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May 24, 2020 Thierry

Video Production & Covid-19

don’t know about you, but it’s been a rough couple of months.

Between losing business and having to work from home while caring for two young children who are getting cabin fever from the lack of social interactions, I had to readjust quite drastically. 

As the country slowly re-opens (while the number of cases is going up…) myself, as well as a most people in the industry, put a lot of thoughts in how to move forward producing content when even being in the same room as another human being seems like taking an unnecessary risk.

Video production is a team effort and has always been. One in which you can’t eliminate the close proximity and the interactions. (How do you apply make up 6ft away? How do you install a heavy light setup without different people touching the gear? How do you have your talents portray basic human interactions such as hugging one another, holding hands, talking?)

Some production can be done entirely remotely of course. Anything post-production heavy such as animation videos is obviously safe (see the ex. below that we produced for TopHatter during the lockdown).

So are most simple product shoots as long as they’re straight forward enough that they can be done within a single household bubble. (like these ads for a local shoe company that we produced quarantine-style – one of our DP shot the dancing one with his wife. I shot the red shoe one in my living room.)

But a lot of stories and brands require that we show different things, involving more people both in front and behind the camera.

Assuming that we don’t get a vaccine in the very near future, nor that we can test everyone on set the day we’re about to shoot (hello White house! I would love to have one of these 15min test machine handy…), we will have to be creative in how we approach every aspects of our productions to make it safe for everyone and limit (if not eliminate completely) the risk for any crew member or talent of catching the virus. 

Tyler Perry, amongst a bunch of other prominent figure in the industry, came out with a solution to this problem. You can read about it here. In essence, the idea is to test everyone before the shoot, and then quarantine them for 14 days prior to the 1st day on set. From that, do a “mini-lockdown” as they produce the show on his lot in Atlanta (no one allowed to leave, see their family, friend, plus daily test or temperature check). No need to say that it’s a great plan, and probably the safest route you could imagine, but definitely not a viable options for any commercial shoots that last 1 to 3 days. (Wanna quarantine – and not work – for 14 days prior to coming on my 2 day commercial?.. It’s ok.. I didn’t think so…)

So that said, here are a non-exhaustive list of best practices that I’ve compiled from various research and discussions I came across in the industry. These specifically apply to small to medium size commercial shoots like the ones we produce at Helium Films. They’re not fool-proof like Tyler Perry’s, but I believe they provide a good foundation to create a safe space for our shoots.

We’ve structured these into a safety policy document (HFUSA COVID19 Social distancing policy.) that we will have any crew and client who’s working with us read, acknowledge, implemement and sign moving forward.

THE OBVIOUS:

-Forbid anyone on set who exhibit any of the symptoms of Covid-19 as defined by the CDC or has been in close contact in the past 14 days with anyone exhibiting these symptoms. 

-Have every crew members wear masks AT ALL TIME and allocate specific times dedicated to them changing to new ones several times a day.

-Disinfect all the gear and props before, during, and after the shoot, specifically before and after any use by different people.

-Do the same with all the “shared” surfaces of the set (Bathroom, craft table, location etc…)

-Limit the amount of people on set (clients can be remote on zoom for instance / Don’t hire that 2nd PA if you don’t absolutely need him/her)

-Require regular hand washing and hand sanitizing. Set-up breaks in the schedule to allow for it and provide portable contact-free washing station if possible.

-Sanitize doorknobs, bathroom and other shared spaces on the hour. 

THE LESS OBVIOUS

-Limit talents to their household bubble since they may not be able to wear PPE on set (cast a REAL family when you need a family, a REAL couple if you need talents to hug/kiss/get in each other’s face)

-Style remotely (validate wardrobe ahead of time – drop off to talent’s place – choose with client on zoom)

-Have talents do their own make-up as much as possible, and if not possible, have your make up artist wear gloves / use one specific set of products per talents / be partitioned from the rest of the crew / (Let me apologize in advance to all my amazing make up artist for the added work and/or limit to your work opportunities…)

-Physically separate work areas for each department (with V-Flats for instance)/

-Have individually wrapped catering and/or have crew member bring their own lunch / water bottle / coffee.

-Limit crew and talents to who’s absolutely necessary for the shoot. (no more interns, no friends stopping by to check out what a set looks like…)

-Shoot outdoor instead of indoor as much as possible. In larger spaces rather than in a smaller space. Spaces with more ventilations.

THE ABOVE AND BEYOND

-Take everyone’s temperature in the morning before getting on set.

-Have a dedicated safety person on set to make sure that rules are enforced, masks are worn, hands are washed, social distance is respected.

-Color-code each department and set rules for each of these color (Ex: Camera crew wear one color, Talents, MUA, stylist wear an other. You can’t cross over from one color to another – this was implemented recently by a director shooting in Iceland and can be a great option when working with large crews. (Check out the Times article here)

-When possible, use VFX and compositing to shoot talent separately.

-Shoot less. Shorter shoots are safer than longer shoots due to viral load (i.e. two 5 hour days is safer than one 10 hour day, especially in closed spaces)

Oufff. This is a lot. But really, given the complexity of a real life commercial shoot, it is still pretty high level when it comes to what needs to happen on a set. The reality is that depending on the type of shoot, script and creative direction, these “high level” guidelines would need to be detailed quite a bit.

If you want a more detailed breakdown of what we could/should do, here is a super duper comprehensive list put together by our friends at Ten Stories. They produce the same kind of content as we do, and did a great job at listing most of the minute details that will need to happen to make a commercial shoot “safe”. It may seem over the top, but if you want to truly make the set safe, this will be what needs to happen on a regular basis. 

So. to finish I’d like to address what it means for productions overall moving forward.

-We’re going to have shorter shoot days, and more breaks within those shoot days. Which means that it will take longer to produce anything (no more 14h-days)

-We will need a whole lot more efforts and time put in pre-production to make sure the set is ready to welcome the crew and talent. (Putting together a shoot is already a gargantuan task with a ton of variable. It’s gonna get worse.)

We will also need the crew to buy in and implement the new practices. (changing people’s habit is hard…)

-Every crew member on set will be “essential” meaning they probably will have twice the amount of work they usually have.

-A lot of scripts and creative direction will need to be revised to fit these new production requirements. 

-All of this will end up costing a lot more. Whether that cost is absorbed by the production company, the agency or the end client will depend on a lot of factors. But someone will bite the bullet. And within the context of a declining economy, it’s going to be a tough sell.

At Helium Films USA, we came up with our own policy. We’re having all of our crew and clients sign this ahead of any shoot, and are going to be implementing it on all of our productions moving forward, and hope that it’s enough to make all of our collaborators safe from the virus.

I wish I could say that we won’t need these measures because we can be fully certain that any crew or talent is virus free BEFORE the start of a production, or that we can just stay home indefinitely and weather the storm. Unfortunately, our government (and the US system as a whole) does not seem inclined to either provide the testing capability necessary to the former, or the economic relief to the latter. The U.S. is built on this idea that we have to work, no matter what. As an immigrant, I was never too bothered by this idea because it came with a promise that things would be easier to move forward here, that there would be a bit less roadblocks on the way to success (and it has proven true, in my modest experience and in comparison with Europe and France specifically, where I grew up). But will this be true in the future? Maybe not.

I’m not one to be overly pessimistic or optimistic about the future. I believe that we will, as a specie, overcome this pandemic. What it’ll mean for individuals, what it’ll mean for small business, what it’ll mean for our industry, I have no idea.

We’ll see what the future holds. In the meantime, hopefully these measure allow us to weather the storm as much as we can!

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