[COMMENTARY] A Tale of Two Productions: Working On Set During COVID
When the Coronavirus pandemic first hit America, everyone was at a loss as to how we would be able to function as a society if we couldn’t leave our homes. While plenty of people are lucky enough to be able to telecommute, several industries rely on their employees being there in person. The service industry has been among the hardest hit, with restaurants and bars closing permanently during the early months of lockdown, while others that have attempted to stay open or briefly reopen are facing the same fate as the Third Wave washes over the country.
The entertainment industry was also knocked off of its axis as movie theatres and concert venues were forced to close down. Over the last couple of months, however, several productions have figured out how to film again, under incredibly strict regulations from the Screen Actors Guild, with COVID19 compliance officers on sets to make sure protocols are followed to the letter. Grey’s Anatomy premiered last week with dedicated COVID storylines. Other shows and films take place in a universe where there is no Coronavirus, and therefore filming that world presents plenty of challenges.
(not from the productions described in this piece)
I’ve been privileged to work as a background extra on nearly every TV show that’s been filmed in Portland, Oregon, since 2010, with a standout five-year stint as a featured extra on NBC’s Grimm. That show was a special experience, where so many of us from the background were called back again and again, creating a true family atmosphere. The local film crews are now able to work again on a couple of productions that are currently shooting here. I’m not able to reveal specifics of the ones I’ve worked on recently, but the experience of being on sets during this pandemic was incredibly interesting, while also bringing frustrations that you might never think about. I’ll just refer to them as Production A and Production B.
A TV show entering into its third season on a streaming service, Production A was a repeat experience for me, as I’d worked on this set for a full week during its second season. Once I had been confirmed to work on a Thursday, I was sent an email with instructions to report to the set on that Monday to take a COVID19 test. Two nurses in full PPE were set up at a tent outside the offices, with computers to keep track of the full cast and crew’s statuses. They asked me the standard pre-test questions: Did I have any symptoms, have I been exposed, etc. My answers were all negative, as was my test, so I was cleared to work on Thursday. I also had to take photos of six potential outfits to send to the Wardrobe Department for approval, which was incredibly convenient and smart; it meant everyone working background didn’t have to bring all of their stuff to the set.
Once I arrived for my 3:30 pm call time wearing my approved outfit under my warmest puffy coat, I was given a lanyard with a laminated red tag with BACKGROUND printed on it to wear around my neck anytime we weren’t filming, so everyone would know I belonged there. I was then instructed to go to the on-set testing tent for another COVID19 test. Even though you don’t get instant results, everyone who works gets a test every day. There are signs for Yellow Zones and Red Zones throughout the set. Yellow means masks on at all times no matter what. Red means you can take your mask off, but only when a take is about to be shot. I was given a baggie with an N-95 mask and a small bottle of hand sanitizer to keep with me at all times. Everyone on set has to wear the N-95 masks, no exceptions.
Background is also limited to under 20 people for all productions, and on this day there were only 15 of us. We were working outside in a suburb of Portland on a cold and very rainy day, and it was up to us to stay distanced while under the Extras holding tent, but it was difficult when there was only one space heater and one snack table (which was staffed by a crew member from Catering, so that only one set of gloved hands was touching the things). There were so many people working behind the scenes to make sure everything stayed clean and compliant. A woman from wardrobe needed to cut a tag off of the shawl I was wearing, and she asked, “Is it okay if I touch you?” before doing it. It was so bizarre and sad to not be able to just work. It was also sad to not be able to hug the people I saw on the crew from Grimm that I hadn’t seen in a few years. We also couldn’t get touched up by Hair and Makeup like on every other production I’d worked on in the Before Times, and we couldn’t touch up our faces in common areas or shared bathrooms, so if you had Smeared Makeup Mask Face, you just kind of dealt with it.
When we were ready to do a take, the assistant director (AD) would call out, “We’re going to Red!” which meant we were to take our masks off. It was glorious to have the freedom to be maskless around so many other people, even for just minutes at a time. It almost felt normal for those few moments of watching the leads work and going through our mimed actions. But then the AD would yell “That’s a cut, masks on!” and we’d remember what our lives were really like again.
We broke for dinner, which was served to us under a tent and through a plastic sheet where we had to tell the Catering staff what we wanted instead of casually going through a buffet line like we were used to. There was a lot of single-use plastic to make up for not being able to use real cutlery and plates, but it was a green set with plenty of recycling and compost bins, because Portland. We ate at those chairs from high school with the attached desks, all spaced safely apart, and it felt ridiculous.
By the time we were wrapped, at about 10 pm or so, I was cold, damp, and ready to go home. But it was encouraging to know that yes, we can make a TV show during a pandemic that is not about the pandemic itself.
Production B is a movie for a different streaming network, one I haven’t worked for in the past, but there were plenty of similarities to Production A. I had to take a COVID19 test before going to work on a Monday, but it was taken just the day before. I also took another test upon arriving at the set. My call time was 6:30 am, which was rough to make, but once I got there and saw the other crew members from Grimm who weren’t working on Production A, my spirits instantly lifted.
We were filming at a music store in a different suburb of Portland, but we waited under a tent that was much bigger than Production A’s, with long tables equipped with plexiglass barriers. There were so few of us that we each had our own tables. Wardrobe set up smaller pop-up tents inside this tent in case we needed to change. We had to bring our clothing options to set instead of emailing them, and the woman who looked me over had me change my shirt and jacket. We waited for a very long time before we were taken to the set, and there I saw even more people I knew. Similar to Production A, they had us wearing our masks until we were ready for a take, but this production also required us to have eye protection on when we weren’t filming.
As we were waiting for the crew to finish setting up the shot, I started chatting with one of the guys from Grimm about the production we were now working on. They’d started shooting in early October, he told me, but had to shut down for ten days when one of the crew tested positive for COVID19, which was frustrating for everyone involved, and apparently not cheap for the production, but they seemed to be working hard to make up for the lost time.
I found this set to be much more relaxed and chill, not about the regulations, but about their work in general. The other set felt more uptight and slightly disorganized at times (instead of driving us back to base camp where we’d parked next to the Catering tent, they made us walk a really long way in the rain, which was unfun), but I would be happy to go back because I love the atmosphere of a set no matter what.
As we get to the end of this awful time and look ahead to the incoming Biden Administration, we can glimpse what a post-COVID world will look like, with a real national lockdown and mask mandate beginning January 20, 2021. I envision a late spring where we’ve finally flattened the curve, where we can freely move about the world again as we get everyone vaccinated. We’ll all finally get back to our lives, including getting back to work without having to take a Silkwood shower when we get home.