How Film Production Has Changed Due to the Pandemic

'SNL'
'SNL'
From The Great British Baking Show to Lifetime to Mission: Impossible, which of these COVID-safe set innovations is here to stay?

A vaccine looms before us. The prospect that this global nightmare of COVID-19 might soon be over is nearly beyond belief.

For filmmakers, it has been a time of scrambling to figure out how to adapt productions. The truth is that no set has been able to remove 100% of the risk of getting coronavirus on set. But some serious innovation has helped the film industry, large and small, to get as close as possible.

Will film sets ever go back to the ways before?

Here’s a look at the biggest ways production has changed due to the pandemic.

Play Zone Defense

In Hollywood, union sets led the way for finding a system of staying safe. In a joint agreement with DGA, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, and TEAMSTERS/BASIC CRAFTS, an outline was given based on statistical modeling on how a safe set must be run. One of the main components? Use the Zone System.

While everyone loves seeing those pictures from set with crew members decked out in PPE, there’s an obvious weak point in the system: actors. Obviously, actors can’t wear PPE during scenes unless the entire script was set in a pandemic. (Wonder Woman wearing a mask the entire movie, even when alone with her thoughts? C’mon.)

Read more about the system in our breakdown here.

Make a Production Bubble

To remove the rest of the world (Zone C) as much as humanly possible, some sets instead opted to create a contained environment for the entirety of their shoots.

Here’s how The Great British Bake Off creative director Kieran Smith described their pandemic production to Variety. “Production established a self-contained biosphere within a secret hotel, housing 80 producers, cast, crew, and 20 of the hotel’s staff members. Even before arriving at the hotel, each bubble member had to self-isolate for nine days—meaning their family and/or roommates also had to self-isolate, or they had to move locations—and take three COVID tests. Every detail was worked out by production, down to assuring that each Baking Show bubble member had access to private toilets and could safely be transported to the secret hotel, and then to the filming estate.”

Inside the intense 2020 production bubble of 'The Great British Bake Off.'Credit: Vanity

Hire COVID-19 Compliance Supervisors

Out of the Hollywood Union agreement on film safely came the role of COVID-19 Compliance Officer and Supervisor. Not only would this role help enforce pandemic safety for the set, but now filmmakers could get training in this role and get paid! It was one of the few instances of a new job coming out of the pandemic in the film industry.

However, you can see how this role could be a tough one to enforce on sets with big crews and even bigger egos. You wouldn’t want to be the CCO on the set of Mission: Impossible right about now. Was the CCO prevented from doing their job? Did they quit, leaving Tom Cruise to hold down the fort?

Actually, that would explain a lot.

When in Doubt, Use Plexiglas

While this makes for a funny parody between Kate McKinnon and Daniel Craig on SNL, Plexiglas was actually employed on productions requiring kisses. On the set of the Lifetime movie Christmas Ever After starring Ali Stroker, that’s exactly what they did. You can’t have a Lifetime holiday movie without a kiss at some point or it would be booted off the network.

So, here’s how head of programming Amy Winter described it to TheWrap. "We all sat down, even before we got started, saying, how is anybody even going to kiss in these movies, given the circumstances? And the greatest, oddest solution I’ve seen so far is people kissing through Plexiglas that can be removed in post, which is absolutely phenomenal.”

The production of "Christmas Ever After" used plexiglass for the big kiss starring Lifetime's first disabled actress, the badass-on-wheels Ali Stroker.Credit: Slate

Set Medics and Sanitation Over Background Actors

Speaking of the British Bake Off, this season’s last episode featured an array of set medics and health workers on the green grass to greet the show winners, unlike family, friends, and smiling background actors of the past. Not a bad idea!

No departments have been bulked up on sets like medics and sanitation. Set medics are now most likely to be the people on set in charge of administering COVID tests and handling the results, so kind of a big deal.

The sanitation department in the past might have meant whoever took out the trash. It now means entirely disinfecting shoots and providing that ever-constant supply of hand-sanitizer. Filmmaker John Flynn explained it to us on his indie set, saying, "I shopped around to find a service that could come in and clean after we wrapped (for three days). This was definitely one of the pricier items on the COVID prevention checklist, but essential. I also had disinfecting wipes in all bathrooms, crafty, and with departments who touched items that were touched by more than one person. This was to ensure every surface was as clean as possible at all times.”

Or you could always get a few of those COVID-killing robots.

Remote Video Village

No more huddling around a monitor with everyone peering over your shoulder. This innovation is probably here to stay. Production at places like L.A. Castle Studios would now have a spacious room with a live feed from the set where any relevant eyeballs could watch.

Better yet, this live feed could be projected anywhere, with directors and crew being outside the country. Read more about this kind of innovation here.

Virtual Environments

Goodbye huge set construction teams hammering away for weeks, and hello $35 environments from the Unreal Engine marketplace.

Take a look at how they are being used at L.A. Castle Studios to be convinced that this may actually be an innovation we never go back from. While art departments are crazy talented, and nobody wants to see this department shuttered, these virtual environments have a lot of production benefits that sets will have a hard time letting go of even post-COVID.

Plots with Characters Who Are 6 Feet Apart, Masked

Okay, that’s mostly a joke. But some indie sets are having fun with it!

For reference, this still from Ani Simon-Kennedy’s Days of Gray came way before COVID. But it features the most beautiful PPE I’ve ever seen!

Credit: Days of Gray

No More Theatrical Means Different Framing, Sound Mix

To the massive outcry from icons of film, even huge Hollywood would-be blockbusters have gone straight to streaming this year.

And with film festivals all virtual, the only experience an indie filmmaker may have to show their movie on the big screen is also gone. (With some exceptions in 2020.)

The result? Many filmmakers are changing the way the whole film is composed with streaming in mind, and abandoning the theatrical sound mix altogether. And in turn, filmmakers completely change how they release films into the festival circuit.

Did you shoot anything during COVID-19? How did you stay safe? Let us know in the comments.     

Still feeling nostalgic about 2020? Then check out the rest of our Year in Review 2020 coverage for more of our top picks, industry trends, and end-of-year takes.

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