COVID Testing for Production in the Age of Omicron

Nearly two years into the pandemic, COVID testing is an essential part of production as companies of all sizes look to comply with protocols, keep sets safe and contain risk. The challenge for testing labs is to keep up with the ever-changing variants. Currently, it’s the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Even fully vaccinated people who believed the shots were a step back to normalcy have been watching anxiously as Omicron has jumped from 12.6 percent to 58.6 percent of COVID-19 cases by Christmas. While early research suggests Omicron may cause milder illnesses, testing remains an important tool for productions to keep their cast and crew safe.

Here’s what production companies need to know about testing in the age of Omicron… and what experts say you should do if a member of your cast or crew test positive.

How long to wait to test after exposure?

Every viral disease has an incubation period. That’s the time from when you were exposed to a pathogen to when it can be detected. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends waiting five after exposure to COVID before taking a test. Early data suggests that it takes only around two to three days for people to start showing symptoms after exposure to  Omicron. In addition, Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that tests seem to be picking up the virus within about two days of exposure. Although that speaks to the quick transmissibility of the virus, the upside is that it may take under five days to get a positive result, allowing productions to make changes.

Which test to use?

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are the gold standard for detecting COVID. These tests, which look for the presence of genetic material from the virus, are highly sensitive and unlikely to have false positives. Given how quickly Omicron can spread, productions should use labs that offer PCR tests with results in less than 24 hours.

Rapid antigen tests are less reliable. Studies have shown that rapid tests overall are able to catch up to only 85 percent of COVID cases. They detect pieces of proteins from the virus and work best when you have a higher viral load. That is why they’re used when people are already symptomatic. Check the CDC website, which lists the best rapid antigen tests that have been authorized for emergency use in the U.S.

Ultimately, choosing a test comes down to risk tolerance. PCR tests are the most accurate but rapid antigen tests have their place, particularly when someone is symptomatic. It depends on the time frame you are working in. When there’s more than 24 hours before the start of production, do a PCR test. For same day tests, do a PCR test in addition to a rapid antigen test. That way you’ll have an immediate result but also PCR confirmation within 24 hours. But to be clear, it’s always best to test cast and crew 24 – 72 hours prior to the start of work.

If you test positive, what do you do?

Each variant changes the guidance slightly. On December 27, the CDC issued new guidelines for people testing positive for COVID:

  • Stay home or self isolate for 5 days.
  • If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving after 5 days, you can leave your house.
  • Continue to wear a mask around others for 5 additional days.

It’s important to always confirm a positive test. If the person is vaccinated and doesn’t have any symptoms, follow up with a second rapid test later that day or the next. If both tests are positive, they pose an infectious risk. When the second test is negative, then the results are inconclusive. They should get a PCR test after that to be certain.

When a cast or crew member tests positive during a work day, contact tracing becomes critical. Production must notify anyone that person had close contact with from the previous two days. In some cases, that might mean a temporary shutdown of the set to test all individuals.

Who pays for the tests?

In film and video production, it is the client’s responsibility to pay for the tests. Cast and crew are either reimbursed for the test costs or payment is already in place with the lab. If a cast or crew member wants additional tests, the production company decides who will pick up that expense. As testing is often an uncontrolled expense (i.e. how many tests are necessary), it is listed as a cost-plus budget item.

COVID test prices depend on type of test, test location and how quickly you need to have the results. Here are some current ranges:

  • Rapid Antigen – $75 – $100/test
  • PCR (24-hour turnaround) – $150 – $175/test
  • PCR (1-hour turnaround) – $250 and up/test

Production can also schedule a concierge nurse to come to set for testing at an even higher amount. Although Congress passed laws mandating free COVID-19 testing, the scheduling and result wait times can range anywhere from two to five days. When time is a factor, it is best to schedule your own test.

While solutions to the COVID crisis have shifted to vaccinations, testing remains key to combating the spread of the virus. But the CDC and experts point out that some protection against the virus is always better than none. If there’s any time to get vaccinated, this is the time. You’re going to want that protection in the weeks ahead as Omicron and other eventual variants surge across the country.

 

The Role of a Cinematographer

You love movies (and who doesn’t), so you’ve decided you want to be a Cinematographer. Great! But what does a Cinematographer actually do? If you say shooting with a camera you’re only half right. There’s so much more that goes into it… and we have the scoop!

The main role of a Cinematographer is to communicate the script visually with the audience in mind. It’s visual storytelling at it’s best. From an operational side, the Cinematographer is the person who actually gets shoots the film, TV series or commercial. But there’s more to it than that. They are also the head of the lighting and camera departments which is a big deal. Still, that doesn’t really tell us what we need to know. The best Cinematographers work closely with the Director to help the director realize their creative vision, through composition, framing, lighting and camera movement.

