Studio-Backed Research Team Works on Test Film to Try COVID-19 Safety Protocols

Safety-viz demo
Courtesy of DigitalFilm Tree

Filmmakers behind the Entertainment Technology Center at USC short Ripple Effect tested "SafetyViz" and other new protocols with an eye toward enabling a safe return to production amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The experiment also underscored the challenging aspects of this work when its director of photography tested positive for COVID-19 during preproduction. Fortunately, the cinematographer has since recovered, participants reported.

ETC — a neutral research organization whose board includes tech leaders from the Hollywood studios —produced Ripple Effect during August, with funding from Universal, Warner Bros. Amazon, Microsoft Azure, Seagate and Equinix. Additional service providers and tech partners volunteered time and other in-kind support including virtual production stage rental at L.A.-based Lux Machina and PRG’s xR Stage. Participants outlined the test on Wednesday during a virtual seminar presented by the National Association of Broadcasters (the panel can be viewed here).

Preproduction involved the creation of what the community is starting to refer to as "SafetyViz," which effectively means that the filmmakers created an animated previsualization of the set or location, with each crew member represented as an avatar, and mapped out a safety plan. To start, Virtual Wonders Lidar scanned the stages at xR Stage and Lux Machina to get a 3D representation and dimensions. Then L.A. post house Digital FilmTree's Cinecode virtual production unit populated the digital sets with avatars representing each member of the crew and "accurately visualized physical moment and distance been objects, humans, departments and equipment," explained DigitalFilm Tree CEO Ramy Katrib.

"[It's a] visual representation of how one might go about [working] while they are on set," Cinecode lead producer Andrea Aniceto-Chavez added, noting that it "shows what to do and what not to do."

Related was the "TechViz" step, displaying where cameras, lighting and other gear would be placed, using this digital blueprint.

Production — one shoot day at Lux Machina and three shoot days (one per week, for three consecutive weeks) at xR Stage — used new virtual production techniques in an effort to limit the size of the crew. It also involved safety protocols including temperature checks, masks, physical distancing, testing and contact tracing. "We used full face shields (in addition to masks) on set when [crew] was interacting with actors who were unmasked," for instance, during make-up application and hair styling, explained Ripple Effect's executive producer, Erik Weaver of ETC. "It makes it super hard to communicate; people would get closer because then they can't hear," he admitted of the use of masks and face shields. "We are still trying to figure out the best methods of communication."

Weaver told THR that testing took place in advance of each shoot day, and ranged in cost from $130-$180 per test. He added that this made up roughly 15 percent of the project's funding, though he declined to reveal the budget.

Weaver related that when the DP tested positive for COVID-19 during preproduction, the production immediately isolated and tested the 31 crew members with whom the DP had been in contact, all of whom tested negative.

"We had already started monitoring crew and keeping logs," explained Catherine Shin, who served as the COVID safety officer on Ripple Effect. "After confirming [the positive test] we immediately implemented contact tracing protocols. We initiated mass testing of everyone [who had been in contact with the DP]. Within 48 hours all were tested and cleared of the virus. ... We could safely proceed in a COVID-free environment."

Still, this showed the fragility of the work, as several members of the camera crew elected not to return to the production. "There are a lot of strong concerns, as there should be," Weaver said, adding that productions need to be "up front" with the crew and also have a back-up plan. "We were scrambling to replace the crew."

He does, however, believe Hollywood can begin to safely return to production, though it must be vigilant in the approach. "I think one of the biggest takeaways was testing on a consistent basis," he said of the test.

Directed and written by Hannah Bang and Margo E. Sawaya, Ripple Effect is currently in postproduction, with remote editing and post enabled by the cloud, another key technology that's allowing filmmakers to proceed with production amid COVID-19.

Participants are preparing a white paper to outline the lessons learned during the ETC test. According to Weaver, Ripple Effect will debut at film festivals this fall.