Safe Video Production in the Age of COVID-19
A guide for small companies
Andy Linda, May 20, 2020
Keeping video production safe boils down to a few basics:
- Wash your hands, wear a mask, wipe your gear.
- Pay special attention to keeping microphones sanitary; they’re the closest to your subject who will often not wear a mask.
- Keep your crew small. More people spread more disease. Consider having the producer or interviewer attend remotely instead of in person.
- Shooting outdoors may be safer than indoors.
- Follow the rules of the office or industrial location where you shoot, but also use your own judgment.
- Be especially careful and respectful in people’s homes.
- Professionally-applied makeup may not be possible, but there are alternatives.
Small video production companies working in the marketing and corporate communications fields will probably never get detailed guidance from the government or CDC on how to operate safely in the COVID-19 world. The State of California published some guidance for major industries, but our business is unlike that of offices, retail establishments, manufacturing, or for that matter any other service, including that of photographers. We must chart our own way, follow the rules that seem relevant to us, use common sense, and take cues from our closest cousins: journalists and television news people who never stopped work even in the depth of the pandemic.
How to stay safe during pre-production is obvious: conduct all meetings remotely. If you absolutely have to go out and see a shoot location, practice all the obvious precautions.
Post-production is also pretty straight-forward, especially for a small company: edit at home if possible. Post work-in-progress online or share screens to collaborate and get feedback. Teleconference. If you have to edit in a company edit suite, wipe down all surfaces you touch and stay away from others. Bring your own lunch and eat it alone. Have one editor dedicated to each suite, don’t share equipment. Editing has always been a solitary occupation and now is a great time for editors who don’t like producers or clients breathing down their necks.
All the challenges for a video production company lie in the Production step.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 doesn’t live forever. In fact, it’s never really alive, it’s just a bit of genetic material in a fatty shell surrounded by a few protein molecules. It stays virulent for four days on wood, four or five days on paper or glass, five days on metals and up to nine days on plastics. It slowly breaks down and loses its ability to infect and reproduce until in layman’s terms it’s “dead.”
Most video production equipment has plastic parts that we touch, so consider your gear “dirty” for nine days after use. (Yes, that is longer than the 3-day recommendation commonly given, we’re going for the worst-case scenario.) Equipment that’s been in the closet for two weeks is safe. If you use it more often than that, disinfect it between uses and locations.
The EPA lists dozens of disinfecting products effective against viruses, but four teaspoons of bleach in a quart of water makes a solution that breaks down the virus in about a minute. Use this in a well-ventilated place and wear gloves when handling bleach. This mix can work well on metal lights, stands, tripods, extension cords, audio cables. It’s an inexpensive and readily-available solution, but don’t drip it on carpeting or anything else you don’t want to bleach the color out of. Don’t use it on porous material like windscreens and fabric-based LED lights and make sure everything is dry before you put it away.
For electronic parts which you handle (camera bodies, handles, lens turrets), 70% or stronger alcohol or alcohol-based cleaning products will disrupt the virus in a matter of seconds, but alcohol carries some danger to delicate gear. Whether you use a pre-moistened wipe, a rag or a paper towel, make sure it’s just damp, not overly wet. Don’t let the alcohol seep into your precious electronic components. Test all plastic parts carefully in an inconspicuous area before applying more alcohol; plastic can melt or become discolored with harsh solvents. Following the manufacturer’s instructions would be best, but you’re not likely to find a chapter on COVID-19 in the instruction manual. Keep in mind that human life and health are more important than equipment, then use common sense.
If keeping your gear in quarantine for nine days is one option (very safe for the equipment and quite effective) and using bleach or alcohol is the quick, dangerous, brute-force solution, is there a middle ground? Yes there is. The National Park Service recommends using plain soap (liquid Ivory is particularly residue-free, they say) on its cultural treasures. Make a mild solution, spray it onto a paper towel to make it moist, and wipe. Remember how you’re supposed to wash your hands for 20 seconds? Same principle applies here, so wipe, wait a minute and wipe again; give the soap time to dissolve the fatty layer off the virus’ RNA core. After a minute or two, rinse with a paper towel moistened with plain water. Dispose of all the paper towels and let your gear dry thoroughly before you put it away.
