Heartland ~ Filming in a Pandemic

By Bill Borgwardt

When CBC announced in early May that the popular western lifestyle, family value series, Heartland, had been renewed for an unprecedented 14th season, the producers, cast and crew were elated. Still, there was also consternation as to how the production could proceed with the entire world shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. After much consultation with Alberta Health and other medical professionals, a protocol was established that finally allowed filming to begin in October 2020. It is expected to continue through mid-December or even later.

The show is filmed in Alberta in the High River and Calgary region. Fortunately, Heartland is an all-Canadian production with most of the crew members living in Alberta. Many of the writers, directors, producers and cast members live in other provinces but had no trouble travelling to Alberta for the production. Only one cast member, Gabe Hogan, who plays Peter Morris, was out of country working in Los Angeles. Being a Canadian, he was allowed to return to Canada but had to go into a 14-day quarantine before being allowed onto the set.

For the production to proceed, they had to establish many COVID protocols. The most important was having an entire COVID crew, including COVID consultants who helped them develop the protocols to keep the cast and crew safe. The set has COVID coordinators to ensure the protocols are followed on set, and a COVID sanitation crew to keep all high-touch surfaces disinfected. They even have a COVID production assistant who oversees their COVID testing program, making sure the entire cast and crew are tested on a rotational basis.

The COVID safety coordinators perform daily temperature checks on all cast and crew at the beginning of each day. Additionally, everyone has to complete a “daily health questionnaire” before coming to work. The questionnaire asks if they are experiencing COVID symptoms, and if they are, they are instructed to stay home. A private medical lab sends sample collectors to the set and production office to conduct throat swabs on the cast and crew.

Although cast and crew are allowed to go home at the end of each day, everyone is being very cautious, as no one wants to be the person who could bring COVID to the set and hamper the production or affect the livelihood of all working there. On the set, they are following Alberta Government cohort guidelines, and have separated cast and crew into three “zones” that they strive to keep separate.

Zone A includes the cast, as well as all the people who work closely with them, which includes the director and assistant directors, the camera crew, the sound person who places microphones on the actors, and the hair, makeup and costume people. Zone B is the people who work on or around the set, such as various technicians, wranglers, and others who don’t interact as closely with the performers. Zone C is the production office staff and other off-set crew members. Whereas previous seasons allowed everyone on set to interact with each other, it is not the case this year.

All crew members, except for the actors, are required to wear face masks on set. A dedicated “rest area” is near the set where crew members can take off their masks and eat and drink while maintaining two meters physical distance. Everyone will be missing the craft service table this year. For those not familiar with the term, it’s the snack table. In past years it was loaded with self-serve snacks and drinks. Now people have to approach a table where they place an order and are served by craft service staff. The set also had a reputation for the fantastic lunch buffets, but this year everything is individually served off the catering truck.

Disinfecting everything that is used on the set is of utmost importance. This includes production equipment like cameras and microphones, but also props and costumes. Basically, anything that can be touched by more than one person must be disinfected, and different types of items require different protocols. The camera crew has discovered that high-alcohol content wipes work best with their equipment, whereas the costume department has found electrostatic sprayers work best on cloth. Even simple things like the door handle on a pickup truck or a saddle horn have to be constantly disinfected.

The story as you see it unfold on television is not necessarily filmed in that sequence, and not every actor is on the set each day, except for when they are being filmed in group scenes. The filming is blocked out so that scenes that occur in the same location with the same actors are shot at the same time, even if they technically appear in different episodes. This is done for efficiency, instead of having to return to the same location and set up cameras, lighting, and everything several times.

For example, kitchen scenes from several different episodes with husband Ty (Graham Wardle) and wife Amy (Amber Marshall) may be shot on the same day or series of days. Continuity is extremely important though, so that viewers can’t say that Amy was wearing that same outfit in the kitchen in Episode Two and Episode Five, or that the same coffee cup was sitting on the same spot in what should be different time periods. An actor can go through more than one wardrobe and makeup change in a single day, and props can be rearranged several times. Under ideal conditions, this can be difficult enough to pull off, but under COVID conditions, every new costume or prop has to be sterilized too. Because of all the extra precautions, simple location shots that would normally have been done in a few hours can now take all day or even longer.

The people of High River will not see the production crews filming downtown as much as they have in past years. The producers are striving to keep the cast and crew isolated from the general public, for safety reasons, so most filming will be in controlled-access locations. The number of extras has also had to be limited this year. In previous years the production has had “fan extra days” where hundreds of fans were invited to visit the set and perhaps appear onscreen. Examples are the crowds at rodeos, auctions or other horse events. Unfortunately, this year that is not possible. The scripts have had to be adjusted accordingly.

However, you can still look for those classic family scenes around the big table with Jack Bartlett (Shaun Johnston) and the rest of the family, or intimate scenes with Amy and Ty with their young daughter Lyndy (a role shared jointly by identical twins, Ruby and Emmanuella Spencer). With the extensive testing and all the precautions being taken, everyone feels completely comfortable that they are safe in these situations.

Despite the setbacks, Associate Producer Jess Maldaner says things are going well. “We generally wanted to give our audience more of the Heartland they know and love, and from the early cuts, I’m confident we’ll do that.”

Although there has been no hint as to how the story will evolve this year, COVID will definitely not be part of the storyline. For the millions of fans in 119 different countries around the world, this will hopefully be a nice reprieve from what they’re going through. Although the actual debut date for Heartland – Season 14 hasn’t been released, it is expected to be released on CBC and the free streaming service CBC Gem early in 2021. 

Photo’s Courtesy CBC