How COVID-19 Affects Cast Management
A story without actors is just a book. Shows need a talented cast to breathe life into the characters, but we must understand how the on-set world has changed for them and for us.
In the COVID-19 era, the cast is the most vulnerable group of people on a film set. They cannot wear masks while acting. They can’t always socially distance themselves from their scene partners. They are interacting with all sorts of things: costumes, props, sets. It is our job to make their job as frictionless and safe as possible.
To help with this, we have highlighted a few procedures to follow when working with actors on your next production:
- Follow union rules and recommendations
- Shoot-out the talent
- Maintain social distancing when blocking
- Rely on technology
- Don’t waste time on set
- Save the big for last
Follow Union Rules and Recommendations
We must familiarize ourselves with the new union guidelines regarding COVID-19 safety. Even if our production is non-union, they are a great and necessary starting point for on-set safety.
As we have discussed in our article on Set Organization, building multiple zones around your set will minimize your chances of an outbreak. It is also now mandatory for all union shoots. The new guidelines also reiterate our recommendation to test your actors before the shoot begins and with regularity during production.
In addition to these guidelines, we highly recommend that, when possible, you quarantine your cast for up to two weeks before the production begins. Remember to consult with union reps and talent agents before beginning a quarantine process because, as the new union rules state, you will incur additional pay requirements.
As we talked about in our article on Casting, a quarantine period does not need to be an unproductive time. With some creativity and technological assistance, you can get a lot done while in quarantine.
Shoot-Out the Talent
Because it takes so much time, money, and planning to quarantine actors and test them, it is a good idea to shoot all their scenes as quickly as possible. This will ensure that, when possible, each actor will only need to go through the quarantine process once. We will need to begin this process in pre-production when we are building our schedules.
Shooting them out doesn’t just pertain to their overall schedule. It also requires a strict focus on each day’s shoot. To keep on-set personnel to a minimum, we should schedule our actors and their shots in a way that allows as few actors as possible on set at one time.
By keeping our daily and production schedules tight, we can minimize the time each actor spends in the exposed world of the set. This one step alone can have an enormous impact on preventing contamination.
Maintain Social Distancing When Blocking
Yes, we have gone through many steps to create a safe bubble around the set, but it is still best to reduce the amount of contact between actors. They will have to touch at some point, but we should make sure that it happens as little as possible.
We recommend that actors not touch during blocking rehearsals and, if possible, always maintain a six-foot distance. We highly recommend reconsidering whether actors are even necessary for blocking rehearsals (more on this later).
We also recommend that you schedule the scenes with the most touching (e.g., sex scenes, kissing scenes, fight scenes) as late in the shoot as possible. The same goes for specific shots on specific days. The shots that require the most contact should be shot last on the day. If it is possible to shoot a scene without your actors coming into contact with each other, do it.
Rely on Technology
From hair and makeup to blocking rehearsals and off-camera acting, actors are within the transmission zone almost constantly. Using technology can minimize many, if not all, of these potential contamination points. In some instances, technology can eliminate them altogether.
Many productions are asking actors to do their own hair and makeup. For actors trained in the theatre this is nothing new. For film and tv actors, it will be an adjustment. To allow actors to look their best, we should help them adjust to this (temporary) new normal.
One way to do this is to have your hair and makeup crew consult with cast members via a video conferencing platform. They can coach the actors through the process to ensure they achieve the desired look. Keep in mind that this will take longer than usual, so schedule accordingly.
A similar strategy can help to make acting itself safer, especially when we are blocking and shooting singles.
Video conferencing technology can be used to show our actors their blocking before they come to set. We should use stand-ins—who should be masked, shielded, and gloved—to block the scene for lights, camera, and sound. The principal actors can view this blocking via smart devices. This will allow cast members to ask questions and find motivations while still in the safety of their trailers.
Finally, when possible, actors should not be on set unless they are on-camera. Using video conferencing software, we can, when feasible, have the off-camera actor perform for their on-camera scene partner via a smart device. This will still allow for the all-important “reacting” aspect of acting, but it will also help keep the number of personnel on set to a minimum.
Don’t Waste Time on Set
This should go without saying, but we are in a pandemic, and everything needs to be put down on paper at least once: Do not waste time on set.
COVID-19 has seen to it that our production schedules and our budgets have both grown quite large. To avoid unnecessarily inflating of either one, ensure that you are maximizing all your talent’s time on set.
Remember: the actual set needs to be the most sanitary place on every production. It needs to be the inner-most bubble in a multi-zone scheme with hyper strict regulations regarding access. No matter how safe we make it, our sets will also be the most dangerous places on our shoots (outside of travel). The set is the only place where people will be touching other people. It is the only place where masks cannot be mandatory for everyone. So, for safety’s sake, we also need to make sure we are not wasting any of our cast’s time on set.
Do it for the money. Do it for the time. Do it for the safety. Whatever your reasoning, make sure you are using the on-set time of your talent as effectively as possible.
Save The Big for Last
As we have discussed in our articles on Scheduling and “Good Fellas,” we highly recommend moving all big shots to the end of your production.
Big shots— whether they involve lots of stunts, lots of extras, or both— are a prime candidate for facilitating the spread of the coronavirus. Because these types of shots have so many variables, they require herculean effort to sanitize. This means that they are the most likely to lead to an outbreak.
To keep our productions from being delayed or canceled by an outbreak, we should schedule big shots at the end of our shoots.
All of us are taking a chance by going into production during a pandemic. Actors, however, are taking the most significant risks of us all. They are exposing themselves to a near-constant stream of potential transmission points. We must make their safety paramount.
To do this, we must follow the new union guidelines, shoot-out the talent as quickly as possible, maintain social distancing in our blocking, use technology to remove contact points, maximize the efficiency of our talent’s on-set time, and move the most extensive shots to the end of our schedules.
Our actors will only be able to do their best work if they can focus on the task at hand. Their ability to focus is contingent on being free from the worry of contamination. It is our job to give them that freedom.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.