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Lights, camera, action: Screen production returns to Australia’s Gold Coast

Arts & Culture

Australia’s production industry is cranking up again in Queensland after months of COVID-19 shutdowns.

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Shot on the Gold Coast, TV fantasy series The Bureau of Magical Things is among the first productions to begin shooting under strict compliance guidelines developed by the Queensland Government in conjunction with the Australian Screen Production Industry.

The series’ lead producer Stuart Wood says the strict measures were necessary to overcome the biggest production challenges he has witnessed across a 40-year career.

“Nobody’s ever seen anything like this – the situation is unique for the screen industry, really just as it’s unique for the world,” says Wood.

“We’re working in new territory today and as medical advice and understanding of the virus evolves we also need to be prepared to adjust how we work in the future.”

Wood says COVID-safe guidelines affect every aspect of screen production, with traditionally dynamic film set environments now operating under tight controls.

Actors rehearse wearing facemasks and crew abide by strict new rules about who can handle which pieces of equipment. Even the memory cards are sanitised each time they’re pulled from the cameras.

Makeup artists use a separate kit for each actor, and the cast stays distanced while clever camera angles bring them closer together. Masks and sanitiser pumps are ubiquitous.

Bureau is partly set in a magical realm and cast members’ prosthetic elf ears need protocols all of their own, with the tools to apply them surgically sterilised after each use.

“Our makeup department is under the tightest hygiene restrictions on the set, because they’re working on human beings,” says Wood.

The Gold Coast is the epicentre of Queensland’s growing film industry attracting a number of blockbusters including Thor: Ragnarok, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, San Andreas and The Shallows.

Aside from the public health issues, the return to work to complete season two of The Bureau of Magical Things also means high stakes for the Bureau team from a creative perspective.

The show’s first season was a global hit and scored several industry awards, including the AACTA Award for Best Children’s Program.

Wood says the cast and crew are back at work and fired up to maintain the high standards.

“A lot of our work is to make the on-set protocols invisible,” he says.

“There’s a certain headspace we need to protect around our directors and cast and key creatives.

“We want the actors to be comfortable that they’re safe, and then forget about it and go and deliver the best performance they can.”

The Bureau of Magical Things was halfway through its season two shoot when coronavirus began to flare worldwide.

The production voluntarily instituted hygiene measures well ahead of community standards, but the set was shuttered late March, Wood says, once they could not be sure continuing work was the safest course.

During shutdown, the producers conducted a risk assessment and developed plans to mitigate COVID-19 transmission, then worked with their department heads on practical protocols for making a COVID-safe film set run.

But Wood says there’s much more than paperwork behind the restart, it’s a collaborative effort between crew, government and financiers.

He says Screen Queensland and the City of Gold Coast’s film unit have been “rock solid” in support of Bureau’s production company, Jonathan M. Shiff Productions.

“Both those organisations have been incredibly supportive in understanding what we were doing and why we were doing it.”

Jonathan M. Shiff Productions has made hundreds of episodes of TV on the Gold Coast and inspires particular loyalty among local crew.

“We work closely with a lot of talented people, and they’ve pulled together as a team; that’s vital in an environment like this,” he says.

“We want to look after them and – most importantly – we want them to go home and re-assure their families they’re not at risk.”

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