Film Production & Covid19
As NYC and LA gets its professional video and film productions back to working order, there has been a lot of discussion on how to move forward with the practice of making movies. Many of the restrictions the new film permits have laid out seem daunting and unattainable by modern film crews. You can read some of the guidelines and rules here: https://deadline.com/2020/06/new-york-state-production-guidelines-ny-film-permits-applications-june-30-1202968865/
It's not as bad as it looks. In fact, a lot of indie filmmakers were already doing most of this (and in the case of my own personal project, FRACTALS, much more). I always thought film crews were over-staffed and over-geared, so it'll be interesting to see some of the artistic outcomes from this era of film and television production.
I shot FRACTALS in July, after a false-start back in March. Some of my friends and colleagues are baffled that I pulled it off. "How did you not get sick?" some have asked. So I thought it would be useful to provide a breakdown of how I pulled off a no-budget indie feature at the epicenter of a worldwide crisis.
A few things beforehand:
a. What started out as an attempt to have a professionally structured indie film production quickly became a passion project between a filmmaker and a group of his friends, neighbors, and family.
b. The content of the story allowed for this project to be possible. It is about a loner going around the city on a quest. While there are some interactions with other characters, for the most part he is alone.
c. There was no budget, so whatever I had, I had. I couldn't buy my way out of any problems. My personal vehicle would be the production vehicle. Anyone that had their own personal vehicle was urged to use it for transportation.
e. We did not cater to any unnecessary demands, except for that of PPE. Out of my own pocket, I provided everyone with masks, sanitizer, facial wipes, and private transportation when possible and financially attainable.
e. Every day I reminded myself that this isn't worth dying over. At which point I checked for sanitizer and a multitude of backup masks to take with me.
The Rules I set for production:
1. Mandatory testing. Testing is available for free in New York from certain vendors, and in some neighborhoods a lot of people are not getting tested on a regular basis so it's easy to get in and out. (It takes 3-10 days for results, so the next step is absolutely vital).
a. I tested well before we began shooting, and held all of my meetings by phone, e-mail, and Zoom to ensure quarantine - and required my collaborators to follow the same procedures.
b. The first week or so was an "apartment" set (more on this later), so I limited the number of people in the scene to literally one person, until the last day, at which point I had to have the female lead appear in a few scenes (more on her later). Before we took the shoot outside, mandatory testing again.
c. Always assume you're a carrier. Test frequently (no more than two week intervals if you can), and always test at the end and then go back to quarantine.
2. Quarantine! Quarantine! Quarantine! Do not socialize between shoot days. Quarantine. The only people you should be dealing with are the people with whom you're making the film.
3. Cast people who are already close to one-another in their daily lives. Neighbors, mates, family members. People who are already close. This is where the male and female leads come in. They were already dating, and incredibly close. They stayed with one-anther in the same apartment. So having them in scenes together was totally reasonable. I cast my own girlfriend in one role, and had her take up various crew positions when necessary. Mostly though, I did every single crew job on my own: set build, props, costumes, lighting, camera, audio. I didn't mind. Filmmaking is a calling for me. It is what it is.
3. In the event that actors do not have a close relationship: avoid scenes where closeness is required in the blocking. This was difficult. I had a scene that could easily be described as a "failed seduction". Believe it or not, we pulled it off and came out virus-free. We followed Rule 1 and blocked the scene with distance in mind (which ultimately made it comedic, but I didn't mind).
For another scene, we blocked it like a diamond, with each individual six feet apart (main character at the top of the diamond, two characters off to the side, and me with the camera at the bottom. For the coverage, we omitted the individual at the top, having him read off-camera from the far side of the room.
There was one scene that was incredibly difficult, where one character beats the shit out of another. We blocked it so that they are not face to face. One character kicks another to the ground, then forces them into a "curbed" position—and talks to the back of their head. Afterward, sanitize like crazy! Also, if anyone knows anything about stage combat, no actual touching occurs.
4. If you're not on camera, wear a mask! It's pretty straight forward. I wore a mask except when I was alone on the set, or if I was eating lunch, drinking water, or appearing on camera.
5. Consider altering your interior locations. The main character's apartment was important because it required an evolving set-piece. Initially I had planned to use my own apartment, but with Covid19, I needed a place that could be better ventilated, and allow for social distancing and immediate evacuation to external areas. Since I live in an apartment building that has open access to the basement (through which one can access the backyard), I decided to turn a portion of the basement into an apartment set, and another portion into a work space. Each portion was separated by a brick wall. I used the backyard as a holding area for the actors, that way between set-ups, they could go to the open air space.
6. No more than three people were working on a scene at any given time, except for one circumstance: when I rented a large studio space that was approved for six people.
As an asthmatic at high risk of severe sickness, these rules were important to me. Yes, there's always risk when going outside and interacting with people during a pandemic, but there are ways to minimize that risk - and in some circumstances negate it altogether.
We're in a pandemic, but we can still create.
My questions for you:
What moves have you made on your projects to ensure a safe collaborative environment?
As you go back to professional production, what sort of practices and reactions are you seeing/hearing as it concerns the official guidelines? I have yet to return to client-based production work, so I am curious as to what to expect.