• Viknesh Silvalingam

4 tips for the First Assistant Director in the Post Covid-19 world

Updated: Apr 23


There is recent audio about legendary actor Tom Cruise going off on a film crew for not following on-set COVID protocols(1*). Yes, at a time when a significant number of small businesses in California are being forced to close or restrict the way they conduct their business by the state government to prevent the spread of COVID, there are still movies and tv shows being produced. Though there has been much outrage over this latest decision to label film workers as essential, that could be a logical rationale reason behind Tom Cruise's outburst (2*). There is too much at stake for the thousands in the film making community as such safety should be everyone's responsibility but why did the rest of the crew wait for the biggest star and the boss of the entire production ( The Mission Impossible franchise is produced by Tom Cruise's production company) to call out on their behavior? Shouldn't the COVID Compliance Officer be the one enforcing the law? As mentioned in my earlier blog, a COVID Compliance Officer is a role created under an agreement in June between entertainment unions and an alliance of producers as part of the terms for Hollywood’s return to production.


However, for the independent production, those on a budget, and even film students, this responsibility will fall on the First Assistant Director (1st AD). Albeit the1st AD is generally the person on a film set responsible for making sure everything runs on time, she or he is also the person responsible for on-set safety. Thankfully, there is a safety guideline document, The Safeway Forward (3*), for Assistant Directors to keep themselves up to date on the COVID rules. This blueprint was drafted by the industry trade unions (DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, and Teamsters' Committees) However, there are some real set life situations the 1stAD would encounter that won't be on any safety guidelines. Based on my experience and research here are 5 points a 1st AD could take into consideration to ensure a COVID free set



1. Proper mask-wearing by everyone

Wearing a mask is the single most action one could take to make a film set safer. Thankfully it is the most affordable and simplest thing we can do to ensure that safety. The CDC guidelines (4*) require a mask to be put on at all times except for the following situations:

  • When having a MEAL with the nearest person 6 feet away.

  • When your work station is outside and away from any crowd for an extended period of time.

  • When having a quick break outside or in a well-ventilated area.

To ensure that everyone has the same baseline safety, production should provide the crew and cast with masks. Similar to how productions would provide t-shirts or a cap as swag to promote unity, masks should be part of that package. This will prevent a crew member from donning less than ideal coverings such as a gaiter or a mask with a valve which is not recommended by the CDC.


Flight attendants remind us every time we board a plane, how to wear a seatbelt, activate the life vest, put on the breathing apparatus, and where the emergency exits are. As such, proper mask-wearing should be covered at every safety meeting.



2. Sanitize and sanitize

It has often been stated by Times Man of the Year, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci that the of the most important things we can do to mitigate the spread of coronavirus is to frequently wash our hands for at least 20 seconds and sanitize high touch areas (5*). However, depending on the pace of the shoot, it can be difficult enough to find time to run to the bathroom and wash your hands, let alone sanitize commonly use items, like props, camera, light equipment.

Even though it's an individual's responsibility for personal hygiene we are all too well aware of the time crunch. The famous phrase "rush to wait, wait to rush" rings very true on a film set. Thus it will be a huge help if the 1st AD would provide regular 5-10 minute sanitary breaks where the crew are encouraged to wash their hands and sanitize their equipment.


3. Talents are exposed

Not all films made during these times will be about COVID. Chances are the talent won't be wearing any masks. Which presents an increased risk both for talent and the crew. On a typical shot, the crew will have to get close to the talent to slate, to lay marks, or to measure focus distance. Furthermore, the set is not the only place the talent will be required, often they will get called over to the wardrobe coordinator, makeup booth, or the director and start walking nearby other crew without their mask on. The crew most probably will be working and won't be 6 feet away. To prevent unnecessary exposure, the 1st AD should announce to everyone on set that the talent is moving or maskless, or it should be treated as a closed set with only essential crew present (6*).



4. Production must lead by example

As the work slowly trickles back in, crew, talent, clients, and agencies will be turning to production to set guidelines, enforce them, and lead by example.

All it takes is one producer to not put his mask on to damage everything the safety protocols represent. On the flip side, if you ask your crew to wear a mask and then follow through on it yourself, they will feel empowered, responsible, and obligated to do so.

It is tough on the production unit to add another task to their plate, they already have to deal with budgeting, scheduling, location, and countless other issues that happen on a typical day. And now they have a heaping pile of Coronavirus Safety Protocols on their plate.


COVID 19 is reshaping our world beyond our imagination. It is definitely going to transform the way our gyms, restaurants, workspace look. As highlight by Bill Gates in his 5 post covid predictions, software will improve exponentially to allow remote working to work for as many people as possible. I'm sure folks in the film industry are eagerly anticipating finding out when will remote working perks come their way. Though it is still early days, this is precisely the area The Martini wants to cater, allowing filmmakers to do as much of their pre and post-production work remotely. Hollywood will survive COVID 19 as they are just too big to fail, but we should spare a thought for the independent filmmakers who are now forced to add another layer into their struggles to get their vision to screen.


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Author’s Notes/References

  1. https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-news/tom-cruise-covid-19-rant-1104720/

  2. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hollywood-insiders-defend-essential-worker-status-amid-growing-criticism

  3. https://www.sagaftra.org/files/sa_documents/ProductionSafetyGuidelines_June2020EditedP.pd

  4. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html

  5. https://www.yahoo.com/now/fauci-just-focus-on-washing-your-hands-174323153.html?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALjQ0aC5ca8Ao22Ptz70233ru_dlyDBumg76ANbx08yEJJ3p_1AJ3ETJZndb2kuN71P2_9nLdKSUeQSfLE-sYqHdLEEq9do4XSIwqpNrp1HbvDZWjOtQCHi8GBbCotZ28ZD44ARUgoZOqhEBbQuGIsqLx1z00Eb9cIRwdGhGoZFN&guccounter=2

  6. https://nofilmschool.com/john-flynn-covid-19-safety-set

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