Life, Opinions

Filmmaking during the COVID-19 era


One year ago today Covid-19 shut down Finland for the first time, as part of the worldwide lockdown of the spring of 2020. Covid-19 had been around a bit longer, but it took a while to land to Europe and USA. For a while, we thought we got away from it, but now, one year later, as the Covid-19 -situation is again worsening in Finland, while getting better in some other places, I thought it was time to write – maybe if for no other purpose than historical record for myself – about the filming process during the Covid era, and why I believe it’s important we keep on doing it.

As anyone who has ever seen one behind the scenes picture from a film set knows, films are made in close proximity to tens, sometimes hundreds, even up to thousands of people. Depending on the production, filming may take place outside, in a big studio, or in very cramped spaces, like in small sets or inside a vehicle. But one thing that’s always present in every film set is the constant hurry. No matter how much resources you have, you’re always running out of time.

A set in China

Now, filmmaking is not easy. Actually, it’s a pretty damn complicated process, just to get a bunch of moving images out there. In order to get a shot that makes its’ way to the cut, a lot of things need to be perfect: performance, lighting, sound, camera movement, focus, continuity, VFX markers, special effects like blood, smoke and so forth… To get it all exactly right, you have to shoot each shot at least three times, maybe five, sometimes up to ten – and beyond (Most I’ve shot is around 20 to 30 takes, some directors can hit way above 150 takes). It’s a painstaking process which’s only goal is to hide the process from the viewer’s eye, so that they can experience the story in its’ fullest.

Added to this nowadays is the extra layer of Covid-19, which basically dictates that you shouldn’t be close to each other, in a closed space, refrain from touching or even walking near each other, masked up. It’s a huge ask to an already stretched-out machine to observe and adhere to, but it is also the new normal. I don’t think we’ll be out of Covid-19 any time soon, maybe never. This is what our future looks like, and we can either try to dismiss it, or adjust to it and master it completely. No miracle vaccine is gonna march in and make things like they were just under two years ago – vaccines will make this more bearable and more contained, but they won’t make the virus disappear.

Filmmaking in Covid-19 era brings about challenges that one wouldn’t have guessed few years ago. Masked-up crews, weekly (or daily!) Covid-tests and the constant fear of being shut down for days, even weeks.

Testing is obviously the key to anything: nobody should enter the set untested, and tests should happen at least once a week. As you can imagine, this is both slow and quite an expensive process. I don’t have figures, but one can only guess how much it will cost to do a medical test on hundreds of people on weekly basis, administered by medical professionals. Luckily, testing is nowadays quite rapid – the new tests allow batches of tens of samples being processed simultaneously, and results come in one hour time, possibly even faster. This of course means the whole crew needs to allow being swabbed quite often, which is at first quite uncomfortable, but over time, gets not one iota more comfortable. But it is what it is. One thing, though, is quite clear: Covid-19 -deniers and non-maskers will have to start looking for other avenues of work, as their entrance to film set is nearly impossible these days. Not to say they’d be missed, too.

Masks are, of course, a mandatory part of any future film sets. The rules are simple: wear mask, all the time, everywhere. The only people excluded from this are actors when they are on set. The reason is obvious, their faces will be constantly on camera and makeup, which can be smudged under the mask, is essential part of any actor’s outfit. But anyone else is required to wear the mask – including, but not limiting to, director and director of photography.

For a director, the mask requirement can be quite a hinderance. Our job is to try to communicate our thoughts, visions and directions to a crew of hundreds of people. Because everyone is constantly in such a hurry, precision is the key for running a good film set and DP and Director are the ones who everyone looks at in order to know what’s happening and how it should be done. Humans rely on facial expressions as much as they do on words, and suddenly, half of director’s face is cut out and words are muffled, making everything much more complicated to communicate, more susceptible to errors and misunderstandings. Added to that working in different languages, masks add a layer of confusion on top of already confusing environment – but nothing we wouldn’t get used to. I worked for quite a long time in China, where masks have been in daily use for years, and things work very well over there – it’s just a hurdle we have to get used to.

Masks were already a mandatory part of shooting gear in China in 2018, and nowadays, everywhere.

Social distancing is a much more complicated issue because many operations on film set require constant collaboration. From electricians to camera crew, set builders to makeup, stunts to special effects teams, it’s physical work that can’t always be done the required social distancing in mind, for safety’s sake. Not only that, but shooting spaces simply won’t allow that in some cases – say, a car requires camera and sound crew in a small space, nothing to be done to it. A makeup can’t be applied from 2 meters away. Pushing a dolly requires two bodies, a stunt wire two to three to hold it securely. But even given that a pass for safety’s sake, just sitting by the monitors and staring at performances requires people breathing down each other’s necks to see every detail being right. Tom Cruise called out two crew member doing exactly that, staring at monitors while under 2 meters apart from each other, and this bred a famous catch phrase in film industry – “gold standard”. It’s nearly impossible to reach, but the more we work together, understand the situation and adhere to rules, the closer to gold standard we can get.

