NOTE: Guidelines and restrictions may vary depending on your location. This article is meant for general precautions only.
The nationwide lockdown of 2020 has left people hungrier than ever for entertainment, but with all the safety protocols and restrictions in place, filming new material can be tricky — especially for independent productions. Yet one advantage indie shoots have over studios is that they are used to doing more with less. They are used to skeleton crews, shorter shoots, and a quicker daily pace, and are experts at adjusting to unforeseen circumstances.
With adequate planning, indie shoots can overcome the odds and continue with production relatively securely as the world awaits the impact of a much-needed vaccine. Here is a list of tips on keeping your production safe.
Don’t do it alone – Get a COVID Compliance Officer!
As indie filmmakers, we’re used to wearing many hats, but that doesn’t mean we should cut corners when it comes to enforcing health and safety measures. Instead of burdening producers with health monitoring or asking PAs to impose physical distancing guidelines, the least you can do is hire a certified COVID Compliance Officer (CCO). This must be someone with health and safety credentials, such as a nurse or EMT, who has completed the CDC’s COVID compliance program.
The CCO will train cast and crew on proper protocols, manage health screenings, distribute Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and track test results to prevent the shoot from becoming a superspreader event. They are also the ones in charge of staggering call times and meal breaks. The CCO is essentially a department head and should be treated as such. You should hire them as soon as possible, and include them in all prep meetings — don’t let finding a CCO become a last minute event. If yours is a bigger shoot or you hire union crew, you might also want to recruit a Health and Safety Unit Manager (HSM) to oversee your CCO and set medic.
An indie film crew observing social distancing on set. (photo: Julian Bridges)
Regular COVID-19 testing is the new normal for on-set safety
You will need to make sure that everyone in your cast and crew tests negative for COVID-19 24-48 hours before the shoot. COVID testing is free nationwide, but you should also purchase rapid test kits in case anyone on your crew has difficulty scheduling a test prior to the shoot. If your shoot is longer than two days, your cast and crew will also need to get re-tested at least three times a week. Your CCO or another certified medical professional will need to purchase enough rapid test kits to last throughout the filming period.
Here is a list of acceptable tests from SAG. If a positive rapid test occurs, you need to send it to a lab to confirm the result or override a false positive — rapid tests have about a 15% chance of a false positive.
Rethink crafty and catering
How we eat on set must also adjust. You should pre-package all meals, snacks, and beverages, and not leave any fruit or chips lying out in the open. Try to avoid finger foods such as pizza or wings. Also provide disposable cups and utensils that come in sealed bags, and make sure that everyone disposes of their own trash. PAs should wear PPE such as gloves when handling any trash left out. Lastly, make sure that your cast and crew take their meal breaks in waves, and have them eat their meals outdoors, in a spacious and well-ventilated area where physical distancing is possible.
You might be tempted to give your cast and crew a daily allowance for food, but as sound designer Derek Sepe sees it, this might not be the best idea:
One small feature some friends of mine worked on didn’t have crafty, but they gave everyone $10 to buy their daily crafty. It was a nightmare. They had to go buy their crafty for the next day, but when do you do that? After wrap? Or before call time? And how do you store it if it’s perishable? Anyway, I heard it sucked.
Crew must wear PPE at all times while on set. (photo: Julian Bridges)
There are many ways to limit exposure
Reducing unnecessary contact is critical in preventing the virus from spreading, and this means your crew must rethink many once-routine procedures to maintain physical distancing and prevent exposure. This can include anything from virtual pre-production meetings to having cast members do their own hair and makeup prior to arriving on set. Since talent cannot wear masks while filming, crew members should wear additional PPE, and the filming area should be restricted to a skeleton crew.
Every additional person increases the entire production’s risk of exposure, so keeping your team small and nimble could be a major advantage. Try to spend as little time as possible on set, and arrive prepared to get in and get out. If at all possible, contain your shoot to one area, shoot outdoors or in well-ventilated areas, and avoid too many company moves. If shooting indoors, take “ventilation breaks” by opening all the windows and turning on fans to air out the space.
Another option you have is keeping your crew in “bubbles.” In this case, you have two separate crews working on different timelines, who never meet and only communicate virtually. While one crew is on set or in a hotel, the other crew ahead of them is dressing the next location, rigging, etc. This can be challenging, but is an effective way of keeping the crew safe. As described by producer Max Neace:
It was a very unique experience. [We had] a couple of hotel floors to ourselves, and were separated unless working on set, which took away from the typical bonding experience of making a movie, but provided the comfort and peace of mind so necessary in the COVID era of filmmaking.
Of course, safety doesn’t stop when you wrap for the day. The CCO should actively communicate with cast and crew members and encourage individuals to reduce social activity during filming, self-quarantine as much as possible, and maintain a “bubble” until filming has been completed. Remind your team that an outbreak on set might lead to a shutdown and could torpedo the whole shoot. Indie crews often become like a family, sacrificing together for a project they believe in.
Are you shooting something during the pandemic? Click here to share your story!
Abigail Baker is a writer for AdvanceOnline.com, a leader in OSHA training services.