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

How COVID-19 Affects Shot Lists

The purpose of a shot list is to ensure your entire team knows exactly what the goals of the day, the week, month, and the overall production are. Accurate and detailed shot lists are more critical during the pandemic than they have ever been. Clear and effective communication of our goals helps maintain a bubble around our sets and eliminate all non-vital personnel. One way to achieve effective communication is to create a precise and thorough shot list.

Shot lists are typically a part of any thorough pre-production process. But the nature of film and television production is such that shot lists are constantly changing. So it made sense to include a shot list discussion in our production section. We want to emphasize the shot lists’ importance in scheduling and planning while instilling a safety mindset throughout production. So, when changes to the shot list need to be made on the fly, we’ll be prepared to move forward without sacrificing safety.

In this article, we will focus on the three elements of a good shot list that have changed the most during the COVID-19 era:

  • Shot Size
  • Lens Selection
  • Camera Movement

This article is designed to help you understand how to maximize safety when deciding how to shoot your film or television show. A detailed shot list with a strict eye toward on-set safety can be the difference between a virus-free production and an outbreak.  

Shot Size

When we say, “shot size,” we mean how much of the world of the scene is captured by the camera. Shot sizes can range from extra-wide to extreme close-ups. Most often, however, directors and DP’s stay within the wide-medium-close spectrum.

When filming during a pandemic, one of our key goals is to retain on-set social distancing whenever possible. Relying more heavily on wide and medium shots when filming can help us achieve this. Wide and medium shots allow your crew members to remain at a safe distance from your actors.

In the age of digital filmmaking, we have all come to rely on shooting the entire scene multiple times. Once to capture the wide shot and then again for each actors’ close-ups. In the COVID-19 era, however, it can help to remember the days when film was too expensive to roll on anything unnecessary. In the pandemic, our concern is safety rather than money, but the results are the same. We should refrain from shooting the entire scene in close-up and go in close only when it is necessary to the story.

If you can avoid close-ups, do it. But we understand that your directors and DP’s will most likely advocate for close-ups to accentuate the emotion of a scene and to showcase the acting of your stars.

When it comes to shooting close-ups in a pandemic, we highly recommend only coming in for the exact lines and moments for which the close-up is necessary and no more. When close-ups are unavoidable, we should also take care to pick the right lens.

Lens Selection

Going long is an excellent strategy for safely shooting a close-up during COVID-19.  Long lenses allow crews to stay outside the transmission zone while capturing an actor’s face and eyes. Long lenses also crush the background in ways that isolate the character in the frame, however. So you’ll want to discuss the thematic visual consequences of lens selection with your DP and director.

Shooting with extreme wide-angle lenses—or “fish-eye” lenses— and placing the camera directly beside the actor’s face to create an arresting distortion has become a popular visual trend. Two prominent examples of this style are Terrance Malick’s “A Hidden Life” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite.” 

These are distinct looking films, and the wide lens helps establish a certain unease in the worlds of these movies. But this style requires a crew-to-actor distance that is not ideal during a pandemic. If your DP or director wants to capture a shot in that style, we highly recommend that you redirect them toward post-production visual effects to achieve a similar look.

Camera Movement

The final element of a shot list that is greatly affected by COVID-19 safety protocols is camera movement. As we have already discussed in our articles on Scheduling and “Goodfellas,” we highly recommend cutting down on the number of complex camera movements.

A good producer knows that complex shots are expensive shots and will typically attempt to minimize them, even when there is no pandemic to consider. Pandemic safety adds a further wrinkle. When filming in an epidemic it is crucial to focus on shots that require the fewest number of crew members on set.

When complex shots are unavoidable, try to use drones over cranes and Steadicams over dolly shots. These switches allow you to attain a similar look without requiring as many crew members to be inside the bubble of the set.

Bottom Line

Most classic Hollywood movies were filmed with longer lenses, wider shots, less camera movements, and more in-camera blocking. These strategies are nothing new. When film stock was expensive, and cameras were heavy, productions didn’t have the same mobility we enjoy today. In the age of coronavirus, however, that mobility can be a liability.

A shot list is a vital form of effective communication on any production. When filming in a pandemic, effective communication can mean the difference between a successful, safe production and one shut down due to an outbreak.

When composing a shot list—or when last-minute changes require editing a shot list on the fly—remember to focus on minimizing the crew on set and maximizing the distance between the crew and the actors. With these two tenets in mind, you can capture beautiful shots while keeping everyone safe.

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.