Another thing familiar from my experience in China is the accommodations. The filmmakers are often booked for a certain period of time and housed in same lodging, no matter if they shoot in their home town or not. This is becoming more norm nowadays all over the world as well – they call it “bubbling up” these days, and the idea is to create a working and lodging arrangement that offers as little as possible of outside contacts, with the idea that only tested crew- and cast members socialize with each other, and all contacts to outside is handled with as little exposure as possible. This creates a strange new tension and feeling of unity within crews, as suddenly you are on a mission with a bunch of people, in a closed environment for quite a long time, stranded from contacts to the outside world. You can’t go to a pub, or to a restaurant, or to see a movie or in the worst cases, even to take a walk outside, you are living in a bubble with a bunch of people, almost like on a Mars mission that can take months, and you just have to get along with each other. This will also create issues for the most anti-social ones, as in the most tightest bubbles you are not allowed to have any kind of an exhaust valve to the outside world. It’s no wonder people train years for the upcoming Mars missions living underwater or in the desert among a small group of people…

The biggest fear is, of course, is if the production gets shut down. There have been cases all over the world where this has happened, some have recovered from it, some haven’t. It all begins with a singular exposure to someone who’s shown to be ill. First, you have to make sure if it’s an actual positive, or a false positive, which can happen quite easily. To my understanding, anything as small as eating a menthol candy can mess up the results and it comes back as “inconclusive” – but even that would mean a catastrophe for a production. An “inconclusive” means the production needs to figure out who this person is, who he or she has been in touch with, and then isolate everyone who’s been in contact with the one giving the inconclusive results. It may mean, in the best case scenario, that only a few people get sent back to lodging, followed by another test which hopefully comes back negative – but in the worst case scenario, it may mean that it’s impossible to continue until the situation has been solved. Shutting down even for a day in a big production can be devastatingly expensive – and usually, there’s no extra days lingering in the schedule to be used as contingency for Covid shutdowns, so one just needs to re-build and re-schedule according to that. That is, if the production even is able to continue: depending on the level of exposure and the rules that are applied, it might mean 10 days quarantine for the whole crew, which, obviously, is a real show-stopper.

There’s obviously also the insurance side of everything, as well, but I’ve (thankfully) never had to deal with that, so I can’t really talk about that, but I’m sure that’s another thing producers are getting gray hairs over. Not to mention the rest of the issues coming up during marketing and distribution; film theatres are still closed, film festivals are non-existent and even the biggest of productions find their way straight to digital, which is only half the experience, and for sure, half the income.

But, it’s good to remember, we are on the early days of the way things are going to be. It’s going to be tumultuous few years, that’s for sure, as everyone learns the new rules of the game, but only by doing it as good as one can, we’ll learn to be even better at it.

The last question remains, should we even do films in these trying times? Why risk so much for just a few hours of entertainment, shouldn’t we just lay low and wait for this to blow over?

I claim what we do is essential. Right now, Finland is closing up again; the restaurants are shut, the gyms and places to do sports are going to be shut down. Film theatres, stage theatres and all live music venues are shut down. We are not allowed to meet anyone physically. Someplace else things are opening back up, but I’m a pessimist by nature and don’t believe Covid is anywhere near over. But if you look at the suddenly much smaller, much more duller and less inspiring world around us, there’s honestly not a lot left to do to relax but watch films on streaming sites. I don’t claim we are essential workers in the same way as the frontline medical staff, doctors and nurses, or teachers, police and store workers are, the ones who put their lives on the line every day, risking hundreds or even thousands of contacts on a daily basis to keep our society running – no, we are not that essential. But what we do, the entertainment we provide, the culture we carry on, especially now that much of other places and means of culture to exist are down, is essential. In these drab, dire times we do need an escape from these four walls crashing around us, an exhaust valve of emotions, shared experiences, even though digital ones and films and TV can help in their own little way to get over this crisis, or at least, to find solutions around it.

PS. From a filmmaker point of view, I believe what we do is essential. But none more essential that what say, musicians, stage actors or entertainers do – the only difference is that films can offer an experience with rather controlled risks. By carefully planning the production and distributing digitally is way lower risk than packing hundreds, or thousands of people into one space, night after night, to view a live concert or a theatre show, it’s just the unfortunate fact and the way it is – the virus spreads from person to person through physical contact – mostly aerosols in the air. All arts are taking a heavy hit, probably none harder than music industry; selling records haven’t provided musicians in years, and now that live shows are off the table, it’s impossible to understand how the branch of arts which I love the most, even more than movies, can survive. I don’t know, but I think those who are able to, should support their local musicians and stage actors. Go buy your favorite band’s latest album online, or get it from a store – if for nothing else, to support. Go book a ticket for an online theatre – I watched, and happily paid $25 for it, David Bowie’s “Lazarus” theatre performance, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It may not be the same as sitting there in the audience, but also us, the audience, need to come forward and be more lenient to the artists trying to support their craft. I’m always shaking my head at the latest TV “musicians doing shit together” -formats, but even those provide at least some income to the stranded artits. I’m sure Jay Z is going to do fine, and Kanye isn’t going to end destitute, but your local punk band might. Think small, and support the artists you dig, if you are able to. It’s gonna mean a lot, so that we still have music and theatre when we eventually emerge out of this Covid hellhole, in whatever shape and form it might be.

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