“I was very ambivalent and nervous about working during COVID,” says “Fargo” camera operator Mitch Dubin. He flew to Chicago mid-August to finish two episodes of the series’ new season. “I have to say though, I was a little relieved [once there].”
Working on one of the earlier projects to go back into production in the U.S., Dubin was on set as the industry was hammering out COVID protocols to be adopted across all productions. They were trying to figure out work-arounds and other practical ways to ensure crew and cast safety while still delivering the highest-quality work under restraints.
“It was a bit of a free-for-all,” Dubin says of stepping on a set in August. The production, however, adhered to what are now considered best-practices guidelines: regular COVID testing, daily temperature checks and extensive use of PPE, among others.
Dubin works with unmasked actors in closer proximity and for longer duration than nearly anyone else in production. Prior to stepping on the set, Dubin ordered multiple types of goggles from Amazon, to find something that would work over his glasses as a shield. Nothing fit properly, leading to a compromise that allowed him to attach plastic directly to the sides of his glasses instead.
“It was a strange combination of serious viral infection pandemic with the dangers of what that entails, and being as cautious and aware as possible,” says Dubin. He notes the practicalities of the job don’t allow for many of the recommended precautions, including distancing.
Dubin chose to use a remote head for shooting when possible in order to create space, though that wasn’t always an option.
Costume designer Michelle Cole was back at work in Los Angeles in July, handling her duties on “Black-ish” in person and working with a separate team via Zoom on “Work Wife” to avoid cross-contact on the productions.
“We did a couple of dry runs,” says Cole of the practicing they did before the actors came to set. Every department head had to participate and provide feedback, allowing production to hone in on the process ahead of time.
On “Black-ish” many fittings now take place in an outdoor tented area that Cole visits in person, while she handles “Work Wife” over Zoom.
“I was teasing my actors because I had to watch them [change on camera]!” Cole laughs. How an actor feels in costume comes out in body language and nuance, and that impacts the process; Cole cannot imagine trying to do her job this way if she hadn’t known the actors in person first.
Unlike Dubin and Cole, who work in constant close proximity to the actors, Elston Howard is a little more removed as a location manager. Working on “Leverage 2.0” in New Orleans, though, his job brings him into contact with far more people outside the production’s protective COVID-tested bubble.
He began prepping in June and shooting in August.
The regular testing helps, but “we’re constantly meeting new people every day,” says Howard. “So we’re definitely at higher risk.”
Howard has noticed an estimated 25%-35% increase in his department budget to account for the additional hires and work. For example, Gretna, a small town on the outskirts of New Orleans, now requires productions to have signed consent forms from a multitude of locals near shooting locations. That’s more time and outside contact for his team.
Howard’s focus is also on securing base camps where crew can just walk to location because moving everyone is a massive undertaking. He’s been renting full-sized buses and large vans, but can only fill them to half capacity. More modes of transport means the transportation coordinator must hire more drivers as well.
Steve Dayan, secretary and treasurer of the Teamsters Local 399 in Los Angeles, confirms a dramatic increase in studio hiring recently, particularly for the transportation and location departments. A process called permitting allows non-union crew to work on a production, but only once all available union members have been dispatched. Dayan has seen an increase in those opportunities lately though he notes it “ebbs and flows.”
Despite the current job opportunities, permitted crew must work 30 days in a year before they’re allowed to become full-fledged union members, so their new union status isn’t guaranteed.
Dayan is urging the union’s membership to stay home over the holidays so they don’t bring the virus back to productions.
Indeed, pre-employment COVID tests before crew is allowed to step on set reflect high positivity rates.
Mario Ramirez is the president and CEO of Reel Health & Reel Security Corp., the largest entertainment security company in the industry. After two decades in business providing set security domestically and abroad, Ramirez pivoted with the coronavirus shut down and brought on health experts, including Dr. Gary Richwald, a communicable disease expert and former CDC consultant.
Reel Health has worked on more than 150 productions since the pandemic began, developing safety protocols and processes with good results. Ramirez makes two important points about keeping everyone safe: not all masks are helpful — pull-down versions such as gaiters aren’t proven effective — and the type of COVID test that’s used matters.
“Not all COVID tests are created equal,” says Ramirez. “There’s really good use for [rapid tests] in some scenarios, but not in the surveillance testing we do of healthy individuals.”
The rapid tests’ accuracy drops dramatically when testing someone asymptomatic, though they’re helpful when someone’s already showing signs of illness. Ramirez cites the case with President Trump as an example of late detection with this type of test.
