Films in the time of COVID-19: Scarce crews, PPE kits — what will the industry look like post-lockdown?
From the doubling of budgets to account for masks and sanitisers, to more projects being released directly on streaming platforms, the very face of Bollywood is likely to change in a post-lockdown world
A small indoor scene is set up for a fruit juice advertisement at one of the many floors in the iconic Mehboob Studio in Mumbai’s Bandra. The sound from the air coolers, the idle chatter among the technicians about how late the actor had arrived on set — all suddenly quiet down as the first assistant director yells into a microphone, “Silence on set! Scene 1, Take 5." The camera begins rolling, and the scene unfolds right in front of our eyes.
My first time on a set was the result of a favour to a friend who was working as an assistant casting director and needed extras for a scene. As an avid film viewer, I took the opportunity to soak in all that I could.
Little did I know that once your name is in the database of a casting company, you get calls to play an extra on multiple occasions, for different platforms. This inadvertently gave me the perfect chance to learn about what happens behind the camera.
One of the first things you realise when you walk in – onto any film set — is that there is a certain blue print for the way studios are structured. In one corner, there are carpenters buzzing away with their tools, in another, the art department is setting up the scene, executing last-minute changes, such as checking to see if the lamp shade matches the set décor. While they hammer in the final touches, the camera department lugs around huge lights and lenses, as crew members climb up ladders fixing the other lights of the studio.
The gaffer (chief lighting technician) is seen yelling at his crew, asking them to adjust the ‘baby’, which I later learnt was the name of a very specific light. On my first film set, I actually asked the spot boy, “Who is this ‘baby’ they keep talking about?"
Much to my horror and the spot dada’s amusement, my naivete became the joke of the day for the whole crew.
In another corner is what a majority of people consider the most beloved part of the set — the craft table, or simply put, the food zone.
During lunch and dinner, the table features dishes from various cuisines — plural — depending on the budget of the film. The spread can be quite lavish, and the best part? It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. This is apart from the constant supply of chai, coffee and juice offered by spot dada after every shot.
Between these two areas, you will find sleep-deprived assistant directors, running between shots to ensure that everything is going according to the call-sheet.
If you are in a studio like Mehboob Studios, vanity vans are parked outside, where the make-up, hair and costume departments are set up. In my experience I have found that all the gossip doing the rounds can be found right here, in the vanity van, where the make-up didi will not only share her knowledge in brush strokes, but also tell you anecdotes about actors and their 'no-makeup' looks.
In between the food zone and the camera departments is the video village, where two to three large screens are set up for the director or the agency to view the shot as and when it is done, for their approval.
For a medium-size film set (about Rs 20 to 45 crores), at any given point of time, there are at least 100 to 150 crew members present. That is the kind of manpower that goes into making a film.
Fast-forward to present times, with the coronavirus pandemic bringing the world to a halt. More than six million cases have been detected worldwide, and over 1.8 lakh in India.
Welcome to film set 2.0, where the first big change is that there are no more than 50 people present at any given point of time.
Or at least that is what the Producers Guild of India and the Association of Advertising Producers (ASAP) have said in their recommendations for re-starting the film industry, as the country re-opens in a phased-out manner. The recommendations include no hugging, kissing or sharing cigarettes, wearing masks and gloves all the time, and the exclusion of people above the age of 60 from the set.
Keeping in mind the virulent nature of the coronavirus and the need for social distancing to prevent infection, this leaves little room for negotiation. Cutting down on manpower is necessary.
Although official guidelines are yet to be released, Firstpost spoke to crew members from different departments to understand how they think Bollywood is going to map its return.
Film budgets likely to double
Executive producer Vishal Bajaj, who has worked on films like Andhadhun, Angrezi Medium, and Raees, spoke about how this new protocol will affect the budget of a movie. The number of shooting days will go up, which is an automatic increase in budget. “Initially, you finished the lighting and setting-up in one day. But now you will have to assign designated teams of five to 10, who will finish their work, and then send another crew in. In between this, you have to send in a sanitation team, to sterilise the studio or set. This will just double the time taken for each department,” he explains.
The executive producer also stated that while indoor and outdoor shoots have their own implications, an indoor set helps to create a more “controlled environment” for sanitation.
