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How to restart video production safely during COVID-19

When and how to restart video production safely is one of the biggest questions in marketing and advertising right now. In this article, we share the biggest changes you can expect on a video production set during COVID-19 and how our industry is adapting.

This list summarizes the key changes we’ll be implementing on our sets. It is not all inclusive. We recommend reading the full guidelines from AICP and others before doing your own production day. Lots of helpful links below.

How to restart video production safely during COVID-19

1. Check your local laws and regulations.

Before we dive into what we’re doing to safely restart video production, I do want to emphasize that every state and locality has different rules. Since we’re based in Chicago, our guidelines are based on what we can and can’t do here in Chicago and in Illinois.

Your state or city may have different rules. We recommend starting with your local government website’s coronavirus response page and your local film office. To find your local film office, SAGindie has a great list.

2. Keep your crew as small as possible.

Best practice based on CDC guidelines is to minimize the size of any group of people, especially if you are shooting indoors. The safest option is to have less than 10 people.

The 10 people rule does not mean 10 people in the studio at any given time with 10 more people coming in and out. It means that each person on your set should not interact with more than nine other people on any given production day.

Practically, that means thinking about how you can keep different teams separate. For example, consider having your video village in a room with its own entrance. That way, your account team or client does not have to interact directly with talent or the camera department.

Consider creative solves for reducing the number of talent on your set. Ask your director or director of photography what angles to shoot to minimize the need for extras.  

3. Conduct a daily symptom questionnaire before allowing anyone on set.

Before allowing anyone to enter your set, ask them a symptom questionnaire. You can have a dedicated person asking these questions at the entrance, or you can ask people to check themselves before leaving home in the morning.

Make it clear to your crew that you will still pay them for the day if they stay home. You don’t want to encourage anyone to come to set despite feeling sick. Have backup crew members for key positions on call and already onboarded to the project.

Temperature checks are also an option, used in conjunction with the symptom questionnaire. Testing would be the gold standard, but is probably not a realistic option for smaller commercial productions.

4. Provide masks, hand washing stations, and hand sanitizer. Consider face shields for talent.

All crew and talent should wear masks at all times. Provide disposable masks if you can. Have hand washing stations and hand sanitizer available, and encourage people to wash their hands at regular intervals and before eating.

Talent is a unique situation. After they sit in hair and makeup, you probably don’t want them to wear a mask. Consider providing face shields for them to wear when they are not on camera. That way they can protect themselves and others without messing up their makeup.

Gloves are generally not recommended. They can provide a false sense of security. Hand washing and sanitizers are best practice.

5. Consider not shooting on location, especially not in client offices. Shoot on controlled studio sets or other places without public access.

As commercial video producers, we often shoot in client offices or on location. Avoid shooting on location unless it is empty of workers (which it might be right now!).

Shooting in a studio or empty space helps you create a controlled environment. You can sanitize the space each night knowing that no one but your crew and talent have access to the space.

6. Have a dedicated Compliance Assistant or safety PA on set to enforce the rules.

Though adding another crew member seems counterintuitive, we recommend having a dedicated person on set whose only job is to enforce social distancing and keep things sanitized.

This person should be fully trained on safety and best practices. They must be empowered to tell crew to keep masks on, call for handwashing breaks, and sanitize surfaces regularly throughout the day.

7. Provide boxed meals and stagger lunch breaks.

Craft service is traditionally buffet-style. Instead, offer boxed lunches and bottled water. Require hand washing before touching any food tables.

Stagger lunch breaks to minimize people sitting together without masks. If possible, have tables outside for people to eat at. Have your safety PA sanitize tables between uses.

More video production and COVID-19 resources

Production-specific guidelines

AICP guidelines

DGA/SAG-AFTRA guidelines

Motion Picture and TV production guidelines

City of Chicago: Guidelines for Film & TV Production

State of Illinois: Film production guidelines

General guidelines

CDC guidelines for workplaces

OSHA guidance for workplaces

Sample symptom questionnaire (Chicago’s guidelines linked above also include one)

How to hire a video production company

Not ready to shoot? Consider alternatives to live-action production or using stock footage.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode transcript

Hope Morley: Hello and welcome to So You Need a Video, a podcast about boosting your business with smarter video marketing. I'm Hope Morley.

Tory Merritt: I'm Tory Merritt.

Guy Bauer: I'm Guy Bauer.

