As a full-time first assistant director in the industry, I know my job, in a nutshell, is to first and foremost keep the cast and crew safe while staying on track with a carefully planned schedule. We plan for all sorts of variables, from location issues to time of day to talent availability, but nothing can actually prepare you for filming during a pandemic, than actually filming during a pandemic.
I just wrapped a 16-day ULB SAG shoot in Bryan, Texas and despite our production doing the best we could to keep everyone safe, it was still difficult to accomplish. There is no one right way to do anything because this is new to all of us.
I write this to provide insight into how our set was able to make it work. Was it perfect? No? Did we have our masks on and social distance 100% of the time? No, because that is not realistic and if you have ever been on a set, you should know that this just simply is not possible. I'd like to see someone try to put makeup on an actor or handle stunt safety from 6 ft away. Now add 105 degree Texas heat and masks start coming off, albeit a few seconds and of course, with a behind the scenes photographer snapping away.
Did we get COVID tested? Yes. Did we wear masks most of the time? Yes. Did we do our very best to keep people healthy? Yes.
Here is how we made it all work and how our 50 plus cast & crew team from California, New York and Texas, all came out safe and COVID free.
Before getting into the steps, our safety protocols were a combination of the following 2 sets of whitepapers (links for download, provided).
STEP 1: COVID TESTING PRIOR TO BEING ON SET
One of the requirements we tried to enforce was having people test for COVID prior to filming. This initial barrier was good for peace of mind. About 80% of the team was able to sign up for free testing in their respective home cities. To get on set, they had to provide an official certificate of their negative COVID test results.
Unfortunately, free testing is in limited supply and a lot of cities are only allowing certain "pre-qualified" people to actually test. In addition, if you test in another city, you technically still need to travel to your set location, which adds another possibility of getting infected. Luckily the majority of the crew were Texas-based and drove from their locations to set with minimal contact. We also had another barrier in place to account for this issue, which we will talk about in Step 2. Finally, most swab tests take at least 4-5 days for results to come in. So if you didn't test in time, you'd arrive on set without official test results.
Suggestions for improvement on future sets:
Tie together prep days with testing days. Have your primary members (AD team, crew heads, lead talent) arrive 4-5 days before filming, get tested on site and wait until results have cleared. During this time, there will be limited interactions between people. Masks are up at all times, which should be relatively easy to do if you are simply tech scouting or getting things ready in a production office.
STEP 2: COVID TESTING ON SET & CREATING A QUARANTINE BUBBLE
Per the SAG guidelines, a set is divided into several zones. Zone A, B, and C. Zone A is considered anywhere that filming takes place. Zone B are non-filming zones such as basecamp and production office where people can easily maintain social distancing rules and finally Zone C is everywhere else, such as hotels and the rest of the outside world.
Everyone in Zone A and B must be tested before entering into those zones, which is basically your entire adult cast and crew. The goal is to create a bubble. Once tested, movement in and out of these zones is minimal. Any new adult person wanting to enter these zones is required to be tested. I repeat, ANYONE who enters these zones is tested -- this includes background actors, day players, and location owners. And to bulletproof our "off days," we conducted blood tests the following work day.
So yes, it is a lot of testing and for most film sets, this is probably not feasible because a lot of testing means a lot of money. On a 16 day shoot, this means about 80 tests conducted on each testing day for an average of 4 testing days plus further tests for background actors, day players and location owners and you are looking at around 400 blood tests for a 16 day shoot. Now, let's estimate about $80 per kit (they are probably more expensive) and you are already looking at a $32,000 line item. Now, I don't even know how much nasal swab tests cost, but I assume they are much more costly than the blood test due to greater accuracy.
Nasal Swab Tests
On our set, we used two types of tests. The primary test that SAG requires is the nasal swab test. Technically, this should be administered every 3 days for those interacting with talent on a daily basis. Most crew can be tested every week. On our set, to simplify everything, we did nasal swabbing for everyone every 4 days.
Blood Antigen Tests
Blood Antigen Tests were great because results came in within 15 minutes for COVID antigens. There is some controversy concerning the accuracy of this variety of test, however, we’d rather have the test than no test at all and Blood Antigen Tests were just another layer of keeping the bubble safe.
Ideally, after all of this testing, what should happen is we create a quarantine bubble. Though, this bubble is not bulletproof by any means, it allows us a modicum of freedom to lower our masks for the occasional photo-op or to catch a breath when heat exhaustion kicks in. Fairly reasonable and safe at this point, assuming the Covid-free bubble is now intact. It is like hanging out with your family or roommate. This is why we are able to have our masks off temporarily, here and there. For any set not following these COVID testing guidelines, not a good idea.
The quarantine bubble is a method used by many other industries as well. Here is an article about the NBA quarantine bubble.
After steps 1 and 2, you can now move onto step 3.
STEP 3: DAILY COVID PROTOCOLS
Testing alone is not enough. The trick is to have strict protocols and multiple layers of protection to help maintain the health and safety of the entire team. This starts from the moment you enter the set.
Mandatory temperature checks with IR thermometers + wristbands
Before you can step foot on set, a medic checks our temperatures using an IR thermometer. You might have already seen these things floating around at various establishments (i.e. bars) but they look like a radar gun that zaps you and reports a temperature reading without actually physically touching you.
To keep track of who has been cleared, we used a wristband system. Each new day is represented by a different colored wristband. If you pass the temperature check, you get a wristband. This was very helpful because visually, it’s easy to spot check the team and take note of missing wristbands.
