COVID-19 Production Playbook: Insights from one of the first companies to return to onset shoots

"The safest thing we can do for our industry is to accumulate our experience. Our sets affect each other, so it's in all of our best interests to share our best practices."

We went back to set last month, for the first time in two months. Two shoots in, I can tell you that it may seem like a whole new world, but it’s not as different as you’d think. 

Like virtually every production company in the US, all of our work halted under lockdown. Summerjax’s brands had created content early, enough to last them two months. But, as product launch dates approached, we knew they couldn’t hold out any longer. So we started planning to return to work safely. We currently have two shoots underway with several others in active planning.

The first thing we learned? There are no rules. I’ve never really been in a situation where there were no rules at all. We were making it up as we went—but then, everyone we talked to was. The safest thing we can do for our industry is to accumulate our experience. Our sets affect each other, so it’s in all of our best interests to share our best practices. 

In that spirit, here’s the COVID-19 production playbook we created, which you can use for yourself—and here are the most important lessons we learned.

 

Have a lot of conversations, and make sure you listen.

It’s just as important to factor in the psychological needs as well as the logistical ones. Each of our plans started out with a long conversation to find out exactly what the brand needed creatively and what they needed as people. Once we set dates and locations for our inaugural post-corona shoot, we started calling crew members. As freelancers, crew people have been unable to work and were anxious to get back to set. But freelancers are also amply aware that their physical health is synonymous with their ability to work. We asked each person about what they specifically needed to do their jobs both safely and well.

 

Sanitation isn’t just about staying healthy, it’s about feeling safe.

Precautions not only makes shoots safer, they demonstrate your concern for your crew’s safety, making them more willing to trust your production and join you on set. On-set sanitization stations and deep-cleaning policies made sure equipment—and people—were COVID free. Other ways we helped ease their fears was to vet crewmembers in advance, with on-set temperature checks and a pre-shoot NDA that asked them to list travel and contact with infected people over the previous four weeks. When your crew knows they’re in good hands, they are free to focus on their work.

 

Shoot local.

The days of flying a 60-person crew to the Bahamas is over, at least for now. For us, all destinations had to be driveable. Only a few of us traveled to the shoot, and for the rest we hired regional crews. Some regions will be impossible to shoot in for quite a while, so brands and agencies will need to look in unexpected places to get the vibe they need. Can’t go to Tunisia? Maybe it’s in Utah.

 

Look for a production’s weak points.

A lot of what we adopted are basic COVID-19 principles that apply to any workplace. But productions have a whole new set of risks that have to be analyzed and protected against. Wardrobe and hair extensions have to be deep cleaned before and after shoots. Props need to be cleaned before and after each use on set. DigiTech stations, long a place where the crew would cluster, can only be touched by the digi. Microphones all have to be on booms.

A big one for us was catering. We take so much pride in the food we serve on shoots that clients nicknamed us "Summersnax." We didn’t want to lose that, even though we had to get rid of the buffets and craft tables that have the potential to serve up COVID as well as treats. We made individual lunches for each crew member. And instead of a craft table, we gave each crew member a to-go bag they could sling around their shoulder and munch on throughout the day. As moms, it felt a whole lot like sending our kids off to day camp!

 

Get used to a new grind, and protect each other.

In production, how hard you work is a point of pride. There are some jobs where you find yourself working 18-20 hours per day.  But that isn’t healthy, and you have to make sure others are resting and drinking enough water. Wearing a mask benefits others. The same principles apply for your whole shoot. Productions need to look out for our crew’s safety, and crew members have to look out for the production. We always had to depend on each other. Now, we’re just upgrading how we do it.

 

Be smart, wear masks, and get used to a new grind.

There’s only so much we can predict about any production. The rest we deliver through a combination of expertise, creative thinking and hard work. We are all factoring in a new, significant risk. As scary as that is, we are up to this challenge.

 

Production is possible. Go one step at a time.

Everyone was a little on edge when we started. This was the first time a lot of the crew had seen anyone outside their immediate families in months. Combine that with having to work in a new way, it was a little overwhelming. It took a few days to get used to the new rhythm, but once we did, the shoot hit its flow. 

The producer’s mindset is that there’s always a solution. Even now, especially now, that holds true. Yes, this upends almost everything we thought we knew about production. But once we were back on set, it started to feel right. COVID is scary, all of this is new, but in another sense? It’s just another challenge to produce. 

If we can make beautiful work on tight budgets while keeping clients happy, we can definitely do this.

 

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