Covid has halted on-screen sex – the industry needs to get creative or may lose intimate on-screen moments

As the pandemic wreaks havoc on TV and movie ‘love lives’, intimacy coordinators need to find ways to adapt

Vanessa Coffey
Monday 09 November 2020 08:23 GMT
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Following the #MeToo movement in 2017, we started to see essential changes made to the way productions shot nudity or simulated sex, and a new role emerged. Intimacy coordinators, such as myself, began being employed by productions to help keep actors and crew members mentally and physically safe during intimate scenes. Until that point, everyone had fully accepted that if you had a stunt or a fight sequence to shoot, you’d get an expert in to assist with the choreography, safety and coordination of the scenes, but the same could not be said of intimate scenes.

The industry then “woke up” to the reality of how intimate scenes might affect actors and realised that, if done well, the scene could be transformed for viewers too. The end product is arguably more beautiful and more sexually charged when it’s been openly discussed beforehand because the actor doesn’t have any niggling doubts about what they’re committing to doing in front of the camera. We also then don’t end up with issues down the track with actors talking about unsafe practices on set – an issue that has been far too commonly reported in more recent times.

Sex on screen of course changed again in March 2020, and may yet change again over the course of the next month, when productions started closing down as a result of the pandemic. There was certainly a fear that intimacy in film and television would be stopped entirely, with guidelines released by Directors UK on Intimacy in the Time of Covid-19, which I contributed to, looking at alternative shooting methods to prevent this.

As an intimacy coordinator, I’ve found this period to be a real creative challenge, as I’ve had to adapt and evolve my ways of working to ensure my actors are Covid-safe, while keeping scenes as realistic as possible. I’ve seen some producers and directors change their storylines altogether; some have the camera veer away at the moment when a kiss would otherwise have taken place. Another “workaround” has been to use the wigged-up, real-life partners of the actors, or life-like dummies, while others looked at clever angles that made people look closer to one another than they in fact were. I think the pandemic has favoured productions with big budgets, as they can house the actors in a bubble prior to the shooting of any intimate scenes, while also all undertaking daily coronavirus testing.

Intimacy coordinators do not become redundant during a pandemic. I see coordinating on screen sex as a creative art form – it goes so much deeper than the simulated act itself. There are complexities to navigate – I’m always looking to work with the writer and director’s vision for the piece and how that can be accomplished in discussion with the actors. We look together at what the narrative is of the sex scene itself and how this moment is pivotal to the overall text, as well as the practical complexities. 

We ask what are the camera angles we’ll be using? What level of nudity are we looking at (working with wardrobe to determine the modesty garments applicable)? What is the physical choreography we’re using (a period piece for example will typically have different choreography to a completely modern piece)? What are the beats in the scene; how long is each thrust and what is the quality of the thrust, etc? The actors I work with are asked to approach the sex scene through character, rather than through their personal sexual experience. How a character kisses or has sex may be vastly different to how the actor has sex in their real life and that’s something I aim to ensure remains separate. After all, why shouldn’t actors be able to live their own intimate lives outside of their work?

The way we put these considerations into practice will change as a result of Covid. Productions will keep considering the best ways in which to shoot these scenes from a health and safety perspective. The concept of the closed set has certainly been taken very seriously, with only a skeleton crew on set during the rehearsal and filming of these scenes. They will also be looking more deeply at whether the sex scene is necessary and if it is, how we keep cast and crew safe to shoot them.

We must adapt fast so we never lose intimacy on screen. As the guidance from Directors UK says, “relationships are at the heart of any story” and intimacy is often the expression of that relationship. Long may it continue on screen, on stage, and in real life.

Vanessa Coffey is an intimacy coordinator working in film, theatre, and television

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