We were required to take an online Survey Monkey questionnaire about COVID symptoms. Honestly, this felt a bit silly, but I understand it was a great cover your butt method and provides copious amounts of documentation for any organization wishing to see that we had done our due diligence. The questionnaire is super basic (less than 10 questions).
Breakfast/Crafty All food is individually wrapped.
Gone are the days of large potato bags or industrial sized nut containers where people can stick their grimmy hands and contaminate the entire lot. If it does not come in an individually wrapped package, we were not serving it.
Now, here is the tricky part -- the actual process of serving crafty. This was a bit of a trial and error process at first. The first method we implemented was a major fail. As responsible adults, we naively assumed if we included a box of gloves next to crafty and nicely written signs, people would know to put on gloves when getting crafty. WRONG. With stress and the need to be on set at all times, this quickly fell through in a matter of hours -- if that.
We then tried the method of repackaging crafty in little to-go brown paper lunch bags. This was a major fail as well since we could not accurately estimate what kind of crafty people wanted to eat. As a result, many of the bags ended up being tossed, uneaten. A huge waste.
The best method we found was allowing only designated, and fully masked and gloved craft services crew to handle any and all food and drink. No more rifling through the fruit snacks or sifting through the cooler for your favorite La Croix. If you wanted something, you pointed at an item and they would package it up nicely for you.
No Buffet lines
Pretty self explanatory, but every meal is now individually boxed. Instead of the catered buffet so many of us are used to, think of to-go meals prepared individually.
The problem with this is that it is a breeding ground for mistakes. It is a lot more difficult to keep track of 100 different lunches with different dietary restrictions than to just have everyone pick and choose what they want at a buffet line. So this took some coordination and for the most part people got the hang of it.
Hand sanitizer + disinfectant party
There was not a shortage of hand sanitizer and disinfectant. We had a COVID safety compliance officer armed with hand sanitizer and wipes, medics had a sanitization arsenal, and sanitation stations were set up on set.
In public places, we often had PAs who would wipe down a location thoroughly before anyone used the space -- such as door knobs, seating surfaces, and more.
We tried our very best to have masks on at all times. Does this mean we did it 100% of the time? No. Can we all be better at it? Yes, but film sets are tiring, hot, sweaty, and the reality is people occasionally take a break. You cannot fault them for taking off their mask here and there once inside the safety of our bubble. As 1st AD, my job often involves yelling at people through a bullhorn and doing so with a mask muffling my already tired voice, unfortunately, is ineffective if I cannot be heard. So, I was definitely guilty of not having my mask on every second of the day.
We all did our best and did what we could to keep each other safe.
STEP 3: DAY OFF PROTOCOLS
This is a hairy situation. You cannot control what people do on their off days. Luckily, our set was off site and all of the team travelled in. The closest "fun" city was almost 2 hours away and no one really had any desire to drive anywhere on their off day. Most of the city of Bryan was shut down so there were limited options as to what crew and cast could get into. We barely had enough time to do our laundry, let alone make poor social decisions.
Now, I cannot say this is entirely the case for all other sets I have been on. Our set is kind of special because we have all worked together before and a lot of the members of the team were married and or older. Our party years are kind of behind us so our craziest shenanigans were just banning together in search of food and maybe sharing an occasional bottle of alcohol that the art department or G&E had stashed in a hotel room.
Everyone was given a stern talk and copious emails, as the off day arrived, warning about abiding by safety rules. I had to talk to a few people personally if I saw someone not completely following the COVID rules.
Again, this is a very hairy situation.
STEP 4: NO EXCEPTION POLICY
So, what would’ve happened if someone did test positive or had a temperature? The only thing that should happen. That person would be asked to stay quarantined and not be allowed to come back to work. There was no gray zone. Luckily, the only "scare" we had was one of our locations had to be dropped due to the owner feeling sick and later testing positive. These precautions worked!
STEP 5: A LIST OF OTHER ON SET THINGS WE TRIED
If possible, we tried to have video village and crafty set up outside of the set. This was difficult to do at all times due to the extreme Texas heat. But this at least helped to prevent large gatherings of people on set.
We kept set as minimal as possible. Anyone who wasn't actively helping the set run stayed at base or somewhere not directly on set. Poor DIT was usually alone at our hotel base most of the time.
Makeup requested that talent bring their own makeup brushes if at all possible.
Sound avoided using lavalier mics when possible to avoid having to sanitize everything after every usage.
Walkie earpieces were kept by all individuals and collected at the end of the shoot. Walkies would be collected daily and sanitized with Lysol and baked under a UV light after every set.
I can say our protocols were not perfect, but at least we did our very best to keep people safe and healthy. We accomplished this and that I am very proud of it. I hope to take my lessons learned onto the next set.
Again, I cannot stress enough. Safety is priority. This is not a time to do a no budget film that abides by zero social distancing and COVID prevention rules. This is a time to proceed with caution, armed with as much knowledge as possible, and help hold each other accountable.
When dealing with such a new situation, it will take a lot of trial and error to bulletproof filming logistics and safety regulations. This is a time to learn from each other and to continue to improve on current systems in place.
I encourage you all to share your own experiences and stories. This is not the time for a witch hunt. Pointing angry fingers at sets that clearly finished a film under COVID restrictions because NOT every picture showcased everyone with masks on, is not the way to a brighter more constructive future. Let us help each other get there so that we can all get back to work safely and effectively.
For more information, go check out the Industry Jump interview about COVID safety on set, here.