How do you get a union-compliant COVID-19 security protocol in the middle of a pandemic?
Back in January of this year, I had started preproduction of my short film Elegy, a film about a teenager who, 16 years after being kidnapped at birth, is reunited with his birth parent while her kidnapper remains at large, who start production should be in April.
Of course, this didn't happen and I was forced to postpone the project indefinitely.
SAG and other unions went to great lengths to find a perfect protocol to ensure the safety of productions if they are allowed to resume. I was not sure if I would get the opportunity to make my film anytime soon because of the list of things to do to start COVID security and the amount of money required. SAG even once said to me, "You know, you should just wait until it's all over to shoot your project."
With New York City being the safest there has been since the first pandemic hit and the impending and inevitable second wave, I knew this movie would be hanging around for a while if I didn't choose it now . very long time. And when New York City, SAG, and the other unions gave the go-ahead to resume production, it was now or never for this film.
In this article, I'm going to break down the protocols, procedures, and costs that it took to keep this movie safe during the pandemic. Everything I list here is 100% approved by SAG-AFTRA (because I had to tell them this plan before they approved my project). However, these procedures may change due to the nature of this pandemic. Think of this list as a safe place to start, and a way to prepare yourself properly so that you don't struggle to get these things done before your shoot date.
Also note that if your shoot lasts longer than three days, they will all need to be retested. So please keep this in mind when planning. Coordinate with your representative to ensure your plan is compliant. If you are not unionized this piece is a very good system to make sure your cast / crew is safe.
I was very lucky that no one on set signed COVID, but nothing is certain. So proceed with extreme caution.
Recognition: John Flynn
24 hour turnaround time for COVID-19 tests
By far the hardest part of getting this movie approved for me was finding a lab that could do a 24-hour COVID-19 turnaround test. SAG has a list of approved tests, and it can only be one of these four:
- Nasopharyngeal (NP) test (SAG preferred)
- Front nose tests (nasal vertebrae)
- Oropharyngeal Test (Throat Swab Test)
- Saliva test
As of August, blood tests, rapid fingerprint tests, or center-of-nose PCR testing were not acceptable testing methods.
Many labs in the city were overcrowded with tests because they were getting many from so many sources across the state that they offered a minimum of five days turnaround time.
There are film-specific services that offer tests for sets, but this is incredibly expensive and impractical for a short film. I called every major hospital in the immediate area and found that NYU Langone doesn't send their tests to a lab and provides results within a maximum of 24 to 48 hours. And the best part about it– –The maximum cost was $ 126 per person. This was for the mandatory NYU telemedicine visit that will cost you that price if your cast / crew members don't have insurance.
That way I was able to coordinate that everyone schedules their test for the day before shooting, gets each result back in under 24 hours, and moves forward unhindered.
In New York State, the Nuvance Health System does the same. So if you are shooting north of the city this is the place. For everyone in other states– –Find a hospital system that tests their samples in-house and ask them about general turnaround time.
Forty-eight hours is the absolute maximum for SAG-AFTRA. So if there are institutions that cannot guarantee this turnaround, then you need to find another location. This takes some legwork, but it will save you a lot of money and trouble.
PSA, social distancing and a COVID compliance officer
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is now luckily a lot easier to get hold of, but you may come across bad batches of products that don't work or find discounted items on Amazon or other websites.
I ordered my PPE from Wrist Band and had a doctor check me out that the products were good. (I have no affiliation or sponsorship with this website or the brands featured on the website.) However, please feel free to browse and find the best possible deal. Don't buy this last minute. You will need three-layer surgical masks, face shields, and small custom hand sanitizers. You can have hand sanitizer stations throughout the set, but I found it easier and more hygienic when everyone has their own. Your hand sanitizer should be 70% alcohol based.
The SAG will ask you to provide a layout of the locations and your plan to ensure that all ventilation is provided.
If you are exclusively outside this is not a problem for you. My approved plan from SAG had all the windows in the house open at all times so the air could move freely. The only windows that could be closed were the windows we shot near to control the sound. You will need a visual layout (as pictured below) that shows all of the windows and doors.
Recognition: John Flynn
Your COVID Compliance Officer (CCO) must be a medically trained person and have had training on COVID prevention measures.
When I was making my film, there weren't many COVID compliance officers to hire. SAG allowed me to hire a medically trained person who completed all of the CDC's COVID 19 training programs available online. This is the bare minimum required for a SAG approved CCO. So hiring a PA to shout at people with social distancing won't hurt. Even if your set is not unionized, you should 100% hire a certified CCO. You shouldn't put your cast and crew in potential danger because you wanted to save a few hundred dollars. Even though things are under control, we are still in a pandemic.
Your CCO doesn't just force people to social distance. You are fully responsible for established security protocols. The call times are staggered by different departments so that many people do not come in at the same time. The CCO will be the first, along with the first department who are the department heads.
