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On Set During Covid

What Works, What Doesn’t, & What It’s Really Like

Like every other on-camera actor, I wondered what it would be like filming again while this pandemic continues to plague us all. Those of us who are active in the Georgia film industry are very thankful that our community is one of the first in the U.S. to emerge from so much suspended production, albeit with many safeguards in place. These past several months, I’ve been able to experience first-hand what it’s like working on set during Covid.

I’ve recently been on both union (SAG-AFTRA) and non-union sets for a commercial, an industrial (a short film shown only within the hiring company), and a print job. All three sets were in compliance with Covid safety guidelines, although they each did so a little differently. For example, in testing for Covid, the non-union industrial took a blood draw via finger prick, which provided immediate results. The other two jobs required the standard nasal swab at a testing facility they had contracted for that purpose; results were available within 24 hours. The non-union industrial had me and my scene partner in and out within 90 minutes. Very convenient and efficient from the actor’s perspective! And more the exception than the rule. The other two were full day shoots.

Here’s what that first experience on set was like back in the fall of 2020:

I was booked for an industrial shoot for a major credit services corporation. Upon hearing the good news from my agent, I immediately wondered what testing or quarantine requirements would be required. I certainly hoped for a simple Covid test and, fortunately, that’s all I had to complete before showing up on set the following day. The production company made it very easy, too. An on-site testing facility was made available to cast and crew at no charge, with the production people on hand to see us through the process. I jumped in the car and drove 20 minutes to their location and was in and out within half an hour.

I was expecting the “Roto-Rooter” nostril treatment – and honestly, not looking forward to having my nasal cavities intensely swiped. Instead, a couple of friendly nurses were on hand to prick a finger and draw blood. And no waiting! I had my results, certified on paper, within ten minutes. Easy peasy! After emailing the production coordinator a picture of my rapid test result, I was approved to show up on set the next morning.

The instructions were emailed to me shortly afterwards. In addition to the talent release forms and call sheet, the production company sent a two page list of Covid protocols for everyone to acknowledge and sign. The stipulations were rather straightforward and not at all surprising: Frequent hand-washing and use of disinfectants. Social distancing of six feet applied to all crew members and to actors not immediately on camera. We were to wear masks all the time, except when being filmed. Actors not on set would be kept far from the crew and, to a lesser extent, from each other.

And, of course, the temperature checks. As with all kinds of businesses and retailers everywhere, there was a production representative at the door to test the temperatures of each individual upon arrival to set. Anyone registering a temperature of 100.4 or higher was to be sent home. (Fortunately, there were no incidents.)

Hair and makeup were handled a little differently, too, but not by much. Pre-Covid, while the larger productions would ask actors to come bare-faced and proceed directly to hair and makeup, many others would request that actors do their own before arriving on set. Now, during Covid, actors are being asked more often to do their own hair and makeup prior to arrival. I’m perfectly happy with that rule, since I know my way around a cosmetic counter and styling tools. This production still had a hair and makeup artist on set, but mostly for touchups throughout the shoot and to help select the outfits that we’d wear on camera.

It’s typical for commercial and industrial shoots to ask actors to bring several sets of their own clothing for production to approve. Sometimes they like photos sent ahead of time, so they can pick and choose without the actor needing to bring a large suitcase full of options. This shoot had a very fast turnaround, so they just specified the types and colors of clothing they wanted to see. As I was playing part of a husband and wife team, they coordinated our “looks.” It was to be a casual setting, with blue as the hubby’s assigned base color and red as mine. Since I’d done this sort of thing before, I knew to wear my favorite combination of what they were looking for and just bring along the rest. Sure enough, they were happy with what I had on and I didn’t need to change.

Food on set can be anything, from doughnuts and pizza (usually student or very low budget independent films) to lavish buffets complete with chefs at carving stations for major studio productions. Gone! At least, during Covid. Actors know now to expect any meals and snacks to be provided in single, pre-wrapped portions. Sure enough, this production specified that only limited catering would be provided and served in single portions. I wasn’t too concerned, since I figured the shoot would last just the morning or maybe, at most, a little into the lunch hour. Just in case, though, I brought along some of my own food, a couple bottles of water, and a canister of my favorite hot chai tea. As a vegetarian, I can’t always count on what catering may provide, so it’s easiest to have my own supply with me.

As it turned out, food was never even an issue, because the shoot went so quickly. An actor’s dream! Thanks to Covid, production had staggered each actor’s call time, so we could arrive close to our actual shoot schedule. As my “hubby” and I were the first to be filmed that day, it wasn’t much of a problem, but we both appreciated that production wanted to minimize the time that actors were on set to better comply within the Covid guidelines. Worked for me! We were in and out in less than 90 minutes.

