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Safe Way Forward: The Post-Covid Film Production Experience

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cameraman on setWith filming for the majority of film and television productions having been shut down since the start of the pandemic, major industry areas have only just begun the process of restarting production. Productions are working to determine what the post-covid film production looks like. For California, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a modified health order that allowed counties to begin production for
filming on June 12, 2020. Other areas of the country that are well known for their film industry have taken different approaches to reopening such as Austin, TX, which reopened for production on June 3, 2020, and Seattle, WA, which is now allowing applications to be submitted.

Regardless of when the film industry has or will reopen across the country, the health protocols to ensure the safety of the cast and crew will look different than what the industry has previously experienced. While every area of the country will have its own individual requirements, 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 (collectively, “Unions”) have teamed up to create a set of Covid-19 guidelines entitled “Safe Way Forward”. Each cast and crew member should read the 37 page document to get all the details. However in case that’s too daunting, here are the highlights of what you can expect when entering a new set.

The “Safe Way Forward” plan has the following critical points: testing, zones, monitoring, and protection. The Unions have determined that testing will be the key line of defense for protection against Covid-19. Cast and crew should expect to be tested on a regular basis. The Unions devised their protocols to have testing insulate personnel in the various zones from exposure to the virus. However, testing is not infallible. 

Zone system on set

Thus, the Unions have developed the Zone System, which identifies requirements for the various locations cast and crew will occupy on the production. For the post-covid film production, as excerpted from the “Safe Way Forward”, the Zones are as follows:

  • Zone A is any perimeter within which activity occurs without physical distancing or the use of PPE.
  • Zone B is everywhere the production has a footprint that is not Zone A. This Zone strictly enforces use of PPE and stringent physical distancing practices.
  • Zone C is the outside world: homes, hotels, anywhere someone goes when not working.

Zone A

So how does this work? Zone A encompasses the actual set. On set, the actors and their stunt doubles would be working without personal protective equipment (PPE) for their performance. They may not be practicing social distancing or wearing a mask as required by the scene. While the crew may be wearing masks to protect the actors, the performers are unlikely to be wearing masks. Furthermore, the number of people allowed have no limits. However, “Safe Way Forward” requires time in Zone A be reduced and the number of people minimized.

For the virus to transmit, it’s a factor of exposure time versus exposure rate. So even if you have a greater exposure dose, if it is shorter time you may not get sick. This zone is the most vulnerable to disease transmission; therefore it requires the strictest requirements in order to enter it as much as possible. Accordingly, the number of people allowed in Zone A are far less than allowed in Zone B.

Zone B crew members are not allowed to enter Zone A without a negative Covid test within the previous 24 hours. In this manner, Zone A is well insulated from the outside world and even insulated from Zone B. As cast and crew in Zone A, interactions are limited to the same personnel and that personnel will be kept to a minimum. If you are interacting with new people, you should be confident that they have been tested and cleared within the last 24 hours.

Zone B

Zone B is anywhere else the production occurs: offices, sets not functioning as zone A, base camps, craft services or anywhere between the point of parking lots to Zone A. In this section, Zone B personnel will control everything around Zone A, thereby insulating Zone A from any outside exposure source. So if you are working in Zone A, you are likely to only have contact with personnel cleared for Zone A. Those personnel have met the same testing standards as you have. Alternatively, Zone B requires contact limitations for personnel within its borders. Additionally, security should be tight around Zone A, thereby further protecting you from exposure.

Zone C

As stated above, Zone C is everywhere else that the cast and crew from Zones A and B go when they are not working. Accordingly, this zone is has the least control over exposure it contacts the outside world. If the individuals are not practicing social distancing when they are in Zone C, then they increase the risk levels to all those in Zone B and subsequently Zone A when they return. To accommodate for that risk factor, the Unions have set strict testing guidelines.

In order to enter Zone A or B for the first time, every individual must have tested negative for Covid-19 within the last 24 hours. Testing results potentially lag behind the actual testing; this lag will cause variations in testing requirements. The best protection for the cast and crew would be to have real time results, but this rate is unlikely to be realistic at this time.

That being said, the Unions acknowledged the asymptomatic spread of the virus within 48 hours of contracting the virus and noted that individuals in Zone A can expect to be tested a minimum of 3 times per week (preferably more) while individuals solely working in Zone B should be a minimum of once per week. Testing frequency will be adjusted based upon the variations of the production. For example, additional exertion by the cast or crew or more intimate contact should result in more frequent testing.

