Safety on set adds new layer of reality
For doc-style filmmakers, set safety can get complex
Thunderbird Entertainment president Mark Miller co-founded Great Pacific Television with fellow TV veteran Blair Reekie to become a specialist in factual TV.
A former BCTV Parliament Hill reporter and Daily Planet correspondent, Miller took the blue-collar reality TV genre to markets in more than 170 countries. Shows such as Heavy Rescue: 401, $ave My Reno, Queen of the Oil Patch and Highway Thru Hell have taken real Canadian working-class tales to viewers all over the world.
Now, Highway Thru Hell has spawned a spinoff series called Mud Mountain.
Focused on the lives of third-generation sibling loggers Craig and Brent Lebeau, the series shot in B.C.’S northern mountains is an eye-opening look at just how hard it is to bring timber out of the deep forest. Produced by Great Pacific Media and Bell Media Studios, the show presents considerable challenges to shoot at the best of times.
But these are COVID -19 times, which means the reality of making reality TV just became a lot more real.
“It’s really a show about these roads that these guys have to drive on and the uniqueness of the Canadian forestry industry,” said Miller. “A big part of that is that our weather generates an incredible amount of mud and those are the conditions you have to work under. The metaphor is that we all have mountains to climb in our lives, and the mud mires our lives and makes it all the more challenging.”
As a specialist in this kind of filmmaking, Miller says you approach the work with the assumption that “everything is trying to kill you” to address the danger inherent in work like rough-road long haul trucking or backwoods logging. The safety manual is “like a phone book” and there is a full-time safety ombudsman on call to address anyone’s observations about safety issues on the shoot.
“So COVID-19 just became another threat to the production that we had to address to reduce the threat,” Miller said.
“You can’t eliminate the risk, but you can reduce the risk to a point where you can live with it, such as both wearing masks all the time, washing your hands, etc. We reduced crew sizes and assigned each one to work in a bubble with a specific character and have no crossover, as well as providing specific vehicles to each bubble and more.”
The bottom line: It added some cost to production. But a show like Mud Mountain has a limited time window because production doesn’t allow for flexibility in shooting. Miller says working within the new rules kept them going, which is an acceptable tradeoff.
Tribal Police Files producer/director/writer Steve Sxwithul’txw (Swee-thult) echoes that sentiment. A member of the Penelakut Tribe on Penelakut Island off the coast of Chemainus, he was a former tribal police officer on Vancouver Island and in Lillooet, as well as a Vancouver transit cop.
Season 3 of the APTN documentary series is being shot on the Tsuut’ina Nation near Calgary with full safety protocols in place. Certainly timely, the program serves as a beacon of education and dialogue around policing at a moment when the debate concerning how, why and what should be recommended practices working with tribal groups is in the news.
While the target audience is Indigenous, Tribal Police Files audiences also expand beyond that and the website features a lively debate. The series is designed to showcase unique aspects of maintaining order and being part of the community. Obviously, coming into the Tsuut’ina Nation to film meant being highly sensitive to protocols as well as safety.
“It’s our fifth active day out on principal shooting and it’s been busy and everything is running smoothly, although it has been a total shift and revamp with COVID-19,” said Sxwithul’txw.
“Working with health officials in both B.C. and Alberta, as well as the industry and the nation, we have put together something that is Indigenized and works for maximum protection. That has meant we have become something of a Gopro-centric production to film inside cars with sound guys in a trailer following behind, and I’m in contact via walkie-talkie the whole time asking questions and so on.”
The biggest problems so far have been cameras coming off of their mounts and the constant issue with batteries running down. Securing approval from the nation and the police service and its commission meant that the show could film in only one location rather than the two that were originally scheduled.
Like Miller, Sxwithul’txw says thinking on the fly to be sure that the show happens is how business has always been done. The only difference now is that there are additional aspects to take into account when mapping out shooting strategies.
Over at Thomas FX Group Inc. in North Vancouver, John Quee and Betty Thomas Quee have long specialized in providing everything from truckloads of fake blood for shows such as the Walking Dead to pyrotechnic effects for superhero blockbusters. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, the company has added COVID -19 health and safety to its product line as well.
“We were looking for a way to keep our own staff safe and get back to business and began with things such as signage, Plexiglas shields and so forth to reopen,” said Quee. “Then I came upon Biotech UV Canada’s products and it was exactly what I wanted to provide the additional safety for our employees and business to be ready to go.
“But the industry wasn’t there with us, so we became the exclusive Canadian distributors to their products and Betty sought out a complete range of electrostatic disinfecting sprays.”
Now Thomas FX Group can claim everyone from doctors, dentists and gyms, as well as film companies, as clients for the specialized, high-intensity UV lights and sanitizing chemicals required to keep COVID-19 at bay.
Products such as the Biotech-p1 500B-1 50-watt portable room UVC sterilizing light can be used to decontaminate a space up to 140 square metres and retails for under $900. Given the budgets at play in a typical film or TV shoot, the product line seems very affordable.
So it’s “lights, masks, social distancing, camera, action” moving forward.
The metaphor is that we all have mountains to climb in our lives, and the mud mires our lives and makes it all the more challenging.