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MDX helps create Covid-safe filming guidelines for students

"Academics and industry reps were supportive, positive and constructive. If we can keep that momentum, there are many things we can do together”: MDX's Eddie McCaffrey, initiator of the project

Students Tancredi Lo Cascio and Amelia Belam on Goldsmiths’ MA Film programme led by Tracy Bass rehearsing for graduation film Without You, filmed using Covid-19 Guidelines for HE and FE Productions

MDX has led the way in a collaboration between universities, colleges and screen industry skills body ScreenSkills on guidelines for students to manage the risk of working on a film, TV or other visual media production during Covid-19.

The guidelines build on the ScreenSkills Covid-awareness training offered since June as well as the Covid-safe guidance produced by various screen industry organisations for practitioners working during the pandemic. They are intended for Higher and Further Education students on screen-related courses, academics and support staff to observe safe practice when planning and undertaking work.

They address a broad range of film, TV, visual effects and animation projects. Tim Weiss, director of vocational skills at ScreenSkills explains that the context of work on student productions “needs more tailored guidance than is possible in the industry guidelines, given young people are learning about how film and TV production works in the first place and are then being asked to adjust this practice to work safely in light of the coronavirus”. The guidelines also acknowledge the unique interplay between the health and safety requirements of a small student production and wider university and college policies.

MDX Senior Lecturer in TV Production Eddie McCaffrey was inspired to put together the guidelines when he saw the steps professionals were taking to adapt to Covid, realising there was a need to do something similar for students.

The guidelines were devised by ScreenSkills and academics at Middlesex, Goldsmiths, Bournemouth, Ulster and Edinburgh Napier universities with additional input from other educators, lawyers and scientists, before being reviewed and endorsed by TV and film industry organisations such as the British Film Commission, Pact and UK Screen Alliance.

“We couldn't have done this without collaboration". says Eddie, who has worked on other higher education-screen professionals partnership initiatives such as Connected Campus for the Creative Industries. “Academics and industry reps from all over the country were really supportive, positive and constructive. If we can keep that momentum, there are many things we can do together.”

"The point of it for me from the beginning was to mirror the industry" says Tracy Bass, Senior Lecturer and Head of MA Filmmaking at Goldsmiths, University of London and a freelance producer. "Everything in arts is collaborative practice" she adds. "We’ve looked at everything and got support from everybody to produce one document that everyone in the film industry has supported".

Chapters cover every aspect of filmmaking – camerawork, directing lighting, post-production, hair & make-up and costume – different genres and formats, and how to cast and rehearse actors in social distancing conditions. They also address personal hygiene and maintaining good mental health.

Earlier this month, Goldsmiths MA Film student Harriet Still co-produced mockumentary What's In A Name, about a vicar called Hugh Hefner and his wife, using the guidelines. While finding it daunting at first, "after reading the guidelines and consulting with our crew and tutors, we were able to create a safe environment for our cast and crew, as well as using a lot of common sense," Harriet says. "We delegated to each of the Heads of Department to ensure their own crew was safe. That way there were always multiple sets of eyes ensuring that it was a COVID-safe set".

Fellow producer Leni Jaeger says "It was a constant process of adaptation concerning locations, catering, transportation, casting, etc and a lot of components had to be re-thought completely. Just one example: the protagonists of our film are a retired couple, so to keep everyone as safe as possible while also ensuring that we could have scenes with them sitting/standing close to each other, we opted for casting a real-life acting couple and were lucky enough to find Philip Bretherton and Sherry Baines.

"I think we all feel very lucky that we were able to complete our graduation films, so the discipline to do this safely during pre-production, on set and now in post-production was and still remains very high".

Philipp Lippert, a young documentary-maker and journalist who worked as 2nd Assistant Camera on the What's In A Name shoot considers that for students to work within the guidelines while they are also learning the ropes of  filmmaking "is a challenge but it certainly is doable. And I think the earlier students learn to implement those measurements the better".

Goldsmiths' students practicing social distancing while filming graduation film Once Familiar on location. Pictured (foreground-back): Ada Wesolowska, Liam Scully, Agata Morawska, Jake Newton, Wojciech Czarkowski

The aspiration is to get the guidelines to every university and FE College across the UK – as guidelines, they can be varied and incorporated into each institution’s own regulations. Working within the guidelines won’t qualify students or academics to work in a Covid-safety supervisory role but will equip them to get back to filming in an array of different contexts. The academics behind the guidelines are now working on how to offer Covid safety training packages specific to students and university staff.

“This is really about allowing students and staff to get out there and produce films and TV,” says Eddie. “It will take a while before it's anything like normal, but production is definitely back on its feet.”

"Among other things during lockdown everyone’s longing for new content was noticeable, and the importance of fictional as well as factual filmmaking was obvious to me as never before," says Leni Jaeger. "I think there are a few more tough months ahead of us but am hopeful that with guidelines firmly in place at least the production component of our industry can continue even as we are experiencing this new peak in Covid-19 cases".

ScreenSkills’ Tim Weiss says: “We were delighted to work with a group of leading universities and colleges to develop these guidelines, based on our existing knowledge and experience of working with industry on guidance and training around safe Covid-19 practice. Given how strongly the screen industries were growing before lockdown, it is important that we continue to support the safe development of a skilled and inclusive pipeline now.”

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