28th April 2021

On-Site Filming in Covid Times: Lessons from Blenheim Palace

How do you safely undertake a film shoot during a pandemic? This is the question that we were faced with as we prepared to film at Blenheim Palace for the much-anticipated Churchill Exhibition.

ATS were commissioned to produce a new online virtual tour to accompany the exhibition, which opens on 17th May, and spent three full days filming on site. At its peak we had over 40 cast and crew members on set, which presented many logistical challenges.

As our production dates approached it was clear that social distancing rules were going to remain in place, and we would have to adapt our usual filming protocols to reflect the government guidance. From casting to catering and screening to make-up, we had to quickly establish a new way of working.

 

A woman in a COVID mask pours an actor, dressed as Winston Churchill, a glass of champagne while filming a party scene.

 

“Planning and executing a shoot of this scale at any time is challenging, but doing so during a pandemic required a whole new approach. The safety of the cast and crew had to be the priority, so we decided early on that we would film as much of the content as possible with just one cast member, Winston Churchill. We then hired the minimum number of additional actors possible to still be able to convincingly tell the story of Winston’s life and planned the shoot in such a way as to minimise the number of times each actor needed to come to set. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

– Louise Wainwright, Senior Producer

 

 

“Planning COVID testing of the cast and crew was one of the biggest challenges. It was a huge logistical effort, getting tests out to everyone and making sure they were taken on the right days, not to mention liaising with them about their results.  There was a lot of admin involved.”

– Lana Burgess, Production Assistant

 

A film crew point their cameras at an actor dressed as Winston Churchill, on the steps of Blenheim Palace.

 

Here are some of the main challenges that we faced and how we overcame them:

 

Casting

  • It was included in cast members’ contracts that their hiring was based on having been symptom free, not having been asked to self-isolate, not having lived with anyone who was self-isolating, and not having been abroad in the 10 days prior to filming.
  • Cast members were contractually obliged to tell us if any of the above applied at any stage before coming onto set.
  • Where possible local actors were used in order to minimise unnecessary travel. We contacted a lot of amateur dramatic groups in the Oxford/Woodstock area to source people who could be cast as extras.
  • We ensured there was only the minimum number of people on site by casting people in multiple roles where appropriate.

 

Social Distancing

  • All cast and crew were advised to arrive in their own transport, to minimise contact with others before arrival on set.
  • The arrival of cast members was staggered to avoid crowds.
  • There was a designated COVID officer on duty to make sure that cast members were remaining socially distanced between takes.
  • All cast and crew wore a minimum of N95 graded face masks all day, except when they were eating or in front of the camera. Any crew members that needed to be within 1 metre of cast were also required to wear a face shield.

 

Screening

  • Everyone on set (cast, crew and Blenheim Palace staff) had to take two lateral flow tests before coming onto site: one three days before they arrived on set, and one the day before they arrived. They would subsequently take a test every other day for the duration of their time on set. These were posted out to everyone in advance by ATS.
  • Spare tests were left at Blenheim Palace. If anyone arrived having forgotten to take one, they would be asked to complete this in their car before coming into the building.
  • Anyone who received an inconclusive test prior to coming on site was redirected to a free Rapid COVID Test Centre local to them to retake this.
  • Upon arrival, everyone had their temperature taken using a heat gun.

 

Catering

  • We ensured that all food was individually packed so that it did not need a third party to prepare it. Usually this consisted of pre-packaged sandwiches.
  • For the evening shoot, where a more substantial meal was required, we provided ready meals from ‘COOK’. All staff cooked their own ready meals in microwaves provided. This restricted contact with other people’s food.
  • All cooking equipment, such as microwaves, had hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial wipes beside them so that they could be sanitised between uses.

 

Makeup

  • All makeup artists wore face masks and shields while on site, as they were working within one metre of the cast.
  • Disposable makeup brushes were used wherever possible, with each cast member having their own set.
  • Where disposable brushes were not able to be used, brushes were sprayed with an anti-bacterial spray between uses.
  • Cast members were given the option of bringing their own makeup brushes should they wish.
  • Cast members were given the option of applying their own makeup, under instruction, if they were uncomfortable with someone else doing this.

 

A makeup artist wearing a COVID mask and shield applies makeup to a child actor during a film shoot.

 

 

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