Woman with clapper

Other precautions on set

Other precautions that you can expect to experience on set are as follows:

  • Absolutely no visitors. Closed sets only. Visitors are unknown variables and therefore increase risk. The only way visitors can view the activities will be virtually.
  • Increased presence of health and safety officials to oversee production and ensure protocols are being followed.
  • Specific health and safety training. You should expect to receive training from the production on the protocols and your responsibilities for following these protocols. You should also expect to sign an acknowledgement that you received the training and will comply with it. In addition to training, you should expect to see signage throughout the production area that reminds personnel of these requirements.
  • A medical screening at the entrance to Zone B. This checkpoint will likely include health screening questions and temperature checks. Consistent monitoring of all personnel will be critical to identifying any signs of sickness early in the event that the testing proves false. As has been proven, testing is not 100% accurate nor is it typically real time; constant monitoring of personnel wellbeing is a necessity.
  • Mandatory social distancing and masks where possible. While the Unions note that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will be required. However, unless productions are handing out N95 masks, masks are not PPE by OSHA standards; they do not protect the wearer but rather protect others from you. N95 masks filter out small enough particles to effectively filter the Covid-19 virus; therefore they are PPE. You should expect that the production company provides all necessary equipment such as face masks, face shields, gloves, goggles.
  • Shorter daily shooting schedules. With a shorter shooting schedule, there will be more time for sanitization, more time for monitoring for symptoms, and lower exposure times.  Cast and crew will have more rest so as to keep their immune systems at a higher level. All of this decreases the risks of viral transmission. The current recommendation is no more than a 10 hour day.
  • Health and Safety officials will review scripts to reduce any activities that increase the risk of contracting the virus.
  • Casting will be mostly remote and may be live broadcast. Gone are the days of open casting calls. No more shuttling into long lines and crowded waiting areas. Even if casting is in person, the recommendation is to have text apps that notify you when your time is called.
  • Persons with disabilities still must have all required accommodations. Sanitizing stations and all other safety measures must be fully accessible.
  • When traveling, productions require testing and clearance after you arrive at your location. If you are driving by car, expect to drive yourself, unless you are traveling within Zone B. Every person that is a new point of contact increases your risk levels for contracting the virus.
  • Slower moves between locations. You should expect additional time for sanitization and social distancing between each location move. These precautions will increase the time between each location. Additionally, anything coming from the outside of production will require time to sanitize.
  • Reduction of paper products. Scripts released earlier and electronically. The reduction of paper, reduces points of contact between personnel.
  • Box lunches, disposable items and/or increased spaces for social distancing during meal break periods. Additionally, catering staff must wash hands more frequently.
  • There will be an emphasis on keeping crowding to a minimum. Accordingly, extras should be provided with staging areas that are close to Zone A. The areas should be individual changing areas rather than one group changing area. Again, decreasng the contact points and exposure risk. Furthermore, they will be provided with sanitizing stations that are easily accessible. However, as per anyone in Zone A, testing requirements remain the same as everyone else permitted to be in Zone A.


director's chair and camera

Differences cast and crew will experience

So how does this post-covid film production det of guidelines translate to differences in your day on set? Here are some of the things that you can anticipate. It is hardly a comprehensive list of all the changes you may experience.

  • Expect a daily health and safety briefing or assessment. These may continue throughout the day. Also, the health and safety officer may interject for the protection of the cast and crew.
  • Any rehearsals require full PPE. If you are acting, expect to wear a mask for rehearsals. All efforts should be taken to reduce potential exposure.
  • Zone A also contains hair and make-up. Therefore, the stylist or make-up artist undergo the same level of testing since they are interacting with the cast. Additionally, one person should be designated to cover the set rather than multiple individuals so as to keep the numbers lower on set. However, this is subject to production needs.
  • Additional sanitization breaks will be the norm.
  • Minimization of wating and drinking during shooting is the new norm.
  • There should be constant efforts to reduce crowding and maintain social distancing on set. Where departments may have been allowed to work simultaneously in the pre-Covid-19 world, they may now be required to work in sequence. There will likely be holding areas for those waiting to do work, while another department is on set.
  • Testing can occur throughout the work day but completed prior the end of day.
  • Base camps are used for all activities that need to occur prior or after entering the set for the day. If cast is involved, these Base camps will be an extension of Zone A and will adhere to those enhanced protocols.
  • If you are shooting in a public area, expect strict security that follow all safety protocols to insulate the set from the public. Everyone on the production will be part of the responsibility to “maintain the integrity of Zone A” including the cast. Zone A expects to keep away from the public.
  • If you are part of the crew, expect your equipment to be assigned to you alone wherever possible. Sharing of equipment increases potential exposure points. 
  • Location scouts now search for locations that facilitate social distancing and ease of keeping the cast and crew separate from the public.

Full protection not guaranteed

Productions take every possible precaution to keep the cast and crew safe; however, nothing is impenetrable to the virus. In the event that an individual on the cast or crew tests positive for Covid-19, post-covid productions require that person to self-quarantine. There are various governmental programs that protect individuals if they have to self-quarantine; some of these programs do cover paychecks. Additionally, the production will perform contact tracing that may result in testing or self-quarantine of other cast and crew members. You may be eligible for compensation. It’s hard to tell exactly how each union production will apply or will qualify for the federal or local benefits. Of course, any compensation will be dependent upon the individual production and specific production company. 

The unions recomment all of these protocols and more for the post-covid film production so as to mitigate the risks associated with Covid-19. Every group’s goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible. So when you walk onto a set, expect more social distancing, decreased interaction times, increased change times and lots and lots of testing.

Read more about how this protocol has been implemented on the Bold and the Beautiful as told by Matthew Atkinson.