In this followup to ‘Weathering the Storm’ — a series that examined the disruption of COVID-19 on various sectors of the non-fiction screen community — Realscreen is looking to the future as the industry moves from the impact of the onset of the pandemic, and readies for a return to work. Here, we talk with production companies navigating safety protocols on set.
After months at a near stand-still, the production community is revving up for a return to work.
With filming already underway for a rising number of unscripted and documentary projects, prodcos are navigating restrictions and safety protocols across regions while keeping the content pipeline churning and preparing for the possibility of a second lockdown.
The film and TV outfit behind such titles as Netflix’s The Innocent Man and Hulu’s The Most Dangerous Animal Of All is following safety guidelines put out by governments and guilds, as well as its own protocols.
“We had an interview just two weeks ago in London with a very, very high profile interview subject and our director was in LA,” Dinerstein says. “We had the director Zoom in from LA while we were shooting in London. We had another shoot that was in New Jersey with a New York-based director. We had a shoot in Vermont last week with our cinematographer who just so happened to be quarantining in Vermont.”
Personal protective equipment (PPE), testing and social distancing are core to the guidelines, he says.
“The guilds have very concrete rules that we’re following to the T. And then each municipality or each state government or each country has their own rules. They’re all pretty uniform and pretty similar but we’re not taking any risks whatsoever. Health and safety is our number one priority,” Dinerstein added.
Still, restrictions to limit the spread of the virus are requiring Campfire — and other prodcos in the same boat — to be more nimble.
“We can’t have as many crew members and we need to give our teams more time to set up, to break down set ups and make sure that when gear’s coming back we’re sanitizing it. It’s adding about 20% to the cost,” Dinerstein notes.
Elsewhere, Toronto-headquartered Cream Productions — which recently produced CNN’s The Story of Late Night — is shooting five series with 50 interviews across the U.S. and Europe this month.
The company has projects in New York City and Fort Worth, Texas to Minnesota, New Jersey in the U.S. and across British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario in Canada.
At the onset of the pandemic, with all its shows in the research and writing phase, Cream’s production team became COVID-19 researchers, figuring out what a return to work would look like, Patrick Cameron (left), head of production, says.
“We just combed the internet, we got all the documents we could find from different governments, different organizations from all over the world to start compiling our own guidelines and protocols. We developed a package for ourselves that we started sharing with our broadcasters and, with the time, we become so knowledgeable about it that we were able to whittle it down to one pagers that could go out with call sheets and all we simply have to do when we go to a new place is adjust it for minor variances,” Cameron explains.
Cream had anticipated that, if production didn’t ramp up by the end of June, writers and researchers would be put on hiatus.
“Luck had it that certain regions that we needed to be [in] started to open up. So we started shooting. And by the time we got through those first few shoots, most places we needed to be started opening up. So we started putting together solid shooting schedules,” Cameron says.
Now, Cream’s production crew is working on five to seven interview shoots per day. On set, similarly to Dinerstein, the basics are masks, distancing and hand washing.
“The main thing we’re doing is, no matter how big the crew is, there’s always a medic, there’s always a supervisor. We do a questionnaire, there’s temperature taking,” he notes, adding crew are also required to complete a safety certification and sign off that they’ve read the company’s guidelines.
Those guidelines can vary slightly depending on location.
“New York City, for example, they made a limit of 10 people that can congregate together. The show that had to shoot in New York usually had a crew bigger than 10 so we simply made production adjustments,” Cameron says. “We’re just used to rolling with that kind of stuff and restrictions and difficult situations.”
Atlanta’s Crazy Legs Productions — the company behind reality series TLC special My Pregnant Husband and 1000-lb Sisters, Oxygen’s The Prancing Elites Project, and Showtime’s A Season With... – started setting out its health protocols as early as January.
CEO and founder Tom Cappello (left) says the prodco formed an internal task force in February that included its own teams as well as an ER doctor, a set medic, an epidemiologist and other medical professionals.
“We hired our own epidemiologist consultant who works with the Colorado Department of Health who has been with us every step of the way,” he says.
The result was a 37-page “living” set of guidelines, including “virtual video villages,” portable hand washing stations, anonymous third-party reporting, virtual town hall meetings and hand sanitizer bottles with carabiners (a few of those measures can be seen in the main photo, on set for Crazy Legs’ Dead Silent).
Among the other measures are colored wrist bands, used to distinguish each department and keep contact with other departments to a minimum — essentially forming “bubbles,” Cappello explains.
Since creating the guidelines, Crazy Legs has gone back to work on six projects, with three to four coming online this fall.
“We have different sets. We’re not just a reality production company, we’re not just a feature film company, we’re not just a true crime interview- and recreation-driven company. We’re all of those things. So we needed to identify unique and different approaches for the size, scope and content for all of those sets. There was no one size fits all approach that we could take and so that’s what we did.”
