Shooting During the Pandemic: How Global Producers Have Found New Ways to Work

Isolation Stories

From Sydney to Seoul, filmmakers are developing resourceful new ways to keep going: "There is something great about how working under these conditions has brought everyone together."

The streets outside MMC Studios in Cologne, Germany, are empty. But inside, it is business as usual — almost — for the crew of Unter Uns, a hit German teen soap that has continued to shoot even as the rest of the country, and most of the world, has gone into lockdown due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"When the German government introduced stay-at-home measures [on March 22], we paused production for a week," says the show's producer Guido Reinhardt. "We had to figure out how we could comply with the new quarantine regulations and still keep working."

It's a problem facing film and television producers worldwide. Desperate to resume shooting, production teams face the daunting task of overhauling established workflows and establishing new security and safety protocols to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 era.

While U.S. producers are still figuring out the details — the major studios, production facilities, unions and guilds are discussing new on-set directives with state and municipal health officials — shooting on several international films and series is already underway. While each production is its own case, and legal and safety parameters vary from country to country and state to state, international producers are already gathering experience about how to shoot during a pandemic. They are doing the beta testing that Hollywood could look to as it starts to get working again.

In Cologne, Reinhardt's team, with typical German thoroughness, came up with an 80-point plan covering everything from mandatory temperature checks and tightened security at the studio entrance to hand washing and social distancing on set. The soap's scribes reworked scenes to ensure no more than three castmembers were in front of the camera at any one time and that everyone was at least 1.5 meters [around 5 feet] apart, as required by the country's coronavirus regulations.

"We have a corona stick, a 1.5 meters pole we use to make sure everyone keeps their distance," says Reinhardt. "And we use visual tricks, shooting long focal lengths, or over the shoulder, to give the impression the actors are closer together than they actually are." The new episodes, which will air in the summer, continue the series' regular pre-COVID-19 storyline. "We don't know what the situation will be like outside when they go to air, so we decided not to address the crisis in the show but to keep to our own, fictional world," he says.

Unter Uns actors all do their own makeup, with the professional makeup artists, in a room nearby, guiding them via video chat. Every personal item on set, from makeup to props and catering, is individually wrapped and marked for a single actor's hands only. Reinhardt has cut the on-set crew size in half and even set up some physical barriers, including a 6.5-foot-square plexiglass shield between the camera operator and the sound technicians. It takes longer — six days, not the usual five — to shoot a week of six, 30-minute episodes, but Reinhardt has kept his entire crew employed and the show on track.

UFA Serial Drama, the company that produces Unter Uns, is using the same 80-point COVID-19 guidebook for two other German soaps — Alles Was Zählt (also shot at MMC Studios) and Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, produced on the Studio Babelsberg lot outside Berlin.

On the other side of the world, Australian soap opera Neighbours has taken a similar approach. Producer Fremantle Australia (Fremantle is also UFA's parent company) resumed production on the beloved serial drama April 26, splitting the purpose-built Neighbours studio lot in Melbourne into three distinct units with three separate production teams and only three actors allowed to cross between them.

As with the German productions, the Aussie soap has banned on-air physical contact, like hugging or kissing, and has a protocol in place should a member of the crew fall ill.

"There will be no more than 100 people a day in any area, we'll implement the 4-square-meter rule and the 1-and-a-half-meter social distancing rule," Fremantle Australia managing director Chris Oliver-Taylor told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, referring to Australia’s social distancing guidelines. "We're going to assume if someone does get sick we don't need to shut the entire shoot — we just close that group and carry on."

On the outskirts of Sydney, producer Lucas Foster (Ford v Ferrari) and director Kurt Wimmer have managed to quietly continue their shoot on The Children of the Corn, a remake of the 1984 horror classic, despite lockdown measures imposed across Australia on March 23.

Foster secured an exemption to the general quarantine rules, which limit public gatherings to two people, by working closely with state film board Screen NSW and regional health-and-safety body Safework NSW to design the production's protocols. The film's outdoor locations, its local cast and crew, and its status as an independent production have meant it was not subject to studio-based furloughs and shutdowns that have hit other film shoots across the country.

Screen NSW said Children of the Corn "significantly reduced its cast and crew size and is implementing health and safety protocols in line with government restrictions for workplaces … and is keeping local police informed on their operation."

Low-budget, largely self-contained productions with limited crew have been best able to adjust to new COVID-19 conditions. In Latvia, producer Yu-Fai Suen was able to finish shooting on his WWII fantasy horror feature Warhunt, starring Mickey Rourke, despite the country introducing lockdown measures shortly after production had begun.

"We got the news that the country was closing down and shutting its borders within 48 hours," Suen tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I contacted Mickey's agent to ask if he would fly in early...We got him just in time."

