One of the things I like about video production is being a part of a collaborative and creative team that rises to the variety of challenges that inevitably emerge on a set. Whether it is eliminating unwanted reflections on a window or modifying the height of an interview subject to line them up perfectly with a beautiful background, a good video production crew can quickly come together and fashion a solution that meets the needs of that particular shot. Shooting safely during a global pandemic, while challenging, has been just another on-set problem to get creative about solving.
Recently, I joined a production team in Sevierville, Tennessee to film at Soaky Mountain Waterpark. This production was BIG; it had all of the moving parts: a couple dozen cast members, park staff, marketing agency teams, producers, director, director of photography, assistant camera operator, full gaffing squad, sound technician, multi-state transportation plans, terabytes of data to manage, a truck full of equipment, hungry mouths to feed, an entire fifty-acre waterpark to film, and stormy weather brewing on top of it all. As if there wasn’t enough to coordinate before arriving on location, we needed to also ensure everyone’s safety from a spreading virus for the entirety of the production.
A lot of the precautions for remaining safe on set are similar to those that we have all learned to live with in our everyday lives. When in a public space, we have been wearing masks, socially distancing, and frequently washing and sanitizing our hands and the things they come in contact with. The addition of a sanitization cart to the equipment checklist has been one of the biggest and most helpful changes for working safely. The cart ensures that the cast and crew have access to fresh masks, sanitizing wipes, disinfectant spray, and hand sanitizer. These supplies have become as important as a first aid kit these days, allowing us to quickly clean any shared gear, furniture and setpieces being handled, common areas, and hands. Some of the crew even outfitted their tool belts with sanitizer bottles to have at the ready for a quickdraw.
These everyday precautions have been a good place to start for on-set safety but, as usual, a video production complicates even the most mundane tasks. For this particular shoot, we knew that the cast needed to be maskless while on screen, which already has us needing to find a way to safely work around one of the most helpful safety measures that we have. How can removing masks be safe for both the cast and crew? The casting team got to work finding families from shared households and each household’s shooting schedules were staggered to allow for them to come and go without crossing paths. Because the families already share a household, they were able to remove their masks around one another safely, just as they do at home, and interact on screen together. As for the crew, because we were shooting outdoors, where ventilation is the best it can be for an aerosol contaminant like COVID-19, we were safe to remain masked at a distance from the cast by building the shots and making needed adjustments while the cast was out of frame and using camera lenses that allowed for shooting from a safe distance.
With a production of this size, there are many invested eyeballs that need to monitor and approve of what shows up on screen. Under normal circumstances, a group gathering around the set to watch a monitor isn’t a problem, but needing to maintain a physical distance across such a large crew complicates this. Another helpful addition to the on-set equipment has been wireless video transmitters, which allow for the camera to send a live broadcast of its image to separate monitors that can be kept appropriately far from each other and from the set for multiple teams to safely watch and communicate about what is on screen as it is happening.
There is one team, however, that is not able to do their work from a distance and that is the hair and makeup department. Because they need to be able to make adjustments to the maskless cast’s hair, faces, and bodies before and during shooting, there are additional safety precautions needed. If only it were as simple as attaching a makeup brush and some hairspray to a six-foot pole! Fortunately, we have real life examples of this to look to for inspiration. Essential workers in the medical field regularly have to break recommended distances with their patients to effectively do their jobs. The face shields, medical-grade masks, and single-use tools that have become commonplace at medical care facilities are just as useful on set for situations like this. Hair and makeup artists have found that the additional layers of protection are sufficient for the short-term, close quarters work that is needed of them. Our hair and makeup artist also color coded kits for each cast member to ensure no cross contamination throughout the day and used disposable tools when possible.
The on-set community does feel different to be a part of, obviously. Our snacks and meals are now individually packaged and congregating at the table is a no-go. Helping someone carry a large piece of equipment requires doing so quickly before separating and sanitizing. These interactions feel strange and unusual but they are temporary and allow us to continue working during a difficult time when many are unable to do the same. We are in this together and share in an understanding that the extra work is to keep each other and those we return home to safe. Sets are a professional environment where you simply do not know how everyone that you interact with has been affected or the risks that they or their loved ones are facing and it is important to act with the utmost safety in mind to keep everyone comfortable and able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Just like any other production, we come to set as a team that can take on any challenge that presents itself. What’s one more little thing? It’s time to get tested before the next one.
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