The CCO will take everyone's temperature and distribute the PSA. Face masks are the only item that should be given new every day. As soon as everyone is present, the departments will prepare the set one by one. So first the set decorators, then the handle and electrics, then finally the camera and sound.
When cameras roll with actors on set, the only ones allowed in the area are the camera, sound, and the director. Your CCO will enforce this and make sure everyone is socially distant. At lunch, your CCO will ask each department to have their lunch until everyone has their meals. Everyone goes outside, stays three feet apart and eats their meals. Talent can stay inside because they're the only people on set who don't have a mask.
If your CCO sees something that is in direct contradiction to COVID prevention measures, the situation will be immediately interrupted, regardless of whether they are crew members taking care of Crafty without masks to make your cast uncomfortable. Your CCO puts safety first.
"You should involve your (COVID Compliance Officer) in all pre-production meetings."
You should involve your CCO in all pre-production meetings, including the technical scout. You need to be just as up-to-date as any other department head.
One possible solution for talent was to have one actor wear a mask while the other took hers off. We'd swap for the scene as needed. On master recordings, we shot it three times and stitched it together in the post (similar to the same tactic that makes it look like the same person is talking to themselves face to face). But the talent ultimately chose based on the extensive protocols and all the negative tests. It felt comfortable with every shot list we came up with.
For this reason, of course, I had the talent tested again so that we can contact trace if the test is positive. You can do this too, but Talent made that decision. Come up with a plan to make sure your talent feels safe.
SAG also needs a hygiene plan, which usually means hiring a cleaning company to sanitize the place.
I was shopping to find a service that could come in and clean after wrapping (for three days). This was definitely one of the most expensive items on the COVID prevention checklist, but it was essential. I also had disinfectant wipes in all of the bathrooms, smart and with departments touching items touched by more than one person. This was to ensure that every surface was as clean as possible at all times.
And as mentioned earlier, everyone had their own bottle of hand sanitizer.
If you are really in need of money, work with SAG and see what options you can find to keep your cast / crew safe and not to charge your account.
"SAG doesn't allow you to sign talents / crews. COVID waives guilt when someone gets sick on the set."
The SAG or a union does not allow you to sign talents / crews.
Even if you are not unionized, you should not do this to your cast / crew. You ask her to film a project in a pandemic. Make sure you've set up a company (like an LLC) to create a talent-crew contract. Realistically, however, you should discuss a plan with your CCO in case someone receives COVID-19 during your shoot and what the next steps should be.
All medical expenses are covered by production, and the SAG requires that you have workers' compensation insurance in case they are disabled. Make sure you have this contingency plan ready as anything is possible.
Speaking of insurance, it's worth noting that your insurance policy won't cover your device in case you have to shut down due to COVID-19.
This means that if you have to shut down, you will lose a significant chunk of your money. Check with your insurance broker and come up with a plan.
My insurance broker advised me to wait until the last possible moment to bind the policy, which is difficult as different parties need their insurance certificate (COI) as soon as possible. I was able to hold back until two days before checking out the equipment. If you tie up your insurance and then discover that one of your cast or an important crew is getting COVID-19, you can change the dates of your shoot and still be covered, but only for a very small window of time.
I was given this option, but every policy / broker is different. Ask your broker about all of the options available.
Recognition: John Flynn
Take care of your cast / crew
Right from the start, I made sure everyone was as comfortable as possible throughout the process. I told everyone if they were uncomfortable telling me or the CCO and we would correct the situation immediately.
I wanted everyone to bring their A-game, and one sure way that doesn't happen is to make them feel uncomfortable for their time on set. This is especially true of talent who are most vulnerable to COVID on set.
They also get people out of their homes during a pandemic. They should all pay. Unless they are your close friends who want to help you with your project and want to do so for free, every freelancer you hire should receive compensation. I mean realistically this should be the case all the time, but it is especially true now because of the risk to people's health.
Do not take advantage of everyone's unemployment to give them terrible prices to benefit from for yourself. I didn't have a lot of wealth to shower everyone with, but I definitely gave everyone fair compensation. There's no excuse why you can't either.
I'm looking forward to
It seems like short films and smaller projects are falling by the wayside because they are not important enough for filming. All information relates exclusively to feature films with a larger budget.
After tearing my hair out for many weeks and talking to SAG, I am happy to share with you a specific battle plan for a safe shoot for short films. Remember: the safety of your cast and crew is most important right now.
Low budget filmmakers are creative and resourceful. You can find creative ways to creatively express your vision without compromising everyone's safety. However, make sure that you can actually record your project. If you find that you can't check off any of these steps, then wait. I know you don't want to hear this, especially since you've just read an entire article about how I didn't mean to wait, but I made sure everything on this list was ticked off. If I couldn't, I would have no choice but to postpone indefinitely. It is not worth the danger to everyone's health and the liability that you would place on yourself.
Be safe and take care of your cast and crew. "Only good vibes."