Sky Studios CEO Gary Davey: What We’ve Learned From Week One of Post-Pandemic Production (EXCLUSIVE)

Ich und die Anderen
Ingo Pertramer/Superfilm/Sky

Sky Studios, which develops, produces and funds original drama, comedy and documentary for Comcast-backed Sky’s 24 million pay-TV subscribers, returned to production on two shows this week – “Ich und die Anderen” in Austria and “Sisterhood” in Iceland. In a guest column written exclusively for Variety, Gary Davey, CEO of Sky Studios, shares learnings from the first week back in production, including tips from the production team on the ground.

A year ago today, we launched Sky Studios. If you’d told me then that 12 months later, a global pandemic would have disrupted the everyday lives of people across the globe, causing tragic deaths, social isolation and economic uncertainty, I would have told you to walk down the hall and speak to our development team in drama. It sounds like a fantasy, but sadly, few people in the world have been unaffected by the devastating impact of COVID-19 over these past few months.

Throughout this time, we have all sought comfort and connectedness in the best way we know how. For many of us, this has partly been through watching TV news for the latest information, and drama, comedy and film for escapism.

Alongside hospitality, aviation and retail, the global film and TV industry has been badly disrupted by COVID-19. At Sky Studios, we paused 29 productions in March.

But this week, the cameras started rolling again as we returned to set with two productions.

“Ich und die Anderen,” a Sky Original, restarted shooting in Austria on Monday — the show, co-produced with Superfilm, managed to complete just five days of its original shoot schedule — and “Sisterhood,” our co-production with Sagafilm, led by Kjartan Thor Thordarson, also began production this week in Iceland.

Having two projects back up and running feels like a major milestone.

A week in, I wanted to share what Sky Studios has learned from our return to production.

In production, you never really know what tomorrow may bring and in production during the time of coronavirus, you really never know what tomorrow may bring. Will a cast or crew member become ill? Will a change in local regulation mean production must stop? All of these are constantly live questions for the production team and so it’s best to prepare for the unexpected and tip the production scales in your favor.

With “Ich und die Anderen,” we planned every scene in advance as is standard practice, however we front-loaded outdoor scenes, reduced the number of crowded scenes and kept shorter days where possible. We are expecting the production to take 62 days and so have pushed more difficult shots, with higher risk, to the back of the shoot schedule. Given the gradual easing of restrictions and the falling infection rate in many countries, this is a sensible thing to consider.

The producer of “Sisterhood,” Tinna Proppé, shared with our team how it was possible to plan their return to set completely online – even rehearsals with the actors. Though with so many of us working from home, rehearsals were occasionally disrupted by actors with new walk-on parts (or rather crawl-on parts) as young children made themselves both seen and heard on multiple occasions.

It may sound obvious, but it is worth re-stating that each production is unique. Not just the scale of the shoot, but also the talent and the location. Overall guidelines are a useful starting point, but individual risk assessments and judgements still need to be made on each shoot – taking into account local government guidance.

For “Ich und die Anderen” we are grateful for the Austrian government for their support in setting out clear guidelines with its “Comeback for Film and Television” initiative, particularly around testing of cast and crew. Working with the Austrian production community, the Austrian government has committed €25 million ($28.3 million) to an insurance fund to protect producers against the cost of COVID-19-related production cancellations.

This kind of action provides security to the industry and is something that would be welcome to the production community, both in the U.K. and internationally.

Being aware of the latest government advice is critical and, if in doubt, speak to your relevant industry association who, like Pact in the U.K., have been providing clear, up-to-date and practical advice to producers.

Lazy loaded image
Sisterhood Sky Studios

Sets can be stressful at the best of times, but during this first week of returning to production, there has understandably been a heightened sense of caution and awareness.

The health and safety of our cast, crew and staff must always remain the number one priority on set. We have empowered everyone involved with the production to constantly question if the production is sticking to the guidelines. It is not just the job of the production manager to keep the set safe – right now is the time when a culture of informed challenging has never been more important. We have also found that briefing teams in small groups is better – not just for social distancing, but because, generally speaking, people don’t ask as many questions in big groups. A useful tip from one of our production team in Vienna this week.

In Iceland, smorgasbords of open sandwiches and fresh fruit, along with big bowls of mixed nuts and chocolate have been replaced by individually boxed fruit salads and pre-packaged sandwiches. One tip from the catering team on the “Sisterhood” set is to never assume that one camera operator equals one sandwich. As we all know, a hungry crew is not a happy crew. Thankfully this is an issue that we have avoided so far.

Before starting back on our productions, we worked with producers and our creative teams to see what editorial changes could be made to help manage risk. Do we really need a crowd scene? Could we use technology to complete a production in post? Can we re-order the shoot sequence so certain actors don’t end up on set together simultaneously?

Through careful pre-planning and a fresh perspective, we have been able to come up with editorial solutions for future productions that mitigate risk while not compromising the quality of the finished show. You’ll be pleased to read that none of these creative solutions involve a Zoom call replacing a crowd scene.

Speaking of which, if you are using extras, try to book people who are actual families, partners or live together in real life. This will help manage risk and allow scenes to become more realistic.

During the shutdown, I have been comforted and pleased to see how the industry has come together to share information and best practice on how to re-open production. From the guidance provided to the TV industry by U.K. broadcasters, to the collegiate response from studios in Hollywood – I hope the above helps add to the industry’s collective knowledge.

Pictured (top): “Ich und die Anderen’s” cast and crew. Back row (from left to right): Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, director/creator David Schalko, producer John Lueftner (Superfilm); front row (from left to right): Katharina Schüttler, Tom Schilling, Clelia Sarto, producer Quirin Schmidt (Sky)