When Ram Madhvani, the director of the web series Aarya starring Sushmita Sen (Disney+ Hotstar) and films like Sonam Kapoor’s Neerja, started his new project, he wanted to shoot just like old times but with all COVID-19 safety protocols to be followed on the sets.
That was the challenge thrown at Aditya Gupta who was in charge of handling on-set sanitisation for Madhvani’s new venture Dhamaka starring Kartik Aaryan. Gupta, who started Life First, a health and safety company, last year, took it up.
“The director did not want zoning and wanted to shoot like he did previously because he wanted to finish shooting in 20 days. So, we created a bio-bubble in Mumbai in Powai’s Renaissance,” Gupta told Moneycontrol. “We tested everyone two times before they entered the bubble. Before they exited their rooms they had to clear two tests. The shoot was finished without a single COVID case and on time.”
Gupta had an advantage – he’s been a director and chief assistant director for 12 years and had worked on films such as Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Andhadhun and Shraddha Kapoor’s OK Jaanu. But he wanted to do something to address the safety concerns of production crews following the coronavirus outbreak.
Making film, TV sets safe
So first, Gupta developed a UVC hub, a chamber or kiosk that eliminates germs and sanitises film equipment in 60 seconds using ultraviolet-C radiation.
“People told me that doctors put their tools post-operation in a UVC box and I found that interesting. I had asked if there could be a bigger box because film equipment is big in size, like cranes and cameras, which cannot be sprayed or wiped because they are delicate. So, we developed a UVC hub for which we have applied for a patent,” said Gupta.
The UVC hub is portable and can be set up in 15 minutes. While it was the UVC hub that caught everyone’s attention and led to more contracts for Gupta, the company also handles sanitisation protocols, risk management, vaccinations, COVID-19 testing, PPE kit management and setting up bio-bubbles.
Gupta outlined how Life First gets going when it gets a new project.
SOPs for safe film, web series shooting
“We start with health and safety meetings and we meet the direction and production teams. We understand the film set – whether it is being shot indoors, internationally, or in multiple locations, and accordingly, we weigh the risks,” said Gupta.
Life First then develops a standard operating procedure and prepares a risk profile based on an analysis of the script. The direction and production teams are briefed on how to start with low-risk work such as scenes that involve only two actors in a controlled location where the crew can be minimised. High-risk scenes such as those involving locations like a live market where 100 extras are required are scheduled later.
“We create a pod-wise working system. One department is split into three different pods and in case of COVID-19 cases, that one pod is quarantined and not the entire department,” said Gupta.
Life First has so far offered such services to about 40 long-format projects including films and web series and 700 commercials.
Life First’s journey
Gupta started with commercials and music videos in New Delhi.
“We did the KitKat ad with Sanya Malhotra for Bloom Pictures. We also worked with Honey Singh on a music video and then came to Mumbai and started working on feature films,” he said.
His first Bollywood project was with director Shakun Batra, who directed Kapoor & Sons.
“Batra was doing a film with Dharma Productions which is not titled yet. It stars Deepika Padukone and Ananya Pandey. That was our first film, which was being shot in Goa and Mumbai. We went to Goa and set up a bio-bubble and managed the entire protocol.”
Then came projects including Netflix’s Ajeeb Dastan, Jamtara Season 2 and Ray, an anthology series inspired by the works of Satyajit Ray.
“We are working on a bunch of projects with Netflix. We have started filming for Darlings, which is backed by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment. We are also working on Bollywood venture Brahmastra. We have also worked on ad commercials for IPL (Indian Premier League). And this year we aim to complete close to 20-30 long-format projects,” said Gupta.
From Amazon Prime Video to Abundantia Entertainment, many production companies are getting Life First on board to manage on-set sanitisation. But how much do its services cost?
Cost of maintaining safety on sets
“Long-format projects we make into monthly rentals. A lot of things are on actuals, like masks and testing. The price varies because a film shot in a bio-bubble to a film that is shot on different locations, the number of things deployed keep on changing. For ad film packages, it ranges between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 including manpower for 14 hours.”
As the company finds ways to lower costs, Gupta said the focus is on innovation.
“We are working on an air purification machine which is now in the testing phase. It will purify 3,000 to 5,000 square metres of area in under two hours,” he said.
Gupta said the company has expanded from two people to 170 people and can now handle 25-30 projects at a time.
Growth and expansion plans
The company is in talks to take on international projects. Life First broke even three to four months after launching, he said.
Asked if he is looking to raise funds, Gupta said he is looking for strategic funding.
“We are cash flow-positive, so funding would be to partner with people who can help us take the business forward. Not looking at angel investors,” he said.
Gupta’s next focus is on events, after having worked on the Filmfare Awards 2021 and the 2021 Mirchi Music Awards. In addition, he wants to expand Life First’s offerings to fire safety and environmental safety required on the sets.