Surviving Testing Times
The Pandemica drive-in event might’ve seemed “easy to do,” but appearances can be ridiculously deceiving. From not being allowed to grab your own drinks to getting tested for COVID-19 three times in 24 hours, STEFFAN CHIRAZI gets the story behind the event’s creation and delivery.
“I think, right now, we just need to see how this all works out…”
Tony DiCioccio, part of Metallica’s management team and the man who specifically oversees the live performance side of operations, was sitting in front of me at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, California. We were not sitting across from each other discussing vintages or how much stoving takes place at this fine establishment, one of the oldest wineries in Northern California. We were not even discussing the series of concerts owner Jeff Bundschu has staged in the small barn-like venue a few hundred yards away from us (including Television and Johnny Marr). No, we were “backstage” at the first Metallica show since September 2019, the final S&M2 Chase Center show. I had asked Tony a question pertaining to the future. There is, he said, much to learn in real-time during this COVID-19 era. “This one is about us being back together and getting with the fans as best as we can right now.”
Metallica has done many out-of-the-box things, from playing in Antarctica to three gigs in a day during an egregious Parisian heatwave. I never thought that playing a valley-backed parking lot at a celebrated Sonoma winery would list among these moments, but I also didn’t figure we’d be in a world where hugging and shaking hands was frowned upon, or where masks in public were mandatory. So all-told, this was one hell of a unique moment in Metallica’s history, a moment where the band decided to call an audible and just see how it all went down. Hopefully, you were a part of it this past Saturday.
Ah, but the route there…
It was as far from straight-forward as you can get.
How many shows has Metallica done which required multiple disease tests? You’re right, the answer is none. How many shows has Metallica done at a winery? You’re right again, the answer is none. How many shows has Metallica done where the valley is their backdrop and the stage a gravel parking lot? Fancy that, you are correctamundo one more time, none! We sat for six months wondering how this might all happen again, how we might see a live event of some description, and of course it was Metallica that made the first step in rock. Because this is the sort of thing Metallica has done it’s whole career, gone where others haven’t, strode boldly into the unknown. To be clear, only country artists Blake Shelton and Garth Brooks had tried this format. No rock bands. Add that to the fact that Metallica + inertia = malfunction, and it was inevitable that they would stride forth and try something. So a concept was agreed upon to give us a live event which would get us all off the sofa and into something resembling the real world again, the core crew was engaged once more, Greg Fidelman stepped up remotely as the sound man, and the framework for what is a full live production in this COVID-19 era was put together in a rapid amount of time.
As you will see via the words of Jesse Greenberg from Encore Live, the conduit between the event and drive-in theaters; Vicki Huxel, Metallica co-production; Chad Zaemisch, James’ guitar tech; Butch Allen, Entertainment Industry Response safety compliance officer (and previously Metallica lighting director); Tony DiCioccio, part of Metallica’s management team; Brett Murray, digital media producer; Gene McAuliffe, video director and editor; and Vickie Strate, Metallica HQ, this production was far from smooth sailing or a cheap venture. Again, more than ever in the global situation we all find ourselves in, nothing ventured is nothing gained.
SOWING THE SEEDS
Jesse Greenberg: Encore is a large-scale event production and experience company. It’s the idea that people’s most deeply held beliefs are developed through their own experiences, them going through it, feeling it, and igniting all their senses. I took over as president of Encore on January 6, so I took over a business that was fully invested in the experience economy and large scale gatherings. We had to quickly shift into, “Okay, how do we take all these things that we are doing and try to create the same outcomes for our clients in a virtual space?”
Tony DiCioccio: When this was brought to us, we thought it was interesting because [Encore] had an infrastructure and access to over 200 theaters, plus they had parameters in place with the distancing and all the other necessary components. It was also great because everyone’s been anxious to work.
JG: The decision to explore the concept didn’t start until May 12. That was the day we came to realize that large scale artists were never gonna play at a drive-in for a one-off, in-person concert. The scale wasn’t big enough, there frankly wasn’t enough money to be made for them to go play for 400 cars, and we also believed that, from a fan standpoint, they were gonna get tired of being alone and watching Instagram concerts or Zoom concerts, and we needed to bring people together in a safe way, to allow people to make plans and actually put something on their calendar.
TD: I believe discussions started in early June, but then fell off the face of the Earth for about a month. We officially began the production on July 29, with the original event dated to go on September 3, before being moved up to August 29.