Bajaj highlighted that apart from the increase in the number of shooting days, the addition of mandatory masks and sanitisers will double budgets. “I am currently working on an unreleased Netflix show and just estimated that a normal 60-day shoot in a studio in Mumbai, which would have otherwise cost us nothing, is now going to cost up to Rs 50 lakh.” He now has to account for medical expenses, have a doctor and two to three nurses on set at all times, conduct COVID-19 tests for crew members, and keep sterilising equipment.
Dilip Borkar, a line producer from Goa, who has worked on films like Finding Fanny and is currently a part of upcoming films such as Lal Singh Chaddha and Salmaan Khan’s Radhe, noted that since shoots cannot happen in Mumbai anytime soon, films will be shot outside the city, in green-zone states like Goa.
Even the kind of actors who will be cast in films will vary. Cinematographer Malay Prakash, who was the director of photography of Chhappak, said, “Actors are scared to come out and work, especially in Mumbai, which has so many COVID-19 cases.” A-listers, in particular, are afraid of the possible security concerns.
Zoom-call shoots — a feature of only niche, small-budget films
Anmol Ahuja, co-founder of the agency Casting Bay, said that casting agencies have been presented with an opportunity to “streamline their process more”. “In the long run, it will help us get more organised and professional. This ‘new normal’ is here to stay, and one has to be proactive in taking steps to tackle it and move on,” Ahuja said.
Ahuja warns that “Zoom-call” shoots are suitable only for more niche films. “For how long can we continue working this way? Only time will tell,” he said.
Sanal Kewel, a make-up artist who has worked with stars like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Yami Gautam, has already accustomed herself to this ‘new normal’. “I recently worked on an ad film via a Zoom call, where I instructed the actor on how to do her make-up. Now, if I need to do make-up, I have to wear a full PPE kit and enter the vanity van. I will have to use a new brush, comb, and make-up kit for each actor,” she said.
Back to film school basics
Malay Prakash senses that the aesthetics of films that are due to release in the recent future will change. “Movies will be more low-budget. Personally, I think we will go back to our film school ways and look for new approaches to make high-quality cinema with low-production value,” Prakash said.
The cinematographer also noted that the ‘new normal’ will now be Zoom call meetings and readings, as filmmakers attempt to condense big-concept, multiple-character stories. “Filmmaking is a reflection of what the society is. Right now, there is a sense of isolation and loneliness, which I think will emerge as the new narrative in future films,” he adds.
He recently shot one film with a single camera, and another project, a three-and-a-half-minute video, with his friends Shivani Khattar and Shruti Venkatraman, who helped him with the execution over the course of multiple Zoom meetings.
Cinematographer-turned-director Laxman Utekar, who has directed films like Luka Chuppi and the upcoming Pankaj Tripati and Kriti Sanon-starrer Mimi, holds a different position. Utekar noted that as a writer, he will not be restricting himself to stories with fewer characters, or even delving into the theme of isolation as a reflection of present times. “Films should be entertaining and should provide an escape from reality. That happens when you have a big set, a big crew and a big budget. The kind of movies we are all accustomed to making work for a reason, and it will remain so,” he said.
“Once in a while, a shoot may be cancelled because there is no natural light, because of dark clouds looming on the horizon. As an optimist, I like to think COVID-19 is a dark cloud that will eventually clear up, and sunny days will return. I will wait for the sun till then,” he asserts.
A shift from big-screen releases to direct-to-streaming?
When asked if his film will be released on an OTT platform since Mimi is now on hold, Utekar maintained that he trusts the 'time-tested' exclusive theatrical release system instead.
Meanwhile, Bajaj predicts that for the next year or so, relatively low-budget films which do not star A-listers will have direct-to-streaming releases, as audiences will be reluctant to visit theatres for such films.
Film set 2.0 will have no place for idle chit-chat, no infectious buzz, and sadly, no extras running around star-struck.
Crew members, armed with face shields and gloves, will now enter the set and leave as and when necessary. Heads of departments will have to get their hands dirty and do the work of five people, as the seats once occupied by spot dadas and camera attendants lay empty.
“I worry that without spot boys and light men and other C-crew, most of whom are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, how a set will run? They have all gone back home, but what will I do without my boys? They are the backbone of my set!” Bajaj reflected. He hopes that the people he calls his family at the workplace will soon return to the City of Dreams.
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