Crazy Legs first re-entered production with smaller reality crews to see how the guidelines played out, eventually working up to the 40-, 50- and 60-person sets required for recreations or feature films. The company has since returned to work with six series currently in production and an additional three to four coming online this fall.
“I told everybody at Crazy Legs, ‘We are not going back to work until we know we can do it safely.’ It was great that the state opened up and we appreciated the guidelines they sent us. But if internally we didn’t feel it was safe yet, that was number one,” Cappello says.
Despite the cost of implementing a robust set of guidelines, Cappaello notes that it’s well worth the investment.
“No matter what that cost is, we have to do it and we have to put the lives of our crew members and our staff first and we have to be willing to make that investment,” he adds. “That’s just the new reality we’re going to live in for a while now.”
In the UK, Pioneer Productions has been primarily shooting in the U.S., Zambia and Kenya, though its creative base remains in London, where it’s headquartered.
Thomas Viner (left), creative director, says Pioneer is monitoring the situation on a “daily basis.”
Crews are in production on the ninth season of Science Channel’s How the Universe Works – which has forged ahead largely on schedule.
“The team have really had to pull out the stops. It’s a lot of setting up filming with local crews doing remote interviews over Skype. That’s all a lot harder in dealing with the requirements for coronavirus for production protocols. If anything it requires more production resources than it normally would. But because the show is largely CGI plus scientist interviews, it’s something that can go ahead,” Viner explains.
The indie is also re-entering production on another unannounced “massive premium series” with new safety protocols. The natural history project, which involves shooting humans and animals, went into total pause during lockdown.
“That will be going ahead four or five months behind schedule,” he explains, adding parts of the series that involve filming people are on pause until next year.
“It’s not just that we can’t film. It’s that the things we’d want to film people doing, they’re unable to do. And particularly with more premium projects and the sort of shows we do, broadcasters expect them to have a long lifespan, they expect these to be shows that feel fresh in five years time or to sit on a streaming service for the future. That means, if we’re filming people wearing masks, it’s not going to work.”
MAKING A COMEBACK
As the screen industry revs back up, unscripted and documentary may be at a unique advantage to turn around content, namely thanks to smaller crew sizes.
“We have some shows that can be done with a director and a cameraperson, and then we have our bigger show which we did have to put some work into figuring out how to make it smaller but by no means was that anywhere in the realms of difficult or impossible to do. The documentary part of unscripted was, I’m not going to say it was easy, but it was close to normal just with adding safety measures,” Cameron says.
For Dinerstein, there are still challenges, particularly for the editorial process, which he says can be twice as long as scripted.
“By design, we’re nimble and doc producers don’t typically have as much money as fiction producers. So we’ve always had to think outside of the box and be creative in how we stretch dollars and make sure all the money goes on screen,” he explains. “The editorial process for non-fiction, I think, is more complicated and a lot longer than scripted in the fact that we’re having to do it all remotely with the assistant editor, the editor, filmmakers, producers all in different locations and different parts of the country.”
Still, Viner notes non-fiction producers can find opportunities with broadcasters looking to fill gaps in next year’s spring and summer schedules.
“Projects that can be turned around in six months and look and feel premium, and feel like what they would have commissioned anyway, become much more in demand,” he says. “One of the differences between the U.S. and UK market is, there, you tend to have a scripted or unscripted channel, whereas here all our channels tend to be mixed. So, in the UK, we’re pitching things that are probably going to replace dramas. Whereas in the U.S., we’re pitching things that are probably going to replace unmakeable reality shows.”
The outlook isn’t all rosy, however. While many public health experts have warned of an incoming “second wave,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said just this week the virus is more akin to “one big wave.”
Many businesses, including those within the film and TV production industry, anticipate lifted restrictions will once again close in the future. For some production companies, preparation for that reality has already started.
“The biggest issue with that is, for example, we’re trying to plan a shoot in Los Angeles. But in order to do that, we need to put crew on hold, we need to creatively find locations and every day I wake up wondering if there’s going to be a shut down in LA,” Dinerstein says. “But there are costs involved in the prepping and the fact is that we could just be told two days before we start shooting that we can’t do it.”
“The challenges will be a second wave and things getting shut down… It’s not really a second wave, it’s just the first wave got worse in a lot of parts of the U.S.,” he says. “We can leave those places till the end, California being one of them. A second wave, we’re just piling on the interviews to try and get these things in the can before something like that happens.”
Despite all the challenges, Viner is optimistic for the future.
“There is more opportunity for premium unscripted content than there’s ever been before,” he says. “What’s exciting is that a lot of what we do now is, ‘How big can you make it?’ And that’s great because also that means a six month delay doesn’t really matter in a project that’s hopefully going to be premium for 10 years to come.
“In terms of coronavirus, it’s just going to be that some things aren’t makeable until they’re makeable… And we look for the opportunities where things are makeable.”