“The idea is, even with lab-based PCR testing, you really want the most sensitive test you could possibly get, because then you’ll catch it, even if somebody has a low viral load,” he says. Early detection leads to immediate isolation and stopping the spread.
Reel Health dispenses tests through a vetted lab and has developed a notification application for results. Positive results are pinged to Ramirez and team so they can dispense someone to pull the infected crew member off the job without delay. It may be disruptive, but they’ve done it anyway because that’s the only way to keep everyone safe.
“You have to be prepared for a phone call at any time that you might lose a production person,” says producer Chris Long (“The Tax Collector”). Grappling with the implications of positive tests is an integral part of the industry these days.
Long notes an additional unexpected challenge: “You don’t know who you’re hiring and what their belief systems are.” Crew members want to work, but not everyone takes the pandemic seriously.
Production designer Curt Beech is in pre-production in New York on “Only Murders in the Building,” starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, all of whom are considered high-risk for COVID because of age or immunocompromised status. They’re scheduled to begin shooting this month.
“They’re doing a great job of cleaning around us,” says Beech of the new protocols. “I was here late the other night and someone came in and sprayed some ‘magic spray’ in my office to keep it sanitized.” By way of advice, he adds: “Turn your coffee cups upside down because that doesn’t taste so great the next day.”
Beech has reimagined his department, with a team that now works remotely and consults via regularly scheduled Zoom meetings. But, when it comes to producer sign-offs, he pushes to meet in person since Zoom technology isn’t conducive to the process when details such as paint color appear different on each screen.
Camera operator Geoffrey Haley just wrapped “Red Notice” in Atlanta and is now back in Los Angeles to begin “The Gray Man.” Both are Netflix productions, a company that multiple crew report has gone above and beyond during this time. Before shutting down in March, the production had already added sanitizing stations on set and producers were urging crew to distance as much as possible; during the shutdown, they were paid for seven weeks of at-home time.
Before returning to work, crew members were asked to sign off on an agreement to fully bubble for the remainder of the project. The production bought out their studio lot as well as two hotels and housed everyone — including hotel staff — in a quarantined bubble. Even commuting meant having a special QR code scanned so the production could accurately track travel time and ensure there weren’t any deviations from the route.
Haley, already used to out-of-town jobs, had it easier than the local crew who couldn’t see their families for nearly three months despite working only a short drive away. But everyone was paid what Haley calls a “nuisance premium that wasn’t insignificant.”
Haley, like Dubin, works closely with unmasked actors. To complete his work on the film, he discovered it was necessary to wear a dark mask on top of the required — and bright white — KN95 model in order to neutralize the resulting glare onto his face shield. Otherwise, he couldn’t see what he was shooting.
Haley’s steadicam work also means he’s constantly moving. “With these masks, I’m only getting about 75% of the actual oxygen to the lungs that I would normally get,” he says. “It was physically grueling at times.”
While nearly everyone interviewed agrees that the masks and protocols can be exhausting, there was also a consensus that on set can sometimes feel like the safest place to be. That said, nearly all the people surveyed report having had positive COVID tests reported at work, including on “Red Notice.”
Though the announcement that “Red Notice” star Dwayne Johnson and his family had tested positive for COVID came out while the film was in production, it actually happened before shooting resumed. The positives reported during production originated elsewhere, though without knowing which tests were used, it’s impossible to deduce if they were false positives.
Regulations in Los Angeles — aside from some exceptions including pre-employment positives — call for Reel Health to disclose when there are three positive tests within a two week-period to the Public Health Department. This way the organization can investigate and ensure the production isn’t becoming a place where COVID is spread.
“The Orville” co-producer and editor Tom Costantino is in the early stages of production now. He’s been working exclusively from home and tapping into his Avid on the lot through secure means.
“Part of the joy [before] was interacting with everybody and rapidly solving problems,” says Costantino. “And now it’s like, ‘Oh, can you Zoom at 3?’”
As for what may remain in place after the pandemic ends, Long notes that office space is expensive in L.A. and it’s entirely possible that productions may try to cut back on crew and keep as many people as possible remote in an attempt to save money in the future.
And, while Zoom may benefit some immensely, including Howard who is frequently scouting locations, in other instances it hinders the creative process. “It’s a little more clinical than I would prefer,” Costantino says.
While crew members must decide individually what they are comfortable with as they get called for work, key questions to ask will be what types of COVID tests are being used and if there are dedicated, trained and unbiased professionals handling protocols.
In the meantime, the heightened awareness helps. “It keeps everyone on their toes, frankly,” says Beech.