The virus doesn’t spread by itself, people spread it. The whole idea of sheltering-in-place is to limit the spread of people which limits the spread of disease. With that in mind, limit the size of your crew. Each person on set brings with him or her more danger of exposure. Keep shoots simple and the crew lean. We like working with crew members who are generalists. If a lighting person can keep an eye on audio levels while the camera is rolling, that’s a crew member with double the value. At eImage a 3-person crew represents a producer, director, director of photography, camera operator, second camera/Steadicam, drone pilot, audio person, boom operator, gaffer, grip, best boy, makeup, and production assistant. We also shoot with a 2-person crew or even solo. (The next-to-impossible part of shooting alone is unloading equipment and getting it into the building in a busy downtown area while at the same time re-parking the car.)
When you arrive on location, make sure you wear a mask. Unless it’s an N-95, it’s not there to protect you, it is to protect others. These days, it’s a sign of respect to those around you. Wear it and ask others to do the same. The only exception could be the on-camera interviewee. Once everyone is settled in their position, well over six feet away from the on-camera person, talent can take their mask off while the camera is rolling.
Try not to touch anything you don’t have to touch while on location. That may mean sitting on your equipment cases rather than the client’s chairs, but so be it. Remind your client that only you should touch your own gear, for safety’s sake. Just make sure everything is set up before the interviewee comes into the room. If you have to move furniture (and we always do), wash your hands before and after; that way you don’t spread your potential disease to the location, nor the location’s potential virus to yourself.
As you’ve noticed on the news, many interviews can be conducted remotely via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or other video conferencing software. But as video production professionals you’ve undoubtedly cringed at the sound quality, camera placement, framing and lighting. A good compromise is shooting remote interviews with a crew. 60 Minutes has been doing it extensively: the reporter is back in the studio (or in their home) on a video call, a crew is on location with a real camera, microphones and lighting, and they simply prop up an iPad or laptop with the reporter’s video call where the interviewer would normally sit. If you don’t want to see the interviewer, as is usually the case, the on-camera result is indistinguishable from a traditional interview. This protects the reporter 100% and it puts one less person on-set.
Another option is an Interrotron, a technique we’ve used for years. This is where the iPad with the reporter is in place of a traditional TelePrompter, in front of the lens, so the subject talks directly into camera while having a human face to relate to instead of a lens. The result is an intimate, natural, direct-to-camera interview.
Of course this remote attendance depends on a good Internet connection. Check if good WiFi is available at your shooting location, or be ready to burn up some phone data. If your connection is only on a cell phone, consider if the phone’s screen is big enough to get the job done.
Microphones are the one piece of equipment close to an on-camera subject and often talent is not wearing a mask while speaking. So mikes need to be disinfected before you handle them and use them. We use alcohol because it’s the strongest, fastest-acting option and it seems to be OK for the mike. (Be careful and run your own tests before subjecting your expensive mikes to alcohol.) Whether it’s a shotgun or a lavaliere, it makes sense to wipe it right after use so that you’re not handling a “dirty” object. But we wipe again before use, to show the client or on-camera talent they’re sitting under, or wearing, a “clean” object. You want to inspire confidence that you’re concerned about everyone’s well-being.
Another simple thing you can do with a shotgun mike is to put a plastic bag over it and dispose of the bag after each interview. This works just fine indoors, but outside the wind rustles the bag, so for exteriors we have a number of wind screens that can be hand-washed or laundered after use. Remember that soap and detergent are effective against the virus, especially when you use hot water. We’ll probably ask Grandma to sew us a few extra bag-like windscreens, just so we can swap them out often.
If you have to use a lavaliere mike, ask your talent to put it on themselves. Have another mike handy so you can model on yourself how to wrap and hide the cable and where to place the mike. Wipe the mike head, cable and transmitter right after use and again before the next use; we use alcohol on a paper towel.
Originally I wrote that there’s no way to do professional makeup while maintaining proper social distancing, but a colleague corrected me. See Jan’s comments below. If you don’t have a professional makeup person on the set, ask people who wear makeup to do their own before the shoot. For those who don’t wear makeup, wiping their face with a Kleenex to soak up excess facial oil is the very least they can do. Oil blotting tissues exist specifically for this purpose and you can get them online without leaving your house. Self-applying mattifying gel is a fantastic idea, thank you Annie. (See Annie’s comment below.) Bottom line seems to be that a good, conscientious makeup professional can do a fantastic job because they know how to do it safely, but make sure they’re really experienced people and they take the Coronavirus situation seriously. Supplies may cost a bit extra. Just don’t leave makeup to a PA or a Producer, it’s all-or-nothing, a seasoned pro or no-one at all.
