Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hollywood in a Bubble

                                                  David Vetter, 9/21/71 -- 2/22/84

Note: Welcome to any of you who have clicked on over here from the TV Talk Machine. You might want to start here, where some of the better posts from my working years in Hollywood are compiled. 

Nearly fifty years ago, a baby was born in Texas lacking a functional immune system. With his body defenseless against any and all infections, young David Vetter was doomed to life in a bubble, dependent upon breathing filtered air, eating thoroughly decontaminated food, and never knowing real human touch. Due to the relentless danger of infection, skin-to-skin contact was out of the question, and he died before his thirteenth birthday after a bone marrow transplant doctors hoped would provide him with a desperately needed immune system didn't work out.  

David Vetter's tragic story led to a movie, of course, and in the years since, medical science  found ways to help newborns with the same condition, so I suppose the massive publicity he received at the time did some overall good -- but the poor kid never even got to be a teenager. Sometimes, for far too many people, life really is a bitch. 

Maybe it's crass to discuss the film and television industry in midst of a global pandemic, but you know the drill: stay-home/wash-hands/six-feet-of-space/wear-mask/don't-touch-face -- so you don't need to hear it again from me. With our Feckless Leader beating the drums to "reopen the economy," and millions of people who want nothing more than to resume earning a living, it's not too early to think about what it will take for Hollywood to go back to work.

A vaccine will emerge at some point to protect us from the Covid 19 virus, but that day is off in the gray mists of the future: maybe eighteen months, maybe two years, maybe longer. Nobody knows. In the meantime, Hollywood will struggle to return to some semblance of normality. There are already rumblings of returning to production, but it's hard to envision what that would really mean before an effective vaccine is developed and a significant portion of our population immunized. Achieving herd immunity won't happen overnight.

It's been over a hundred years since Hollywood had to deal with a plague, and that one hit well before the advent of television. The Coronapocalypse slammed the door on all but late-night talk/comedy shows, which are being produced in a rudimentary yet undeniably clever manner. Humans are endlessly inventive, and always seem to find a way. Still, with no end to the virus in sight, the question remains: what's next?  

Testing will be the key. At the moment, the standard nasal-swab test can take days to confirm results, and although a new test is in the works, it's also much too slow for our purposes. As I understand it, there are two more or less real-time tests available to determine if a person has been or is currently infected with the virus. One takes forty-five minutes to come up with an answer, while the other can detect a positive result in five minutes, and a negative result within fifteen minutes -- but both tests must use their own proprietary equipment to deliver the answer. For the purposes of Hollywood, the first test is way too slow, and although the second one is considerably faster, it's still slow.  

Think about it: the on-set crew for a TV show or feature film is a large group of people. Grip and Electric crews typically start at five each (adding more as needed), then there's Set Dec, Props, Camera, Sound, Hair and Makeup, a call sheet full of actors and background, at least two (and often three) ADs, several PAs, and Craft Service. Add a director, writers, and  twelve "producers", and it adds up to a small army, any one of whom could be unwittingly carrying the virus. With anywhere from thirty to a hundred people on a sound stage or location set -- most of them working long hours in close contact -- how do you keep everybody safe?

Each crew member could wear a Haz-Mat suit of the sort medical personnel have adopted, I suppose, but that's hardly practical. Filming days are already long enough, so getting into, then out of, such cumbersome suits in a safe manner would make those long days even longer. Actually working while wearing such a suit amid hot lights or in the harsh sun of summertime day-exterior shoots would be absurdly difficult.  

                  Could this be a typical electric or grip crew getting ready to go on set?*

Some kind of moon-suit would be even worse. Imagine trying to strap on a tool belt, then go up high on stage, climb a ladder, or clamber into a man-lift to adjust lamps on the pipe grip wearing something like this.*

A set of light, breathable, sterile coveralls might be enough, with a fresh pair issued to each crew member at the start of every work day, along with new gloves and masks -- but what about the actors? Unless the show is a Sci-Fi movie with the actors in space suit wardrobe, they can't wear any such protective gear in front of the cameras.

This brings us back to testing, which would have to be done every day before the crew suits up in whatever protective gear the industry settles on. If the fastest test takes fifteen minutes to deliver a negative result, then each show would need to have a battery of testing machines and enough personnel to run them. With ten such machines, forty crew members could be tested each hour, so with staggered call times and standby personnel ready to take the place of anybody who tests positive, that might work. It would be cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive, but could be done.

Let's say this happens, and the industry comes up with some kind of safety protocol that enables production to resume. To minimize danger to the unprotected actors, sets would probably be run much as when filming nude or sex scenes, keeping the actors away until the set is lit and ready, then clearing out all non-essential crew when the cameras roll. 

Unfortunately, there's much we still don't know about this virus -- such as whether surviving a bout with Covid 19 really does confer individual immunity, and if so, for how long. That information will come, and when it does, we'll be better equipped to deal with the virus, but until then, we're just guessing and hoping for the best.

I'm no scientist, nor do I play a doctor on TV -- I'm just an ex-juicer tossing spaghetti up against the wall to see what sticks, so if any of you have some bright ideas, speak up. Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine returning to large-scale film and television production until a faster, simpler, more reliable test is developed and made widely available. Until then, Hollywood and the rest of the world will be living in our own kind of bubble.


Update:  The above is as far as I got late in the week, when this article popped up in my FB feed, soon followed by this grim vision. It's all speculation, of course, but much of it rings true, and paints a grim picture of what may be required for work to resume in Hollywood. All we can be sure of is that production will commence at some point in the future, but when and how are very much up in the air. What's clear, though, is life on set will never be the same (and it certainly won't be anything like this) unless and until some combination of testing, effective vaccines, and herd immunity puts Covid 19 in our collective rear-view mirror for good.

Then all we'll have to worry about is the next pandemic, be it Covid 20, or some new strain of lethal, highly infectious bird flu.  

Isn't that a cheery thought...

Although working on set has always been tough -- and sometimes utterly miserable -- it was fun most of the time, but I wonder if that will be true in the future?  I don't know -- but I do know this: I'm really glad to be retired.

* Haz-Mat and Moon Suit photos courtesy of Jerry Wolfe.


Jerry Wolfe said...

An answer for your question in three letters?
Sadly this answee obviates a number of careers, including yours and mine...

Michael Taylor said...

Jerry --

You're probably right, except for one thing: I'm retired, so my career is already over. I hope you're wrong about your career, though -- good luck!