Increasing Production Efficiency While Working Through a Pandemic

by Steve Nelson CAS

As we prepare to return to our jobs doing sound and video on scripted television and features, there is much work being done to develop guidelines and practices to ensure our health and safety while working in an extremely risky environment, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

As I write, the world is beginning to open up, the stay-at-home orders are being relaxed—even though in many places infections and fatalities are still on the rise. It is important to keep in mind that barring some miraculous and unexpected turn, by the time Hollywood starts up again, it is highly unlikely that there will be either a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19. In the meantime, when you are offered work and you have questions or doubts, call the union, whether you’re a member or not. If you are uncomfortable or feel unsafe, speak up.

The logistics of workflow, the details of equipment sanitation and distribution, PPE and personal hygiene, lunches, transportation, etc., will come having been vetted by the proper authorities, medical and governmental, labor and management. We will work out equipment handling protocols, shared equipment, the need for increased audio and video distribution throughout the set and beyond, and who exactly does what.

We do know that when we return to work, things are going to look pretty different, but our mission will remain the same: performing our job as excellently and smoothly as possible.

I’d like to focus on what Local 695 members can do in our departments to make this a more friction-free enterprise and thereby increasing production efficiency while maintaining a safe workplace.

As we all by now know very well:
Successful Infection =
Exposure to Virus x Time

–Erin Bromage PhD, Comparative Immunologist, Professor of Microbiology, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

The AMPTP with the IA safety committees will devise plans to reduce exposure, but whatever Local 695 members do to reduce the time factor will help make for shorter days and less chance of infection. This may also offer us an unparalleled opportunity to address some longstanding issues in the workplace under the banner of safety.

Shorter working hours are under serious consideration, industrywide, as a way to avoid stressing immune systems and reduce fatigue-induced sloppiness and mishaps. (Somewhere, Haskell Wexler is cheering.) Time has always been the issue; moving forward, everything will be slower and more difficult than before; time will be an even more precious commodity.

The work that we do in video engineering and production sound is dependent on so many factors outside our control. The best remedy is prophylaxis, done in anticipation of future problems. Knowing our craft, anticipation, communication: these are the tools we must use, more than ever.

This is the time to dig in and solve problems before they happen. Analyzing the script, doing your breakdown, reaching out, and communicating with the departments and individuals who will have the most impact on your work. In feature films, pre-production tends to be more leisurely with a bigger window to identify and solve problems; our participation is expected and we can be an integral part of the process. In episodic television, we may be hired late in pre-production, and invited on the final tech scouts. We’ll attend the final production meeting but due to our crew size, it will be impossible for us to participate in the scouts or meetings during the season. We rely on information from other departments to keep us ahead of the curve.

One possible benefit of the new guidelines is that scouts and meetings will be held online which may make it easier for us to “attend,” though it will still be challenging for us to participate, again due to our staffing and our on-set responsibilities. The drawback is not having that time off-production to get to know the players before the shooting starts by bonding with the other players during the long van rides to the locations.

This time of FaceTime and Zoom meetings is a great opportunity to be an advocate for sound in pre-production. It is incumbent upon us to take advantage.

Your job interview with the producer(s) and director is when you can ask about shooting style. Will this be a cameras-on-dollies show or handheld? How many cameras, and will they approach the scenes with similar lens sizes and head room? Removing overhead mics with visual effects, known as painting out the boom, has become pretty commonplace; is this a practice they can employ? Who are the crew members who must be provided video monitors for live preview and playback and where will they be located?

By asking lots of questions, even if the answers change on the day, you’ll be ready.

Radio Mics
They are not going away, mixers are too heavily invested in these tools to give them up and neither will our colleagues in editorial and post. In episodic, it is expected that cast will be wired, and they will come by the Sound Department first on their way to set. I’m not saying that we should wire everybody in every scene; sometimes it’s not necessary or wrong. However, if everyone, including the cast, is OK with it and it’s expected, why not? Even if it’s not in your mix, it might provide the one piece of track that allows the Dialog Editor to enhance the scene and avoid ADR.

We’ll do it safely and efficiently to keep all the arrows in our quiver available and ready with the one thing that brings us in closest contact with cast, in concealing the mic and having it sound not just good but great! Since we have already broached the subject of using the fantastic and increasingly more affordable technologies available for visual effects, how great would it be if we could bring that tiny mic out into the open, just a little; how many problems would that solve? While not as easy as painting out overhead booms, exposed lavaliers can be removed by VFX. The VFX Supervisor on my last show estimates about five hundred dollars per shot, with the cost diminishing with subsequent shots.

If you haven’t read the story about the Oscar-winning sound on Les Misérables, do not delay, look up the 695 Quarterly from way back in Winter & Spring of 2013 (it’s on the website) and you’ll learn some things about how to take an impossible situation and make it sound great.