Hope Morley: And today, we're going to be digging into the biggest question that we're getting right now from our clients. We are recording this episode in mid June. So, we're based in Chicago, which is opening back up to businesses. As of now, all 50 states are opening back up. So the question that we're getting is can we start doing production again? And so, we wanted to talk about some ways that our industry is opening back up, some of the restrictions that you might be having, if you're thinking about doing a video project, but before we dig into that, oh, I've got a little question there.

Tory Merritt: Yeah.

Hope Morley: I want to take a minute. It's been awhile on this podcast since we introduced who we are. So, I want to take a minute. I'll throw it to Guy first. Guy, tell the listeners who you are and why we should listen to you?

Tory Merritt: Yeah. Why should we listen to you?

Guy Bauer: Well, I don't know if you should listen to me.

Hope Morley: Well, they can make that decision for themselves.

Guy Bauer: I'm the founder and creative director at Umault, a B2B video marketing agency. I started up the agency in 2010 after I lost my production job in radio, actually, of all places. And I am a Libra and I enjoy traveling.

Tory Merritt: It’s going super well for you right now then.

Guy Bauer: Yeah, me and my wife were discussing today, like, we've got to get the hell out of here.

Hope Morley: Yeah.

Guy Bauer: But I don't know. Got to stay strong. Be patient.

Hope Morley: Yes. Tory, do you want to introduce yourself?

Tory Merritt: Yeah. Hey, I'm Tory Merritt. I lead client service account director at Umault. I've been here for a little over two years. And before this, I worked at some other shops. McCann, FCD, and Factory Detroit on all kinds of different lines of business.

Guy Bauer: And we have a question coming in. What's your favorite color?

Tory Merritt: Oh, pink.

Guy Bauer: And Hope, who are you?

Hope Morley: And I'm Hope Morley. I'm the COO of Umault. I've been working with Guy since 2016. So, just going on four years now. And I started as a production supervisor role and that's relevant to this episode because you’ll hear as we kind of go through these different production regulations, Tory has the client perspective, Guy, you've got more of the creative perspective and I'll be coming at it more from the production logistics perspective.

Guy Bauer: So this is the situation room you could call this.

Hope Morley: Yes.

Guy Bauer: Hold on. Yeah. Good.

Tory Merritt: Are we going to get a label that says the situation room at the bottom?

Guy Bauer: This is the production situation room.

Tory Merritt: There we go. Excellent. Okay. Now I know where I am. I can ground myself.

Hope Morley: Now that we have a frame of reference. So these guidelines that we'll be sharing today, these are put together from both the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and more relevant to us directly is AICP, which is the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. They've both released really great detailed guidelines on how to do production safely during COVID-19. So, let's dive in.

Hope Morley: So first and foremost, before I get into any of these details, rule number one is follow your local laws and regulations. Every state is still doing things differently. And even within the state, different municipalities are doing things differently, depending where you are. So, make sure wherever you're shooting, especially if you're not shooting in your own city, that you know what the local rules are on businesses being open, gathering sizes, mask wearing, all those different things.

Hope Morley: Because I know we're in Chicago, which is a particularly strict place. Other cities, if you're shooting in Texas, they don't have mask rules. So first and foremost, look at your local laws and regulations and local film offices are always super helpful on giving guidance to productions there. So, step one, know where you're shooting and know what their rules are.

Hope Morley: So, the rest of these can be applied anywhere and is really just best practices. So number two of what you should be doing if you're shooting during COVID, and this is a big one for a lot of people, is keep your crews as small as possible. Best practices from the CDC are to have 10 people or less in any given room or space. Keep those gatherings small. And so, that's actually a tricky thing for a lot of productions. We're used to having a lot of people on set. If there's a lot of talent, if you have extras, there's a lot of things to think about of how we can keep it to 10 people or less.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. We were just talking yesterday, Hope, we have a project coming up where without counting crew or anyone else, we've got eight extras and two lead actors. That's 10.

Hope Morley: 10 right there. Yeah.

Guy Bauer: And so, that means that that production can't be done until we're in phase three.

Hope Morley: Phase four.

Guy Bauer: Phase four.

Hope Morley: We're in phase three in Chicago.

Guy Bauer: We're in phase three.

Tory Merritt: And they're all in one scene.

Guy Bauer: Just, I think, on set in general. Is that true, Hope? So when they say limit people to 10, it's just in general, 10 people.

