With the film industry shut down, one show has to be the first to forge forward with restarting production in this pandemic world. The Bold and the Beautiful (TBATB) was the first television series to return to the studio after being closed by Covid-19. Matt Atkinson, who plays Thomas Forrester on the show, has been back at work shooting the soap opera. He shared his experiences of life on set as it looks now with “Safe Way Forward”, the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IASTE) and Teamster’s unions (“the Guilds”) set of Covid-19 guidelines. For a summary of what these guidelines entail, read about the Safe Way Forward.
When asked why Matt thought soap operas were first to restart, he noted that the guidelines were very difficult to follow in open spaces but much more so in closed spaces. He told us, “Fortunately, we work out of the studio and we have a lot of room because we’re a multicam you know, we have three cameras going at once. So it’s more of an open kind of a sitcom. You have more of an open, expansive environment to separate people and then we block distance to part and we’ll shoot a little closer.” He also noted that Brad Bell, the head writer, “really wanted to get back to work and get everyone working again” because the “entire show is like a family.”
With TBATB being one of the first to restart, they are taking on a big risk. Either it will pave the way for more productions to reopen because they have proven the system works, or it will show the flaws in the new guidelines, which could have the domino effect of stalling other productions. How are they going to do this? Matt’s response was “we’re trying to do literally every measure that we possibly can to make sure that we do it safely”. Prior to production restarting in person, TBATB held numerous virtual meetings with the Guilds, doctors, and any other voice that had input into how production needed to evolve to protect the cast and crew. By the time anyone had set foot on set, they had been fully trained on all the new protocols.
Matt gave us his impressions on this new structure, “it’s a lot of protocols and it’s definitely a lot to learn. I think they are important safety precautions because if something happens then nobody’s able to work again; we could possibly push off a lot of Hollywood from being able to shoot again and getting all those people back to work. I think it’s important and obviously social distancing and wearing masks is highly endorsed. Every time that we’re on the stages, the only people that don’t wear a mask are people that are actively shooting scenes. I think there’s small psychological things that are different, for sure. The idea that everyone’s wearing a mask, on some level, is an awareness of a difference. As far as my experience goes, it’s not that much different. Outside of getting together in each other’s rooms to run lines in the morning because we’re shooting two or three scripts a day, upwards of one hundred pages sometimes. It’s a crazy shooting schedule, a lot of material. Having that time to get together with the other actor to say it out loud and really work the scenes before you put them on camera is important. But we can’t go to each other’s rooms. There are open common areas that you’re allowed to go to, where you can be really spaced, and they have a room that’s like massive that you could go into separately and be across the room from each other to do that.”
There are physical changes that have been made to the set to accommodate these protocols. In addition to social distancing, Matt informed us that, “there’s an entrance hallway in and out is an exit hallway so that nobody crosses parts. You don’t have anybody, bumping into each other.” Then there’s the activity on set. Matt gave the following example of a change to the way props are handled, “Say that I have a phone in the scene and I haven’t been carrying the phone all day or I’m not using my own phone and I need a prop phone, Props has to to announce it. I have to stand up, go into a back area of the stage where nobody is so that Props can come onto the stage to drop the prop. Then I come back after they’ve left to maintain that distance.”
The way the physical shooting is taking place has also changed. Gone are the days where actors stand three feet from each other in the same shot. Matt explained the changes, “We’re also blocking all the actors more than eight feet apart from each other in every scene, which some of our sets are actually not as big as you would think they are by seeing them on TV. So for some of those sets, you’ll have one actor standing on stage and the other actors actually offstage reading their lines.” In the past, viewers would see actors talking and another actor’s back of their head and shoulder in the shot, which, in film terms, is called doubles. Matt expounded on the changes, “We’re shooting closer a lot so you’re not going to get a lot of doubles versus cutting in a little bit closer, more theatrically, where we’re just showing the one person. That kind of gives the illusion; that’s why in about every TV show or movie I’ve ever filmed, we cheat almost everything. Like 90 percent of shots are cheated because you want to make it look a certain way or you needed the lighting to be like this. So you’re gonna to move the actor a little bit off-line and figure out how to make it work. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
For regular scenes, these seem like simple fixes where a small change can have a big impact to safety. However, when it comes to love or intimate scenes, creating space is harder. Kissing is not possible while socially distant. While Matt’s character is not in a love story, so he didn’t have any personal experience, he did shed light on how intimacy has been handled on set. He told us that “One of our actors had her husband come on to play the double because they’re obviously quarantined together, have been together and are not weird about kissing each other. You also have people who are having a simple scene where two people are in bed together, which happens a lot just talking about the day or talking about drama. You can’t be that close but we have to put them in bed together. So what do we do? We set up a mannequin in the bed with them as an eyeline. They talk to the mannequin and cut in close on the actor. Then the other person is flip flopped and they had the other actual stand off camera and deliver the lines.”
