Film sets are famously dogged in their attitude towards getting things done. There’s precious little that stops the cameras rolling, which explains the famously heavy fines for stars who disregard schedules with poor punctuality or low/medium-key addiction issues. But the iron fist of filming rapidly atrophied in the face of 2020’s smorgasbord of disaster, and sets for both the film and TV industries shut down in near-unison around the world. Batman’s vengeance went unexacted, Bill and Ted’s adventuring was stilled, and the soapland suddenly became devoid of suds...
But industries with creativity at their souls know how to work around a problem, and alongside the necessary guidelines, cameras have begun rolling again, albeit with a new member of staff in tow. The COVID Compliance Officer has arguably now got the most important role on any film or TV set. Directors may wield powers, but you can’t direct on a production that’s been shut down for breaching COVID restrictions, and that’s exactly what will happen if compliance isn’t ensured.
We spoke to Caroline Kealy, a freelance film production professional who is currently operating as COVID Compliance Officer for Tailored Films, an Irish production company that makes children's TV and horror films, (an unusual combination that Caroline says share a lot of characteristics, “There’s a lot of crossover between the two in the SFX department, with gunge and whatnot” she says to our amusement.)
Caroline’s day-to-day has become a partial homage to the 35-page post-COVID production guidelines documents issued by Screen Ireland in order to assist the safe return to filming. But having already been in a role as Coordinator with Tailored Films, she self-deprecatingly comments that she was a natural fit for the role of COVID Compliance Officer, “They asked me to come on as the COVID Compliance Officer because if I tell people what to do they’ll do what I say,” she laughs.
Caroline completed training with Screen Skills Ireland in order to take the role, and screen governing bodies across the rest of the world have rolled out similar training. The rest of the crew completes an hour training in order to get back on set with the Compliance Officer completing several.
Tailored Films are filming a teen bedroom makeover show called Ace Of Space, that would naturally be going in and out of people’s homes with high frequency:
“We would have done a lot of stuff inside the house for Ace of Space. But I’d say now three-quarters of it is being done inside and the rest is done under tents, which has been difficult given the weather. We have white easy-up tents that we film under, so the light gets through them.”
The company thought they would run into problems when the Irish government announced an increase of restrictions to only a maximum of six people in someone’s home together at the same time.
“Even though it’s homes we film in, we’re officially a workplace, so we’re covered for insurance. We’re staying compliant and that’s how we’re able to continue. We have to get the touch surfaces cleaned regularly, we get an iodiser. We spray the area we’re going to be using before we come in, and then before we leave.”
Her role is dense with admin, “Everyone has to complete back to work training and covid waivers, there’s a lot of paperwork involved now. I take everyone’s temperature twice a day, I make a note of any non-compliance.”
Although she says the role has already become easier. “ At the start, I had to remind people constantly that they had to wash their hands and to put their masks on. But now I don't really have to do it anymore because they all know that anything they touch needs to be cleaned off and anything they had to each other needs to be sanitised first. You just get used to it. My job has gotten easier as the weeks go on. The crews have said it’s good to have a compliance officer on-site reminding them because they’d just forget.”
Niall Connolly, an Art Director with ITV feels the same about how the crews have adapted. Their production shut down in the middle of shooting episodes that would no longer be relevant but they’ve adapted scripts as they go to stay current but also stay within guidelines.
“Emmerdale shut down the day before the government announced the nationwide lockdown [in the UK]. We were expecting it, however we were halfway through filming 12 episodes that included VE Day and Easter. We shut production for 12 months but during that time we figured out a way to get back to work safely.
We restarted production in May where I was involved in special lockdown episodes. This helped us figure out and put into place a safe way of working both for cast and crew and also helped us stay on the air. We have now restarted all our units and are back working. We have a smaller crew and a new way of working which everyone has taken to like a duck to water.”
Regarding the introduction of COVID to the storyline, Niall says, “We have scripted the virus into the storylines. Businesses have uniflow systems for entry and exits. Our cafe, pub and bistro were takeaways only, but we are moving with the times and now characters are allowed to sit in again. Social distance signage and hand sanitizers are on show in all our businesses and in our village.
As a soap, trying to bring entertainment to the viewers, Niall feels they have a duty to show reality and the real world but at the same time entertain. Sometimes, this means using some artistic licence to tell a story.
“Recently I just did a murder on screen and in the original script we have two characters dispose of the body under the cover of night.This wasn’t feasible coming back from lockdown so we had to change it to disposing on the body in broad daylight. We have to change and adapt storylines constantly at the moment.”
Meanwhile, in Tinseltown, the cameras are rolling once more, but as Niall points out, if you’re a Hollywood studio you can afford to isolate your cast and crew so they can be closer on set. Some shows have to find other alternatives.
“Quite a number of dramas and Hollywood movies have restarted filming again in the UK. Most UK dramas will have to avoid close contact on their shows though. I’ve even heard of some shows using a lot of mannequins to help them do close-contact scenes.”
This isn’t uncommon at all and LA’s long-running soaps have used dolls and the actors’ real-life partners as “stunt kissers” as well as other measures to keep the filming going.
Tailored films will recommence shooting their horror “Let The Wrong One In”, which was halted with the onset of COVID. But that’s set to resume once Ace Of Space wraps. The shooting will have scenes of close contact. But Caroline explains, “We’re testing everyone that’s going to be without a mask and was going to be in close contact. Other companies are testing two or three times a week and then getting people to cocoon. The Ridley Scott film [The Last Duel, the film starring Matt Damon being shot in Ireland that had him marooned in the Irish seaside town of Dalkey for the most stringent period of lockdown] a lot of people are living in a hotel together for the duration of the shoot.”
When asked if the new way was something she felt could be sustained, Caroline is emphatic. “Yeah, I do. Everyone wants to be compliant. Everyone has to stay compliant for it to be sustainable, that’s why everyone’s taking it so seriously. We had a Health and Safety Officer come in and set everything up and do risk assessments before we went ahead to do anything. Unless we were doing all this we wouldn’t be able to work.”
It would be disloyally remiss of us not to give the nod to the advertising industry, who pivoted like a rodeo pony in the face of the new restrictions, because let’s face it, if we’re not selling, we’re losing. This article outlines some of the changes to the process of admaking. One of Thinkhouse’s most recent campaigns saw global film shoots conducted remotely using a platform called Genero, which is kind of like Upwork but for film productions and which is no doubt enjoying a COVID flourish that it never expected.
Also noteworthy is the creativity shown by Three Ireland, who shot this genuine heart-melter on an iPhone 11 using a cast they never crossed paths with.
Film and TV are bouncing back. The screen industries have recovered from periods of global unrest and indeed all-out stoppage before. The Great Depression, World War 2, the early 1970’s US recession, and the Writer’s Guild Strike of 2007. Each time the content came back with a new slant and a fresh outlook. Let’s hope we’re looking forward to a future of post-COVID film, TV and advertising the likes of which we’ve never seen before.