The only possible exposure to Covid would have come from the actor playing my husband, and possibly from me to him. Our scenes had us interacting closely, studying plans together and walking hand-in-hand. Not that either scene took long; the director was happy after just a few takes each. And neither the other actor nor myself were concerned. We had both been tested, had our temperatures checked, and spent minimal time together. It was highly unlikely that either of us would have transmitted a virus to each other. And truthfully, if either of us were that worried about it, we wouldn’t have accepted the booking in the first place. As it turned out, we were both perfectly fine.

All in all, filming during Covid was as normal as possible. Aside from the testing and on set precautions, there was very little different about it. The only real worry was if wearing a mask would ruin our makeup. But if so, we had a talented hair and makeup artist on hand for last minute fixes or touch-ups. Nothing to be concerned about.

The shoot was actually a very positive experience. That’s what comes from having a skilled producer and crew, strong direction, and plenty of pre-planning. Actually, I think the biggest challenges faced during Covid are not on set, but in the steps leading up to a booking.

Auditions are now on tape, rather than (as often was the case) in person. The challenge comes from the actor needing to learn the basics of lighting, sound, photography, and video editing – in addition to learning and performing the material. The actor has been challenged to set up a home taping studio of sorts, with solid backdrops, box lights for filming, and an appropriate camera and microphone (or smart phone) on a tripod, not to mention knowing how to edit the taped audition scene(s) and slate, package them up, and submit them electronically to casting within a tight deadline. That’s a lot to have thrown at you, especially if you’ve never done any of it before. Those of us in the Southeast have had it easier than our colleagues in LA or New York; our market has requested self-tapes for years. Still, it can be quite a challenge, since many actors preferred to go to local taping services that had provided everything, including someone to read the other characters’ lines in our scenes. Now, the challenge is on us to do it all ourselves, including finding a good reader who could help us remotely in our auditions. Thank you, Zoom! You’ve helped actors help each other by connecting through your free service.

Another significant challenge presented by Covid could be a mandated long quarantine period prior to showing up on set. This could be especially challenging for actors with spouses, young children, or older family members requiring care, or those who have regular jobs outside the industry. Actors need to decide for themselves – and discuss with their agents – what they can or cannot do, so that they audition only for those jobs that they can realistically accept.

Every production, every set has its own guidelines to protect everyone involved. My other two bookings were even more careful than the first. The non-union print job was for a quick oil change franchise, and their Covid safety precautions were quite impressive! Upon check-in, the other actors and I were directed to a table with four Covid safety compliance officers, who conducted temperature checks and gave each of us our own plastic inflatable booth (including a chair) to sit in outdoors while we waited to be called. We were each issued buckets containing sanitizer, a mask, and a plastic face shield to wear without a mask on our way to and from set; this was for hair and makeup to verify our “looks” and to avoid unnecessary smudging of makeup.

As with the industrial shoot, actors were situated far from crew and drinks, meals, and snacks were carefully wrapped and packaged for each individual. Everything proceeded efficiently, with actors remaining in our plastic bubbles whenever we weren’t needed. The setup was actually quite comfortable – and certainly a novel experience.

The union commercial set followed strict check-in protocols and temperature checks outside. Once everyone was cleared, we were allowed indoors, albeit actors were assigned individual spaces in a large room to wait to be called. Chairs were provided, of course, and a cantina was set up for everyone to approach – one at a time – a cordoned-off conference room in which assigned staff would pass us hot and cold beverages and even plate snacks for us. No buffet during Covid! Lunchtime was outside, with hot meals served from food service trucks and picnic tables for us to use. Again, perfectly comfortable and not terribly different from working on set during non-pandemic times. What we didn’t see was the sanitization sweeps that were made from scene to scene, wiping down everything that an actor or crew member had touched before the next group of people were called to set.

SAG-AFTRA requires its productions to follow many more rules than its non-union counterparts, but all did what was necessary to get the job done. Yes, many more rules to follow, more people and equipment to hire, more time needed to get everything done. BUT … while productions suffered increased budgets and extended shoot schedules to accommodate these precautions, at least these projects were going forward, instead of being indefinitely postponed or cancelled. And I think many would agree that it‘s much better and healthier for us to work and exercise our creativity in our chosen fields than to sit isolated in our homes for months on end. We just have to hang in there a little longer and follow those guidelines that will help see us through the pandemic cycle. Like anything else, this too shall pass.