Hope Morley: Yeah. That's the best practice ideal. One option you can have is if you can keep people as separate as possible. Like, if you want to have a video village for some of your team, having that in a separate room with its own entrance. So, that's part of the thing too. It's not just having two rooms, but you kind of really want to make sure that you don't have more than 10 people interacting at any given time throughout the entire day.

Guy Bauer: Got it.

Tory Merritt: So that gives you, depending on how you want to weight that, that gives you a little bit more flexibility in terms of being a client. Because most of the clients I've worked with, when you're spending a decent chunk of money on a shoot, somebody needs to be there to make sure that things are going well and everybody's covering it off. If you've got a great account person, they can help you out, and potentially there's some live streaming options that we've talked about where you can live stream from set to anywhere and then be on the phone or find a way to make sure that that communication is constant between account and client so the direction can get to creative. But even if you have two separate rooms, that gives you ... You can follow the rules a little more closely, but gives you the ability to still be there.

Hope Morley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Guy Bauer: Yeah, it sounds to me like the gist is, I mean, the gist is the same thing as what everyone is saying is just social distance. So, it doesn't make sense to have a large gathering of people in one room when we're all breathing and talking and whatever. So, if you can keep people in different rooms. Now let me ask you this. I know you're not a legal expert, but back to the shoot that we're talking about. So is it no more than ... Because the place we're going to be is a 35,000 square foot office with many, many, many, many, many different open rooms. So is it 10 people just in general or 10 people per room? So, could we kind of game it and make it so that ...

Hope Morley: If you're going to game it, you want to make sure that those people aren't overlapping. So, that's where the problem comes. So, if you have 10 people in one room and 10 people in another room and they never meet and breathe the same air, that's fine. But if you're going to be trying to take talent in and out, going from room to room, and then you have wardrobe in one room and your director in another, suddenly you're crossing paths and you're crossing paths with more than 10 people. So, I think that's where the problem comes in.

Tory Merritt: It's like the exponential spread, right? The more combinations of different people together, the more people that they can spread to versus if they're strictly cutoff, the worst it could get, however you want to look at it is 10 in one and 10 in the other versus mixing. You've got each person could spread to two other people.

Guy Bauer: And is that the same for outside or is outside you can have more than 10 people? Or if we were going to do a shoot in a park, still limited to 10 people?

Hope Morley: The city of Chicago where we are would say 10 people still.

Guy Bauer: Okay. So basically, when you look at your local rules or whatever, where you are, that number that you see wherever you go is the number that in totality, you can't have more than.

Tory Merritt: It's recommended that you should. Yeah.

Guy Bauer: And obviously, I guess, the thing is that if you could obviously break this rule, but then you're opening yourself up for a bunch of risk if a breakout happens on your set.

Hope Morley: On your set.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. So, all right. That's a good tip. 10 people.

Hope Morley: 10 people. All right. Next thing that you should do, and this-

Guy Bauer: Do kids count as half peoples?

Hope Morley: No.

Guy Bauer: No? Okay.

Tory Merritt: 100% people.

Guy Bauer: Darn it. But they're like half the size. Don't they take up half of the air? No? Okay. Hope is either frozen or very upset with me right now. Wait.

Tory Merritt: Or both. Maybe it's both. She'll be back. She'll be back. There she is.

Hope Morley: Sorry about that.

Guy Bauer: We were like, "Wow. Hope just froze up. She's giving me the silent treatment." All right. So, kids don't count as half a person.

Hope Morley: No.

Guy Bauer: Okay. Dogs. Do they-

Hope Morley: Dogs don't-

Guy Bauer: Could you have virtually unlimited dogs?

Hope Morley: Yes.

Guy Bauer: Oh, so there you go. So, just substitute dogs for humans and-

Tory Merritt: See, make an analogy out of it.

Hope Morley: See, that’s the creative thinking we need here. What's the creative solve?

Guy Bauer: So you just use a bunch of dogs for your shoot. There you go.

Hope Morley: Yeah.

Guy Bauer: Done. Podcast over.

Hope Morley: All right. The next tip that we would give, the next thing that we'll be doing ...

Guy Bauer: Just ignore me.

Hope Morley: Moving on.

Guy Bauer: Keep going.

Tory Merritt: Like I always do.

Guy Bauer: Yeah.

