After the television industry shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, multicam productions had an extra barrier when considering an eventual return: what to do about the live studio audience.
Traditionally, each episode would have a table read, followed by rehearsals and a day of pre-taped material before filming the bulk of the installment in front of a couple hundred people. But with no crowds allowed on set, how each show could approach filming changed.
“It was very much a logistical challenge, where I had to be working on [following the safety protocols] and at the same time make sure that the creative was getting serviced, as we are used to doing,” says James Widdoes, “Mom” director. “We didn’t want to present a worse version of the show because of COVID.”
An early speedbump? The discovery of how PPE, a necessity, impacted rehearsals. In addition to table reads being bumped to Zoom (where everyone was at the mercy of potential technological snafus and internet delays), regulations required masks and/or shields for all pre-filmed practice runs.
“Not only was it difficult to hear each other, but [also] for the actors to hear the other actors [in the scene],” says Jody Margolin Hahn, director of “The Conners.” Hahn’s long history with the franchise — going back 30 years to when she was a script supervisor on “Roseanne” — made her a natural choice for the ABC comedy’s first episodes back. But even though she had a shorthand with some of the team, the required social distancing made it hard to give discreet notes to performers.
Early on, “The Conners” tried to change things up by bringing in clear masks. “These actors need to see each other’s faces. Without seeing them, there are going to be moments that are missed,” Hahn recalls the team reasoning. But it was short-lived. “They fogged up, they were sweaty, they were uncomfortable and were not as safe, so we ended up not using them.”
With no in-studio audience to cater to, the directors also shook up when, and for how long, they filmed.
“I didn’t know how this was going to work in terms of how fast we could do things,” Widdoes admits. “I suggested [adding] a third camera day just to cover ourselves, just in case.”
In the new environment, “we had no pressure that we were going to have a show ready and perfect for an audience,” he continues. “But what we did have, all of a sudden, [was] plenty of time to shoot. We had plenty of time to fix a line, a piece of blocking, the performance if it’s not working. And so we actually wound up with — in an odd way — a very calm, peaceful, creative environment to shoot the show, that we got to by accident.”
Netflix’s new sitcom “The Upshaws” filmed a few of its early season episodes with an audience before having to shift strategy for the new safety protocols. When that happened, director Sheldon Epps says, it fell on him “to help supply and motivate that energy that normally would come from an audience.”
“That is the value of having a live audience there: the actors are constantly backed by them, even between takes,” he continues. “I certainly had to do more reminders to keep the energy up and hold for laughs. I had to do a lot more laughing myself.”
Although that was an unexpected added responsibility for Epps, in the end he feels it worked out in the best possible way: “Honestly, I don’t think we could tell the difference between the episodes that we shot at the beginning of the season with an audience and those that we shot without the audience.”