Though accustomed to directing a frenzy of crew members and actors, Samantha Lee’s latest short film had a team of four. There were only two actors, one in Manila and another in Los Angeles, who doubled as co-director. They played a couple separated by the Pacific Ocean in the middle of a pandemic.
To direct straddling two continents, Lee propped a phone up to a Zoom call live-transmitting the recorded feed to the other half of the crew across the globe. Traversing themes of longing in the time of coronavirus through a long-distance relationship, Until It’s Safe was one of the first Filipino films to shoot through the pandemic.
“When we were planning this back in May, there were no how-to’s, no guides, so it felt a lot like making up our own rules as we went along,” Lee told VICE. But her anxieties dissipated the moment she sat in front of the computer screen and rolled for the first time.
“Watching their performances on screen felt no different than watching a performance being shot right in front of me physically. It was still movie magic.”
Lee’s not alone. In the Philippines, directors and producers are looking at a vastly different shooting atmosphere — one where they have to work around the pandemic and its restrictions. The last five years saw a boom in Philippine independent cinema, with features and shorts debuting in an ecosystem of over 35 major local festivals every year. But the pandemic slammed the film sector in March, and the industry has since largely been frozen.
The Philippines just surpassed 140,000 coronavirus cases, and Monday saw the highest daily infection rate in the country to date, with 6,958 new patients. After placing the country on one of the longest and strictest lockdowns before easing restrictions on June 1, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte eventually reimposed lockdown measures on Aug. 4.
The New Normal
Camille Aragona, a Filipino producer and assistant director who has worked on films, television, and advertising, was among the few who made it to a shoot for a commercial early in the outbreak. Most projects got stuck in pre-production or were postponed altogether when production came to an abrupt halt six months ago. And though she’s worked on set after set, she said that time, the process was unrecognizable.
“Going into it, you know, you are so confident. You’re like, ‘I know this. I know the protocols’,” she told VICE. “You’re so used to the normal way of shooting and interacting with people…So everything was really fresh and felt like a first time for me.”
Massive adjustments on set were necessary, she said. If it took 10 people in the past to move a scaffolding, now it must move with three from the skeletal crew. While on set for the ad, Aragona had to remind actors to put on their masks in between takes, to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus.
“Sometimes they get comfortable and forget that the virus might be just around the corner, since they are so into their character,” she said.
This level of vigilance, even paranoia, is key because of the unpredictability of the virus. Though they give up the usual carefree atmosphere on set, it’s better than facing the alternative.
“If we don’t, we can just get infected just easily like that and that’s the most scary part.”
To chart a path forward in the pandemic, industry practitioners came together to form The Inter-Guild Alliance (IGA), a collective of various groups representing sectors of film, television, and advertising.
After hours and hours of Zoom conversations and drafts, the IGA created production guidelines to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 on set, on May 19.
Covering pre and post-production, as well as principal photography, the guidelines mandate a closed working system, a production capacity allowance of 50 percent with personnel never exceeding 50 on set, strict transportation and meal requirements, and pages of scrupulous health and safety guidelines covering any set situation you could imagine. For example, close-proximity scenes including sex and crowd scenes are discouraged, and full, explicit consent must be secured from all actors in those situations. Radio use is mandatory to minimize physical contact. Costume and makeup touch-ups should be done by the talents themselves.
While the IGA was finalizing its draft document, the Philippine government released its own protocols. The IGA, which published its guidelines only three days later, slammed this move, saying that the rules were out of touch with the realities of the industry and that the government should have consulted with film and production workers first. Since then, many filmmakers have committed to abiding by the IGA’s more detailed guidelines, on top of those from the government.
In late July, Judd Figuerres, a sought-after commercial director in the Philippines, experienced his first shoot post-lockdown while working on a digital ad.
On set, he implemented a “pod system.” The shooting space was divided up and each area assigned to a department — hair and makeup on one side and the broadcast producer and director of photography meters away. No pod members could leave their assigned space, except for six roaming teams including camera operation and props, to minimize human interaction. Even the roaming teams had their own stations during breaks.
For the whole shoot, Figuerres stood in one corner of the studio, enveloped by a plastic barrier with openings for ventilation.
“I was commanding the whole set in that tiny little corner,” he said. “I felt like John Travolta in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.”
As a director, he is usually inclined to be in the middle of everything on set, interacting with each crew member and getting in close to see what’s really happening. Now, he must make his presence known on set while isolating himself in the periphery.
It has changed the production team’s intentionality and camaraderie. Prior to the pandemic, sets were a place to socialize. Now, each interaction is more practical, more deliberate — people speak only when they need to. Figuerres misses that spontaneous side of shooting.
“These protocols are like a double-edged sword. It pushes people to be more efficient but it also takes away the spirit of being on a set and being with people you are trying to practice your craft with,” he said.
