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Hazmat Suits and GoPros: How We Pulled Off a Fast Turnaround Coronavirus Doc (Guest Column)

London Coronavirus
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As the U.K.’s coronavirus crisis steadily escalated, Argonon Group-owned Britespark Films raced to complete a fast turnaround documentary on the pandemic for broadcaster Channel 4. Britespark director of programs Tom Porter details the extreme logistical hurdles involved.  

For creative director Nick Godwin and I at Britespark Films, in the midst of a coronavirus-induced industry freeze, there has been one genre in which new business has still been commissioned — news and current affairs.

As the net of the lockdown closed around the country, Louisa Compton, newly appointed head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, asked us to make an hour-long film (for investigative doc strand) ‘Dispatches’ on the long-view of the crisis entitled, “Coronavirus: How Britain’s Changing.”

The initial excitement at landing the commission was soon tempered as we surveyed the task ahead: producing an hour of television in the relatively fast turnaround of four weeks, but with the added logistical difficulties of the ever increasing circle of restriction of movement resulting from the crisis.

The first hurdle was jumped quickly — securing a seasoned documentary and fast turnaround specialist in our brilliant senior producer Storm Theunissen and a great team working with her to produce the film. But logistically speaking, the challenges ahead were bigger.

Within a few days of starting, two members of our team had cautiously self-isolated. Every member of the team was then issued a thermometer, although one reading of 41 degrees Celsius was fortunately put down to a user error. This challenge of isolation would repeat itself over the course of the production; however, with team members in office-based roles largely working remotely from each other and most of them working from home, it has been possible to keep everyone going with a constant redeployment of tasks.

Filming also presented challenges. The safety of the crew and the people they were meeting was paramount, so how could we try to ensure that no one either disseminated or caught the virus whilst shooting?

As a (former) commissioner at Channel 4, I was involved in assembling one of the most detailed safety protocols ever for a Channel 4-HBO co-production for a film about the victims of Ebola. This reminded me of that process.

For this coronavirus shoot, exposed cameras were to be disinfected and bagged, and people had to wear hazmat suits and ‘double-glove’ in places where infected patients were living. Interviews were to be done with GoPros that we could afford to leave in situ for two weeks alongside Skype links to contributors.

The temperatures of crew would be taken on entry to the location. The willingness of those contributors to take part was also amazing. Three experts were prepared to travel to a central London location in their own cars and sit for interview under strict rules rather than have people visit their families.

Louisa (Compton) and Channel 4 have been outstanding, rushing through press cards for crew or providing them with letters explaining to anyone who might meet the crew that they are doing essential public service journalism.

During the edit, we have had to dispense, like everyone else, with the ‘feel’ one gets from being in the cutting room together and learn to talk — a lot — on the phone. Who knows, maybe remote editing will catch on, but I for one will be very glad when I can once more sit with the whole panoply of teams we normally have at Britespark across our whole slate.

  • “Coronavirus: How Britain’s Changing” airs on Channel 4 on April 8 at 9PM BST.