Video Village
With the need to minimize the number of crew members on the shooting set in Zone A, much more remote video monitoring will be needed to provide live preview and scene playback to multiple crew members in many locations. Video Assist Technicians and Video Engineers can provide a wider reach for video distribution with expanded Wi-Fi for near-set use, as well as network and cloud streaming for much broader coverage, capable of relocating some crew members far off the stage and reaching anywhere in the world.

All too often we arrive at a location that seems to have been chosen for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes not just for sound, but for every other department as well. There is a myriad of reasons why this happens, but when a director falls in love with a location, there is little remedy. However, to avoid these problems, we should do our due diligence and judge in advance of the company’s arrival with the help of our virtual scouts and communication with the Location  Department. Forewarned is forearmed. Are there measures to be taken that would mitigate the problems? Can traffic be controlled, the construction paused, the dogs housed in a kennel? Acoustic treatments? Or are the problems insurmountable and we move on?

We should always be prepared that the location will in fact, suck for sound. Perhaps the powers that be are aware of the issues and are counting on our ingenuity to “make it work” and, if not, to accept the loss and “fix it in post.”

The performances happening on the day are important—and we know time is of the essence, and we’ll do all we can to try to ensure suitable locations are chosen.

The use of multiple cameras has become absolute in our world—with a few rare exceptions. This style can indeed increase production efficiency and, if done properly, without impacting our work. It’s best if ground rules can be established early in the process. Similar headroom and focal lengths, avoiding the wide & tights can all make a big difference in keeping the work flowing smoothly. We can establish ahead of time that the boom can bust the frame to catch the simultaneous tight shot, or that we have a great wireless option to use. That is why we have all those tracks available. Even if this modus operandi has not been clearly established in prep, there is always time to have the conversation and make new ground rules. Which is a much better alternative to stopping the proceedings to get clearance every time this happens.

An actor might be dressed in a costume and accessories so noisy that it conflicts with the body mic and even affects the boom track. What can we do to avoid these situations?

The best remedy is always prevention; communication and preparation can help prevent the problem before it shows up. With the longer prep schedules for features, you can meet with the Designer and Supervisor, tell them your concerns and enlist their support. If costumes are recurring, it is possible to have them build-in your wireless, or at least make accommodations. In episodic television, this may be a luxury as many times the actors are cast the night before they work so it is a mad scramble for everyone. But if the Designer is aware of the impact their choices can have on our work, they can make a huge difference. Try to get shoes treated with soft soles. Work with the background costumers and production to have the background show up with soft-soled shoes. It saves a lot of time ferreting out the noisy BG walkers and treating their shoes or laying miles of carpet.

Other Considerations
Other changes in the way we work will include greater physical/social distancing on and around set to reduce the potential viral load in the workspace. The Sound Mixer will be even further from the set. For some of us this is normal, others might have to make some accommodations. Solutions can be to remote your receiving and transmitting antennas or receivers. Be ready with an open mic and to distribute audio for the very first marking rehearsal of the day, and subsequent rehearsals, as we will not be allowed all those people on set like we used to.
We’ll have to reduce our interactions with other crew, particularly regarding shared equipment. Perhaps wireless timecode slates that don’t require physical jamming, and giving the Camera Department its own rechargeable batteries and charger of course. Plan for Comteks to be assigned to individuals or departments for the run of the show, much like walkie-talkies. Supply them their own batteries and chargers that they’re responsible for. No more shared headphones; they are single-use/single-user or they should provide their own earbuds. Finally, take that courtesy cellphone charger off your cart!

It is certain that when we do get back, the highest priority will be keeping our workplaces infection-free. Despite the meticulous and rigorous guidelines, there will always be the chance of someone getting sick. There is talk of two weeks’ sick pay for those that do, much more generous than what we normally have. If someone in your department falls ill, it would be best to have a backup plan to stay functional and not derail the work. This will be more complicated than grabbing another transmitter to replace one that’s failed! When staffing, consider having as much redundancy built-in as possible. Your utility can certainly boom, but can they run the cart and mix? Keep a short list of available crew who are familiar with your setup and could step in. There will be a vetting process for admitting new people to your production bubble, likely to involve testing; keep your people close, just in case. If you’re not already working, keep your status updated on the Available to Work page; perhaps the Local can update it more frequently with more detailed information.

Everything at work is going to be very different and pretty intense for a while. We’re hoping for some great medical breakthrough that will allow us to return to something closer to normal. In the meantime, we might have a chance to address some longstanding points of friction and create improvements to make our work run more smoothly that will carry on into the “newer” normal.

Here are the links to the Les Miz articles. Well worth the time! It may really change the way you think about what you do.