Socially Distanced Productions: 5 Tips & Tricks


Hot takes on social media tend to veer towards ludicrous drama. Just as a teen might boldly (and nonsensically) insist that all modern music is terrible and the ‘80s era was blessed with nothing but instant classics, you’ll see every handful of celebrity deaths met with a proclamation that “[current year] is the worst” — as though people don’t die in their droves every day. 

That said, when someone today talks about the bedlam and calamity of 2020 as evidence that it’s a cursed year, it’s much harder to argue with them. This year has presented a cavalcade of awful events, including (but sadly not stopping at) a once-in-a-generation pandemic that has taken lives, lost people their jobs, and caused entire industries to grind to a halt.

One of those industries is the video production industry: much of the work on TV shows and films had to stop because conventional sets couldn’t be managed safely. Since then, there have been interesting efforts to shoot productions remotely using webcams and phone cameras, but the options are very limited. This is a major cause for concern. These industries are massive, employing enormous numbers of people, and they need to get back to business.

Unfortunately, it may be quite some time before it’s possible to forget about the dangers of COVID-19 and resume normal operation — but that doesn’t mean work can’t get done before that time. It is possible to resume production while adhering sufficiently to the principles of social distancing. Here are five tips and tricks that can help you manage it:

Keep in-person contact to a minimum

This point might seem extremely obvious, but it’s sufficiently important that it needs to be clearly stated. No matter what precautions you take, how closely you watch for symptoms, and how thoroughly you prepare the filming environments, you must do as much as you can to minimize in-person contact. If you can rewrite scenes to have people kept distant, do so. If you can viably use green-screen compositing to make something work without ruining it, then you should.

If you had a script ready to go before production shut down and you didn’t use the time to prepare for the likelihood that you wouldn’t be able to shoot it as it was, then you set yourself up for failure. Either take the time to adapt it now, wing the adaptations as you film (not a good idea), or postpone production until you can follow the original plan (this could take a while). As Vanity Fair noted in March, the rules of media are being rewritten.

Disinfect equipment before and after use

There’s a lot of equipment that goes into video production — everything from the cameras and the lenses to the backdrops and the lighting rigs — and it all needs to be disinfected before and after use. It might seem excessive, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, and you can’t watch things at all times to ensure that no one coughs or sneezes on something between scenes.

As for what disinfectant you should use, I suggest following the recommendations put out by the CDC: to quote, “most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective”, so you needn’t search for some kind of extra-strength cleaning solution. In truth, the likelihood of someone getting infected from equipment is relatively low as it is, so regular disinfection should serve its purpose perfectly well.

Upgrade needed internet connections

Plenty of standard office-based businesses have been able to transition to remote working very easily because they only collaborate on documents. Things are different for video production. The process of getting the raw footage, editing it, cutting it, editing it some more, going through several drafts, applying post-processing effects, then going through more drafts… Well, it doesn’t just take a lot of time — it also takes a lot of bandwidth. 

Very often production work is done in production facilities that use hyper-fast intranets to make scrubbing through video files quick and easy. That can still be done now, but with care: and even if you can avoid needing to share video files online, you’ll still need to share other assets (images, inserts, etc.) that can also draw a lot of bandwidth.

You should be helping employees improve their home offices in general so they can get more done while working remotely, but remember that a sluggish connection at a critical juncture can slow everything down — so upgrade connections as much as you can. Use whatever ISPs provide service to your workers’ areas and focus on getting as much speed and bandwidth as you can (even the Post Office has unlimited broadband these days, so be open-minded).

Invest in online training for everyone

As much as people have been keeping up with the news due to its immense importance and the increase in free time stemming from the lockdown, not everyone has been paying close attention to the practical ramifications of COVID-19 — or what needs to be done to avoid it. Some people know the recommended 2m distance looks like: others demonstrably don’t.

The more people are involved with your production, the more likely it is that someone will have been misinformed about the best practices for keeping an area safe for workers. It isn’t that they’ll be malicious and try to endanger everyone else: instead, they’ll do what they think is right and end up causing problems. This is why you should enroll everyone in an online training course before you schedule any group work. WHO has online training for various aspects of dealing with COVID-19. Ensure that every participant knows what they need to do, and disallow anyone who doesn’t pass their course (or courses) from being involved.

Budget with extreme caution

Getting the budgeting right is always tricky in the video production world, because there’s so much room for creativity. Do you spend heavily on the perfect location, or settle for something worse and put the money saved into costuming and post-production work? Do you use a skeleton staff to save on salaries, or ensure you have enough professionals on the payroll that you can keep going in the event of injury or illness (of the non-infectious variety, I mean).

Things are even trickier at the moment, unfortunately. All the work we’ve looked at here — investing in training, improving lines of communication, and disinfecting equipment — will cost you time and money. And you won’t be able to insure your production against issues resulting from COVID-19, so if you err then you could suffer financial collapse.

Consequently, I recommend budgeting well under what you’d previously have allocated, and prove to yourself (and others) that you can manage a production without compromising social distancing. Do that, and maybe you can be somewhat bolder with your next production.

Though it’s going to be a long while before video production work can return to its former level of operation, you can get things done now: you just need to be extremely careful and plan ahead. If you’re determined to do that, use these tips and tricks to give your production the best chance of concluding successfully and safely.


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