Shooting Video Outdoors
The seasonal flu spreads mostly indoors and Coronavirus is a flu. The early studies on COVID-19 have not been peer-reviewed and the information floating on the Internet is all over the place. Some say that UV light and heat of the sun may disrupt the virus, but other information suggests wind can carry droplets laden with virus farther outside than inside. The biggest benefit of outdoor shooting is that social distancing is easier in a large space and outdoor surfaces don’t get touched by humans as much as indoor objects. Lighting can be simpler too and you don’t risk infecting someone’s personal space like a home or an office. And since you don’t touch doorknobs, elevator buttons and furniture, you’re less at risk getting infected if you stay out of a building. Outdoor shooting seems like an attractive choice.
Shooting in an Office
Most of our videos are business-related and that means shooting in offices. Presumably each office has a set of protocols that work for them, so discuss these ahead of time as part of pre-production. Come prepared to follow each office’s rules. For your own protection wear an N-95 mask if you have it. Wash your hands often, touch only what is necessary and wipe down what you can. This is an area where the rules will change all the time, so be prepared to be flexible, listen well and use your own judgment and common sense.
Shooting in an Industrial Facility
A factory, a laboratory, a healthcare facility, a warehouse, or any other industrial facility will have a defined safety protocol even more specific than an office. They’ve always had safety protocols and this is not new to them. Once again, follow their rules when shooting in their space. They should provide any specialized safety gear required in their facility such as gowns, goggles or gloves. Discuss all of this with your contact before the shoot date.
Shooting in a Home
A home is a sanctuary, now more than ever. It’s either virus-free and must remain so, or it’s infected. The problem is most of the time we don’t know which is which. We have to act as if our crew is infected entering a clean environment while at the same time behaving as if the home is infected and we’re healthy.
- Wear a mask. It’s not too crazy to wear two, as some medical professionals do on television. An N-95 will protect you, but if it has a vent for exhaling, it would allow virus-laden droplets to escape. A surgical mask or even a homemade cloth mask will catch most of these particles and protect those around you. Remember, a surgical or cloth mask is a sign of respect and caring for those around you while an N-95 is there to protect you from others.
- Some households prefer you to take your shoes off before entering. Show respect and comply.
- Leave as much equipment outside as you can, bring in only what you need. The amount of gear we use is often overwhelming to people not in our video production business, so keeping it light is always a good idea in a small home. As always, be careful about bumping corners, scratching floors and denting furniture with equipment cases.
- Ask to use the bathroom to wash your hands as often as you can.
- Wipe all the gear down as you wrap out of a location if at all possible. Otherwise, consider the equipment “dirty” for nine days of quarantine, or wipe it down when you get back to your shop.
Shooting in a Studio
A rented studio is like an office; see above and follow their rules. Your own studio is like your home with guests. That means defining what is “public” and what is “private.” Tell your clients which areas are for them to use and which are off-limits. Wipe down everything you can between sessions in the public areas and really focus on all the surfaces people touch. Keep the studio well-ventilated and see the comments below on a colleague’s experience in a Silicon Valley corporate studio.
We can’t come up with a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, so the only other thing we could think of was to get a no-touch thermometer. We should certainly ask if everyone is well during our pre-production meetings, but now we can make sure that no-one on set is running a fever, whether on our crew or on the client’s side. It’s a sign that we’re doing all we can to keep everyone healthy. If you have other ideas, please contribute them.
We’ve shot video in countless environments, from operating rooms to sewage treatment plants, rock quarries to cleanrooms, highways, homes, hospitals and headquarters. Each presents different challenges which now have to be re-assessed in view of the coronavirus. One thing we can offer that others may not is that eImage is a family video production business. Our two or three-person crew comes from the same household, so in terms of virus spread it’s as if we’re all one person. Perhaps this is the one time where family and micro-sized businesses will have a slight edge over the bigger guys.
Wash your hands, wipe your gear, wear a mask and stay well!