B.C. 2.0.: It’s been all quiet on set in film and TV

As the industry emerges from suspended animation, movies and TV shows made in the province will reflect the new COVID reality, both onscreen and behind the scenes.

Credit: Brightlight Pictures

As the industry emerges from suspended animation, movies and TV shows made in the province will reflect the new COVID reality, both onscreen and behind the scenes

Lights, check. Camera, check. Action? It’s complicated. Most physical TV and movie production was suspended in March, leaving many of the 70,000 people who make up B.C.’s film industry in their own personal horror flick. Brightlight Pictures, a North Vancouver–based company, had seven shows paused mid-production (including the third season of The Good Doctor and the first of Disney+ series The Mighty Ducks).

But the industry didn’t wrap–far from it. “Arguably, everything is in the works,” says Shawn Williamson, president of Brightlight. “Every studio, independent producer and financing source—we’re all working to create what will become the new normal for physical production.”

Like many restaurants and retailers, TV and film sets have since reopened cautiously under BC’s Restart Plan. Williamson says casts and crews will emphasize safe distancing, hygiene and personal protective equipment.

“People will be in masks whenever they can, everybody will be washing their hands more frequently, and hand sanitizer will be dispensed often.” Besides those precautions, there’s craft services to consider. “We’ve traditionally had buffets or tents where the crew and cast could co-mingle and share plates and serving utensils,” Williamson explains. “That, of course, is all done now.”

Pete Mitchell, president and COO of Vancouver Film Studios, points out that COVID-19 will affect the industry in the steps leading up to production as well—he predicts the virus will be top-of-mind in writers’ rooms. “Shows are going to be written differently,” Mitchell says. We won’t be seeing scenes taking place at hockey games or concerts (crowd shots are a social distancing nightmare), and thanks to the mandatory 14-day quarantine, TV shows might think twice about flying in an international guest star.

The sets may look different, too. Before COVID, Vancouver Film Studios hosted as many as 13 shows in production simultaneously. With distancing measures considered, more space is needed. “Typically, we build sets right to the edge, and we pack people and stuff in there,” Mitchell argues. “The sets will have to be bigger so we can spread people out, and there is a finite number of stages—so that limits the number of shows that can be shooting at once.”

Industry professionals like Mitchell will be looking around the world for functional solutions to quarantine and distancing. He’s been reading up on an Icelandic film set that put its crew in colour-coded wristbands to keep themselves separated, and another project in Australia that quarantined the whole cast and crew together.

Despite the shutdown of physical production, there was still plenty going on behind the scenes. Prem Gill, CEO of government-funded independent non-profit Creative BC, notes that many people in visual effects, animation and post-production kept working away (from home) after producers made the necessary investments in hardware, bandwidth and tech support. The rest of the industry—which contributed $3.2 billion to the provincial economy in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to Creative BC–hasn’t been at a standstill. “There is a lot of work in development, which is a really critical part of the film and television cycle that you don’t often hear about,” Gill notes. Creative BC, which offers production support, industry expertise, locations packages and more, is often the first call for anyone wanting to shoot a production in the province. Over the past few months, the agency has kept receiving inquiries, Gill says.

Although Brightlight’s Williamson admits that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on his industry, he remains hopeful that the art itself won’t be hindered by pandemic precautions. “I think that as soon as we start to make set restrictions limit the creative process, that’s when we’ll run into challenges.”

He, Mitchell and Gill all agree that the film and TV business is in a unique position when it comes to bouncing back. “There is a highly sequenced, meticulously organized approach that already exists in film, and that will serve them really well,” Gill says. Mitchell notes that filmmakers are used to working with restrictions on time, space and money, and that innovation has always played a starring role in the industry. “We are trying to figure out how to make it work—and it’s gonna work. It’s just a matter of adapting.”