As the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill, with lockdowns and travel restrictions introduced successively around the globe, cameras stopped rolling and productions ground to a halt. "The impact of Covid-19 on our work was extreme," says Stitch Richardson, executive producer and partner at creative production studio Spindle. "We lost what we think was about six months of booked-in work over the course of three days - pretty scary."
Director of photography Patrick Smith had been working on a number of Netflix productions before lockdown. "Every shoot I had in the diary was cancelled," he says. "The camera was put in my safe and wasn't seen again for a little while."
It was a similar story for French director and Canon Ambassador Sébastien Devaud, who was due to travel to Australia to shoot an adventure show for Amazon Prime, and for Italian independent documentary filmmaker Francesca Tosarelli, who was planning to head to Iraq to make a new documentary. "Of course, everything was cancelled, so I found myself in a situation where I had to reinvent myself," she says.
"It does feel as though the creative industry as a whole, including the film and TV industry, has been particularly hard hit by this pandemic," says Alex Pumfrey, chief executive of The Film and TV Charity. Calls to the UK charity's 24/7 support line spiked at the end of March, when they got as many calls in three days as they'd ordinarily expect in three months. "There was a huge amount of anxiety and concern, understandably, and a lot of people lost their livelihoods pretty much overnight."
Here, these filmmakers and industry experts share some of the creative adaptations they've made, what it's been like returning to shooting and how they feel coronavirus will alter the filmmaking landscape.
"The first couple of days were very much about working out what we could do as a business to weather the storm," says Stitch, who launched a specialist business arm to focus on quarantine-friendly production, including animation, working with stock footage and producing live TV to be streamed over social channels.
"Before, we could work, produce, and share face-to-face," says Sébastien. "Now, we all have to communicate screen-to-screen. It's the new way." Anticipating that virtual interactions would continue to grow, he transformed his camera storeroom into a home studio, where he's been shooting during lockdown. Patrick, meanwhile, juggled home schooling his children with renovating his new kit van in anticipation of working closer to home rather than abroad for the foreseeable future.
Unable to travel to Iraq for her documentary, Francesca turned to the news story on her doorstep, as northern Italy became the first epicentre of the virus in Europe. Embedded with Red Cross volunteers, she documented the critically ill in their homes and the region's overwhelmed hospitals. As one of the first and few filmmakers in Bergamo, she was commissioned for networks across Europe and the Middle East, including Channel 4 News, ARTE and Al Jazeera.
"I've worked in hostile environments, but filming during a pandemic is different," Francesca says. "You need to sanitise your cameras, lens, cables and audio with disinfectant." Working in full protective equipment, changed after leaving each location, she followed a strict safety protocol in which everything was presumed to be a potential source of the virus. After concluding shoots, she twice self-isolated for 14 days.
Francesca needed a compact filming setup – initially shooting on a Canon EOS C300 with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, and later a Canon EOS C300 Mark II (both cameras now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens. "I needed to be very quick, very light and not intrusive," she says. "The Canon EOS C300 [range] is a very good combination of lightness, strength and quality of image."
Her zoom lenses, meanwhile, offered the flexibility to shoot varied scenes both safely and respectfully. "In the Intensive Care Units I needed wide shots to make sure the audience understood where we were, but at the same time, I couldn't go too close to the patients," she says. "With the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens, you can get very good images from a few steps behind the action."
Although lockdown brought with it great isolation, there has also been a sense of the industry rallying around, says Patrick. "The community that we have online is so important. You can get your finger on the pulse of what other people are doing. You were also aware that, during the peak of lockdown, no one else was working. You felt that you weren't the only one in this situation."
The many online resources that sprang up are something Sébastien has both explored – watching webinars, Instagram Live and Canon Connected videos – and participated in by running kit tutorials about the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and the Canon XF705 4K camcorder. "It's a real pleasure to share my experience during this lockdown and to improve techniques I never took the time to study," he says.
"There's been a lot more sharing," says Stitch. "I've been on a call every week with 160 production companies, all sharing ideas. I don't think that would have happened, had it not been for something as huge as this."
As productions ceased, cinemas closed and festivals were cancelled, the Film and TV Charity saw enormous need among a largely-freelance workforce. "We were getting calls from people who weren't going to be able to pay the rent or put food on the table," says Alex. The charity launched the Covid-19 Film and TV Emergency Relief Fund in partnership with the British Film Institute, raising £3m from donations from industry stalwarts including Netflix, Sky and WarnerMedia. Nearly 2,000 people working in the film and broadcast industries benefited from grants during a two-month period, and the charity is focused on putting mental health on the agenda as productions restart.
"We are a people industry – they're the lifeblood of absolutely everything that we do," says Alex. "I think the ways in which people have been helping one another out is the most heartening thing that I've seen. I think if we can come out of this a kinder, stronger, more positive place to work, that will be a really positive legacy from everything that we've experienced through this period."
As shoots have begun to restart, "things have changed dramatically," says Patrick. "You've got gloves on, you've got a mask on, you're staying away from people. You've got to clean your equipment before and after each shoot. Coming out of lockdown, having lightweight, efficient equipment is really important. I'm having to work much more on my own now, or in much smaller teams."
Patrick's Canon EOS C500 Mark II and Canon EOS C300 Mark II are small enough for him to carry both cameras himself. "I'm thrilled to be able to use the full-frame Canon EOS C500 Mark II," he adds. "It's a whole new optical world."
As well as prioritising safety, the new environment also brings creative challenges. "You think up shots and, more often than not, now they have to be modified to fit within the guidelines of what's safe," says Patrick. "Social distancing has huge implications for how you shoot drama, and how you shoot people interacting." Patrick is developing new techniques including separating himself, a director and an interview subject with thick black fabric when shooting interviews.
"Going forward, I think it's inevitable that we'll continue to see a lack of travel, a need for small, agile crews, and crew members wearing multiple hats," says Stitch, who hopes this might be an opportunity for the industry to become more environmentally conscious. "Film production historically has been quite a wasteful industry. I hope that a big change will be a lower carbon footprint."
"I think the really interesting thing for filmmakers now is that the rule book has been ripped up," says Alex. "What I'm hearing from commissioners and funders now is that they're really open to new ideas. I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us to take on new perspectives, to absorb new voices into our industry and tell new stories in different ways."