Hope Morley: So, obviously in an ideal world, we would test any crew or casts that are going to be on a production set, but we all know that it's just not practical to be testing people every day. So what we'll be doing is doing a symptom questionnaire for everyone before they come on set. And I'll actually include a link in the show notes for a symptom questionnaire that you can use. A lot of offices are doing this. Temperature checks are also an option. Those aren't ... There's some back and forth on how good those are now. Most ... The AICP and others are recommending just doing a symptom checker. So what you can do here, you can either have a dedicated person literally standing at the entrance, asking these questions to people before they come on set, or if it's a small crew that you trust, you can always just have them check themselves before they come in.

Hope Morley: And from our perspective, you might want to think about still paying people for the day if they don't come so you don't provide any incentive for people to lie and still come on set if they're not feeling well.

Hope Morley: And then, once we get people on set, we would want people to be wearing masks whenever possible. And this is something that production has a little bit of a unique situation because not everyone can wear masks if you think about talent on set. An actor can't be wearing a mask while they're actively shooting. One interesting thing that … A tip that AICP has is once talent goes to hair and makeup, if you don't want to be wearing a mask and risking messing up your makeup, to consider having face shields on set for talent. So, when they're not shooting, they can have something to block their face and still protect the other people that they're coming in contact with, but then you're not ruining hair and makeup, which I think was a really, really great tip. And I would want to have that on set for our next production.

Guy Bauer: Let me ask you this. So, I know testing's not a thing. Obviously, that would be the best thing is that everyone, before you go to set, you go get tested and there's some instant test result. And I'm sure that's not a thing. What about the antibody test or anything, or is that too unreliable?

Hope Morley: Those are very unreliable. And we don't know what that means right now. So, just because you had, it doesn't necessarily mean, A, we don't know if it means that you're immune to it and for how long. And we also don't have clear guidance on whether that means that you can't spread it. So, we really wouldn't want to be relying on antibody tests and-

Tory Merritt: And no one knows anything about the incubation period concretely at this point. So, even the testing, you could get it, get a test, and then within three days, if you were exposed to it.

Guy Bauer: And a general disclaimer, I'll write it up here, all of us are doctors.

Tory Merritt: We're not medical experts.

Hope Morley: Like I said opening the episode, follow your local laws and regulations, follow CDC guidelines.

Guy Bauer: None of us are doctors.

Hope Morley: We're sharing what we're doing as a team going once we start production again this summer. So, this is what we're doing. These are best practices from our industry, but we're not doctors. This is how we're do it.

Tory Merritt: This is like a Friends episode. I feel like I should be Joey and be like, "But I've played a doctor."

Guy Bauer: Oh, there was another question. Yeah, because that's the thing with talent. They can't be wearing face masks. Although, again, going back to the dogs thing is try to weave in, if you couldn't weave in a creative video where people do need to be wearing masks, then problem solved there. But I-

Tory Merritt: They don't need to be close together. Right? You could come up with something where there's a way that it's normal that they're six feet apart or whatever.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. And just going from the creative angle, the project we're working on where we were discussing shooting, it's two people talking very close to each other in a hallway. Well, we told our client the easy way to solve that, right? If we can't shoot that or maybe just as things develop, it won't make sense when showing this video that two people are so close, we can quickly pivot to them talking on a cell phone to each other in two different locations. The content is still there. So not ... So, I guess what you can do is combine all these regulations with how to shoot and then also weave in your creative to try to mitigate and ask, "Where can we put a dog?" I'm being serious actually. Where can we put a dog? And since kids count as half, where can we ... No, I'm just kidding. Kids don't count as half. But yeah. So where can we change the creative up so that it matches with the current reality?

Tory Merritt: Yeah, actually. A good example of this actually wasn't on production, but if you decided you couldn't shoot, my favorite example so far, there's an Arby's commercial on TV where they've got two sandwiches and it's an old spot and one of the sandwiches is discontinued. They don't have it anymore. So it's just pixelated out and they're like, "Don't pay attention to the sandwich in the back. We don't have it anymore. But the one in the front is still delicious." And two years ago, that wouldn't have been funny or even you wouldn't get it. And I was like, "Oh, that's, that's a creative solve for that." And, normally you'd say that's a spot that you didn't even finish. We can't use it. It has old stuff in it. Instead, they found a creative way to work within what they had, which is they couldn't shoot at all, and they still made something funny, and I remembered it.

