Professional Distancing

Waiting for the tail slate on Covid-19, the positive influence of the pandemic’s restrictions on set-lifeby Patrick Van Weeren


Social distancing on set with gaffer Glenn Jones and art director Adam Head. Note the extended social distancing handlebar on the dolly for dolly-grip Nick Karam – PHOTO Patrick Van Weeren

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Melbourne the day before all of the mayhem really kicked off. My flight for two weeks work in Los Angeles was booked, my following job was to be in Papua New Guinea. Instead, like many, I ended up out of work instantly.  

The screen industry is one of the few industries in which the consumption of its products has sky-rocketed due to the pandemic. Netflix almost doubled their expected subscription growth adding 15.77 million subscribers in the first months of the pandemic. 

The need for new productions should be rising in all parts of our industry. Netflix said its catalogue will last around three months and then it is in need of new content. “The screen industry has historically had a crucial role to play in boosting morale and building social cohesion during times of upheaval,” writes the industry in a plea-letter on the 20 March to The Hon Paul Fletcher MP, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. It might not be essential work; it will help with the recovery and mindset of all. With states opening up and others imposing stronger restrictions we still have a long way to go, but there are some positive developments.

During the first months I noticed a building site near our house. They still worked? Why couldn’t we? I checked the official websites frequently and spoke to several producers. They all wanted to work but insurance was complicated and numbers of people on set a real issue.

A month later my first commercial appeared on the horizon. We knew we had to be creative. Checking Covid-19 safety plans on the website daily and frequent online meetings followed. The loud noises from the construction site next to me made it hard to hear the conversations on the video call. The agency changed the script to minimise crew. The location adapted and the crew call times were staggered. Pre-lighting to minimise crew on site. I wore a mask and gloves and used longer lenses. It was me and just one actress in the room. The set was silent and happy. 

The first assistant camera was in the kitchen on a wireless, the gaffer in the garden, director in the hallway. The art director and set dresser were on the driveway. The client was on a conference call feed. All the freelancers on set felt a sigh of relief that they were back.

To be honest; the physical distancing made it a very pleasant and calm set to work on. It felt somehow less stressful. The inevitable distancing brought tranquility to the set which was a benefit to the performance of the actress and myself. The controlled environment of a video conference call even seemed to consolidate the feedback from the client.

It wasn’t the first time that we had to discuss the perception of distance vs choice of lens but probably the first time we had to consider health and safety on screen and off screen.

Our next challenge was travel. The job in Papa New Guinea was to be adjusted and shot in Queensland. The creatives wanted to minimise the changes to the script and the producers came up with the magic of green screen. Social distancing? Check. Travelling across borders? Check. Large crew in a green screen studio space? Not really.

First assistant camera Adrian Eyre moves in to adjust the wireless equipment mounted on the camera during one of the first commercial shoots in the pandemic – PHOTO Patrick Van Weeren

However, at the time they were easing restrictions and we could gather more people outdoor than indoors. Next step? Shoot the green screen outdoors so that we have a chance to maintain the amount of crew, work with crew from within the local area and comply with the regulations and social distancing measures.

Green screen filming always feels a bit like grocery shopping for someone else’s dinner party. The visuals don’t merge until post-production puts the ingredients together as some kind of wizard pastry-chef but it felt good to be on set and it really helped with travel restrictions and physical distancing.

Talking to the post-production companies, I noticed that they had been affected heavily just like the rest of the industry. However, their lockdown contained lots of re-editing of existing or stock footage and animation seemed to have kept them going reasonably well in the first months. At least some of my jobs ended up in the hands of skilled animators.

These new rules made crew members creative and some of the quick innovations will probably never go back to normal. All over the world crews are trying to make it work. From free eye cushions with your rental to customised 3D printed face shields with your camera hire.

Director and Steadicam operator Dave Chameides has been working on a face shield which you can wear easily with glasses; which don’t fog up and reduce glare from the often bright movie lights.

The initiative of MEAA for paid pandemic leave for screen workers in Australia is one of those good ideas to keep us safe, especially with most of us self-employed and we are learning rapidly to adapt to the new regulations.

But the most interesting topics are how the filmmaker community adapts and uses its creativity and technology to make the most of the situation. Remote viewing via video conference call seems to work not only for clients but even for directors, when multiple webcams are placed on set. One Brisbane based producer worked with a well-known table top photographer from Europe. He continued to work from home via live feeds and several webcams on set without the need for any intercontinental travel, saving time, money and staying safe.

The advantages of remote viewing have been around for a long time but we never thought of streaming the camera feed off-site via conference call software until the pandemic hit. It reduces people travelling time and money while decisions can be escalated quickly if needed as the platform is accessible to many. 

An unexpected advantage of the streaming ‘video-assist’ is that we watch the scene on our own mobile phones on set as well. We don’t all have to lean over to video-village or the director’s monitor. Even the lighting-assistant in the truck can see what’s going on and what the t-stop is.

Gaffer Glenn Jones from Shedlight explains, “We have gone back to the old-fashioned way of blocking scenes.” More pre-production, pre-lighting and blocking of a scene with only the bare essential filmmakers on set, before the technical crew takes over. “Once the crew is ready, we bring the cinematographer and director back in.” The physical distancing creates a calmer set. 

We still light the same way but the communication and the logistics have changed in a positive way. “We made it better,” says Jones. Calmer sets and more preparation. Hopefully that will be all that lasts.


Patrick Van Weeren is a cinematographer from The Netherlands who has recently moved to Australia. He is a former writer for Dutch photography magazine ‘Focus’.

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