many these are desperate times. And desperate times give those with the power of the purse more leverage in their negotiations.
One of the jobs I did recently proposed a rate that was ~30% lower than my standard rate by lowering both the dollar number and shifting the timebase from a 10-hour to a 12-hour day. I negotiated for what I could and made up for the remaining lost wages in rentals and mileage.
If you’ve been cultivating relationships with production companies and clients that understand and respect the rates you deserve, now is when you get to enjoy the fruits of that labor. These companies will still pay fairly and, if they’re unable to, you can trust their word that the budget really is low, not just your rate, and make an informed decision on whether it’s worth it.
Between physical distancing and capacity limits, there’s a strong chance productions will start asking you to work with more responsibility on consolidated crews. I know the union is fighting strongly against this, but in the non-union world, producers are watching their headcount for more than just budgetary reasons: one less crew member = one less exposure risk.
What does this mean for camera department? It means positions could go unfulfilled starting from the bottom-up: Camera PA’s, Utilities, Loaders, and 2nd AC’s, in that order, may find booking jobs more difficult. And requesting those persons may also be more difficult.
Productions asking AC’s to shoulder the extra responsibilities of multiple AC’s or other tiers of our department is nothing new, but with even more justification for doing it, I anticipate some shoots will squeeze a little tighter than before, even in situations where additional crew are needed.
Granted, on some shoots, it is justified. For instance, on the tiny political ad I did last week, I was the only camera assistant also doing data management, but our entire day was a single-camera filming 7-8 takes of one-shot.
There’s no clear guidance here: only you know what bandwidth you’re comfortable with and capable of, but don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel a 2nd AC or a loader is necessary for you to perform your duties to satisfaction.
If you’ve taken any jobs yet, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been asked to sign some type of Coronavirus Liability Waiver. They’re slowly creeping into start paperwork as a standard expectation of employment and they can be nasty!
While some simply ask you to acknowledge that, in spite of all safety measures, there is a risk of exposure to coronavirus; many others reach far beyond that to unreasonably ask you to release and indemnify your employer from any and all claims arising out of your time on set.
I have an entire post about these for Friday, but the takeaway is this: Read all of these waivers carefully and be aware if you’re being asked to literally sign your rights away.
Five More Small Adjustments AC’s Should Make
1. Camera preps need to be smaller. Limit how many people show up to the prep. Can the DP attend via FaceTime instead to go over the info you need from them? Does the producer truly need to show up only to sit on their laptop? Do the rental houses a favor and cull the number of people (and exposure) you’re bringing along. I understand it’s not always up to the AC, but prep time is our time and, as the head of our departments, it’s our responsibility to voice these concerns.
2. Use Pancro to wipe marks off the follow focus. I don’t know how other AC’s do it, but when I need to remove a mark from the follow focus ring, I simply spit in a Kim Wipe pulled from my pocket and wipe away the marks. Except, well, that’s about the worst thing you can do now. And water isn’t quite as accessible as it once was. So, use disinfectant instead or a spray of Pancro to provide the moisture needed to remove marks.
3. Turn your focus monitor off when walking away. As I mentioned earlier, I got into the habit of turning my focus monitor off when stepping away because people would get too close to it – breathing on it and crowding it for when I needed to actually use it. It also made physical distancing harder having to keep asking them to move away from it and I worried about getting my own face so close to something someone had been a finger’s touch away from.
4. Consider bumping slates or panning away from talent. Slating often brings camera assistants close to talent – like your hand in front of their face close. And in many of these instances they won’t be wearing masks. So talk to your operator about panning away from talent to slate or, even better, start bumping slates (for MOS or non-critical sync shoots) when the set is empty or talent is still masked. A third option would be to coordinate with the Assistant Director about slating before talent removes their mask.
5. Streamline your gear so there’s less to disinfect. The less gear you bring on set, the less you’ll have to disinfect. Of course, because work is still so sparse in these early days, my idea of “disinfecting” is simply to leave it in my car or in the cases for several days to let the virus naturally die off. That said, when/if work starts to increase, the more efficient we are with our kits, the easier it will be to deal with between jobs and at the end of the day.
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.
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