Hollywood is getting back to work slowly—oh, so slowly—as it adjusts to the continuing COVID-19 crisis, with productions figuring out how to bring projects back online while adhering to safety precautions that guard against further spread of the coronavirus.

Speakers at the second HPA Industry Task Force Virtual Town Hall, held today via a videoconference moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Carolyn Giardina, said that while many of their colleagues remain wary of the challenges, the transition to new ways of working has been surprisingly smooth. In some ways, they suggested, the new anti-COVID measures actually represent an improvement.

“Nobody wants to die for a production. As the community does more and more to demonstrate that it cares about individuals, all of us will feel safer returning to our normal behavior.”

Peter Marx, managing partner, Biology Works

Remote Production via iPads and Zoom Meetings

Cinematographer Markus Forderer, ASC, BVK, described a Munich-based project that ran into trouble when one of the Los Angeles-based actors required for reshoots was blocked from traveling to Germany. Forderer set up a mini-studio in his L.A. apartment and delivered a live feed from a Red camera to the director in Munich, who could return live feedback on each take.

A couple of weeks later, the tables were turned when more pick-ups needed to be shot in Munich, but Forderer’s flights out of L.A. kept getting canceled, leaving him essentially stuck in the U.S. To facilitate collaboration between the locations, the video village was equipped with iPads held by C-stands that dialed into a password-protected Zoom meeting where Forderer and the film’s director could talk to each other. Forder also received a live feed directly from the Red Monstro on the shoot, thanks to a Blackmagic Design web device that transmitted the HD-SDI signal. He also received metadata from the camera that allowed him to give notes to his crew.

Forderer says it was “a great experience,” despite the time difference that required him to work at night in L.A. “At the end of the day, I could walk to the next room and go to bed,” he explained. “If this had happened a couple of months earlier, I would have stepped on a plane flying across the Pacific. You’re going to deal with jetlag, live in a hotel room, and then fly back after three days. But this just felt like being in the video village.”

Long-Distance VR for Visualization Collaboration

VFX guru, cinematographer, and second-unit director Robert Legato, ASC, described a similar remote set-up that allowed him to hook-up with a remotely located director in real time. The two of them would enter a VR environment together and plan shots together. Then, Legato would make the visualizations and send Avid files that the director could immediately cut into a previs assembly.

“It’s pretty seamless,” Legato said. “We have it set up like a Google hangout that’s on all the time. So you’re having a pleasant conversation and laughing and joking. It’s actually more efficient than it had been on The Lion King.” He said the same process could apply to production design, with different members of the crew using VR to meet on an art director’s virtual stage, or to animation production, with actors recording vocal performances in a home studio while animators listen in on a Zoom teleconference.

“I would prefer having the [virtual production] set-up in my house even if I could go to a live stage without any fear because I could get a lot of work done in a short time,” Legato said. “I think people are going to get used to this way of working.”

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Finishing VFX for The Old Guard in Lockdown

Sara Bennett, the co-founder of Milk VFX, described being thrust into a new kind of long-distance workflow as the company worked through the COVID-19 crisis to finish delivering shots for the Netflix hit action movie The Old Guard. “We left L.A. at the beginning of March, and we needed to find a way for [director Gina Prince-Bythewood] to review the shots with us,” Bennett said.

The Old Guard | Netflix

For editorial collaboration, Milk used the Evercast platform, which Bennett said left something to be desired in terms of picture quality but was good enough to evaluate how shots fit in the cut. For final review, Bennett downloaded and quality-checked EXR files, then used Aspera to send the director 4K ProRes files, which she would download in batches overnight. “We had to be sure to plan everything two days in advance,” Bennett said. “We had to get shots, create QuickTimes, and send them to Gina … trying to make it as user-friendly as possible. We’d get on a Zoom call and she’d review the 4K shots on her side. It went surprisingly smoothly.”

Bennett wasn’t as enthusiastic about the prospect of remote workflows as her colleagues. “Obviously it’s much more productive to all be in the same room together,” she said. Milk has performed a Covid risk assessment at its London headquarters and found that it could bring back up to 60% of its workforce safely, Bennett said. The offices opened for client reviews and other meetings earlier this month, but Bennett said only about 20 staffers have returned to the office so far, and most are still working remotely.

COVID “Culture Shock” in the U.S.

When Giardina asked Forderer about the difference in the production climate in Germany and the United States, he said his return stateside after spending some time in Germany, where COVID case numbers remain much lower than those in the U.S., gave him “quite a culture shock.”

The Matrix and Uncharted are shooting in Berlin,” he noted. “They’re taking a lot of different precautions, but people are fairly disciplined, staying at home after work and wearing masks in public. It felt like there were a lot of productions starting up again—first a lot of smaller productions but now the bigger ones, too. And they have frequent testing, all the precautions we have in the states, but not as extreme as sequestering people or being quarantined for the entire shoot.”

Peter Marx, managing partner of Biology Works, said those precautions will be key to giving crew members a sense of security as Hollywood gets back to work. “Nobody wants to die for a production,” he said. “As the community does more and more to demonstrate that it cares about individuals, all of us will feel safer returning to our normal behavior.”

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