In the U.K., where the government reduced pandemic masking and social distancing requirements last month, there has been a spike in production shutdowns due to COVID-19 and growing calls for mandatory vaccinations on set.
Throughout July and early August, dozens of productions — including “Bridgerton,” “House of the Dragon” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Masters of the Air” — have shut down, albeit briefly, due to positive cases or key cast and crew having to self-isolate after coming into contact with a positive case.
John Barclay, assistant general secretary (recorded media) of U.K.’s Equity union, acknowledged there has been a flurry of suspended film and TV productions recently due to COVID, but he pointed out that most suspensions were short thanks to industry protocols, including U.K. broadcasters’ guidance, the British Film Commission’s film and TV production code of practice and the Advertising Producers Association’s COVID-19 shooting guidelines.
Even with protocols in place, however, “production is being affected daily by COVID in some way,” said film and television director Vicki Kisner, who has worked on shows for the BBC and Channel 4. “If one person has been near someone [with COVID-19], then it could take out a good few actors.”
“There’s a lottery element to it,” said one publicist who spoke on condition of anonymity, “even if you are incredibly cautious.”
As of July 19, dubbed Freedom Day in the U.K., masks, social distancing and venue capacity limits are no longer required but are “recommended” by the government. These changes came amid a soaring number of COVID cases on so-called “plague island,” but the number of cases has dipped in recent days. Worries about future surges remain.
Inevitably, the numerous production shutdowns have led to talk of mandatory vaccination on set, especially with Netflix in the U.S. already instituting a vaccination mandate for actors and any crew working in close proximity with them. In the U.K., many are in favor of such measures but complex employment legislation likely makes it unenforceable.
“I think if a mandatory vaccination status allowed us to get back to working more like before COVID I would be in favor,” said an actor on a forthcoming high-end drama who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s just a really precarious time, with so many productions shutting down left, right and center, no matter how well your set is COVID-secure, the uncertainty is so palpable.”
Leo Pearlman, managing partner at Fulwell 73, said that despite getting through the last 18 months without one unscheduled shutdown on productions including “Cinderella” with Camila Cabello and soccer doc “All or Nothing: Juventus” for Amazon Prime, he would also “100% support” mandatory vaccination on set.
Unlike their U.S. counterpart SAG-AFTRA, however, which agreed to limited guidelines allowing vaccination mandates, Equity opposes such a move. “Our public position is that we’re against mandatory vaccination, for all sorts of reasons,” said Barclay. “But we are working with the industry on the issues around vaccination. That’s the hot topic at the moment.”
Specifically with regard to Netflix, Barclay said, “The next flurry of shows are towards the end of the year now. So we’ve got a bit of a period where we can engage with Netflix on how they intend to deal with this. I think one of the problems they’ve bumped into in the States is vaccinated performers and crew saying, ‘Well, I don’t really want to work with the unvaccinated.’”
James Baker, head of employment at London law firm Lee & Thompson, said that in the U.K. it would be difficult to enforce mandatory vaccination in the workplace, certainly without either government provision or an industry-wide consensus, as happened in the U.S. with a joint agreement between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and guilds including SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the DGA.
“Without legal support, without an industry wide consensus, it comes down to whether it’s reasonable in all the circumstances for the production company to require it,” said Baker. “And it will always involve looking at whether it is necessary or whether there are other less intrusive steps that can be taken.”
However, Baker said, a combination of factors may encourage otherwise reticent film and TV professionals to get vaccinated without needing to resort to mandates. For a start, the government has confirmed that from Aug. 16 vaccinated individuals will no longer be required to self-isolate for 10 days. Equally, as Barclay pointed out, with many European countries requiring a vaccination to enter – and many high-end U.K.-based productions filming across Europe – cast and crew will find they need to be vaccinated to do their jobs. Not to mention that insurers may well have their own requirements for vaccinations on set.
In the meantime, productions are still proceeding with caution, planning shoots with military-grade logistics and precision. Cast and crew are assigned “bubbles,” sets are zoned off, catering is no longer a free-for-all but delivered via app. Inevitably, shoots are taking longer and costing more. “The additional cost to make [productions] COVID safe is astronomical,” said Barclay.
On “Cinderella,” cast and crew were given wristbands that dictated who they could mix with (albeit still masked and distanced) on-set. Even simple things like a lunch schedule “suddenly becomes completely different because the bubbles have to go in in rotation,” said Pearlman.
Where possible, productions have also maintained social distancing, sometimes even in front of the camera. “Actors have to be distanced and then we’re just using long lenses to make things a little bit more compressed,” said Kisner. “There are definitely awkward shapes and we’re trying to avoid wide shots where you’re seeing those very strange two meter triangles between actors.”
Where a scene requires multiple actors, directors might use a composite shot, shooting each actor separately and then splicing the footage together. Props, which are cleaned and sanitized regularly, are not to be shared. Where a prop needs to be handed over on camera, two identical versions are made and each actor is only allowed to handle his or her own.
And because actors need to be socially distanced from the camera operators as well as each other, sometimes they have found themselves acting to tennis balls — to maintain the eye line — rather than their on-screen partner. “Anything where you would have been more intimate or some physical contact, it’s very restricted for the actors and a bit frustrating,” said Kisner.
“Not seeing your scene partner’s face right up until action is surreal,” said the anonymous actor. “We work in a sector of the industry that is so reliant on being in close proximity to people. Working through masks, social distancing and visors takes away some creativity as it doesn’t allow you to lose yourself in the world you are trying to create, as you’re constantly reminded of this awful virus.”
Inevitably, creativity during COVID has required compromise, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. “I personally went through quite a long period of saying to all of our creatives, ‘The pandemic will end and we’ll go back to a normal world and we shouldn’t be trying to think of creative that just ticks a box now, because we should be looking at the bigger picture,’” Pearlman said. “A year and a half down the line, I’m not giving that advice anymore.”