This is the fourth post in the series about filming amongst the coronavirus pandemic and the changes in our industry. New posts will be published daily.
As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, the phone ringing for work is more rare these days than most of us would like. When it does chirp, and the name of your friendly neighborhood producer pops up on the caller ID, it’s hard not to get excited to answer hoping there’s a job offer on the other line. You’ll want to cover all the normal topics: what’s the gig for, when is it, what’s the rate, who’s involved, and all the follow-up questions that result.
Now, however, there’s a whole other bundle of questions to ask in order to assess the safety measures, if any, the producer hiring you is putting in place to combat COVID-19 transmission. I’ve identified nine particular questions that, combined with the day rate, hours, and other factors, will help you decide if a job is worth the risk of exposure to coronavirus.
1. What protocols are taking place?
This is the ultimate question! By asking this one, you’re likely to get answers to a majority of the other questions listed below. In their response, you’re hoping to hear that they’re implementing safety protocols like:
- Temperature checks
- Symptom pre-screening
- Physical distancing
- Individual transportation
- And more…
In my limited experience, it’s very likely that whomever is hiring you will volunteer this info without you having to ask. Good producers know that everyone is cautious and want you to feel safe coming to set, so in all my conversations they’ve preemptively covered this ground to provide reassurance.
This question will also help you screen which shoots are taking coronavirus seriously versus those who aren’t. By the time you’re being hired for a job, the production should’ve already formed a safety plan. If you get some generic response like, “We’ll have a safe set” or “We’re doing everything possible,” without specifics being divulged, I would tread carefully.
2. Are masks required?
If you’ve been keeping up with this post series, you’ve probably caught on to the idea that masks are crucial to our return-to-work. If you’re getting sick of reading about it, well, I’m not sorry. As I wrote in my “Pulling Focus in a Pandemic” post:
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.
All it takes is one asymptomatic person to show up without a mask to wreck havoc on the collective health of a production crew.
So, in that context, it’s critical that we continue to hammer home the point that masks are a keystone safety measure. By now, many areas have enacted mask mandates and requirements, but there are still some holdouts amongst governments and citizens.
In fact, just today a producer told me they had to send two crew members home on a shoot in the state of Montana because they refused to put masks on. Without a mask requirement on set, those crew would’ve been working alongside you. Are you comfortable with that? I wouldn’t be. A set without a mask requirement is a non-starter for me.
3. Is production supplying PPE?
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), for our purposes, usually means masks, gloves, and face shields. There is other PPE out there, but there aren’t going to be many shoots where you need a Tyvek body suit (unless you’re filming in a vaccine laboratory).
According to regulations, the production should be supplying these items, but that doesn’t mean all of them will follow suit. I would also lump disinfecting products into this question. Will production have paper towels, disinfecting solution, wipes, and everything else you need to sanitize equipment?
I worked one job recently where they paid us $100 on top of our normal rate and kit fee to supply our own masks, cleaning products, and other PPE. All of that stuff can really add up if you’re bringing your own (which you should, as backup), so confirm that production plans to have an ample supply or request additional payment.
4. Is there a COVID Officer?
The role of the COVID Officer is still in its infancy, but broadly speaking, it’s a person who’s in charge of enforcing all coronavirus-related safety protocols on set.
In one of my other pandemic posts, I stressed that enforcement is one of the most important factors in how compliant crew are and how safe sets feel:
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.
If there is somebody who is in charge of safety, chances are higher that your set will be a safer working environment. It’s a no-brainer. That said, one of the jobs I did last month had a “COVID Officer” who was entirely useless – he mostly sat around at crafty and said like two sentences at our safety meeting. So it really depends on who shows up.
But, honestly, most people hired for a job want to do a good job. I would expect any production taking the steps to empower somebody in this role to be one that is taking safety measures seriously.