The EFTI School of Photography in Madrid produced a very stylized version of the job a few years back.

The workflow of a Cinematographer comes down to the fundamentals phases of production: Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production. The project is essentially conceived three times and it’s the Cinematographer’s job to help shepherd the project through the first two phases and then provide input on the final one.

Pre-Production

In the world of filmmaking, cinematographers can be described in different ways. It all depends on how they interact with the camera. If they are operating the camera, they’re a Cinematographer. If they are instructing someone else to operate the camera and more focused on the overall look of the shot, they’re a Director of Photography (DP).

A Cinematographer’s work starts long before a frame of video is recorded. It’s here the Cinematographer has to make some crucial decisions about the look and feel: Questions such as whether to shoot on digital or film (which is rare these days)? What type of camera is the best choice to capture the Director’s vision? Should they shoot in color or black and white? If color is used, will the colors be saturated or faded? Are they going for a more realistic tone or an expressionistic one? What role will camera movement play in the shots? You’ll also assist in sourcing your crew and equipment to get those shots the Director wants.

As the Cinematographer and Director meet to answer all of these questions prior to shooting a bond is formed. Filmmaking is highly collaborative business so it’s critical to get along well with your Director and be on the same page. If things work out well, you’ll see the relationship continue which is why we commonly see the same Cinematographer/Director partnerships in movies.

Production

Cinematography is one of the most complex and challenging facets of filmmaking, especially during principal photography, when everything gets hectic. Not only does the Cinematographer have the biggest crew on set, but he also has to be in continuous communication with the Director and the Production Designer in order to make sure that everyone is on the same page with how the film will look.

For each scene, the Cinematographer decides on the best combination of cameras, filters and lenses, as well as where the cameras will be placed, what the lighting should be and when the scene will be shot. On large films, several cinematographers may oversee different camera set-ups. Others may serve as second-unit directors, shooting background or locations without the actors.

Post Production

Once everything is shot, the cinematographer’s work is largely done. You hand over all your footage to an Editor and let them work their magic. With the vast majority of projects captured in digital RAW formats, manipulating exposure and color is easier than ever before which reduces the involvement of the Cinematographer in post. While Editors and Colorists are masters of their trade, it’s still a good idea to stick around to make sure the film retains the look envisioned by you and the Director.

The Skills Needed

“A Cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist, moving an audience through a movie…making them think the way you want them to think, painting pictures in the dark.”

Cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Annie Hall)

Cinematographers are both technicians and artists. They are in charge of the camera, its angles, the exposure used, and production style all enhance the storytelling. But they also must deal with the strengths and limitations of the camera equipment. Even today’s advanced cameras can’t reproduce an image the same way our eyes do, so the Cinematographer must compensate for this inconsistency.

Understanding file formats of media is another consideration. ProRes is one of the most well-known and widely used video file formats. Raw video also exists, but is often cost-prohibitive.  It also adds significant increases in budget due to additional processing time and equipment requirements.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a Cinematographer’s job is their ability to work with others. They never work alone. And they constantly rely on others to help them achieve their goals. Any production requires collaboration. But a Cinematographer must be both committed to their work yet flexible in their approach.

Compromises always have to be made so a lot of the job is looking at the day and realizing what is vital to capture. The easiest way to communicate with the Grip and Electric teams is through making lighting plots and revising them as necessary. It’s the Cinematographer’s job to make sure every shot is usable and flag them when they’re not.

Anything can happen on a film set. So being able to adapt during production is a key trait of a successful Cinematographer.

Learning Cinematography

There are lots of great resources and associations out there to get more information. Here’s a few that we recommend:

The Role of the Cinematographer is part of our series that looks at various roles within film and television production. Also check out our description of the COVID Compliance Officer

Health and Safety Protocols during the Coronavirus Pandemic

For film and video production companies, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) offers a lesson in the contagion risks facing workplaces that need close proximity and interaction to function. Social distancing is almost impossible when offloading equipment, setting up camera and sound gear, applying hair and make-up, or getting into a 12-passenger van to get to the next location. And careless sanitary conditions on set have long been one of the production industry’s dirtiest secrets.

The sad state of hygiene on set has largely been accepted as part of the job. But when productions started shutting down nationwide to slow the virus’ spread, a debate emerged on what a safe (and sanitary) set looked like. Until now, having hospital information on a call sheet and a Set Medic on bigger productions was often the only health and safety protocols in place. That’s not nearly enough.

At some point, production will ramp up again and when it does, COVID-19 protocols need to be put in place. Although extra preparation is required, establishing a hygienic working environment is both possible and easy to implement. Here are some basic protocols to follow.

