DOC Releases Guide to Filmmaking Amid COVID-19

By Pat Mullen

The Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) released today a valuable resource for filmmakers hoping to return to production. As Ontario enters the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, DOC’s Documentary Production in the Era of COVID-19: Best Practices by and for Documentary Filmmakers offers resources and information to help filmmakers resume production safely. The guide is an industry first as filmmakers adapt to new realities following months of production shutdowns. Researched and written by filmmaker Chanda Chevannes (Unfractured), the guide was created in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC).

Chevannes’ research includes a survey of 327 professionals and draws from interviews with over 50 filmmakers, experts, and documentary participants. The findings go beyond common sense practices and help filmmakers navigate health guidelines that vary by region, province, and municipality. Additionally, the guide provides the first questions that filmmakers should ask themselves before determining if they should resume production at all: Should I shoot?, Can I shoot?, and How do I shoot?

Chevannes’ research also wades through the ethical and legal implications for returning to shoot if filmmakers want to ensure that production crews and film subjects remain safe amid the ongoing pandemic. The guide draws additional perspectives from members in the insurance field to help filmmakers understand the financial risks and potential liabilities they may incur when returning to the field.

“DOC initiated this study to fill a gap for documentary filmmakers and empower them to make informed decisions about their productions based on official guidelines and emerging best practices sourced from within the community,” said Michelle van Beusekom, executive director of DOC, in a statement. “Documentary is a small-scale, artisanal form of production and those working in Canada’s documentary sector are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.”

Surprisingly, the research indicates a fair number of productions working in traditional means since the lockdowns began in early March. 67% of respondents reported being in production or post-production. Nearly 55% of respondents began shooting after March 13, which was the date that the government of Canada issued its advisory against non-essential travel. However, respondents indicated that they were generally working with smaller crews with 75% reporting only one to three people per team. 11% indicated that they had no formal crew at all and worked through alternative means such as teleconferencing or video chats.

Responses as to why productions continued varied. 72% of respondents indicated that they felt they could continue safely, while 48% said that they devised alternate ways to work from home. Nearly 24% of filmmakers noted that their reasons for continuing production were financial, while others (16%) were in relatively low-risk areas. Only five respondents said they continued in order to deliver upon a broadcaster’s timeline.

The report indicates that 54.5% of survey respondents who had continued production since March were still shooting interviews indoors. This section proves especially relevant as winter approaches. The guide suggests shifting interviews to outdoor settings when possible, limiting the length of interviews conducted indoors, or using devices such as Interrotrons to void the risks associated with face-to-face conversations. Filmmakers may also want to consider limited crews to skeleton sizes to reduce risks of exposure. Similarly, the guide recommends that filmmakers avoid shooting in cars whenever possible and limit visits to subjects’ houses for interviews, instead recommending the use of soundstages that offer more room for social distancing.

Overall, the guide indicates that filmmakers should anticipate changes to the average production. (One survey respondent even likened the adaptations to COVID to the changes in production that followed 9/11.) This shift includes adjusting work schedules and modes of filmmaking. For example, the guide draws upon recommendations for reduced workdays, rather than extending the workday to maximize production. “While your initial impulse might be to try to get more done in a day,” notes the guide, “we all know instinctively that pushing crews to work harder and longer—even during non-pandemic times—is a recipe for disaster.”

Other guidelines look to formal approaches. The research draws upon case studies in which filmmakers had film subjects generate their own video. This approach needn’t be a Zoom call, but could include personal video diaries, or audio only interviews that can be conducted remotely more easily. Similarly, Chevannes’ research includes case studies in which filmmakers shifted towards archival materials or, strikingly, miniature models to replace conventional shoots.

With 91% of survey respondents indicating plans to resume production within the next year, this guide provides an invaluable resource for filmmakers. Read the guide here.