Pandemic Holds Opportunity in the Challenge for Victoria Casting Director

Film trucks and crew have become a familiar sight on Vancouver Island, with an increasing number of blockbuster films shooting alongside TV series and made-for-TV movies over the past five years (including Deadpool, Cold Pursuit, The Professor, See, Godzilla, Sonic the Hedgehog and Pup Academy). Those trucks and crew were gone mid-March this year, when more than 40 productions shooting in B.C. came to an abrupt halt, leaving up to 70,000 people’s jobs in limbo.

“We were gearing up for Martha’s Vineyard Murder Mysteries to film in Victoria and Chesapeake Shores in the mid-Island and I was working on a featured short about domestic abuse,” recalls casting director and acting coach Jacqui Kaese. “I also happened to be visiting my parents in England and had to rush home and pivot fast.”

Jacqui Kaese with the cast and crew on the set of Chesapeake Shores.

When she’s not casting for film and television on Vancouver Island and beyond, Kaese owns Spotlight Academy, offering introductory and advanced courses in acting as well as preparing actors for auditions and working with them on demo reels. For her, the COVID-19 pandemic offered a sudden opportunity even as it challenged her livelihood.

“I’m used to holding classes in person,” she says, “but I moved pretty quickly to an online class structure, adopting new teaching procedures and exhorting my students to get on board so they could take advantage of a new way of learning.”

Online teaching a boon for acting coach and her students

Her new video classes, says Kaese, have been a resounding success. Her students are on camera all the time, which accelerates their level of comfort with the medium. She gets to observe their body language, facial expressions and emoting through a computer lens, enabling her to better prepare actors for their close up. “I can assess and refine much quicker now,” she says, “and those students who’ve borne with me and embraced it are reaping the benefits and their work is better.”

Kaese knows there’ll be a shift back to in-person coaching at some point, but she also knows online coaching is here to stay, precisely because of its unique benefits. “I’ve been working non-stop, every day, working with actors at all levels, on monologues, on pairs, preparing for auditions… I can do more and help more through online coaching.”

Casting goes global with online auditions

Another benefit of a forced shift to online is the new casting normal, which consists of virtual rooms for auditions. “Being able to audition online opens up opportunities for actors based on Vancouver Island,” says Kaese. “They can Zoom in to auditions across the continent and the globe.”

The industry itself has adapted to a new online reality. Actors are learning to shoot commercials and scenes from the comfort of their own homes. Productions send portable camera and lighting sets and show the actors how to set it all up, “and then they do their own hair and makeup, use their own clothing as costumes, and are directed for the scene over video call.”

New health and safety protocols on set

“Gone are the days of 150 people milling around,” says Kaese of the post-pandemic set. “There’ll be no more requests for thousands of people for shows like Game of Thrones. Those ‘crowds’ will be enhanced digitally.”

As the extras casting director for season five of Chesapeake Shores, Kaese predicts those extras will work less hours and have their time on set staggered to keep numbers to a protocol-appropriate level. And she believes for the foreseeable future productions will prefer union members (she tells Douglas it takes 15 days on set to become a background union performer).

As for ensuring health and safety on set, Kaese believes there will be different stations set up for the different departments, with team members specifically assigned to ensure protocols are followed and supported. She also anticipates the mandatory 14-day isolation period for lead actors coming in from the US or Europe will be in place for at least the next few months.

The future of storytelling post-COVID

Jacqui Kaese expects there will be a shift in how stories are told when production resumes. She says the emphasis will likely be on pared down scripts featuring a smaller cast. “Script writers have to become more creative in how they approach telling their stories. I think this will actually help foster more independent film making as they’re well used to the limitations of budget — only now it’s limitation on people.”

Jacqui Kaese poses with Martha’s Vineyard Murder Mystery star Jesse Metcalf.

Productions preparing for their ‘new normal’

As producers prepare for their version of the new normal, they will likely provide protective equipment for workers, boxed catering for crews and increased hygiene facilities, following their industry protocols.

Kathleen Gilbert, Film Commissioner for the Victoria Film Commission, says they are already working with producers to bring their projects back to the Island, including setting up appropriate health and safety support for those projects. “We have identified local cleaning companies that do COVID cleaning 24 hours a day. We have been encouraging our over 600 crew members to update their resumes on our crew database and we have been cleaning up our location database.”

As for how each set is structured and when production will begin, Gilbert says that will be up to each producer. “As long as they abide by government regulations, they could reopen as of the beginning of June. We know they will take the safety of cast, crew and public very seriously. We expect that social distancing will be adhered to, crew will wear non-medical masks and hand washing stations and hand sanitizer will be provided. “

Islanders will likely see those film trucks and crew back on the streets of Island cities from mid to late June, with production fully resumed by Fall.

At the end of the day, Kaese feels the pandemic has brought out the best in us, even as we survive one of the worst human and economic crises of our lives. “When we are challenged, everybody rises; we all up our game and find new wonderful ways to create — it’s human nature. And with people spending more time than ever with their screens, film and television is not going anywhere. Even with advanced AI technology and virtual environments, there’s nothing that replaces the authenticity of a real human being, so you’ll never replace the human connection. We need it. We need stories to be told.”