Testing, Badge Systems & Budgeting: How Netflix Restarted Production in the Nordics (EXCLUSIVE)

Baltasar Kormakur

With multiple coronavirus safety guidelines now published, most countries are taking tentative steps to restart film and TV drama production. In the Nordics, however, production has been up and running for weeks — and the lessons learned there could prove invaluable for those thinking of restarting elsewhere.

One of the key learnings is that, with good planning, it’s not as difficult or expensive to produce in the COVID-19 era as it might first appear.

“It’s one step at a time,” says Kelly Luegenbiehl, VP of international originals at Netflix, which has productions currently shooting in Iceland, Sweden and Denmark. “These are big challenges we’re trying to solve. If you try to think about the whole problem, it can be a little intimidating.”

“Everest” director Baltasar Kormákur is filming “Katla,” his eight-part supernatural volcano drama in Iceland for Netflix. Sweden’s SF Studios, meanwhile, is making gangster series “Easy Money” and action thriller feature “Red Dot.” Also in Sweden, FLX is producing romantic comedy series “Love & Anarchy.” In Denmark, Netflix has just restarted supernatural thriller series “Equinox,” and will start filming again on season two of “Home for Christmas” in Norway in July.

Netflix has put in place a series of measures during the shoots, from temperature testing and staggered starts, through to hiring additional cleaning crews and appointing security to ensure social distancing. Cast and crew are also given different color badges that allow them onto certain areas of the set only.

A lot of it is about changing habits, says Luegenbiehl, such as regularly washing hands or people not embracing when they meet. “What has been really interesting is how easily and quickly people are able to adapt to the new normal.”

In normal times, such drastic changes in working patterns might be expected to be met with resistance or complaint. Not so now, given the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone on set feels like it is their responsibility to keep everyone else safe,” says Luegenbiehl. “People are being very thoughtful about how they are approaching the work.”

Safeguards in action: Testing, badge systems & reduced extras

In some cases, restarting the productions has reaped positive benefits, too.

Kormákur says temperature testing on his production caught one person with COVID-19 before they could get on set. The person did not feel ill, and had little idea they might have coronavirus when tested. “They could have been walking around undiscovered,” says Kormákur who points out that responsible productions can actually benefit society by detecting and filtering those who have the illness.

Filming “Katla’s” apocalyptic scenes has also been easier than expected because Iceland has very few tourists at the moment, meaning there are no crowds to avoid. “You just have to look at the positive side of this and move on,” says Kormákur. “Also, I love it when there are fewer people on set or around my monitor.”

Luegenbiehl, meanwhile, says the coronavirus protocols have led to unexpected innovations on set. For example, all of Netflix’s productions in the region have now gone paperless. Shoots were already going this way in a bid to become more eco-friendly, but coronavirus health and safety measures have provided a definitive impetus to make it happen.

Luegenbiehl says Netflix has “leaned in” to government guidelines in each country and used the streamer’s protocols to come up with best practices for each show.

Among the innovations for ensuring safety on set, colored badges have been one of the most effective at making sure people are kept apart as much as possible. Kormákur first implemented the process on “Katla,” with four different badges – yellow (allowed on set), blue (access all areas), red (studio floor), and black (actors area).

The “visualization of the colors,” he says, allows people “to doubt each other” and to ensure that nobody is jeopardizing the rest of the team. Strict enforcement, he adds, is vital so as not to risk shutting down the production.

The badge system has also been implemented by SF Studios in Sweden, albeit in simpler form with just two badges, red for director, DoP, actors, script editor and those who have to be close to where the filming is taking place; and blue for departments such as catering, set builders and production office.

Tim King, EVP of production for SF Studios, says that many production companies are reviewing scripts before restarting, noting that the two biggest problem areas are, firstly, scenes involving intimacy or violence, and secondly, those with lots of extras.

SF Studios has reduced its use of extras in the drama “Easy Money.” “We had scenes with 500 extras in it. We can’t shoot that now. So we’re going to shoot close camera shots with maybe 40 in the background,” says King.

The show’s violent scenes didn’t need to change as most of the action was carried out with weapons, rather than one-on-one fighting. But a sex scene, judged integral to the story, was not cut out. SF Studios talked to the actors, making sure they were comfortable to go ahead – and tested beforehand.

The scene was also made possible because, unlike in some countries, people in Sweden are allowed within two metres of each other, but are advised to keep their distance as much as possible. For romantic comedy “Love & Anarchy,” the key cast quarantined separately for 14 days leading up to production, so they could safely come together for the shoot.

What to budget

Notably, the coronavirus protocols have not significantly added to the time and cost of making the productions.

King estimates that the additional costs are around 2% of the budget, which is far less than predictions of a 10-20% uplift. “It’s not prohibitive,” says King.

The key expenditure goes towards additional staff to ensure safety, and more personalized catering and travel arrangements. King caveats this by noting that cast and crew on a Scandinavian production average around 40-50 people, making them smaller and more manageable than major Hollywood shoots.

Productions are also managing to keep within planned days’ shoots, and not spilling over, either. “In the first couple of days, it takes you a little while to get used to it,” says Luegenbiehl. “But we’ve been really surprised by how on schedule everyone has been.”

Overall, Luegenbiehl says there has been a strong desire from everyone on the productions to get back to work, and to help kickstart the creative ecosystem given so many people are currently out of work.

“Especially for these first productions, you feel a sense of responsibility, not just to your own show, but to the industry as a whole to really do it and do it well — so that it is a proof point for other shows to go back into production.”