If there’s any group that can adapt to unanticipated circumstances, it’s people working in production.
“We are always two steps ahead — that’s what filmmakers are,” said Aragona, who has worked as a producer, production manager, and assistant director. “We always see the bigger picture, we always go for Plan B, Plan C, and the next steps because it’s going to be detrimental to us if we don’t see that future.”
Lee said that when the first lockdown started, adapting to the situation wasn’t just encouraged but forced, if they wanted to “survive and continue creating things.” Independent filmmakers know how to make things work with small funding and a small amount of time, she said.
While abiding by these rules is challenging, TV and film screenwriter-director Mara Paulina Marasigan told VICE that there is a silver lining. Now, all production houses, whether big or small, are coming together.
“Usually the community is segmented into the big wigs and the other independent workers. But right now, everybody is working together to create a safer community,” Marasigan said.
The pandemic has “tangentially professionalized” their industry, and everybody is becoming more skilled in terms of working together, she said.
Independent filmmaker Pamela Reyes, who advocated against shooting before there was a vaccine available because of the high public health risks, sees another bright side.
She was originally meant to be shooting four full-length films this season, but instead has extended her films’ development and pre-production stage, to “ripen our screenplays and straighten out our preparations.”
“The future of my films is, to best describe it, fuzzy,” Reyes told VICE.
Still, she sees beauty in how filmmakers are somehow given a blank slate — one where they can create their own film movement that speaks to the current moment. She asks: What stories will the audience cater given the anxiety and turmoil caused by the pandemic?
“Filmmakers and artists have always made sense of the world during crises like this.”
“Filmmakers will continue to prove there is always a new story to tell,” she said, adding that recent pandemic production trends include stories with characters talking through video chats or mumblecore films limited to two characters.
Back to Basics
Simon Te, a director who works in advertising, has always been drawn to more experimental and non-conventional works that communicate a strong creative language — like emptying out a warehouse and capturing freeze-frames of running models for a clothing brand, or capturing a choreographed duo contorting to the narrow aisles of a convenience store. The challenges of coming up with content in the pandemic, then, is not one he dislikes.
“The way that my creative process has been…[is] geared to something where I am forced to imagine new realities, explore new ideas, and new ways to do things,” he said.
“We can’t do conventional anymore. And trying to do so would be trying to jump through a bunch of hoops.”
Now, he is writing stories with “a smaller lens, a smaller scope.”
Currently, he is writing for several music videos and campaigns, and is forced to visualize set logistics — something he usually does not have to worry about. He must consider the size of the team, costs, and arrangements for day-of rapid testing and health marshals.
Te thinks the pandemic will have a long-term effect on the language of films, driving forward a greater focus on stronger characters and minor human nuances — how people move and interact with each other.
“We can’t really build on spectacle,” he said.
Those scenes or stories will have to be put on hold, with extravagance manifesting on a smaller scale, perhaps emotionally and experimentally.
On a set for a makeup campaign during the lockdown, Te realized they could no longer hold the creative on a flashy visual. So, he told the client that they could just focus on who the talent is — and shoot it in a way that’s “less glossy, less flashy, something very raw and handheld.”
Te has translated this visual language into personal works too.
Brooding on the concept for some time, he is shooting a film for himself about anger and its different manifestations — his form of protest through artistic rhetoric.
Without running a full team and without storyboards — as opposed to his usual full crew with a production assistant, cinematographer, and gaffer — he directs, produces, and shoots everything himself. Before this, he hardly ever touched the camera.
“Coming from sets of 50 to 100 people, I kind of have to go back to the basics,” Te said.
Now, he sets up at different locations with one talent and asks them: How does the anger manifest in you? The visual response resulted in people dancing — one of them was krumping, another chose contemporary dance. One talent expressed a more intimate anger, sitting alone in a bathtub, looking down.
This is a reflection of the way his pandemic work will lean: a single talent and a one-man crew setting up the camera, lights, and tripod.
It’s the same for Lee’s pandemic-inspired film Until It’s Safe, which is set to be released soon. It’s a return to not just the simple, but the essential — in both the production and the plot.
Though intimacy, and close proximity generally, is a major taboo in pandemic shooting, affection can be conveyed through eye contact, body language, and in a tighter script.
Through back-to-back bedroom shots and video conversations from across the globe — with the actors laughing late at night on Zoom from their beds, crying over FaceTime as they sit leaning against bedroom walls — viewers form a bond with the film’s only two characters.
In a lot of ways, Lee said, it “felt like being back in film school, having to be and do multiple things on set at once.”
She is already in the process of funding a new project in development.
“The way I've been shopping it around has been, ‘Are you guys looking for a project that can be shot in the next six months that doesn't involve shooting a Zoom call?’"