Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Reassessing “Goodfellas” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment

On September 19, 1990, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” was released. Visually arresting, narratively fluid, and propulsive from start to finish, “Goodfellas” is considered by most to be the high point of Martin Scorsese’s storied career. This genre-defining gangster film is famous for many things: “funny how,” changing narrators, “f-you pay me,” and countless other now-permanent pieces of the zeitgeist. Arguably the most famous aspect of Goodfellas is its intricately choreographed tracking shot:

Video Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment

In this article, we will look at this legendary shot with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into four categories:

  • Elements that are COVID-19
  • SafeElements that are COVID-19 Risks
  • Small tweaks that increase safety
  • Major changes that maximize safety

This article is designed to help you to better understand COVID-19 safety by showing you how pandemic guidelines could affect one of the most famous shots in film history. Let’s look at the “Goodfellas” tracking shot and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 Approved.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

Back in 1989—when Scorsese and company were filming this scene—no one was thinking about pandemic safety on set. And yet, there are several aspects of the shot that follow good COVID-19 safety procedures. Here we want to highlight three areas:

  • Minimized Crew
  • Minimized Main Cast
  • Location Control

Minimized Crew  

When it comes to minimizing exposure to COVID-19, one of our best resources is limiting the number of people required for a given shot. If we put aside the number of extras in the scene and the understandably large overall crew, we can focus on two units that were effectively minimized in this shot: camera and sound.

First, this scene uses a Steadicam. In fact, this shot is known as the Steadicam shot, and it was captured by Steadicam titan Larry McConkey. A Steadicam is highly mobile and allows your camera operator to do multiple jobs at once, thereby eliminating additional camera crew members.

It is by no means an easy job, but a good Steadicam operator can save you time, money, and personnel—all vital things in the COVID-19 era. Using a Steadicam over a dolly is a great way to achieve complex shots with minimal personnel.

Second, pay attention to the sound in this scene. You can hear several instances of ADR throughout. You’ll also notice many times where we cannot hear the actors when they are obviously talking. And there was no room for a boom mic. Taken together, it is obvious that audio was not an on-set priority. It was all about the visuals.

As Larry McConkey recounted to Filmmaker Magazine, Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus lit the entire location so that McConkey could shoot looking in any direction, including up. In fact, at one point, Scorsese was planning on having voice-over narration instead of the song that plays in the final cut.

By using a Steadicam, relying heavily on ADR, and focusing on the visuals, Scorsese, Ballhaus, and McConkey were able to create cinema history while simultaneously minimizing the use of certain crew members.

Minimized Main Cast

If we focus on the top-of-the-call-sheet cast members, this is a two-person scene. Yes, we know, we are ignoring the massive number of extras and under-5’s. But—and this will come in handy later—it is important to note that the scene itself is all about Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill and Lorraine Bracco’s Karen.

When shooting in a pandemic, it is best to keep scenes between as few characters as possible. So, while there are aspects of this scene that we would recommend changing, the number of lead characters isn’t one of them.

Because this is fundamentally a two-person scene, there are many ways to shoot it safely in the COVID-19 era.

Location Control

This is what it looks like when you have full and complete control of your locations. Look closely at the scene; notice how the characters enter and exit the kitchen through the same door. Through some quick set-decoration changes and innovative camera angles, the filmmakers can disguise the fact that all they did was make a giant circle through the kitchen.

This is an excellent example of how shooting in locations that you can control completely can unlock creative possibilities. During COVID-19, the ability to control our locations will also help control the spread of the virus. “Goodfellas” minimized the camera and sound crew. They focused on two characters. They controlled their location—all good practices for our pandemic age.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

From the first shot to the last, the “Goodfellas” tracking shot has a lot of potential contamination points. In the COVID-19 era, there are several aspects of this scene that are best avoided, if possible:

  • Extras: The line outside, the bustling kitchen, and the club itself are each jam-packed with people. As we discussed in our articles on travel, script breakdowns, and set organization, we recommend cutting crowd scenes when possible.
  • Tipping: This is a fantastic visual storytelling element, but it is also a filthy one. Money is already covered with germs, but it is also a good carrier of the COVID-19 virus. Tipping on-screen means both passing a prop (money) and sustaining physical contact (a handshake), two things that could be a liability in the COVID-19 era.
  • Interactions in hallways: Close proximity to other people is a significant contributor to the transmission of COVID-19. For this reason, we should try to keep scenes out of hallways whenever possible.

Ideally, we should replicate real-world safety measures on our film sets as much as we can. This means, at a minimum, mask-wearing, social distancing, and staying in well-ventilated spaces.

Small Tweaks That Increase Safety

Minor tweaks to the blocking of this scene will maintain the integrity of the scene while increasing the safety of the production.

These small adjustments can help make this scene safer to film during a pandemic:

  1. Henry and Karen go around instead of through the crowds. This simple adjustment keeps your lead actors out of the COVID-19 transmission zone. If an extra gets sick, the show can easily continue. If the leads contract coronavirus, the production must stop. We can still have the line of people waiting at the door and the crowd of people in the club (if we must), so long as we keep Henry and Karen at a safe distance from them.
  2. Ensure proper ventilation systems are in place for crowded interior scenes.
  3. Reduce the number of times Henry tips someone.
  4. Schedule this scene as late in your shooting schedule as possible to minimize the potential of an outbreak.

Without drastically changing the scene, we can still increase set safety by adjusting the blocking, checking the ventilation, reducing person-to-person interactions, and moving the scene to the end of the schedule.

Major Changes That Maximize Safety

It is nearly sacrilegious to suggest changing a Hollywood classic. But we’re just thinking about this as an example. We must consider the worst-case scenarios when assessing risk on a production. With COVID-19, that worst case is death. What if Ray Liotta got COVID-19 during this scene and died? Or Martin Scorsese? Or Lorraine Bracco?

If we were filming “Goodfellas” today—with an eye toward COVID-19 safety—we would take a closer look at this scene during pre-production. There are several choices the creative team can make to retain the meaning of the scene while eliminating safety issues.

In his biography A Life in Movies, “Goodfellas” producer Irwin Winkler said of this scene: “Marty found a way to have Henry Hill not only impress his date, Karen, but to show the audience why the world of ‘Goodfellas’ was so attractive and glamorous.”

So, let’s look at those two goals for this scene:

  • Impress Karen
  • Make the world look attractive and glamorous to the audience

Now, looking through the COVID lens, can we find ways to achieve the same ends by another means?

For example:

  • Instead of bypassing a line of people, entering through the kitchen, then having a special table brought into a crowded club, what if Henry closes the place down for an intimate, private dinner with Karen?
  • To increase the romance, could we swap the comedy act of real-life-famous person Henny Youngman, with a private concert from a real-life-famous jazz musician?

The staff the characters interact with still know Henry by name, the owner still showers him with special treatment. The audience will still be served glamour and romance. Karen can still be impressed. All without any COVID-19 hotspots.

Final Thoughts

The “Goodfellas tracking shot is one of the most famous in film history. But it would be challenging to replicate safely in the COVID-19 era. With a few small changes, this famous oner could be made noticeably safer.

We highly recommend taking the time to drill down to the essence of a scene to identify what it is trying to communicate. Then rethink the scene with an eye toward safety.

Join us next time when we will look through the COVID lens at one of television’s most famous depictions of politics: The West Wing.

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.