Movie making has always been a collaborative exercise where communication and human contact are crucial to get the creativity flowing.
But shooting a movie during a pandemic is now a different ballgame. New workflows and rules for safety are all in day’s work for productions worldwide.
Gulf News was invited to an outdoor movie set in the UAE so that we could observe how a film is shot, keeping in mind all the safety precautions and protocols.
On February 9, a two-member team from Gulf News arrived at Sharjah’s Al Majaz Waterfront to observe how South Indian actor Narain was progressing with the shoot of his Tamil-language film, tentatively titled ‘Kurral’ (which translates to ‘Voice’).
The ‘Classmates’ star has been in the UAE for more than a month filming in Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah. It was their 36th day of filming in the country.
“This is my first film shoot after the outbreak of COVID-19 and I am back to shooting after a long time … It’s not been easy,” Narain said in an exclusive interview.
The self-made actor, who grew up in the UAE and then moved to India to pursue his acting ambition, was filming a scene in which his autistic character was walking up and down the Corniche with a black laptop bag on his shoulder. The prospect of filming during the pandemic was daunting, revealed the actor. Being resourceful also comes handy.
“The day before we are due to fly to the UAE, our writer from Tamil Nadu tested positive for COVID-19 and he went into a 15-day quarantine. Our shooting was about to begin in the UAE, so we were really scared because we wanted to shoot without any hindrances,” said Narain.
Adapting to a new workflow
On the day Gulf News visited his sets, there were just 10 crew members — mostly young men — including the actor, his director Sugeeth, his make-up artist, and Dubai-based producer Najeeb Kadiri. The concept of erecting big sets, having technicians over 60 years of age on a set, the crew huddling together to brainstorm a scene or buffets being served during lunch time are now a thing of the past. Handshakes were replaced by a socially distant ‘namaste’ gesture.
“When we were shooting in Dubai and some other parts of Sharjah, there was a bit of hustle and bustle as a very small crowd gathered. It would have been OK and completely fine during normal times, but our production team was extremely alert about it because we didn’t want to wrap up because of any crowd gathering around us … Our goal is to shoot swiftly,” said Narain.
Even though he studied in Abu Dhabi and his best mates lived there, Narain has chosen to stay put in his filming locations and avoid unnecessary travel between cities.
The actor, whose credits include Malayalam blockbusters ‘Robinhood’, ‘4 The People’ and Tamil hit ‘Kaithi’, is learning to get used to the new normal way of existing and working.
“It was very shocking at first … As an actor I knew that all actors were going through the same phase and we may get through, but what about those daily wage earners who are not as privileged? A film industry works largely on crew members who earn their wages daily and I was asking my unit today on the sets of how they survived. It was scary,” said Narain, who’s also one of the producers of this film.
Taking temperature checks every day before they enter the sets, doing periodic PCR tests every two weeks and being alert at anyone who develops any feverish symptoms is our working reality now … Something as simple as transporting crew has changed.
Co-producer Kadiri describes filming during a pandemic as a particularly challenging experience. The producer of any film is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of his cast and crew at all points.
“If we are shooting indoors on any day, we make sure there’s very limited people and each department goes in turns. So if the costume department needs to go in first, we do that, followed by the camera team, then followed by the technical crew … It’s like a revolving door. All of this takes additional time and money,” said Kadiri in Malayalam.
His filming schedule has spilled over for a few extra days, which he fully expected. Meanwhile, his executive producer and close friend, next to him, was quietly nudging a crew member to place his mask properly — an indication that all of them are perennially on their guard and on their toes.
“Taking temperature checks every day before they enter the sets, doing periodic PCR tests every two weeks and being alert at anyone who develops any feverish symptoms is our working reality now … Something as simple as transporting crew has changed. You can’t have too many people in a car or a bus and therefore you need more vehicles arranged. The cost naturally goes up,” said Kadiri. Chairs are also scarce on his movie set.
