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How COVID Has Changed the Filmmaking Industry

Julian Mitchell

Strict protocols, remote working, and virtualization of production—we pick the good bits on the hard road back from the COVID catastrophe.

When asked last April about what COVID-19 might do to his American Society of Cinematographers subscription base, President (at the time) Kees Van Oostrum was worried. He feared for jobs, he worried how productions would find insurance for their content, and sought to find funds to keep people’s heads above water.

For the film and television production world, the situation looked hopeless, mainly because of its international and people-heavy nature. Van Oostrum laid out the problems,

Social distancing on a movie set is next to impossible. It will take a while before people feel comfortable to actually work on a set and not feel that they are constantly exposed to a potential virus infection. We have to realize that we’ll make movies a different way.

– Kees Van Oostrum, American Society of Cinematographers President

But now, deep into 2021, even though infections are still a part of our lives, the movie and TV business has been re-shaped and is in working order. Even movie theaters are packed again, evidenced by films like Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

This film opened in the US in October with a $90m take—even the original pre-pandemic film didn’t do that well, with a 2018 opening of $80m. The movie distribution business is back, even if it’s with a large amount of help from streaming services. But, how has production brushed itself down to help?


The Protocols Paradigm

When the HBO Max movie No Sudden Move got shut down from their Detroit base in March 2020, not only did Director Steven Soderbergh fear for the production, he worried for his industry. However, there’s arguably nobody better to lead a film production in the midst of a pandemic than the director of the movie Contagion.

For that decade-old film, Steven Soderbergh sought the insight of top epidemiologists to describe just how a pandemic starts, operates, and finally ends. They described the probable start scenario as a wet market somewhere in Asia, transferring a coronavirus to a human host. It’s a sobering watch. 

Suitably armed with his Contagion research, and because he just wanted to help, he started to work on the industry protocols that would allow the film business to get back to work.

But, Soderberg wasn’t alone. So-called COVID supervisors were streamlining their practices worldwide and disseminating them to the nervously listening crews. They included DP Tim Palmer, who was working on the international hit show Line of Duty when it was halted in February of 2020. When it returned later in the year, it was a different production. Everything hinged on social distancing and Tim had worked out ways of running the floor camera-wise in a way that would allow that distancing. “I had to do that and retain the creative values of the show,” Tim added.

Line of Duty Crew
Production shooting being remoted last year on Line of Duty 6. Image via BBC.

Tim subsequently put forward two proposals which were adopted. One was that the original idea to shoot on Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses had to be forgotten as you couldn’t have focus pullers coming on set between every shot and changing a lens, then having to sterilize the camera at the same time while the operator distanced themselves. They changed to zooms.

That change had several advantages. First of all, you can quickly change your shot size, you can re-frame in shot if you want to, and also we set up a comms system so the camera operators, DOP, and director were on a talkback system.

– DP Tim Palmer

The second change was to work off remote heads as much as possible. Tim explains why this is a good measure for COVID compliance,

It takes the operator and the grip out of the equation. Or, at least it can put the grip further away but just keeps fewer people on-set away from the actors. It worked very well. We had a remote head already as part of the package for the “A” camera, the “B” camera was on longer lenses, so further away.

– DP Tim Palmer

Virtualizing an Industry

Much further up the ladder were studio executives deciding on much bigger strategies. They were wondering if moving all creative work to the cloud was the way to go. The idea being that everything would be remote and instantly available, at the time, to all participating creatives.

Technology like MeetMo appeared that looked to stream control to cameras, lighting, and remote heads. You’d have remote control of camera menus and change, even at the deepest levels. Control would be via bonded cellular and increasingly through 5G, with the end goal to also receive footage from the set or send it directly to post.

Virtualizing production is what Frame.io and its new owner Adobe also have planned. Their camera-to-cloud proposal spreads assets on highly secure servers as part of a “virtual village” of production. There’s no doubt that Adobe will be tempting all their Creative Cloud users with a level of this kind of virtual planning with some tasty offers to get onboard.


The Disappearing Set

But, perhaps the biggest and most exciting technology turbocharged by COVID has been the virtual set or the LED volume. It seems so simple now, and it was already used by high-end movies. They just hadn’t joined the dots yet and understood its full potential.

Now the virtual set marketplace, although still in its infancy, is huge and erupting across the production world. Everybody has a plan for a stage, if they have the space.

CTO of Disguise, a new player in LED volumes, explains where the technology is headed:

Screen technology will inevitably get better. Pixels will get smaller, the density will increase, walls will get larger but this is only a small part of the overall system. To focus on this is to miss one of the key elements of LEDs as a display technology. The key exploitable benefit of LEDs is the fact that they are active lighting mediums.

– CTO of Disguise
Volume Stage
ARRI’s new LED Volume stage in London. Image via ARRI.

The good news is that production hubs around the world are full of work. So much so that the new Amazon Video show The Wheel of Time could only find room for studio space by building 350,000 square feet of it outside of Prague.

COVID protocols are now so ingrained in crew discipline that productions are some of the safest places you could be. Let’s hope nothing jeopardizes that.


A few more industry tips, tricks, and advice for you:

Cover image via AS photostudio.