Yale Daily News

Filmmakers at Yale are adding new props to their senior projects this year: masks.

Based on University COVID-19 policy, all students participating in short films as part of the Film and Media Studies program, crew members and actors alike  are required to be masked at all times, leaving many students concerned about how to create a film when characters are wearing masks in every scene. Some seniors and staff in the Film and Media Studies department expressed frustration with the added difficulties that this requirement poses and are attempting to work with the COVID-19 Review Team (CRT) to develop alternative protocols.

“A lot of people in our senior thesis class have had to make adjustments to their scripts in terms of shooting primarily outside,” said Reina Bonta ’22, a senior student in the Film and Media Studies Program. “We are limiting the number of actors and having virtual rehearsals to make sure that we’re still adhering to this policy.”

For her senior project, Bonta is writing a short narrative film that she plans to film in Hawaii during winter break. Bonta voiced her frustration that film students must adhere to Yale and New Haven COVID-19 guidelines as opposed to following local Hawaii policy.

Film and Media Studies major Kari Hustad ’22 also noted that Yale’s COVID-19 policy is inconsistent in how it addresses film and sports, especially considering the precautions film majors have proposed to take while filming, such as opening all the windows and requiring cast and crew to undergo rapid testing before and after shooting in addition to weekly PCR testing.

“The risk posed by shooting with these precautions is clearly much lower than having an entire athletic team unmasked in a locker room, or playing against another school’s athletic team while unmasked,” Hustad said. She also noted that she does not “hold anything against” the sports teams themselves but wanted to point out the contrast in Yale policy.

Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd wrote in a previous statement that the safety of the Yale and surrounding New Haven communities are “always the first consideration.”

 “Yale Athletics and Yale as a whole have done everything in their power to bring back safe extracurriculars, including athletic practice and competition,” the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee President Chelsea Kung ’23 previously said in a statement. “While things are different from years prior due to COVID, the essence is the same and competition among student-athletes is welcomed back with a fierce desire to represent ourselves and Yale.”

But Bonta said that some staff share the students’ concerns about perceived discrepancy in COVID-19 policy; They are trying to help students work through these policies. According to senior art and film studies lecturer Jonathan Andrews ’96, changes to the regulations are largely outside of faculty members’ control.

“I think all of us understand the importance of masking as a means to limit viral transmission,” Andrews wrote in an email to the News. “But unless a film was written with masked characters in mind, it doesn’t make sense, from the filmmaker’s or viewer’s perspective, for the actors to be masked. For senior project films, which would otherwise be eligible to screen in film festivals and be used as work samples, the presence of masked actors would be particularly damaging.”

Hustad told the News that many current film majors making these senior projects were originally members of the class of 2021 and took time off specifically to create thesis films of high caliber. 

“Films with masked actors in them will not be taken as seriously as part of a portfolio,” Hustad said. “ It’s really frustrating to have taken a whole year off in order to be able to make a thesis film that includes a few indoor scenes and then to be told we are not allowed while other activities are allowed to participate in even riskier behaviors.” 

Andrews explained that the CRT can allow exceptions to University-wide policies in cases when a policy is “hindering an activity of value.” In these cases, a “low-risk alternative” can be implemented, but programs and departments cannot authorize these changes on their own.

Students and staff alike are trying to work with the administration to develop alternate approaches to the mask requirement, from individual exceptions to a department-wide policy adjustment. 

Andrews has been in communication with Associate Dean for the Arts Kate Krier and the CRT to explore policy solutions that would allow actors to unmask while interior scenes are actively being recorded. On Oct. 15, the CRT approved a new set of expectations for a single pilot project taking place later this semester, and if successful, Andrews said it may be extended to seniors’ culminating films.

The pilot policy allows up to three actors — all of whom must be vaccinated and tested twice weekly starting from the week before filming up to a week after — to unmask specifically while being filmed.  The policy strongly encourages students to choose outdoor spaces at Yale and requires any indoor space outside of Yale to be evaluated and approved by Yale Environmental Health and Safety.

Andrews noted that most students will not need to start shooting until next semester and said he is “hopeful” about the outcomes of the pilot policy, but there is no guarantee that this policy will be extended to other projects. 

Additionally, for students like Bonta who plan to film before next semester begins, it is unclear if exceptions will be made in time. Others, like Ian Homsy ’22, are relying on an adjusted policy going into effect by next semester. Homsy plans to shoot his short film in January or February with a crew of six to seven people. He wrote the story with the expectation that new rules allowing maskless actors would be in effect by then.

“I’m not quite so sure if that policy will change in time.” Homsy told the News. “I’m not even sure what I would do … I don’t think that film production at Yale has really historically and even now been very much supported by the faculty and staff. Especially as thesis projects, culmination of four years at Yale, we’re really not asking for a lot.”

Hustad noted that for some students, especially those that are low-income, being at Yale is the best opportunity to make a high-quality film. Considering the negative impact of COVID-19 on students’ ability to produce films in the past year, these senior projects are particularly important, she said.

Per Yale College requirements, seniors may submit either a culminating project or essay. But with film and media specifically, Bonta said that students — particularly those who want to go into directing or cinematography — often choose the project option because producing a film is more relevant to their post-graduation career plans. 

“We are not asking for no regulations to apply to us at all,” Bonta said. “I want to emphasize that we seniors in the Film and Media Studies major are really trying to be cooperative and make this work in a safe and reasonable way.”

The Film and Media Studies Program graduates about 30 students in every Yale class.