Preventing Spread During Group Scenes

OHL’s expert COVID guidance for preventing the spread of the virus on film sets during group scenes and intimate scenes.

There’s probably no industry that appreciates the consequences of lost productivity than the film industry. When a shoot has to be rescheduled, it sends people scrambling and creates costly ripples across the entire production timeline.

Both the SAG-AFTRA COVID protocols and DGA COVID protocols are set to expire after Sept. 30, 2022, but regardless of whatever agreed-upon standards replace that agreement, maintaining COVID safety on-set will continue to be vital to the film industry. With that in mind, we spoke to our in-house film production health experts to provide recommendations for best practices to prevent the spread of virus when filming group and intimate scenes on film sets.

Safety in Film Production

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, film productions followed health and safety guidelines set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency charged with setting and enforcing standards of safety in workplaces. In practice, this often meant working while sick so that production timelines stayed on track. “COVID changed the standard of health and safety on a set,” says Regina Carpinelli, One Health Labs Production Supervisor, “and typically now, there are COVID staffers on a health and safety team.”

The pandemic required film professionals to rethink those norms and establish more rigid protocols for group scenes, intimate scenes, craft services, and managing staff on set. Since COVID-19 is spread through close contact, safety during group and intimate scenes needed to be completely re-imagined and standards raised.

Another layer of complexity involves the two unions for actors and directors, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). “Any show that is union has to adhere to SAG-AFTRA and/or DGA standards. Even a non-union show that has a union director has to follow DGA protocols for all staff,” says Carpinelli. Since a completely non-union show would not have to follow any protocols, it is important to have best practices to follow, even if those practices are not mandated.

On-Set Protocols

Since March 2020, a number of protocols have been implemented on most sets. As the pandemic has progressed, those protocols have been relaxed. Given how infectious the omicron BA.5 variant is, relaxing standards may be premature. Depending on the production size, the number of health and safety staffers, including COVID managers, coordinators, and officers, will vary. At minimum, for example, a small cast and crew of 15 to 20 people working on multiple shows should have one COVID manager and coordinator, and a COVID officer assigned to each set to monitor and enforce protocols, including sanitization, masking, and social distancing. Larger productions should have separate COVID teams in charge of masks for talent, sanitizing door handles, and hand sanitization. It is important to remember that all these separate measures combined are needed to ensure the safety of everyone on set.

In addition to COVID team responsibilities, establishing testing zones for staggered call times is especially helpful on large productions. A person’s testing zone also determines their catering group. Once on set, crews should also implement tiered protocols. Think of these as a series of defined concentric circles. Those closest to the middle, Zone A, need the most protection. Zone A, typically the actors, is anyone not wearing a mask and anyone close to people who are not masked, like directors and camera operators. Zone A people might be tested three times a week. Zone B are the back-end production staff – those one or more steps removed from close contact with unmasked people. They might only need to be tested once a week.

COVID Safety Protocols for Filming Group Scenes

With large casting scenes, protocols differ by production depending on budget and time. The best practice would be to require a negative PCR test 48 hours before everyone arrives on set and a rapid antigen test before each person is cleared to enter the set. The COVID coordinators for each production need to think through the timing and budget to decide whether to stagger the call times to avoid testing bottlenecks. And there is no getting around it: besides testing, each person should continue to mask, sanitize often, and socially distance.

COVID Safety Protocols for Filming Intimate Scenes

For the filming of intimate scenes, when there is literally close contact, clear protocols are even more important for the physical and psychological safety of the actors. Everyone has a different comfort level with this disease, so applying an agreed upon baseline protocol ensures that everyone can do their best work in a safe environment. Ideally, actors will have taken a PCR test within 48 hours and an onsite antigen test the day of filming. It is also recommended that productions consider quarantining actors involved in multiple intimate scenes in one day or multiple days of intimate scenes.

These protocols are not convenient. They must be factored into the cost of the production, which can run about 5% higher. But though tedious and time-consuming, these protocols are essential to running a safe production from start to finish. It is important to think through these protocols and scenarios in advance.

Looking Ahead

The film industry was quick to adjust stringent COVID protocols — to keep production staff safe, of course, but also to protect timelines and budgets. Every set and situation is different, depending on production size and union requirements, but making decisions on what is the safest possible and what everyone is comfortable with will continue to be a combination of common sense, science, and practicality.