Common Sense Hygiene

Although there’s lots of information circulating about the virus, it’s best to follow what the health authorities are reporting. The CDC and numerous state authorities have issued recommendations to help prevent the spread of any respiratory disease. The nature of the production industry suggests additional guidelines, including:

  • Determine is anyone can effectively work from home during prep, shoot or wrap.

  • Keep workspaces clean. Disinfect them daily. The CDC recommends using diluted household bleach solutions or alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol.

  • Limit specific areas of the set to essential crew and personnel.

  • Require frequent and thorough hand washing by all crew, without exception.

  • Maintain social distancing of no less than 6 feet whenever possible on set. Have crew wear masks when that’s not possible.

  • Respect 12-hour turn arounds for all departments so people can get enough sleep.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has an excellent fact sheet on coronavirus that’s clear and concise. Attach it to call sheets and post on set.

On Set

Once on set, COVID-19 should be one of the first things talked about at your Safety Briefing. Stick to the facts, don’t offer opinion or spread rumors. Distribute a Health and Safety Protocol sheet to crew and place signs around the set explaining not to shake hands and to let the Producer know if you are feeling ill. Some commonsense measures include:

  • Have payroll, waivers and talent/location releases all done electronically with no paperwork exchanging hands on set.

  • Limit specific areas of the set to essential crew and personnel. Create policy of no Visitors on set.

  • Allow one department at a time to “step in, step out” of a set up, before the next department.

  • Provide masks, gloves, sanitizing wipes, tissues, and hand sanitizer in production spaces.

  • Place signage around restrooms and food services to wash hands and be clean.

  • Self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and report to your department head if you are sick or experiencing signs. Stay home when you are sick.

Set Medic

The Set Medic is often the medical provider hired on larger productions and works as the first aid department head. They are an excellent resource to research protocols for safe filming and can also help in creating a Health and Safety protocol sheet for the production. Every state is a little different, but there are health and safety bulletins used throughout the industry.

Schedule a time at the Preproduction Meeting (or sooner) to have your Set Medic fully explain all health and safety protocols to cast and crew.  Then empower them, and the Assistant Director, to enforce all rules (firmly but gently) on shoot days.

Wardrobe, Make Up and Hair

Taking certain precautions when applying makeup can keep everyone involved safe. Disinfect and sanitize any tools (tweezers, scissors, brushes, etc.) or products to make sure they are hygienic. Other tips:

  • Keep the number of people in makeup room/area to a bare minimum.

  • Work stations need to be cleaned between each user and distanced a minimum of 6 feet apart. Make-up chair and its handles should also be sanitized.

  • Before and after hair and make-up session, both talent and make-up artist are required to wash or sanitize their hands.

  • Applicators are not permitted to be reused on different people. This includes mascara and lipstick.

  • Ensure only wardrobe department touches clothing until it’s decided what the actor will actually try on.

  • Disinfect jewelry, glasses and accessories with sanitizer that will not cause damage.

  • All background extras, should wear their own clothes and dress from home. If that’s not possible, production should provide dressing facilities that allow for social distancing measures.

Craft Services and Catering

The area where your crew congregates also needs special attention. Get everyone to wash and sanitize their hands prior to eating any meal. As with production spaces, wipe everything down any time someone not on the crew touches it. Use paper towels to clean surfaces instead of repeat-use towels. Other to-dos include:

  • Buffets are not permitted. Meals and drinks must be served as single serving portions. Individually boxed meals are ideal but realize some may prefer to bring their own food.

  • Stagger meal times to decrease number of people getting food and seating simultaneously. Have food served to crew, as opposed to allowing self-serve.

  • Sanitize your hands before touching craft service equipment, including inside ice chests, the handles of serving utensils or other commonly shared surface.

  • Use suitable utensils, spatulas, tongs, deli paper, dispensing equipment, or gloves for food.

  • Communal ready-to-eat foods (chips, nuts, candy, cookies, etc.) are not permitted. Remove any bowls or canisters of snacks that crew could reach into. Provide snacks in individual, prepackaged portions or put them in plastic bags or Dixie cups for people to take away.

  • Reduce and streamline the variety of beverages. Offer the capability to refill an individual’s reusable water bottle without contact between refill source and bottle.

Fighting COVID-19 on set cannot be taken lightly. It requires a paradigm shift. Although the specifics will depend heavily on the type of production, new procedures and protocols rooted in safeguarding health need to be adopted. By creating cleanliness standards, we can reduce the risk of exposure on set.

If you’d like a copy of the in-depth Health and Safety Protocol sheet we distribute to our crews, please email us at info@moviemogul.tv