On set, the entire Warhunt crew, including director Mauro Borrelli, wore masks and kept to strict hygienic measures, including twice-daily temperature checks, social distancing off camera and regular disinfecting of equipment.

Suen said he's worked out a special dispensation from the Latvian government to allow in cast and crew for future productions. "We have an arrangement with a private jet company to bring in any talent from Europe to mitigate the risk of infection during flights," Suen wrote in an email. "We can start our next production within weeks."

Visiting cast will have to be quarantined at a hotel in the Latvian capital of Riga for 14 days before shooting can begin.

The idea of quarantining the cast and crew of a film or series is a key part of the plan Tyler Perry has floated to reopen his Atlanta-based studio to shoot his series Sistas and The Oval for BET. But such methods require a largely closed set and a production that can rely mainly on local crews.

Tim King, executive vp production at Scandinavia's SF Studios, has put two of the firm's Danish productions on hold during the COVID-19 shutdown: the big-budget period epic Margrete – Queen of the North, which features Danish star Trine Dyrholm as 15th century monarch Margrete I; and intimate psychological drama The Pact, which Bille August will direct from the Karen Blixen novel of the same name.

"Margrete is a long and complicated shoot, the biggest Danish production of all time, involving actors from seven different countries; [The Pact] is a Danish shoot with a fully Danish cast and a limited number of locations. In terms of stress level, its relatively straightforward. It will cost money, we'll need extra precautions, but we should be able to get that going," King says. "With Margrete we were planning to shoot in Prague, but even if the Czech Republic allows it, we don't know how we'll get there: Will the airports be open? Will we be able to drive through Germany?”

Pavlina Zipkova, head of the Czech Film Commission, tells THR the commission has applied to the Prague government for a lifting of COVID-19 restrictions for local TV and film shoots and is hoping the county can open for business as early as May. As a major hub for international productions — big-budget Amazon series Carnival Row, starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, and fantasy epic The Wheel of Time are both scheduled for Czech backlot shoots — reopening Prague would send a strong positive signal to the global industry.

"Our proposals include requiring visiting talent and crew to do a COVID-19 test before they travel and another when they arrive, with quarantine until the second test comes back negative," says Zipkova. Other safety protocols, including mandatory face masks, social distancing on set and regular temperature checks, have been outlined in guidelines from the European Film Commissions Network, which represents national bodies across the continent.

As producers wait for countries like the Czech Republic and Denmark — which is looking to June as a date for restarting local shoots — to get going again, for a handful of territories it remains, almost, business as usual.

Sweden, which has so far taken a more lax regulatory approach to containing the coronavirus, never officially banned production, and some shows, like the popular crime series Beck, have continued, albeit under stricter hygienic conditions.

It's a similar story in Iceland, where per-capita COVID-19 testing has been high — more than 12 percent of the island's population of 364,000 has been tested, compared to just 2 percent in Germany or less than 1 percent in the U.S. — and infections (around 1,700 to date) and deaths (10) low.

Local director Baltasar Kormakur has continued production on his local-language Netflix series Katla even as the streamer shut down operations worldwide. It helps that Katla is shooting with an entirely Icelandic crew, all of whom were tested and cleared for COVID-19 before they began work. New production protocols include color-coding by department to ensure groups are kept separate and gatherings do not exceed the 20-person maximum allowed by Iceland's current health guidelines.

The island is hoping to attract more international productions as it begins loosening restrictions. From May 4, the government plans to expand the limit on gatherings to 50 people and, from May 15, begin lifting foreign travel restrictions. As with Latvia, producers in Iceland have suggested a model whereby foreign crews arrive on a private, chartered plane and are then bused to a remote hotel near the set where they can be effectively quarantined for the duration of the shoot.

"If we get government approval on Monday we can be up and running by Tuesday," says Iceland's film commissioner, Einar Hansen Tomasson. "It's a huge opportunity because we are one of the few places with a lot of space, relatively few people and a government that's done a great job in containing the virus."

South Korea also avoided major production disruptions during the pandemic, in large part because of the country's highly effective testing and contact-tracing efforts, which have been praised for flattening the infection curve. The biggest disruptions to South Korean film shoots, in fact, have been caused by crews deciding it was unsafe to shoot at planned locations overseas. Studio Megabox Plus M's crime film Bogota, starring Song Joon-ki, had to pull out of production in Colombia in March to return home to Seoul. Showbox's thriller Kidnapping, starring Ha Jung-woo and Ju Ji-hoon, was similarly postponed after its locations in Morocco were deemed unsafe. Within South Korea, however, most productions have forged ahead uninterrupted.