JG: Dennis Arfa [the Founder and CEO of AGI and Metallica’s booking agent – ED] and my head of talent, Leigh Dodson King, started having discussions. We wanted to work with a group that cared about this, that wanted to do something really special for their fans and was aligned with both promoting the event and giving something back to their fan base.
Vicki Huxel: When we got the call that this was what we were doing, I started doing a little bit more research. There was no really good example to follow, because everybody’s just sort of learning as they go. But this band wants the best of everything, and they’re not gonna take any chances, so we needed to go in full force and then scale down if we saw the need to. Bringing the crew in meant us traveling a good week and a half early just so that we could arrive, get our tests going, and then be together, sit, and quarantine. Social distancing? Well, you never think about now needing one vehicle for two or three people max, you’re not just renting a 15-seat passenger van and getting twelve people in there. That’s not working anymore. So already, the budget that I’m used to working with pretty much doubled or tripled with just those little things. Take the food and beverages for everyone. You can’t do catering anymore in terms of having a buffet, salad bars, sandwich spreads, or anything like that. Now it’s all individual and pre-packaged. I really had to make sure I had everyone with dietary restrictions taken care of. Coolers! Who would’ve thought coolers? That you can’t just dip your hand into a cooler that everybody else has dipped into now, so making sure that everybody is not touching the same thing.
Butch Allen: The last tour I designed [the lighting] for Metallica was [2003’s] Madly In Anger. I went on from there and did a whole bunch of other shows for a whole bunch of other bands. Then March 12, 2020 came, and the live music industry ended in America. And we found ourselves with nothing to do, but with this great desire to try to figure out how to help all of our friends get back to work. So I heard a rumor from some friends of mine that five companies had gotten together and tried to come up with a way to help, and I called my friend Baz Halpin from Silent House Productions and asked, “How can I help?” As time passed, the white papers started to come out from all the unions, like the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, AFTRA, IATSE, about how they were ready to go back to work. And they created a position called the COVID Compliance Officer. We [the people helping who formed the company Entertainment Industry Response (EIR) – ED] had been so deep into learning about COVID-19 and mitigation strategies from the other part of this project, that we were already well down the road with developing a workflow and a training manual. And suddenly, multiple states were requiring this position on shoots. So we found ourselves in this world we don’t want to be in, in a position that’s mandated, but we’re getting to fulfill what our original mission was: to help people get back to work and get back to work in the least risky, most mitigated situation we could put them in.
VH: A lot of it [the planned protocol] was Lug [John “Lug” Zajonc – production chief] and Tony [DiCioccio]. Then we all talked and said, “Okay, this is what we’ve read, this is what we know. A lot of it was just throwing out ideas to see what has seemed to work from research and other people telling us what worked for them. Lug knew a few people that had done it, and of course Tony knows everybody, so he was getting feedback on things to do, and there was a little bit of what I’ve read and what I’ve heard too. Traveling on the plane was a big one for the crew because they were a little nervous. Nobody has traveled [in the COVID-19 era], so what’s that gonna be like? And then actually trying to find a hotel out in the Bay Area because Marin County, San Rafael was all closed to essential workers only. So we couldn’t even get a hotel near HQ. We ended up out in Sonoma with 20+ rooms at a mom and pop lodge. And until I got on with our travel agent and we started looking at hotels, we hadn’t heard that. I hadn’t heard about that in Dallas, Lug hadn’t heard about that in Vegas. So there were lots of learning moments.
Chad Zaemisch: They wanted us out there about a week before we would even see the band. The first hurdle was going to be getting through the airport without catching the virus. That’s where a lot of things are out of everyone’s control, because the virus can be anywhere. We did it to create a bubble and we needed to make sure that people inside of our bubble were safe and healthy. So that required us getting there pretty early, starting with COVID-19 testing, and “masks on” around each other all the time. That was pretty interesting to get used to, staying away from each other when we’re used to working very close together. Grabbing something to help somebody, anything, everything was like a big no-no. It was, “don’t touch.”
BA: There’s so many classes I’ve been through to learn about this [Butch stated clearly that he is not a trained medical professional – ED], through the likes of the World Health Organization, CDC, Johns Hopkins, Safe Sets International, Health Education Services. Along with Cynthia Ukas-Bradley, who’s one of the founders of EIR, and our medical advisor, Dr. Stuart Weiss, we put together this 90-page manual on how to, from a production aspect, try to mitigate risk in a working environment. My experience working during the pandemic has been nothing but 100 percent compliance. I spend my time [in the current society] shaking my head at why three simple things can’t be done. Wear a mask, wash your hands, give people six feet. Guess what, we’d be out of the hole. It’s simple. It’s not political, it’s not religious, it’s not anything, it’s just, that’s it. It’s really easy.
