By Jake Kanter

May 1, 2020 8:03am

EXCLUSIVE: The challenges of restarting production on high-end TV and film drama in the UK amid the coronavirus pandemic have been laid bare in two separate documents circulating among industry creatives.

A discussion document, drawn up by the assistant directors’ branch at union Bectu, as well as a risk assessment briefing from health and safety consultancy First Option, spell out in stark detail the many layers of new processes that could be necessary for shoots to resume safely in an environment where there may be waves of new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Seen by Deadline, the documents overlap and agree in many areas, from the basics of securing written coronavirus declarations from cast and crew, to the finer details of on-set catering, transportation, and recommendations on how hair, makeup and costume artists should interact with cast members.

The 50-page Bectu document goes into greater detail on each stage of the production process, offering more forthright advice on issues including scenes potentially having to be restructured to ensure they meet social distancing rules, as well as extensive guidance on handling and cleaning equipment, including cameras.

The Bectu document has been created by members as a guidance and discussion tool and is not the final word on how shoots should be run, nor does it represent the union’s official stance on safety. It will feed into Bectu’s contribution to the UK’s Inward Investment Recovery Group — an industry-wide initiative to create robust protocols for production after lockdown. The work is being led by the British Film Commission and the BFI, as first revealed by Deadline this week.

It comes as major UK networks and production companies are drawing up plans for getting their shows back on the road. Productions including Peaky BlindersSex Education and Coronation Street have been derailed by the pandemic, and there is widespread recognition that drama will be the toughest of all the genres to make work under social distancing rules.

Dedicated coronavirus department

Chief among the recommendations in the Bectu paper is that every production set up a coronavirus safety department. This unit, it said, should be staffed with trained professionals capable of monitoring the health of workers, while it should also contain professional set and equipment cleaners, and marshalls for monitoring communal areas.

The document said: “The potential health and safety considerations under Covid-19 are far-reaching and will be too extensive to safely absorb into normal production workflow. It is recommended that a Covid-19 Health & Safety Department become part of every production.” It also warned of a “significantly increased mental and physical workload for all crew coping with these new demands.”

Bectu and First Option’s briefings said the number of people on set should be kept at an absolute minimum, with remote working being encouraged wherever possible and restrictions on crowd scenes put in place. Strict 2-meter social distancing should also be observed, they said, while personal protective equipment (such as masks and gloves) and hand sanitizing stations should be available at all times. Bectu’s paper added that writers, producers and network executives should keep away from the set.

“Wherever possible departments should be organised into ‘cohorts’ and kept separate to minimise the knock-on isolation impact of one member developing symptoms,” the papers both said. For example, Bectu’s advice said set construction, dressing and lighting should take place on different days, with preparation time being built into production schedules for “departments to work alone, and to hand over the set” once they have completed their work.

Health declarations and testing

The documents said unambiguous health declarations will be a necessity to ensure cast and crew have not had coronavirus symptoms in the past seven days, or been near anyone displaying symptoms. The Bectu briefing, which pulls together input from experts who work in all areas of the production process, added that people should declare underlying health conditions and agree to leave the set immediately if they display symptoms.

First Option said it is unlikely that coronavirus testing “will be available or practical for productions,” but the consultancy firm and Bectu members recommended rigorous temperature checks for people on set, preferably under the guidance of a trained medic of health and safety consultant. They added that sets and production spaces should be cleaned and well ventilated on a daily basis, while Bectu members said shoots should consider using “anti-bacterial foggers” to kill the virus if it is lurking on surfaces.

Protections for actors

Bectu’s paper went into great detail about hair, makeup and costume departments. It said actors should apply makeup and costumes “under remote supervision” wherever possible, but for more complicated procedures like fitting wigs or applying prosthetics, artists should be wearing “enhanced PPE.” Costume fittings should be spread out over an extended period of time to avoid cast congestion, while costumes should be cleaned, steamed or disinfected. Where this is not possible — say on period costumes that can’t be washed — the garments should be quarantined to ensure they are not carrying the virus.

Once cameras are rolling, Bectu members said creative requirements for cast should be “considered carefully and adapted to ensure current distancing regulations are being adhered to.” In other words, they are recommending that scenes be rewritten or restructured to ensure actors do not go near each other. “Where content is unavoidably in conflict with distancing regulations, and changes cannot be made, the process for shooting that scene should be amended to be compliant with regulations,” the document added. This could include using members of the same household in a scene.

Bectu members said: “There will be an extra level of protection built around actors whose health is crucial to keeping a production going and a crew employed. They are irreplaceable and, because of the nature of their work, actors cannot be in front of the camera wearing protective equipment.”

The Bectu and First Option documents also contained advice on transport and catering. Public transport should be avoided, they suggested, and additional private hire vehicles should be laid on for cast and crew. Bectu members said there should be limits on the number of people using catering facilities at one time, and meals should be distributed with military efficiency. “Lunches should be pre-packaged in take-away style containers. One member of each department is allocated to collecting these lunch orders and return them to the rest of the departmental crew for dining,” the paper said.