Producer Mark Kassen’s morning routine looks very different than it did in a pre-coronavirus era.
When he pulls up to work — in this case, a music soundstage in Pasadena, Calif. — Kassen clocks in so building staff can account for the number of people present. From there, his temperature is taken (behind a plexiglass wall) and he’s handed two monitors: One tracks his temperature and another observes his oxygen levels.
The 48-year-old executive is spearheading production on a commercial that he hopes will serve as a case study in best practices during the pandemic. If successful, the shoot could help guide Hollywood as it tries to restart film and TV production. Some high-profile projects have been given the greenlight to resume, though many actors and crew members will have to agree to a two-week quarantine to ensure everyone on set is coronavirus-free before its safe to roll cameras again.
But heightened safety measures aren’t what Kassen anticipates will distinguish his undertaking; it’s the cutting-edge technology that he’s deploying to bring the commercial to life. The production incorporates dynamic LED light walls plastered along the walls and floor, camera tracking software and Unreal Engine, a system that’s traditionally used for video games, to create a 3D, lived-in environment. It’s an unusual method for a commercial, but one that makes locations across the globe look more realistic than ever before without having to board a plane or private jet. Roughly a half-dozen projects have ever used the technology, the most high-profile being the Disney Plus series “The Mandalorian.”
A look inside production for a new commercial filming during the pandemic.
“With COVID concerns, it definitely would have been challenging and very expensive to hire the amount of people needed for a traditional set build and green screen,” Kassen said. “So, we reduced the amount of people and in turn used more expensive technology.”
For movies that rely heavily on special effects (think “Avengers: Endgame” or any “Fast and Furious” installment), the striking visual scenes are spliced in after the fact. It’s started to look more realistic as technology has advanced, Kassen says, but it leaves little room when it comes to flexibility for the actors and cinematographers. The technology being used on Kassen’s set, which was also featured on Beyonce’s latest concert tour, is more dynamic than your average green screen. That’s because the cameras adjust in real time, which makes everything in the background feel a little bit more lifelike. In this case, the entire room can morph into a different location and actors can move around the set without fear that they’ll ruin the shot.
Now, it could pave a new way forward by granting TV and film sets the ability to recreate realistic backgrounds for any location without the need to travel. That is especially helpful during the pandemic, where many parts of the country are experiencing a surge in the virus.
Kassen notes that studios are typically less inclined to take risks on expensive new technology given time and budget restraints. “It’s hard to get people to buy into something like this until you have a real need,” he said. “We’ve been looking at this technique for a while. This was our excuse to put it into practice in a big way.” It’s much pricier, to be sure, he says. But if major Hollywood companies willing to shell out a few extra bucks to get cameras rolling again, it could help expedite the entertainment industry’s plans.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to restarting any production is controlling the amount of people in enclosed spaces. With the new setup, they’re able to save money by being more innovative with a smaller space and less people.
“It’s allowed us to work quicker and with less bodies on set in a smaller space,” Kassen said. “If we used a green screen, we would have needed a larger space to do what I would have wanted to do. With a larger space comes more support.”
The advertisement they are filming is timely, showcasing new technology from medical brand Masimo that is designed to help businesses operate safety during Covid-19. Between on-camera talent (consisting of three actors), editors behind the scenes, and visual effects teams in San Francisco and New York City, there are approximately 30 people working on the shoot. Kassen rented a giant studio space to control crowding and ensure there are never more than 10 people in a room. On the floor, there’s tape to delineate at least six feet of distance between people. Before anyone given permission to return work, they have to be tested and cleared of Covid-19. The monitors worn by those in the building, provided by Masimo, regulate in real-time if anyone’s temperature flares or oxygen levels waver and send the information to medical experts.
“You have to be cautious and not relax your behavior,” he said.
Kassen and his crew did most of the planning beforehand so they could efficiently roll cameras and avoid feeling like anything was “done on the fly.” As a result, the commercial was executed faster than usual; they were only on set shooting for two days. He’s optimistic that the process would be easy to translate for larger-scale productions, meaning other companies will be able to follow suit.
“At a time when people are freaked out or unsure about what’s going to happen, it’s been incredibly energizing to feel like we can do something with technology that forces us to grow as artist so more can get back to work in a way that’s safe,” he said. “It’s made the vibe here feel like more of a mission than a job.