VH: The crew had already been quarantining on our own in the hotel, and when we first went to HQ, that’s when we met up with Butch. We had a big meeting ahead of time, just the crew, and he went over everything with us. But yeah, we literally stayed at the hotel. Food was delivered in, left at the front desk for us or brought right to our doors. It was like a 1970s mom and pop motor lodge.
CZ: We were instructed to just use contactless delivery, so I ordered some groceries to be delivered. All the food had to be contactless delivery, dropped outside the door, we all went to same hotel and kind of isolated in our rooms. Everyone was careful. We were trying to figure out what was expected of us. Thinking about that, being responsible for the health of everyone is, you know, a pretty large responsibility, and everyone was pretty aware of that. No one wanted to be the spoiler for this thing. No one wanted to be the person that got everybody else sick.
BA: I think safety is a misnomer because you can’t be safe. There’s no “safe.” “What is your tolerance for risk?” is the question that you have to ask yourself. You know, this company doesn’t just show up so that you’ve met your minimum compliance of having some person who’s had a two-hour, $50 training class stand there, take a temperature, and ask you four questions. We’ve partnered with these productions because they’re motivated to stay healthy. And it’s kinda interesting, because normally, on most things you do in entertainment, there’s a lot of pulls and pushes of different things people need. The one thing you find here is everybody’s on the same path, which is “I don’t want to get sick.” Especially at work.
VH: Everybody was very happy to see each other. We had one of our crew in Room 130, and we were all able to stay six-to-eight feet apart outside that door, and we came down with our own food or drink or whatever it was, and were able to catch up with everybody. And that was probably the best part of all of this, we were able to see old friends/family that we haven’t seen in, you know, almost a year, since the S&M2 shows. Just to see somebody face-to-face that you spend so much time with, sometimes more than your actual blood family, it was nice after, like I said, a year to finally reconnect and know, “Okay, there’s still hope that if we do this right that this will open the door for us to be able to do something else again.”
CZ: It was great to get back together, and it was great to be doing what we all do, but all of the physical and mental barriers were just that. But right now, we don’t have a choice but to get better at doing it in the way we just did it.
Brett Murray: Seeing everyone was awesome. Once I was in Sonoma and met up with the rest of the crew, it was like being on the road again, but at least six feet apart. We were pretty much hanging out outside a room next to the parking lot and enjoying stories we’d missed for nearly a year. A story someone told? Look, Dewey has so many stories that when we’re all out on the road, there’s like this “time-slot” where he walks into our office and we’ll ask, “Is it story time with Dewey?” and he’ll say, “Absolutely, yes!” and begin a new tale. There were a few enjoyed!
BA: Okay, everybody. Testing’s not that bad. Regardless of what you hear, it’s not that bad. Don’t be afraid of the testing. Zim, zam, zoom, it’s over.
Vickie Strate: The testing process was obviously new to all of us, and we had to become logistics experts in a very short time. There were definitely some safety concerns, and at one point out of an abundance of caution, we did shut down production at HQ for a couple days.
CZ: Fortunately, I tested negative each time. But shutting down affected everyone in that we all had to then go into super isolation where we didn’t want to leave our rooms. We were supposed to go into HQ for the first day of getting together, and all of that was shut down for two days. I started to realize more what it meant. Because until you really know that you’re negative, you have to assume that you have it, and how’s it gonna affect your health? How’s it gonna affect the family and different things like that? During that time, we did two individual tests for everyone, and then [an additional] company came in the next day and did the same test that would go to a completely different lab altogether. So that was three tests in 24 hours. That really brought into the reality of, “How this is gonna go down if somebody is positive?” You’re gonna be stuck. You can’t go anywhere; you can’t do anything. It was pretty scary, pretty creepy, and kinda ominous.
VS: After an extra series of testing and two-day production delay, we regrouped and ensured that every precaution was firmly in place. We were extremely fortunate that no one got infected during the entire time we were together, and we were able to complete everything as scheduled despite the delay… not without a little bit of stress, though!
WORKING IN A SANITARY-UM!
