July 8, 2020

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Fewer crowd scenes, buffet bans: Productions building 'very different world' during COVID-19

Heartland television series actors Michelle Morgan and Kevin McGarry appear on the Heartland set in High River, Alta. on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. Canadian productions re currently navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

Heartland television series actors Michelle Morgan and Kevin McGarry appear on the Heartland set in High River, Alta. on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. Canadian productions re currently navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

TORONTO - Film and TV sets are traditionally a hive of activity: Crew members moving equipment. Craft services preparing food. Costume, hair and makeup artists primping stars. A team watching scenes from "video village," the nickname for the area around a monitor on set.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been smooshed into the tiniest room in a location for video village with six people breathing down my neck," says Amy Cameron, Toronto-based co-executive producer of the upcoming CBC comedy "Lady Dicks."

"It's a very different world we're having to build."

That new world centres around COVID-19, which is forcing the Canadian screen industry to rethink operations both in front of and behind the camera. Instead of tight huddles, productions will now have fewer face-to-face interactions, reduced crowd scenes, and more outdoor locations. That's on top of the usual pandemic measures of extra handwashing, sanitization, physical distancing and personal protective equipment.

"I really hope that the past philosophy of 'There are no sick days in show business' is something that everyone really thinks long and hard about," says Winnipeg producer Kyle Irving, who plans to roll cameras on the feature film "Esther" in August.

"Because as far as I'm concerned, we can't live by that philosophy anymore. If someone's not feeling well, they need to stay home for their own good, and for the good of those people they work with. So that's going to be a change in how we do things in this business. But we must make that change."

As some provinces start to ease pandemic restrictions on productions, producers are now working with government, guilds and unions to create proper health and safety guidelines for reach region.

Irving co-authored COVID-19 film and TV protocols for the province of Manitoba. They include certified training programs for crew; staggered meal times and a ban on buffet-style eating; limited interactions with the general public; an online platform for all paperwork; and suggested limited filming days of 11 shooting hours plus setup and wrap time.

Employers are encouraged to have a zero tolerance policy, where employees and contractors who do not abide by all of the safety and health guidelines at all times can be terminated.

"We're doing it carefully and cautiously," says Irving, a partner at Eagle Vision whose other producing credits include the series "Burden of Truth."

"We're just not going to be able to move as fast as we used to, and we're certainly not going to be able to be on top of each other the way that we used to in this business. It's going to be a different way of thinking."

Producer Tom Cox — whose series include the Alberta-shot "Wynonna Earp" and "Heartland," and the upcoming Vancouver-shot "Family Law" — says they're also "going to be extremely conservative and careful."

"I think everyone realizes that there's a level of responsibility that has not existed before — individual responsibility, group responsibility," says Cox, who is based in Calgary.

"We're going to have to really live responsibly on and off set to ensure that not only production can resume, but production can be completed."

The COVID-19 film and TV protocols for Manitoba and Ontario have various protocols for dealing with someone who is showing symptoms, but don't state that the production needs to shut down entirely.

Other suggestions in Ontario's health and safety guidelines, which were just published last week, include avoiding open casting calls, limiting in-person auditions, and doing remote casting.

For "Lady Dicks," Cameron is considering creating pods of people to reduce the number of bodies in one spot at any given time. The pods would be small, contained groups — such as one for production and another for prep — who ideally wouldn't overlap or interact.

"Traditionally on sets you have people from props running in and out, because ... someone's like, 'Oh, I hate that pen, get a different pen.' And so someone runs out, grabs a different pen and comes back with an array of 12 pens," Cameron says, of the type of back-and-forth they will try to limit.

Cameron is also wondering whether she needs to be on set.

"That's heartbreaking for me, because that's something that I really love to do," she says. "It's my favourite part of producing, is watching these stories come to life."

Other measures Cameron is mulling include the use of masks, COVID-19 testing before production starts, handwashing stations, and temperature checks before the start of every workday.

Then there's the dilemma of possibly getting cast and crew members who are coming from out of province to go into quarantine before they start work.

And what if a second wave of the novel coronavirus hits, potentially halting production?

Cameron says they're contemplating "block shooting" — filming a bunch of scenes on location early in production — so if a second wave hits, they'll already be back on set and less exposed.

Aside from cost, having to stop and restart a production would have a creative impact on the project, she notes.

"There's a flow, a magic that starts to happen with productions once you're in it, that just builds energy with what you're filming ... and to get that going again is hard."

Some storylines may also have to change to reduce the amount of close contact between actors.

"I don't see a lot of productions going out to shoot bar scenes in a crowded downtown environment," Cox says. "We're definitely looking to curtail that kind of activity in favour of playing to our strengths, which is our studio sets, our controlled exterior sets, and locations that lend themselves to safe production activities."

Cameron says their showrunners are also doing a "COVID pass" on the scripts to try to reduce the amount of people and crowds in a scene, and keep action happening in exterior locations as much as possible.

"I think it's proving to be a creative challenge to see: Can you have two actors cuddling? How do you do that?" she says.

"If we can't do it in a way that makes our actors feel comfortable, that follows the guidelines of the industry coming out on this, then we're not going to do it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2020.

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