Guy Bauer: Well, there was a commercial with Kenan Thompson where it's for some hard seltzer and you can tell the commercial was Kenan Thompson and Aubrey Plaza, and they're at a party. Right? And you could tell that the ad wouldn't make sense now, right? There are no pool parties. So they retooled the creative to it was Kenan Thompson having a daydream right now. I had a daydream that me and Aubrey Plaza were at a party. So honestly just, they use the same thing they already shot in the can and they just reframed it to be applicable for where we are now. So, there's always a way to make it happen. So take your limitations and don't be sad about it, and just try to come up with an idea that matches up. And my whole adage, I guess, of my entire career is make people think that you meant to do it on purpose.

Hope Morley: Yeah. And related to creative solves, thinking about to keep talent and crew as low as possible, actually think about how many extras do you need to have on set? And is there a way that you could, I hate saying add it in post, but I saw an example of a commercial that was shot that they were doing a wrestling match. And normally when you're shooting a wrestling match, you would want people, extras, sitting behind that. But what they did was they just shot the two wrestlers in the ring, and then they're going to be adding shots of people behind it in post production. They'll be using ... Spending a little extra money on visual effects to get that in there. So, they're trying to come up with creative ways to not have so many people physically sitting next to each other on set.

Tory Merritt: And you could have just shipped the money that you were going to pay for the extras over to the post.

Hope Morley: Well, you still have to pay the extras too, because you need to shoot them separately.

Tory Merritt: But not as many of them. Right?

Hope Morley: Yeah.

Hope Morley: Yeah. So it's thinking about maybe you do a tighter camera angle, so you wouldn't need to have so many extras sitting behind it. So you just need five and then, go from there.

Tory Merritt: Duplicate and all that.

Hope Morley: So, speaking of creative solves, especially for us in the B2B marketing space, we do a lot of our shoots on location at client offices. Even if we're using talent, things like that, we often use our client's actual spaces and that's not really recommended right now because as much as possible, for me as someone who works in an office, I don't want a bunch of strangers coming in and breathing all over my stuff. We want to limit visitors as much as possible. So, what we might want to consider while we're shooting during COVID is not shooting on location as much as possible and trying to shoot in places like studios that are more of a controlled space and you can really make sure you're sanitizing it.

Hope Morley: You've actually limited, limited the number of people that are coming in and thinking about different options instead of defaulting to shooting in a public location or in a client location.

Tory Merritt: Or in our case, a lot of those offices are actually empty and who knows how long they'll be empty for? I have a friend whose office, they'll be empty until September. They're not going back. So, sometimes those people will rent their office out to you and it's completely empty. And you get this gigantic space that you would never normally have access to without people in it, because no one's in the office right now.

Hope Morley: Right. And then that's a great opportunity that you could sanitize everything down, make sure that you're really controlling how many people have access to that space to keep it as safe as possible.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. That's the key word here is please be safe.

Hope Morley: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, so this tip here that I'm going to go into now, this almost seems like it contradicts some of the advice we've been giving so far, but this is having a dedicated ... What some people are calling ... AICP is calling it a compliance assistant, but this is having a person onset whose only job is to make sure that they are trained in safety regulations and they are making sure that everything is clean and safe. They are enforcing social distancing. They're making sure everyone's wearing their mask. They're sanitizing things every hour, making sure that there's enough hand sanitizer out and all that kind of thing.

Hope Morley: So yes, we want as few people as possible, but having someone whose entire job is just to make sure that everyone is staying safe can be a really important thing to do. And then they can be, like I said, sanitizing things every hour so that everyone feels comfortable knowing that this is as safe of a workplace as possible.

Hope Morley: And on that note, I think we'll wrap up. So I'm going to link to a lot of resources for this episode. So, if you're watching this on YouTube, I'll have a bunch of links down in the description, or you can visit us on our website at Umault.com. That's U-M-A-U-L-T.com and I'll link to a whole bunch of resources, both for production and in terms of just opening businesses back up, the CDC. Wow. I know. I have so many resources ready for all of you and I would love to share them. So, thanks for listening today. The banner just threw me off.

Guy Bauer: Thanks for listening.

Hope Morley: Thanks for listening.

Guy Bauer: If you have a thing, leave us a thing, and what is it?

Hope Morley: If you like what you heard today, please leave us a review on your favorite podcast app, or you can like and subscribe to us on YouTube. So, thanks for listening.

Guy Bauer: Thank you. You're welcome.

Tory Merritt: See you.





Picture of Guy bauer, founder of umault

Guy has been making commercial videos for over 20 years and is the author of “Death to the Corporate Video: A Modern Approach that Works.” He started the agency in 2010 after a decade of working in TV, film and radio. He’s been losing hair and gaining weight ever since.

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