BA: Every night everything was disinfected. Clean, sanitize, disinfect. Everybody came in to work, everyone worked, and then once they were done and they left, we’d go through the building. First we laid down a basic chemical fog that is an antiviral, food safe, EPA list N, level 4 product, and once that dissipated then we’d go through and retouch every doorknob, every light switch, every toilet handle, in fact every single thing that one of our colleagues would touch, we hand treated to make sure that when everybody came in the next day it was thoroughly disinfected.
CZ: All of the normal stuff that you take for granted, like how to do the guitar change and how long it takes you to tune guitars and stuff, was basically all different. You didn’t have the kind of time that you had before. We were trying to collectively sort out what was practical and what was safe. We figured that rubber gloves were not practical; it’s hard to tune a guitar with rubber gloves on. So, we decided how else can we do this, and it really was just constant hand sanitizing for one. Another thing we had to consider was the exchange of sweat. I put a guitar on James. He plays it for two songs, maybe three songs, and gives it back to me. Well, now the leather strap is soaked with his sweat. I don’t think there’s any studies that say that sweat would pass the virus, I don’t know, but we had to treat it like, “Yes, I can get the virus.” It was not just to protect James from myself, it was also the other way around. James can’t sing with a mask on, he obviously has his whole respiratory system open to me, so I have to take extra precautions, which meant wearing a shield [plus double-mask – ED]. But yeah, a lot of disinfecting the strap, wiping the body off. We basically wore these cut up rain jackets to provide a barrier between the sweaty straps and our clothing so we had a solid barrier between the strap and my shirt or whatever. Then we would have the opportunity to get the guitar, set it down, wipe it up, disinfect it, and then pick it up, tune it, set it back down, disinfect it, and then sanitize.
VH: Jeff [Bundschu] and the winery folks gave us a list of who was needed at the winery for those two evenings of rehearsal and shooting, and they were tested with us. They literally kept in their own little bubble as well; they knew that they couldn’t be going out. There were also a set of rules for people that lived at home, what they needed to adhere to as well as us in the hotel. We had very few vendors. The two truck drivers were tested by their person and then they stayed in their world. If they were hungry, they would either call me, Butch, or their point person and we’d bring food to a certain point and then leave it, and then they would come get it.
THE PRODUCTION ITSELF
Gene McAuliffe: About two weeks before the show, we had conversations with Dan [Braun – creative director], trying to come up with the best way to shoot a live show in the current times. The idea he came up with was sort of an “outlaw” themed concept of a band playing wherever they could find because they just needed to play, and we carried that concept through to “no sign of production or crew on set.” Which brought us into the idea of using all robotic cameras.
BM: Usually I am focused on the band, but this time I was focused on documenting what I usually don’t, which is the production. So, my [main] task was to document as much of the production and behind-the-scenes as possible. That started with the first time I showed up at HQ, from testing to masks on, getting the gear ready and trying to tell a story. I also knew I had to edit the intro video for “Ecstasy.” That was the big thing for me; it was the very start of the movie, and I was trying to find a way to transition into the performance.
GM: The location was secretive. There were three options, all on the same site, and we weren’t sure which one of these stages we wanted to use. The final location had that amazing [natural] backdrop, and because of that, we had the idea of shooting at sunset so as we could have a natural progression of the show as the sun went down. Rob Koenig, being the lighting director, was tasked with an equally daunting challenge of lighting the show, using almost old-school lighting that doesn’t move, while using new fixtures and lighting for film as much as for live performances. We worked a lot on key light, making sure the band members were lit evenly. It was all about highlighting the band without overpowering or losing the environment; nobody was trying to avoid the fact we were in a gravel parking lot.
Dan and I developed the shooting concept. We wound up with 16 cameras [plus a drone – ED], and everything was operated remotely by six operators who were stage right off to the side. We also used a remote dolly system [think Danny Torrance in the hotel corridors during The Shining – ED], which give an added dimension to our robotic cameras and offer more “cinematic” action. In order to stay in the cinematic film look, we shot at 24 FPS with a very shallow depth of field, and the idea was to capture every second of the performance, even when the band was offstage, to really let the fans see every side of the production.
BM: There were no hand-held cameras because the situation with the pandemic meant we had to keep our distance as well.
GM: Because my background is in the live event world, we shot the performance as though it was a stadium performance. Then once we moved to post-production, that was where we added effects and segues ways to build it into a cinematic experience. I didn’t know the setlist until the night before, but we drew a lot on the experience of knowing this band live inside out – knowing when Kirk goes to his peddle, knowing when James scratches his chords, knowing when Lars jumps from his kit – because all the operators I had out there had been with us for a couple of years on WorldWired.