The changes to protect the cast and crew from Covid-19 are not limited to how shooting occurs. The crew is broken up into groupings and levels; these categories dictate your access to other people and other groups. Matt elaborated on how TBATB handles these groupings, “If you’re granted level one; it’s not level two. If you’re level three, then you can go to all three of these because you have to for your job. Most people are relegated to one specific area. There’s also grouped people. There’s a group A,B,C, D, which also coordinates with the areas you can go to, but those people from each group are not allowed to be around each other either. So even passing each other, if you see another group in the hallway, you’re supposed to distance as far as possible, like 20, 30 feet, if you can, just to try and make sure that if someone, even with all these protocols, gets tested, is negative, but then starts showing symptoms. We know who that person specifically has been a little bit closer to even though they’re not getting less than eight feet from each other.” This method of restricting access to specific areas or specific interactions between groups allows the production team to easily contact trace and isolate anyone in the event that a Covid-19 case does make it onto the set.
Hair, make-up and wardrobe have also evolved. Matt doesn’t require much in the way of make-up. By his own admission, he states, “Usually I don’t. I just throw something in my hair and make it stay. Then I’m done. I’m pretty low maintenance.” That being said, he noted that others are not so low maintenance, “Most people have said if you can do your own makeup, do your makeup. I have gone into makeup and they do have people working in makeup. They wear masks, face shields and gloves and they change out the gloves. Every person’s makeup and every person’s tool is in a specific bag that’s not touched by anyone else but most people, especially the women, are doing their own wardrobe and some of the guys aren’t even wearing makeup.”
For wardrobe, again everything is set up in order to limit the exposure points between the various groups and levels, contrary to what was done prior to the pandemic. Matt explained, “Usually they have a person on set, maybe two people on set that are checking the wardrobe and making sure everything’s working. Then they have two or three other people that are setting wardrobe in people’s rooms. You had the costume designer who is constantly looking over things and you have to go up there and do fittings. We’re not doing any of that right now. Literally there are no fittings happening. Every actor’s wearing recurring wardrobe or their own wardrobe. Some are bringing in their own wardrobe and they completely clean them. The measures they’re taking to make sure that all items of clothing are clean are pretty extreme. They put it in a bag that’s sealed and put it on your door. So you don’t even have interaction with those people. Because of that, there’s no chance of any kind of contamination. So it’s working.”
With all these new changes to shooting requirements, there was bound to be an impact on the script. Shows can be expected to write scenes in such a way to minimize the proximity between actors. For TBATB, Matt told us that not so many changes were needed. “In small ways, we definitely have. So as an example, we had probably 30 episodes written ahead of time that we were about to shoot when we went into quarantine. Now we have a whole set of rules and when we look back on the scripts, we see issues in the scripts. Those scenes are being rewritten. Things are going to change and play out differently. I don’t think that the storylines are changing dramatically but the shots are. We’re trying to reduce the amount of people that are on the lot or on the stage, especially at any given time. We’re trying to reduce that number as much as possible. So you’ll have characters that come in that are one episode or even a one-scene character that they’ll be removed and change it to make the line fit for someone else or something like that. We’re just taking as many precautionary measures as possible; little things are changing, maybe there’s a butterfly effect to that. Most of the storylines that were in the scripts before we went into quarantine are still there. They’re just altered slightly.”
These little changes of reducing actors or reducing people on set can have a big impact on the number of people who have jobs. However, Matt noted it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He said, “Every department took hits, for sure, and that’s one of the hard things, because it is like a family over there. So we are missing some people and we’re doing what we can with as few people as possible. At the same time, I was actually very pleasantly surprised with how many people were able to come back to work and are working.”
With all these new protocols and new safety requirements, Matt is confident in the path forward for keeping people safe on set. He stated, “We have a lot of red tape to go through and figure out because this union says we’ve got to do this, that and the other. We’re trying to not only make sure that every person who’s working is safe at work, feels safe at work, and their unions are agreeing with what we’re doing. Then on top of that, we have our own sort of processes of looking at things and saying we need to make sure, regardless of what the standard is, that we go above and beyond the standard because there’s nothing wrong with perfectionism. I think things are running extremely well and I think that a lot of the principles that we’re applying can be used for a lot of different kinds of productions. We have to change a lot of things to make sure we can tell the same story; maybe the location has to be a little different or maybe these scenes to the outside instead of inside. That doesn’t mean that it can’t change and adapt to make sure that we get people back to work and we’re able to create art. We’re doing that. I think that feature films, other TV shows, theater productions and live [performances] are going to change, too. We’re still still able to move forward even with these guidelines.”
The Bold and the Beautiful has now returned to the airwaves with their first post-pandemic episode airing on July 20, 2020. This show is a beacon of hope for the entire film industry. If they are successful in keeping their cast and crew safe from Covid-19, then they will provide the road map for other productions and maybe for other industries. Even if they find flaws in their system, they can share their experiences to improve the protocols going forward. Either way, they have a lot to teach everyone.
Read more about the post-covid production experience and Safe Way Forward.