Masking Up, Wiping Down, Editing at Home and More Strategies for Creative Collaboration … and Social Distancing

When it comes to Covid-19, Hollywood is learning to cope with a new normal.

Panelists convened for a “virtual town hall” meeting held today by the Hollywood Professional Association’s (HPA) Industry Recovery Task Force indicated that many post facilities are following industry guidelines for safety and are moving forward with some combination of work-from-home arrangements and, when necessary, on-site staffing situations.

For example, Light Iron completed post work on the second season of What We Do in the Shadows, which aired between April and June, almost entirely under Covid quarantine conditions, according to Katie Fellion, the company’s co-founder and head of business development. She said the process was slow but successful.

“What everyone expected in the pre-Covid world isn’t going to be applicable in the current time, but it doesn’t mean we can’t achieve similar, if not better, quality. It just takes more time,” she said, citing the speed of deliveries from all the different vendors in the process, along with the potential for collaborators to make more notes than usual in an asynchronous review process.

Initially, Light Iron’s pandemic protocols had the entire team working remotely, but more recently the company has started doing live review in both Los Angeles and New York, with the clients and the artists physically separated in different rooms for safety.

A combination of platforms including ClearView, Frame.io, Moxion, and Streambox helps keep collaboration on track, she said. “The biggest challenge is: how do you keep your communications going when you’re not in the same room?”

Working (on the Edit) from Home

Film editor Stephen E. Rivkin, ACE, spoke to the challenges faced by individuals working from home, including the technical logistics of distance collaboration as well as financial reimbursements for expenditures like new equipment or a higher grade of Internet service. “People are looking at many factors to try and figure out what the protocol should be,” he said. “Some people don’t have the ability to work from home … and we have to make sure that, if it’s necessary for people to work someplace isolated other than home, there is some allowance for that.”

Rivkin, who is currently one of the editors on the Avatar sequels, also said the pandemic had forced the industry to confront new ways of working that it might not otherwise have embraced. “In our industry, change happens slowly unless it is forced upon us,” he said, noting that the editors are already able to remotely connect to their Avid workstations and Nexis storage at Lightstorm’s Manhattan Beach, CA facilities, as well as those in New Zealand. “Most of the Los Angeles editing crew has moved to New Zealand hours, and we’re working as if we’re there.”

Communication lines are being kept open through platforms including Slack and Microsoft Teams, with Evercast being used to review sequences. “Communication with other crew members has improved already [because] you don’t have to take a meeting with someone to talk to them,” he said. “Recently, we’ve started remoting in and having Slack conversations on the side while controlling each other’s Avids and reviewing sequences together.”

Staying Safe on Set

For those who have to leave home to get their jobs done, Dr. Daniel Z. Uslan, an infection prevention officer from UCLA Health, identified what he called “the three Ws” of coronavirus prevention, including washing hands, wearing masks, and watching the distance between people. And he added a fourth W: who has Covid, underscoring the importance of testing.

“Testing is going to be a really important part of the way forward, but there is still a lot we don’t know about optimal testing strategies,” Uslan said. He said one of the biggest challenges is guarding against false positives and false negatives, underscoring the need of accurate testing to verify which areas have reduced infection levels and which have become new hot spots. “If you had said, three months ago, that New York would be safe to shoot in and Atlanta would not, people would have looked at you like you were crazy,” he said.

When it comes to that level of accuracy, Uslan said, “we’re almost there but we’re not quite there yet.”

Masking Up and Keeping It Clean

Doug Kent, president of Westwind Media, said most of the company’s editors and back-office people are working from home. For employees who need to be on site, as well as the clients who are visiting them, daily health screenings are required and everyone wears a mask.

“If you’re coming to a mix stage, we’ve predetermined who’s going to be there,” Kent explains. “We’re encouraging one or maybe two producers at most to attend, and we clear it with the two mixers on stage to make sure they feel safe.”

Only one actor at a time is allowed on the facility’s ADR stage, and each session is scheduled with a 30-minute buffer during which the mics and surfaces are wiped down. (If actors arrive early, they’re asked to stay in their cars.) A cleaning crew does a deep cleaning overnight, Kent said.

Michael Cioni of Frame.io chimed in with news about Songbird, a new pandemic-themed thriller co-produced by Michael Bay and directed by Adam Mason that’s shooting in L.A. “This is the healthiest set you could possibly be on,” Cioni said, explaining that the crew is tested every day, the set has ample hand-sanitizing stations, masks, gloves and booties, and EMTs are on set. “Not a single person has gotten sick. Nobody has had to leave production.”

Cioni took the opportunity to call for enhanced support of web-friendly codecs among NLE vendors, saying the ability to use H.264 and H.265 as editing codecs would simplify remote collaboration workflow by making production files smaller and easier to move from the set into post. “If the editing community is able to manage compressed files that are friendly to the Internet, then transmitting these things becomes much easier,” he said. “You always go back to the raw file later.”

Looking to the Future

Despite their mostly optimistic tone, panelists professed misgivings about the long-term impact of the Covid shutdown on the industry. Kent noted that, with fewer people allowed to be present in facilities where work is being done, there are fewer learning and mentorship opportunities for those just getting started in the industry. “Young people will not be coming to my house to watch me do my job,” he said. “We have to find ways to encourage them and give them some access and visibility as we move forward.”

Fellion wondered about the implications of an accelerating shift away from theatrical and toward in-home viewing. “How many of us have theaters in our homes? How do we create for that [in-home] experience?” she asked. “We see success in a lot of these OTT players who are producing content directly for a smaller screen, and challenges for these larger theatrical [releases].”

Rivkin went a step farther, speculating on the ultimate fate of the U.S. theatrical industry. He noted that effectively guarding against Covid-19 is thought to add between 20% and 30% to production costs—a clear disincentive to the creation of expensive studio tentpoles. “Nobody’s going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on production if there’s no way to recoup that money and make a profit,” he said. “I’m hoping for the day when people feel safe enough to go back to the movie theaters. I don’t know when that will be.

“In the meantime, I think we will probably see some of the movie theater chains going bankrupt and possibly being snapped up by some of the streaming companies that can afford to buy them and sit on them until they can be viable again. We’re in uncharted territory for sure.”

A full replay of the live event, which was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Carolyn Giardina, is slated to be available at the HPA website.

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