Opinion: Lights … Camera … Masks off … and Action …

For the past six months, I have been commenting on the situation facing our hospitality industry. Restaurants have had a tough time over the past 6 months and the hospitality sector has been decimated by COVID-19. The “new normal” will be very different.

Other industries are facing similar predicaments, especially retail. Another industry that has had to adapt to the new normal is the film industry. Typically using large numbers of people in close contact, the movie industry has been all but shut down. Hollywood is still closed. But filming has resumed in parts of Australia – under very strict COVID safety rules.

I have just spent two weeks “on set” as an extra, on a major movie. The experience would make a good movie in itself – very “Orwellian”.

Making movies is always a surreal experience. Huge budgets. Lots of waiting around. Long days. Tonnes of equipment. Lots and lots of crew. Catering trucks. Did I mention lots of waiting around? But, filming during COVID is somewhat weird. Before I was allowed on set, I had to undergo a COVID test – these are then repeated every three days, and “punched” onto your ID card.

Arriving at the studios for my 5am start – filmmakers always like early starts – the first thing you notice is that you have to use a pub-like QR Code and fill in a health questionnaire. As I enter, my temperature is taken and then I am handed a blue face mask – which you have to wear at all times, except when eating/drinking and when the director calls “Action”.

And then there are the X’s. Lots of them. Painted onto the concrete floors, forecourts and roads, 1.5m apart. Stand on an X and wait in line. There are X’s everywhere. And there is alcohol sanitiser at every door … with security guards to ensure you use it. Sanitise on the way in – sanitise on the way out. Walkways are one-way only.

After negotiating the cavernous spaces between the huge multi-storey sound stages, we first go to wardrobe and makeup – another surreal experience, with makeup artists wearing face masks and clear plastic shields. Again, I stand on an X and wait my turn. One at a time. Then to a holding area in a large marquee, with small black chairs arranged in long rows – 1.5m apart in all directions, and reminiscent of old-fashioned school exam rooms. The “teachers desk” at the front is covered in bottled spring water, as we are not allowed “reusable” bottles.

Until you are called for filming, you stay in the marquee. Each person 1.5m apart. Masks on. There is tea/coffee and food available – but unlike the past buffets, it is now in individual portions. Packaged in biodegradable boxes with biodegradable cutlery and biodegradable cups. Woe betide anyone who does not put their waste in the compost bins.

The food is actually quite good. But it suffers from being pre-packaged and sent from a central kitchen truck. The hot meals are lukewarm. The salads a little warm too. The coffee – Nescafe 43 instant – is hot. Individually wrapped Arnott’s cookies add a bit of texture.

A hundred extras, all sitting in a large space – all alone – together but apart – no commensality – no contact or physical interaction. But very noisy, as everyone has to shout at one another. Shouting to communicate from a distance. Louder than normal conversation. A cacophony of interaction.

A hundred extras. All dressed to the nines in elegant evening wear. Gorgeous colours and fabrics. Amazing hairdos. Beautiful women. Impossibly high heels. Lots of feathers and wigs. Handsome young men. Lots of bling. Waiting for the Ball. All wearing blue face masks … and red tea towels to protect the costumes when eating.

The “stars”, of course, are somewhere else. In their own trailers – their own bubbles. Probably with more space and better food. Together but still apart. And wearing blue face masks.

The blue masks soon become normal. After a while I feel naked without one! And they have the strange effect of concentrating the aromas and flavours of the food – as well as the aromas of the set.

Eventually after lots more waiting, we are all asked to go on set. We are herded by wranglers with two-way radios – in single file, 1.5m apart. We sanitise our hands at the huge set doors and walk to our spaces. Someone comes around to give us a fresh face mask.

I am sitting at a cabaret table. In front of me are “cocktails” made of apple juice, cranberry juice and guava juice. A realistic plastic prawn cocktail with salad sits in front of me. The attention to detail is exquisite, with wine bottle dates, champagne labels and menus, all printed to match the past decade, with authentic prices.

It’s all surreal and make believe. Classic storytelling on a grand scale. The atmosphere is electric. Huge cameras on equally huge cranes are above us. A cinematographic bluescreen over three storeys high is behind us. Bright spotlights hang from the ceilings. Makeup artists, still clad in face masks and plastic shields, run around making final touches to wigs and moustaches. Here we are reliving the 1970s. It is real and believable – even with blue masks. For a while we all travel back in time. Everyone is excited and waiting in anticipation. The “stars” shuffle in, to great applause. We sit and wait (again) – a kaleidoscope of colours and elegance … offset with blue masks.

Once everything is in place and the cameras are ready, the clapperboards are shut and the director calls out “Lights … Camera … Masks off … Action”.

By Jeremy Ryland
20 October 2020

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

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