A contingency fund, keeping in mind the new safety protocols, has become a necessity for filmmakers now, claims Kadiri.
“Safety of our crew is our biggest concern and even when it comes to hotel rooms, we make sure that only a limited number stay in each hotel room till the end of the shoot,” he added.
Apart from altered budgets, even the concept of cinema has dramatically changed in their eyes.
Narain, who began his career in cinema as an assistant to the celebrated filmmaker Rajiv Menon before his acting breakthrough, calls the pandemic an incredible ‘learning experience’. Until recently, cinema halls in India were shut with releases being stalled indefinitely.
“The thought that cinema might not be the same ever again with our theatres shutting was quite disturbing … But the show must go on,” Narain said.
The actor has also seen his three Malayalam films — signed before the pandemic — put on hold indefinitely as the makers are waiting for the theatres in Kerala to be fully functional.
“All we can do is wait and watch … We just have to learn how to wait this out,” he added.
UAE line producers weigh in …
Line producer and producer Keshav Purushot from Seven Media, who recently worked with Bollywood actress Taapsee Pannu for a fashion brand commercial in Downtown Dubai, says planning everything to the last detail is important while filming during a pandemic.
“It’s important that every crew member is wearing masks, sanitising regularly, undergoing temperature checks every morning and maintaining social distancing… We always have a medic on set these days, even if we are not filming any action sequences,” he said.
“I remember when Taapsee [Pannu] was exiting Dubai Opera in November, a few people came to her but one of our team members took their temperature and sprayed their hands with sanitisers … Even Taapsee was surprised at the level of attention to safety protocol in Dubai,” said Purushot.
Being careful at all times is now ingrained in their minds.
For instance, Purushot recounts an incident while filming a big-budget feature film. One day, three of his crew members had to be suddenly changed as they came in contact with a person with COVID-19 during their down time. Such emergencies are now a part of their daily routine.
“We now have to have backups ready … Even our casting is locked several days before the shoot begins, so that there’s a window to change names if any of them develop any symptoms or can’t travel … Between the day of shoot and the cast travelling, if keep a few days as a buffer,” he said.
Costs have gone up, but it’s worth it as safety while filming has become crucial. There’s a lot more uncertainty, but we are learning to work with all the safety protocols in place.
According to him, rolling with changes is their new work mantra.
“Our quality of filming can never change, so we need to give ourselves room for probable changes … Every director, producer and our clients have been understanding and are now more flexible,” said Purushot. Even something as simple as catering food for the crew has seen a tectonic shift. Now the filming crew’s lunch comes out of a box that retains heat.
“Recently, we shot for a feature film in the rooftop of a building and the hotel wanted to restrict crowding so we had to limit the number of crew further. So we had to shoot with the minimum number of crew ... Now, less is more,” said Purushot.
The UAE has seen several high profile movie and commercial shoots over the last few months. From actress Mamta Mohandas filming her new Malayalam film ‘Meow’ to Tom Cruise filming ‘Mission: Impossible 7’ in Abu Dhabi, the region has attracted its fair share of filmmakers from around the globe.
Another Dubai-based location manager and line producer Abdul Salam, who has worked on productions including Bollywood films ‘Race’, ‘Welcome Back’ and ‘Partner’ and had taken on a French reality show during the pandemic, claims his work has taken a 180-degree turn.
“We have become very, very careful … Even in a four wheel vehicle, only three people are allowed to travel at the same time … Costs have gone up, but it’s worth it as safety while filming has become crucial. There’s a lot more uncertainty, but we are learning to work with all the safety protocols in place. This is how it’s going to be for some time,” said Salam.
Some of the guidelines in place for filming during the pandemic in this region:
* The crew members on set must be between the ages of 18 and 60.
* Filming is not allowed between 10pm and 6am.
* No more than 10 crew members will be allowed on set at one time and make-up sessions are to use single-use implements.
* No buffets. Lunch is served boxed in a disposable container and cutlery.