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Shoots Resume in Australia

Australian production is emerging from a brutal lockdown. But it’s not a return to business as usual, not production as it was. Production has always had restrictions, none like those confronting it right now. As a result, production as an industry is coming together to conquer these new challenges and allow it to resume doing business. There is a real sense of community within the industry, with production companies helping one another to adapt. One of the larger production companies resuming business is Sweetshop.

Edward Pontifex, Managing Director, Sweetshop Australia spoke to The Stable about what “back to business” under Covid-19 entails:

What questions did Sweetshop ask itself before going back on set in Australia?
We’ve had to be very patient and brutally realistic too. You can’t rush this, and we weren’t prepared to be on set until we had everything in place. The biggest question was and still is, how will we take extra measures to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved counter their worries and minimise the risk of infection, but still achieve the best possible production and high-level craft solutions.

Once we had our protocols in place and with a lot of collaboration from the CPC [Commercial Producers Council] and all our working partners, a lot of things have fallen into place.

How is it going?
Really well. We had a one-day shoot in Sydney last week, and we shoot in Melbourne this week and next week. The energy on set has been really amazing to see. Cast and crew are just elated to be working again. And everyone has been following health and safety procedures diligently.

Did you take any advice from your office in Shanghai, which has been back on set since April?
Yes, of course. It’s all about shared knowledge; in a situation like this, we’re all learning from each other. China is about a month to six weeks ahead of us and we’ve been shooting in both studios and on location since April, albeit with elevated awareness and protocols in place for the current climate. Obviously, we have our own set of health and safety protocols here, but it’s been incredibly useful to see how productions have adapted in China – it’s put us a step ahead here in Australia.

How has pre-production been affected?
The main thing is to educate everyone regarding the new way of working, as long as everyone knows how the new process will be operated, they embrace it. Where we can, everything is done remotely, and everyone accepts this. And we’re all pretty used to working like this now. Casting, pre-production meetings and post-production are all done over video. We use Zoom as the main form of communication across all remote teams to host meetings such as the PPM.

What has helped most to get things working again?
It’s been so advantageous for the job to be working with agencies far earlier in the process. By being able to share with them how we are managing under the restrictions we are able to workshop creative solutions together.

What health & safety measure have you put into place? What restrictions are you working under?
There are a lot of restrictions, so we need to develop measures that can counter them. There are on-set tracing, health monitoring and health & safety protocols, which are part of the daily schedule to manage a safe set in preventing the spread of C-19. Shoots are still remote to some degree. Even though agencies could be in the same city as the shoot taking place, they won’t actually need to be on set. We have been using technology like Zoom, QTake and Unity successfully. It allows agencies and clients to be part of the entire production process without needing to be there in person.

On set, we’ve staggered production call times and bump-ins in order to keep numbers manageable for social distancing, as well as keeping sets and studios to essential crew only. We conduct temperature checks for everyone as they arrive on set. There is a dedicated basin for washing hands and sanitisers constantly offered throughout the day by a nurse. For hair and make-up, masks are worn when working with the cast. All equipment, surfaces, door handles etc are regularly wiped. Crew members don’t share work tools, phones, desks, computers or equipment in general, wherever possible.

Only one person makes coffee, lunch is delivered with individual cutlery and tissues in its own pack. We’ve had a maximum of four people to a table at lunch or we stagger lunch to avoid over-crowding.

Is production time faster or slower now?
All these extra details may sound tedious and it certainly adds extra time to our day, but it’s essential to keep us all working. It’s also good to know that the crew support us and have embraced these protocols as they don’t want any of us to make any mistakes and put us back.

Are there any positives in having to change the standard way of production?
There has been a big learning curve for everyone – production companies, agencies and clients. Not only have we needed to work out new processes, but also get used to using new platforms and technology. I really believe this will be of huge benefit to future alternative ways to produce work. It’s broken down some of the “mystique” and control surrounding production, and I expect some of the practices will be continued going forward.

What can agencies and clients do to help?
The advice would be to get ideas and scripts through to your production partners early so shooting parameters at each Alert Level can be established. Obviously messaging through storytelling and narrative is key and we want to help as early on as possible to navigate the current and post Covid landscape to ensure we can do this as effectively as possible.

How are you expecting your landscape to change permanently?
The landscape has definitely changed, but there will always be a necessity for clients and brands to tell their stories through visual mediums. Working, shooting and meetings with “a little less fanfare” I think will be trends to emerge out of lockdown. How we look to achieve that through creative production will change with increased health and safety measures, but in the long run, these measures will leave the production industry in good stead with a further emphasis on making sure we stay one of the safest industries in Australia.

Also, there will most likely be a change in what brands consumers will be in a position to respond to. But it is interesting to see if this could reset priorities as to how we move forward after a global shake up/down.

This interview was published in The Stable on May 14, 2020.