Alongside Iceland, Korea is the only territory where Netflix has allowed production to carry on. The streamer's supernatural drama series The School Nurse Files and Sweet Home are both currently shooting on the peninsula. A Netflix spokesperson told THR that the company's producers in Korea were in the process of drafting a set of best practices and health protocols that will be shared with Netflix's production hubs around the world as they move toward a resumption of shooting. "We'll be looking to roll out, or at least share, some of the things we have learned in Korea with our teams in other locations," the spokesperson said (adding that they were not at liberty to divulge details of the Korea office's coronavirus health and safety practices).

In neighboring China, where the pandemic began months ago, local producers are the closest anywhere to a return to pre-COVID normality. Community transmissions in the country have mostly been brought to a halt, and most businesses — excepting cinemas, theme parks and live entertainment venues — have reopened their doors.

China's leading film studios — Bona Film Group, Huayi Brothers Media, Wanda Film and Enlight Media — tell THR that they are awaiting further official guidance before returning to full-scale tentpole film production. Most of the big studios already have films awaiting release upon the reopening of China's movie theaters.

Television production — primarily regionally produced commercial drama — has resumed shooting in various parts of the country on a substantial scale. Hengdian World Studios, one of China’s largest production facilities, opened up again in early February, as did the sprawling Oriental Movie Metropolis in Qingdao. A spokesperson for the Qingdao studio said the facility established a working group to implement coronavirus safety measures in collaboration with the regional government. "Our cleaning teams are carrying out virus eradication measures constantly; our security team does temperature checks and takes detailed information on everyone who enters and exits the facility."

The Qingdao studio says it has been urging productions to pare back staff to the bare essentials — China is infamous for its enormous, and often redundant, production crews — and is restricting the flow of traffic around the studio grounds to prevent mixing between productions. And catering teams have made sure that all production staff eat individually rather than serve the family-style meals common to most Chinese shoots.

A return to normal, even the Chinese version, is a distant prospect for countries like the U.S. and U.K., where governments are still battling to contain COVID-19. But out of desperation comes inspiration. In Britain, drama producers have found creative solutions to lockdown restrictions, creating new ways to tell stories without face-to-face contact.

For Jeff Pope, Oscar-nominated for co-writing Philomena with Steve Coogan and the producer behind 2018's Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie, the pandemic inspired Isolation Stories, a series of four 15-minutes shorts set during the pandemic and due to begin airing on British broadcaster ITV May 4. 

With public gatherings banned, the series was shot entirely in the homes of its actors — which include award-winning U.K. names such as Sheridan Smith, David Threlfall, Robert Glenister and Eddie Marsan, and, in several cases, their children — and filmed by a family member, with a trained operator giving whistle-stop camera lessons on their doorsteps (while maintaining the strict 2-meter distancing rule).

Not permitted to set foot inside the actual houses, the production teams worked remotely via Zoom from their own individual homes, seeing the footage shot live on their computer screens and giving advice to the camera operator (which in the case of Glenister, was his wife, Celia Glenister) through an earpiece. 

"They were all in little boxes on the screen around what the camera was seeing. … It was a fascinating way to work," Pope tells THR, adding that the directors learned an etiquette when it came to talking through scenes with the actors and explaining if something wasn't quite right. "Obviously, you can't just blurt that out because everyone's listening, so if [the director] needed to give a note, he logged off or hit mute and called direct."

The speed in which Isolation Stories — which Pope says he was focused on airing while the "crisis was still ongoing" — has been remarkable, the series going from an initial idea by Pope to transmission on ITV in just a month. Netflix has greenlit its own quarantine anthology series from Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan but has yet to announce a release date.

At the BBC, meanwhile, another scripted series has been fast-tracked amid the pandemic. A remake of Alan Bennett's hugely acclaimed monologue series Talking Heads, which first broadcast in 1988, was announced at the end of April and is now in production at London's Ealing Studios under the direction of Nicholas Hytner and featuring an ensemble of actors including Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Imelda Staunton.

"We're going to learn an awful lot about what is achievable," BBC drama head Piers Wenger told a web conference hosted by the Edinburgh TV Festival shortly after the show was announced, adding that he greenlit the 12-part series during lockdown while considering what might be able to go into production quickly.

"There's been huge ingenuity on the part of the producers," he said. "The restrictions are really clear — you can't move a [scenery] flat that requires two people, you can't do hair and makeup on actors. … Inevitably, that slows the shoot down. Until you can put two actors together in a room it's going to be very hard to make drama normally."

Until then — basically until there is a vaccine for COVID-19 — the industry will have to deal with the new normal of producing under the pandemic.

"It's not ideal, but there is something great about how working under these conditions has brought everyone together, there's a new sense of solidarity," says German producer Reinhardt. "And a new sense of respect. After an actor has to do their own makeup for a month, they have a renewed appreciation for the work of their colleges."

Alex Ritman in London, Patrick Brzeski in Tokyo and Pip Bulbeck in Sydney contributed to this report.