Behind the scenes of filming in a pandemic
A free, live forum on April 15 during the 30th annual Florida Film Festival at Enzian Theater addressed filming amid the coronavirus pandemic.
From eating in cars to ultraviolet sanitizing boxes that made face masks “stinky,” director Jon Binkowski, executive producer Lisa Enos Smith and COVID compliance officer Jason Urbanski shared lessons they learned while shooting “Because of Charley” — the first COVID-compliant motion picture shot in Central Florida last year.
Moderated by Rick Ramsey, Full Sail
University’s education director, the event also featured conversation with Lindsey Sandrin, director of the Orlando Film Commission, who offered insight into new coronavirus precautions and safety measures for projects filming in the region.
Here are a few takeaways:
Coronavirus compliance officers
Urbanksi — who has a degree in stage management from University of Central Florida and has worked in stunt performing at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort — said serving as the film’s COVID compliance officer meant a chance to work when many colleagues were unemployed.
To prepare for the job, he took a course run by a doctor and a CCO in the film industry. It provided safety insight about the protocol “Because of Charley” would follow. Safety measures included daily temperature checks, questionnaires and weekly air-filter replacement in the Celebration home where they filmed.
The four officers (who worked 15-hour days) on the set of “Because of Charley” were viewed as an asset instead of people constantly halting production to ensure protocol was followed. Smith credits that support with empowering the CCOs to do their jobs and keep everyone safe.
“It wasn’t like everyone was annoyed by the compliance,” said Smith in an interview with the Sentinel prior to the event. “It was just part of the routine.”
To protect the talent and crew, they had to determine which individuals were most at risk — the actors who removed their masks during scenes. Urbanski said they dealt with two zones: A and B, with tiers within each. Zone A was the high-risk area where people were in close proximity to others and maskless for scenes.
Smith recalled having to document for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists all of the moments in which actors would be maskless and within 6 feet or less of each other to gain approval for those scenes.
“SAG-AFTRA has very strict COVID-19 safety guidelines,” Smith said. “We met all the requirements. We had SAG come in and check on us, and they were very pleased.”
Binkowski said scenes were rehearsed with masks on several times. When it was time for a take with the masks off, it was a quick shot and then masks were immediately replaced.
The budget for “Because of Charley” increased by 20 percent because of the coronavirus, Smith estimated. The increase was a direct result of extended timelines and enhanced safety measures.
New masks were handed out in the morning and afternoon, or whenever a fresh one was requested. Those who brought their own masks had to have them approved (for example, valves were not allowed) and many had to be sanitized in an ultraviolet box, which gave masks a “stinky smell,” according to Binkowski. Close-proximity crew had to wear both masks and face shields.
Touchless hand-sanitizer stations were so commonplace that Binkowski said the crew had to double-check to ensure the stations weren’t in shots.
And testing everyone three times a week using the more expensive COVID-19 RT-qPCR (also used by the NBA) to avoid false positives and negatives from rapid testing cost about $40,000.
“We had no COVID cases, but we also made it really clear to our cast and crew that that unlike the NBA, we can’t shut down for 10 days and pick back up,” Smith said. “We don’t have the finances to do that.”
While craft services and lunchtime mingling are highlights of many productions, both took a hit during the filming of “Because of Charley.”
Smith said while the food offerings weren’t as robust as usual, all cast and crew were given individually packaged meals. Since they didn’t have the space to accommodate socially distanced dining, everyone was encouraged to eat in their cars, where they could remove masks, relax, eat and catch up on phone calls or emails.
Additionally, production got creative with food scenes. Smith said in a scene where actors pass around a shared bottle of champagne, the actors would put down the passed bottle and pick up a second hidden bottle from which to drink. During a meal scene, dishes were in front of actors as they ate; there were no shots of food being served.
Binkowski said the filming shutdown of “The Batman” over Robert Pattinson’s positive COVID-19 test was a wake-up call for the “Because of Charley” cast and crew, who realized their film couldn’t afford to reopen production if a similar situation occurred.
Both Smith and Binkowski, of Celebration-based Renaissance Entertainment, were pleasantly surprised that there weren’t as many makeup touchups as they had anticipated, given the mask situation.
Regardless of the coronavirus pandemic, both Smith and Binkowski said they would like certain safety precautions — such as masks and hand washing — to continue on future projects. Smith said these measures can help protect actors and crew from illnesses like colds and the flu.
“I think some of these practices will kind of continue because we had another shoot where everybody got the flu from somebody,” Smith said. “It’s not just life-threatening illnesses — a lot could shut down at production.”
The Florida Film Festival continues through April 22. For more information, go to floridafilmfestival.com.