BM: Recording the “comms” between the video crew left us with something that sounded like radio chatter, and it worked well with the intro tape for “One.” I was also responsible for the treatments on particular songs, to [help] enhance the visual experience, with the aim to always be as subtle as possible and let the performance speak for itself as much as it could. We didn’t want it to become a music video. From a creative perspective, my background is live event sports entertainment, where you’re actively trying to entertain a crowd with visuals, so it’s easy to go down that rabbit hole. What kept me out of them? Dan Braun and Gene McAuliffe. They’d advise different directions and approaches where necessary. We didn’t wanna use the same elements that were used in live show, such as marching soldiers or breaking glass, we wanted something different. I had mentioned something about including the fans somehow, because that was what was missing, so Dan mentioned a dream sequence. He wanted a shot where James was pondering “something,” we found the shot, and in that shot fans were blurred in the background while there was footage of the band interacting with them overlaid [for “Battery”]. I thought that was really cool.
GM: Three of us, myself, Brett, and John Moore [one of the camera ops] edited the performance together. We spent the following seven days after the performance working on the edit for 18/19 hours a day at HQ. We did the edit, color-correction, sending previews to band and management back and forth, with Dan being the creative oversight. And he was really helpful in carrying it through the storyline. The big goal in transition, from live performance to cinematic release, is having a powerful yet subtle storyline carry through the show, and Dan was integral in that role.
REFLECTIONS ON THE EVENT AND POTENTIAL FUTURE SIMILAR EVENTS
JG: I think all the drive-in owners are undoubtedly being innovative right now, obviously by signing up to our type of thing, but also how they’re programming their drive-ins during this time. As we know, disruption like we’re experiencing right now usually lead to some level of technological advancements, for example, how do we change the way that we receive the audio? Are there other components that can work with a second screen as we’re watching on the big screen? Can I have those components on my phone somehow to make the experience better? I think there are a lot of opportunities down that road.
VH: When it ended, we all felt like we had stuck to how we needed to maintain the bubble and the distance. We didn’t have the luxury of local stagehands, which was another reason that everything was kept to the very minimum that we could do with just us. Everybody chipped in. And we’ve learned to do things that we didn’t think we could do. In the big picture of our industry, this will help show people what works, what doesn’t, and what can make it better next time.
CZ: The thing that was difficult at first was wearing a mask all day. It’s something I’m not used to. So once you get over that little hurdle, then it becomes a little easier. Then once you get used to wearing a face shield and trying to get the guitar strap over the top of your head with that thing on, that gets a little bit easier. I feel like we collectively came up with a way to do this.
BM: We’ll never stop trying to do what we can do to reach the Metallica community. And for me? It was the most abnormal-normal thing I’ve ever been a part of. I do hope we can do it again because it was a fun experience, and I hope people respond well so as we can do it again.
JG: We’d love to take this internationally. We’ve been very focused on the drive-in, and drive-ins internationally are limited. There’s a little bit more in Australia, a touch in Ireland, but not really many. We’ve not offered this up even to the indoor theaters that have opened up in certain parts of the world because we want to keep people safe and at a good distance from each other. But in that, there is an opportunity that people will be experiencing these types of concerts internationally. Doesn’t seem like there would be any reason why it shouldn’t.
GM: Having the artist be so involved with safety for everyone makes it possible to work in those environments. I felt as though we were looked out for better than anyone could’ve imagined. Our bubble was very well managed, and I think if we can continue to operate with those measures in place, we can get back into production.
As I said earlier, I hope you were there because it was a blast. Indeed, the event played like a gig and not a movie, in the sense that the movie screen felt like watching those giant stadium screens on the road, which made everything feel very real. Some people were standing outside their vehicles, within their areas of course, but standing and cheering. And the band? Well for being their first gig in a year, I thought they were sharp, fresh, and vibrant. Het looked happening and happy to be working the (gravel) stage again, Kirk and Rob played like they’d had a two week break at most, and Lars was wildly focused and sitting nicely in the pocket. It was easy to lose yourself in it, and lose myself I did, subjecting my company to my horrific singalongs, which were thankfully almost obliterated by the fine sound screaming out of my car stereo. You know what else? Just seeing other like-minded people headbanging behind their steering wheel, or walking to get a beverage, or even heading to the goddamn toilet was a beautiful thing, a social humanizer, another reminder that we haven’t had a chance to see enough of each other, and that we need to do it more often in these crazy times… right? Right! Here’s hoping that the Pandemica 2020 one-date Tour gets extended...