Although many studios have remained open during the Coronavirus pandemic, production levels have been severely curtailed. Now, with stringent safety protocols in place, they are gearing up for the return of many more shows in coming months.
Any visitor to a TV or film studio these days will immediately notice a very different work environment to the pre-Covid era.
At reception, they’ll be greeted by temperature checking scanners, video safety inductions, and hand sanitisers. As they go in, they’ll follow a one way system to make sure they don’t bump into anyone coming towards them. Two metre distance markers, safety notices and social distancing reminders will also be spread around the building. As they go up the lift, they will have to do so one at a time. In the production galleries, Perspex shields will divide up workstations.
The studio itself will also likely feel emptier, with fewer people around. Most studios are still encouraging staff to work at home if they can. Dock10 head of studios Andy Waters says a key focus has been to reduce the number of people at the studio to create plenty of space both for clients and the crews needed to deliver productions. BBC Studioworks head of studios and post-production John O’Callaghan says around 20% of its staff are currently on site. “We’ve found a lot of people can successfully work remotely.”
The studio will feel less cluttered too: BBC Studioworks, for example, has removed tables and chairs from social areas to prevent people getting too close.
The studio will certainly feel cleaner, with all facilities stepping up hygiene procedures. At Nu Boyana Film Studios in Bulgaria, CEO Yariv Lerner says measures include disinfecting work stations, including UV light disinfection. The studio closed its doors on March 13th, reopening its doors to production on May 13. “We took the time to repair and clean the studio,” as Lerner, “as well as open up outdoor seating areas for people to socially distance.”
“I suspect that come September we will probably be in a position to start doing shows in front of audiences.” Andy Waters, Dock 10
Working practices at the studio are likely to have changed too. BBC Studioworks’ John O’Callaghan says a set would traditionally arrive in an articulated lorry with a backdoor. “Now we primarily have them turning up on a curtain sided vehicle so we can use forklift trucks to get things off on pallets to avoid manual handling where we can.”
Activity on set is also being staggered, rather than multiple tasks all happening at the same time, so that crews can socially distance more easily.
Such profound changes are necessary to protect cast and crews if the industry wants to carry on working, says Roger Morris, managing director of Elstree Studios, which insists on the wearing of masks and temperature scanning among its measures. “The industry does want to carry on working. You can never eliminate 100% of the risk. But you can certainly go down the road of making sure that things are a lot safer.”
Dock10, like many other studios, has followed government advice while framing its guidelines. It has also worked with health and safety advisors First Option, while it referred to a BAFTA report on working during Covid-19. The studio has also canvassed opinions from its staff and clients.
Dock10’s Waters says the guidelines have taken time to produce. The reason, he says, is that there’s been “a massive amount of debate” because everyone has a different appetite for risk, and there are a lot of people who need to be listened to and understood. “And all that needs to be distilled down into concise information which can be easily communicated.”
BBC Studioworks’ O’Callaghan says discussions in advance with productions “really are key for us” to help plan for the people needed on a show. “We agree with the production in advance who sits where within the gallery environment so we can preserve the two metre distancing.”
The likes of Elstree, BBC Studioworks, Dock10 and Nu Boyana are all open to production right now, albeit at a reduced level at the moment.
Dock10, for example, has remained open throughout the pandemic with shows like Bitesize Daily, Newsround, Blue Peter and Saturday Mash-up all filming during this time. Coming up in the near future is a quiz show and reality show, among other programmes booked in. Dock10’s Andy Waters says the studio is using the experience on early shows while the facility is quieter than usual to help refine its protocols before things get busier.
BBC Television Centre has also remained open, and is currently hosting Good Morning Britain, This Morning, Loose Women, The Martin Lewis Money Show and Peston for ITV, and has also facilitated John and Lisa’s Weekend Kitchen, The Last Leg and Sunday Brunch.
Elstree’s Roger Morris says the studio has had productions in during the pandemic, and has lots lined up too including Strictly Come Dancing and A League of Their Own.
Since re-opening on May 13, Nu Boyana has hosted two commercials and has restarted prep on films that were set to shoot at the studio. When lockdown hit, the studio was in pre-production on films for Millennium and Lionsgate, and was also finishing up Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton thriller The Asset.
The big question for many studios now is when it will be safe and practical for audiences to return for entertainment shows.
“You can never eliminate 100% of the risk. But you can certainly go down the road of making sure that things are a lot safer.” Roger Morris, Elstree Studios
Waters says Dock 10 is looking closely for government guidance around cinemas. “If a cinema could open, so could a TV studio,” he says. “We would absolutely expect to operate [with an audience] once cinemas start to open up.”
This is likely to mean, of course, that audiences are smaller and would have to be spaced out, perhaps checkerboard style.
“I suspect that come September we will probably be in a position to start doing shows in front of audiences,” says Waters.
- Read more: Covid-19 impacts studio production schedules