By Fred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D.
If you can’t film a script in the pandemic world, then film a pandemic world in a script.
During the current COVID-19 situation, all of us are wondering how Hollywood is going to resume production. I have read many of the COVID white papers published by various “experts” for the Industry, but a quick glance will reveal them either to have been penned by liability fearing attorneys or out-of-work science fiction writers.
Sure, let’s test the crew on a daily basis, get instant results, and house them all in quarantine for the duration of the shoot. My wife is a nurse at one of the most prestigious and medically state-of-the-art hospitals in the country – and they cannot test everyone even once!
Let’s divide all the cast and crew into “zones” and enforce that no one shall cross the line. Have these “experts” ever worked on a set? What do they think that we actually do during a production?
Ludicrousness aside, there is no doubt that we all have to be as careful and sanitary as possible.
That brings us to the issue of “student thesis or senior projects”. If Hollywood, with all of their resources and extravagant budgets (I guess that the long list of Executive Associate Name-On-Credits Producers will need to suffer a few million dollars less per person) can barely figure out COVID protocols, then where does that leave our student filmmakers?
At the university where I teach, some administrators have recommended that students may only film on campus, on the soundstage, for not more than a few days. Mind you, the department does not even have any set construction facilities, nor offer set design/set construction. Only a few crude flats and a closet worth of props for basic television or acting/directing exercises.
Our film students, in the recent past, used to produce Hollywood quality short films shot with full student crews, rented professional equipment, SAG actors, with budgets in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. Although some of these films have won awards internationally, their primary achievement was that the students got the opportunity to learn how to make movies in the real world and to interact with local “Hollywood” resources (permit offices, insurance, casting agents, locations, labs, etc.).
So, reverting to shooting crude scenes, with only one or two actors at a time, using only the limited campus resources would not be educationally fulfilling. Their graduating portfolios would look like seventh grade YouTube follies.
However, there are ways to compromise.
One of our biggest obstacles today is the safety of the actors, who traditionally need to perform in proximity to each other, and dangerously close to crew.
We can mitigate exposure to and from crew by judiciously using PPE and common sense distancing.
But that still leaves our actors at risk. Actors, especially professional SAG talent, are reluctant to expose themselves on a Hollywood set where they are highly paid, let alone on a student set for minimal or no pay and negligible public recognition.
Therefore, student filmmakers need to come up with creative approaches to protect the actors and minimize their exposure.
For the next couple of semesters (or until a cure or vaccine is available), we need to develop scripts that plausibly allow our actors to remain masked and covered.
Writers need to think situationally. Under what settings would characters logically and believably be protectively clothed or partitioned?
There are lots and lots of dramatic scenes that could support protective costuming and wardrobe.
To begin with, the stress of present day COVID fears can be a dramatic theme. Stepping back in time to a period piece, such as the Spanish flu of 1918, or even any of the Medieval Black Plagues.
Go science fiction, with space-suited astronauts. Or post-apocalyptic.
What about the dust bowls of the Great Depression? Grapes of Wrath kind of stuff.
Or any sandstorm themes? Foreign Legionnaires, or archeologists.
There are industry specific needs for masks and protective gear. Medical, hospital OR and ER, and research labs. Industrial settings, welders, machinists, contractors, construction. Where do you think most of the respirator masks were used prior to COVID?
Military and special units. Pilots, ninja, hostage rescue, bomb disposal.
Student writers need to get their creative juices flowing!
We can script good dramatic scenes that can work cinematically, while still “explaining” masks and face shields worn by the characters.
Student filmmaking does not have to come to a grinding halt. We just need to make a few changes.
Fred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D., is a highly experienced and award winning professional sound mixer whose decades of work includes features, episodic TV series, national TV commercials, corporate, and government. He is a member of the Cinema Audio Society and the University Film & Video Association. Fred holds doctorate, graduate, and undergraduate degrees in filmmaking; has published more than 200 technical articles along with a textbook, instruction manuals, and hosts an educational website. Fred instructs location recording and post-production sound at Calif State University Northridge.