5. How big is the crew?
Guidance from every major health organization worldwide advocates for interacting with the least amount of people possible in as small of groups as possible. This, on-the-surface, would seem to indicate that bigger crews are more unsafe than smaller crews. But the correlation isn’t exact. For instance, a crew of 50 people spread across a huge soundstage may be as safe as a crew of 10 people filming together in a single bedroom apartment.
Still it’s worth asking because the number of people you’re working with is an essential risk factor, combined with other data points, in determining how safe a set has the potential to be or not be.
6. How many locations are interiors vs exteriors?
As I mentioned in a previous post, research is starting to form a consensus that transmission of coronavirus outdoors happens comparably less than when inside. This is likely due to a few factors:
- Generally, more space outside to physically distance
- Greater air circulation outside
- Sunlight plays a role in disarming the coronavirus
That does not mean there is no risk outside. Epidemiologists and experts still emphasize physical distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing are key even when outdoors. But it does mean that shoots taking place outside probably pose less of a risk of transmission than shoots filming indoors.
A sound mixer I worked with recently stayed completely outside the entire time and will not accept any jobs that film inside due to a family member in his household that’s considered high-risk – you can bet he’s asking this question.
7. Are any of the locations open to the public?
So you have a decent idea of the location split between exteriors and interiors, now: are any of them open to the public? Are you filming a bar scene in a working restaurant? Are you shooting a basketball game on a blacktop with pickup games happening? It there B-roll in a park where families frequent? Are you working at an office that still has employees coming in for meetings?
If these locations are private, great. There’s no additional risk there.
But if these locations are open to the public, not only are the extra people around increasing your risk, but they’re not beholden to the same protocols the production has in place for the crew. A big family not wearing masks wants to come picnic near your camera cart? Well, you can ask nicely for them to leave, but if it’s public property it could be a tough sell.
8. Do I need to travel for the shoot?
Travel jobs can be one of the best parts of this industry, but unfortunately during the pandemic, they also carry the increased weight of COVID risks.
So, is the shoot local or will you have to hop on the big metal tube to get there? Which airline? Are you OK with their policies? Additionally, are there any restrictions where you’d be traveling to? Is there a mandatory quarantine? Do you need to have a negative test before arrival?
Or is the shoot out-of-town, but still close enough for you to travel in your own car? In that case, your risk assessment will largely center around where you’ll be staying: in a hotel, motel, AirBnB, apartment with another crew, wherever.
Plenty of people I know and trust have been on airplanes recently for out-of-town work and, from what I’ve seen, things have turned out OK. This is much more a personal decision of what risk-level you’re comfortable with accepting.
9. Will you alert me if another crew member tests positive?
In the unfortunate situation where somebody else on the crew tests positive after a shoot you worked on, it would be nice for you to be told about that so you can go get tested yourself.
Notifications like this also strengthen the effectiveness of all those pre-screening forms that ask, “Have you been in contact with anybody in the past 14 days who has tested positive?” It could put you in an awkward situation with another job if you’ve been around somebody positive and didn’t know it until it was too late. Repeat ad infinitum and this is pretty much why cases continue to rise and what makes the pandemic so pandemic-y.
As of this week, my state of Virginia now requires all employers to notify other employees whenever an employee tests positive, but this regulation is buried in a 47-page document, so who knows if any of the local production companies have gotten around to reading it yet. It’s best to just ask them.
Make an Informed, and Safe, Decision
Ideally, you’ll want all of these questions answered to get a complete risk assessment of any upcoming shoots you’re contacted about, but cherry-pick as you please. After all, maybe filming interiors doesn’t bother you at all, so it’s not a big deal if the job is 90% inside. Or perhaps you’ve already flown for work and realized you’re comfortable with how the airlines are operating and you’d be willing to travel anywhere work demands.
Just remember that no single job is worth serious health consequences as a result of coronavirus infection. If you’re on the fence in regards to the safety of a set, in ten years, you’ll probably forget you ever turned the job down. But if it results in long-term damage to your health, you may be lucky to forget about it in ten years.
The key is that you’ll have the ability to make an informed, and hopefully safe, decision. No matter what you decide: wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay physically distanced!
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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