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How TV and movies are being filmed during lockdown

Before the COVID-19 crisis and social distancing, the cast and director of "All Rise" promoted the TV show at a fall preview event in Beverly Hills in September. The season finale was made using video chats. David Livingston/Getty Images

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Tonight’s episode of “All Rise,” a legal drama in its first season on CBS, will feel very real. The whole episode takes place over video chat. It looks like Zoom’s gallery view, with boxes of talking heads.

The episode is supposed to mimic what the legal world is moving toward: virtual court.

“That’s actually a dramatic story, professional story for us,” said Michael Robin, who directed the episode.

The show wasn’t done filming in Los Angeles when California went into lockdown and it needed a season finale. That meant Robin had to craft shots through a laptop camera and actors had to light scenes themselves — and then they had to figure out how to perform over video chat. 

“The first couple takes were a little mechanical,” Robin said.

With most of us stuck inside, TV and movies may have our attention now more than ever. That’s great for networks and streaming platforms if shows have already been filmed. But shows that haven’t finished shooting have either had to abruptly end seasons or use workarounds to finish them.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is already talking about how to work when restrictions ease. Social distancing is easy enough for camera people, but actors can’t do a kissing scene 6 feet apart. Some film sets are talking about quarantining together so they can keep working.

“Almost like visiting a biosphere or something where you’re all agreeing to go into this enclosed environment, make the movie and then come out of it,” said Tom Nunan, a professor at the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA.

Nunan said filming will be easier for certain story lines, like legal or medical dramas that have smaller casts and tighter plots. But shows like “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” on NBC depend on extras. It’s music-driven, with scenes where people pour into the street and dance together.

“Those kinds of scenes I think are just going to be difficult to shoot and capture safely,” Nunan said. “And in some cases, creatively, they may even feel uncomfortable for the audience.”

If shows keep doing these scenes, it’ll probably be a “fake it till you make it” situation, with the help of computer-generated images and animation.

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