How do you film a soap opera in the age of the coronavirus, when kissing is banned, makeup is scaled back and extras are seen as a danger to everyone’s health?
TV producers around the world will be closely watching as “Neighbours” — Australia’s longest-running, globally popular serial drama — plows ahead with its demanding, five-day-a-week filming schedule, even as the pandemic has brought much of the world’s television industry to a grinding halt.
For actor Takaya Honda it was clear things would be different when he stepped back onto the set in Melbourne after the show took a four-week hiatus. He was greeted by fellow actor Sally-Anne Upton, who was dressed in protective medical gear, ready to check his temperature. It was no performance.
Upton, who is also a registered nurse, was chipping in to help her colleagues implement strict new safety rules as the show, which pulls in around 3 million daily viewers in the U.K. alone, kicked off its 36th season.
“This isn’t a normal first day back on set,” said Honda, 32, who plays doctor David Tanaka on the show. It was a realization, he said, which he needed to accept in order to perform his job.
“Neighbours,” which has helped launch the careers of dozens of Australian stars including Kylie Minogue and Margot Robbie, has had to make drastic changes to comply with social distancing rules.
A nurse now flanks the set’s entrance, ready to take everyone’s temperature upon arrival. Only essential staff are allowed on site, meaning many post-production people work from home. Cast and crew have been divided into groups, restricting their movements to one of four different zones across the sprawling lot. Only two people are permitted in the canteen at any one time. Makeup and hair services have been scaled back. Shared changing rooms are now empty.
In response, the writers have made changes to plots and characters. Extras have been almost totally cut. On set, in what might be a first in the history of soap operas, the actors must keep their distance from one another no matter how hot and heavy their characters’ underlying affection. There is no kissing allowed.
Producers around the world will be closely watching this experiment in socially distanced TV to see if any of the show’s participants catch the coronavirus, according to Marc C-Scott, a senior lecturer in screen media at Victoria University in Melbourne.
Studios have halted production on hundreds of film and TV projects to protect the cast and crew from the deadly virus, which can spread rapidly in concentrated groups of people.
The outbreak has already cost entertainment companies worldwide billions of dollars in lost advertising and movie ticket sales. It could damage TV networks even more if production doesn’t pick up anytime soon, forcing them to air reruns in place of popular sporting events and prime-time shows.
Whether “Neighbours” can produce a rapidly paced, scripted series without ruining its quality or endangering its crew could go a long way toward deciding when more productions get up and running.
Chris Oliver-Taylor, chief executive officer Asia Pacific of Fremantle Media, the production company in charge of “Neighbours,” said the decision to resume shooting was unanimous from both the cast and crew. Millions of dollars would be lost if production of the show, which makes 258 episodes a year, was postponed indefinitely.
“If the show didn’t return, then that’s catastrophic financial damage to ‘Neighbours,’” he said. “All those crew and cast, no one gets paid, so they all lose out.”
According to Oliver-Taylor, the new set of protocols was developed over a seven-week period. The Australian government has been urging businesses to consider reopening when feasible, he said. Still, some aspects weren’t easy.
“We weren’t quite sure what the government at the time was going to do next,” he said. “Every day it was another announcement. We didn’t know where the bottom was, basically. It was almost impossible to write.”
While studios can film late-night talk shows and singing competitions using Zoom, there is no way to make an entire season of a sitcom or a two-hour action movie with all the actors in remote locations.
Hollywood studios have begun to discuss ways in which they could return to production. Producers deciding how and when to restart shows must grapple with any number of financial and legal uncertainties including who would pay for cost overshoots.
“Neighbours” will be among the first scripted productions to try and figure it all out. For Honda, the weirdest part about life on set these days is the feeling during lunch time. Before the pandemic, members of the cast and crew would flock to the canteen, grab a plate of food, and sit around socializing. Now, he said, everyone has to keep their distance from one another while they eat. What used to be a moment of bonding and camaraderie can now feel isolating and lonely.
With the rest of the cast, he is still adjusting to TV’s new rules of engagement. “It is about being conscious of things that felt automatic before,” he said. “The simple act of touching someone to comfort them isn’t something we can do anymore. But, in reality, we as actors on film and TV sets are asked to do weird things all the time.”
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