Jonathan M. Shiff on new shooting protocols and why the TV Producer Offset must be doubled

‘The Bureau of Magical Things.’

Shooting of the second series of Jonathan M. Shiff Productions’ The Bureau of Magical Things resumed in Queensland on June 29, one of the first to restart after the lockdown.

Directors Evan Clarry and Martha Goddard completed the first 10 of 20 half-hour episodes last week and Grant Brown is now directing the remaining 10.

The company’s founder tells IF about the new shooting protocols, the extra costs involved and the need to rewrite scripts, and his fears that live action children’s TV is doomed unless the TV Producer Offset is doubled to 40 per cent.

Q: I assume you are using the COVIDSafe guidelines, adapted to the specific needs of your production?

A: Our COVID-Safe guidelines and on-set protocols are extensive and are based on the Australian Screen Production Industry Guidelines as well as those provided by Queensland Health and basic workplace safety requirements. There was extensive consultation (via Zoom) for some weeks with cast and crew to build department specific protocols.

Many great suggestions were derived from this. All arrivals to our set, whether studio or location, are tagged with a QR code logging them in and out; all must answer relevant safety contact questions on arrival; and all are temperature checked. Hand washing is mandatory on arrival, at the time of departure and during the day.

A full-time nurse is always on set also recording temperatures of all cast and crew during work hours as well as supporting our COVID/Safety supervisor Rocky MacDonald in encouraging the use of regular hand sanitizer and distancing. Cohorts of sub-groups, for instance make-up and hair, gather separately on set. No equipment is ever touched by other department personnel and all equipment and hand props are sanitized.

Q: How are the cast and crew adapting to the new shooting protocols? Does that mean you can’t do as many set-ups per day as before?

A: Each department had help to develop the very best way they could work safely and efficiently and were pre-prepared for the new protocols and so we’ve found that so far there is very little delay to our workflow.

We are still doing comparable set ups but because we are working under continuous shooting or “French Hours” (working for 10 hours straight without a break for lunch), I found the rhythm of shooting now is actually far better than when previously it was interrupted by lunch.

Individual catering lunch packs, which are very generous and very well received by the crew, are available over a period of some hours and can be taken at the convenience of cast and crew. This means crew are distanced and gathering only in their company of department colleagues rather en masse at a buffet.

Each department has made significant changes: all gear, hand props and surfaces must be regularly sanitised. For instance, make-up and hair have very, very strict protocols, including those that govern the application of prosthetics.

Jonathan M. Shiff.

Other than those that are required, no one is permitted to enter their buses, which are also sanitized constantly. Standby members of this team gather separately on set and along with the wardrobe crew, are supplied with a live stream from the shooting cameras in an intranet feed so they can see everything on an iPad, just as they would have if standing beside the video village.

We had had to acquire more crew and vehicles to allow greater social distancing, including more make-up, wardrobe and green room facilities. More staff are on board specifically for cleaning and sanitizing common surfaces.

We’ve also hired more unit staff, including one dedicated team member at craft services so we do not all touch tea and coffee making equipment etc. There are demountable buildings on site for wardrobe fittings and our art department and office staff have spread out to allow just a handful of people in requisite spaces. I have closed my workstation in the office and now work largely remotely, having installed a sim camera on the directors monitor bank, which means I can live stream at my apartment or on my iPhone.

Many of the management team including our producer Stuart Wood and our line producer Wade Savage can also access this feed. I do visit set but try not to be there for long periods. No visitors or independent contractors are permitted on set. All on-set crew wear masks: we have provided washable masks to all personnel together with replaceable filters. Whilst the actors on camera cannot wear masks during takes they will always take comfort from the PPE worn by all crew that surround and support them. There is a huge cost to this new way of shooting. But if it keeps us safe and engaged then it’s the only way forward.

Q: Did the writers have to rewrite any scenes?

A: Yes. Our story producer Mark Shirrefs had to rewrite quite a bit of material. Firstly, even though it is diametrically opposed to all the training I have ever received, we tried to pull as many scenes as possible out of our studio sets and into, say, parklands where social distancing is much easier for all.

We had to consolidate many scenes and rewrite around cast availability so as to minimise (or ideally eliminate) multiple trips for interstate cast to join us here in Queensland. Because the situation and state border restrictions are changing constantly we remain in regular contact with Queensland Health and are guided by their advice and remarkable endeavours to keep us safe.

Q: Network 10, German broadcaster ZDF and Nickelodeon commissioned season two, with investment from ZDF Enterprises, Screen Queensland and Screen Australia. So does that cover the production cost with the Producer Offset?

A: No. Jonathan M. Shiff Productions is also a significant investor and is providing considerable equity and now additional funds to enable production to continue and complete.

Q: Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the series is employing more than 200 cast and crew and injecting more than $8.5 million into the state’s economy, so that is your biggest ever production?

A: No. It is comparable to many I have produced here in the 20 years since I brought Cybergirl to Brisbane in 2000. H20 – Just Add Water, Mako: Island of Secrets and many of our shows were equally as ambitious. Some had large underwater crews in addition to the on-land crew. None, however, have had to weather the challenges of a deadly international pandemic.

Q: What did you and your colleagues do during the shutdown? Spend more time on development?

A: My producer Stuart Wood and some of our senior management worked long hours on Zoom meetings planning and preparing for our safe return. I personally spent time with my family and was blessed with quality time to live with and get to know my nearly two-year-old granddaughter – time I would not have ordinarily have had.

As for new projects, clearly the type of stories, the way we tell them and the locations in which they are to be filmed must now be totally revisited and re-imagined. Wonderful opportunities now emerge.

Q: Are you concerned the government will extend the suspension of the FTA broadcasters’ local content quotas into 2021?

A: Yes.

‘The Bureau of Magical Things.’

Q: I know your colleague Julia Adams was instrumental in drawing up the Australian Children’s Television Producers submission on the options paper. What is the best-case scenario for kids TV funding and regulation you can hope for? And the worst?

A: More than 20 producers of quality content for children joined in this joint submission to government. I would hope that other content triggers will replace the ineffectual C classification system and that funding will expand and protect Australian stories for Australian kids.

Without this we will not only be culturally adrift but swamped by poor foreign sourced content for young audiences – or worse still, little content at all. I would insist that the 40 per cent Offset must be extended to cover children’s live action. There will be no industry, no production in our genre without it.

Q: In 2018, Screen Australia reported you had made 28 seasons or 290 hours’ worth of 15 live action children’s series with budgets totaling $221 million. What’s the tally now?

A: We are now at 29 seasons or 300 hours worth of 15 live action children’s series with budgets totaling $232 million.

Q: Mako: Island of Secrets returned more net revenue to investors in calendar year 2017 than any other television drama made with Screen Australia investment. What is your outlook now for selling Australian children’s series the rest of the world as productions resume and economies start to recover?

A: There has always been and will always be, a huge international appetite for high quality, engaging, well-crafted content for a younger audience. Many of the world’s leading SVODs use this content at the sharp end of their drive forward for new subscribers.

Massive opportunities present themselves and no less in this environment. Of course, your question presupposes the global economies actually do recover. Many will not.

However, no matter where they live in the world, children love and need human stories, of adventure and heroism, of danger and how to deal with it, of friendship and how to value it. Whether children’s content is a doona to hide under, or a superhero cape to throw over your shoulders, now more than ever it’s needed. Globally!