UK Screen Association CEO Neil Hatton on how companies are innovating to stay safely open for business
While filming has virtually ground to a halt as a result of Covid-19, most post-production, VFX and CG animation businesses have rapidly deployed technology solutions to allow them to keep the wheels turning through this crisis.
It’s not exactly “business as usual”, as there are some necessary compromises with employers showing duty of care to their staff by enforcing social distancing, but producers can rest assured that they will be able to get their productions completed.
Post-production companies have been busy installing edit suites and workstations into their employees’ and editors’ homes, with either local media drives or connections back to the facilities shared storage. Some have implemented remote desktop solutions to allow access to high resolution material via home broadband. In this way, essential services such as editing, picture finishing, QC and programme delivery can continue. Computer-based animation and full CG VFX projects are also using remote desktops to operate effectively from the artists’ homes.
The real but necessary compromises come around client attendance, as employers’ duty of care for their staff will always take precedence. Facilities are heavily restricting the number of people from production teams who can enter their buildings, and many have banned visitors altogether. Viewings and client interaction are being conducted remotely wherever possible. Clearly producers are not being invited into people’s homes to edit. Review copies are being uploaded; streaming the suite output and webcam conferencing are the order of the day.
There was some confusion after the PM’s lockdown announcement on 23 March that only essential workers could go to work. How do you define essential? The following day there was clarification from the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who said people whose jobs has not already been shut down by the government measures to date, should continue to work but should only be travelling to a workplace “where that work can’t be done at home”.
Companies have reduced their on-premise staffing levels to the bare minimum, with occasional attendance by skeleton crews to maintain the connectivity and keep the central servers and remote workstations running, thereby enabling everyone else to work from home. All companies are following government advice about cleaning, hand washing and social distancing in the workplace. Employers and clients are being encouraged to be flexible about working times to allow any skeleton crew to travel to and from work safely by avoiding crowds on public transport.
Not every service can easily be conducted remotely. Whilst some grading and audio dubbing can be completed in temporary home studios, depending on the programme genre, it may be desirable to use the high-quality suites and theatres in a post company. Then you will have to brief the key talent and trust them to get on with it alone. Very few companies are allowing allow client attendance and even then, it will be only one producer and the craft talent sitting a very long way apart. Don’t expect runner service. Obviously if you suspect you might be infectious, don’t even think about attending a post company, let alone leaving your own home.
ADR, especially loop-group crowd sessions and orchestral music recording are probably the biggest challenges. Companies offering VO services are disinfecting microphones and headphones between every session and maintaining strict social distancing. VO artists with their own remote studios are an alternative.
The sudden drastic reduction in demand following the filming shutdown has led companies to access the government’s job retention scheme to furlough many of their staff and cut costs. However, there’s still the rent, business rates and other overheads to pay.
“It’s important that everyone in the value chain resists the temptation to exploit their suppliers, who are trying to stay afloat. Please, pay them the normal proper rate and pay them on time.”
Covid-19 will pass, but if the long-term sustainability of the sector is sacrificed for short-term opportunist gain, the supply chain will be greatly damaged, and it will take far longer to get back to business as usual on the other side of the pandemic.
It is most certainly a time where post houses and their clients need to work together to be innovative and find solutions to these restrictions and complications. We hope that production companies and commissioners can keep new work coming into post, VFX and animation by creating fresh programmes, formats and genres that don’t need conventional filming, otherwise the work will soon dry up. As long as the government restrictions don’t tighten further, producers can continue to access post, VFX and animation services and we encourage them to do so.