10 things you probably didn't know about how sex scenes are filmed

·6-min read
Scene of "Normal People" in which couple lays in bed and looks to their left
A scene from "Normal People."Hulu
  • Filming sex scenes isn't new to Hollywood but intimacy coordination has changed the approach.

  • Intimacy coordinators create comfortable working environments when sex scenes are being filmed.

  • Sex scenes are carefully choreographed and actors use modesty garments to cover their bodies.

A lot of collaboration goes into sex scenes to ensure the actors and crew are prepared for filming.

Olly Alexander IT's a Sin
A scene from "It's a Sin."Red Production Company

HBO Studios' Alicia Rodis, a pioneer of the intimacy-coordinator role that helps orchestrate sex scenes on sets, told Insider there's a lot of open dialogue about the intimate content that will be captured before filming even begins.

"What I find is that it's no secret that there have been problematic sex scenes in the past and problematic power dynamics on set, which can cause coercion, which can cause people doing things that they regret later or doing things that they didn't agree to," Rodis said.

According to Rodis, giving actors the choice to walk away from a scene is part of "the pre-production work and making sure we know what to expect. Or at least, what we're not going to be doing."

Ita O'Brien, intimacy coordinator for shows like HBO's "I May Destroy You" and Hulu's "Normal People," agreed that preparation and collaboration between all departments are key to a successful sex scene.

"It is about conversations with the producers, conversations with the director, then conversations with the actors, and conversations on with the wardrobe apartment," said O'Brien.

Actors agree to certain levels of nudity and cover their bodies with modesty garments when shooting.

production still from epidoe three of i may destroy you
A scene from "I May Destroy You."Natalie Seery/HBO

In preparation for shooting a sex scene, actors draft nudity riders, which outline how much of their bodies they're comfortable with showing on screen and what simulated sexual content they're OK with portraying.

David Thackeray, intimacy coordinator for shows like HBO's "It's a Sin" and Netflix's "Sex Education," told Insider that intimacy coordinators work with the wardrobe department to make sure anything the actor wants to be covered on set will be.

Thackeray said padding and garments like genitalia pouches, genital barriers, and underwear with a detachable string can provide some modesty on set.

"There might be a specific shot where we need to see their back, but they're not comfortable showing their front, so you can get a half stick-on bodysuit that goes all the way down to the stomach but shows from the back like they're fully nude," Thackeray said.

The choreography for sex scenes is set and rehearsed beforehand.

Two men touch foreheads in dark room
A scene from "Sex Education."Netflix

Sex scenes are choreographed similarly to how a production would prepare for a complicated fight sequence or dance number.

"It's very, very clear and there's no emotion attached to that whatsoever," Thackeray said. "Very much like a fight or a dance. Very much going from A to B. Then we put in the story and the emotion on top of that like an extra layer."

The actors decide if they want to discuss the emotional performance with an intimacy coordinator.

Two actors kiss each other on "Normal People"
A scene from "Normal People."Hulu

Once the choreography has been established, it's up to the actors to add emotion and passion to the scene.

According to Rodis, an intimacy coordinator's role then shifts to support what the actor wants.

"It really depends on the situation," Rodis told Insider. "There are some performers that really want a hands-off approach and some performers that are like, 'Let's talk. Let's talk through everything.'"

Sex and nude scenes are shot on closed sets with only essential staff members present.

Two actors on "Normal People" touch foreheads
A scene from "Normal People."Hulu

When filming a sex or nude scene, the call sheet notes that the set is closed, meaning only essential crew members and actors will be present during shooting.

"Monitors are also switched off so there's only the director's monitor and the focus pullers," Thackeray said. "It's bare minimum people. Once everyone's left the room, robes come off, the action begins, they call cut, robes come back on, and no one is allowed in the room until the artists feel comfortable."

Any filming that includes nudity, like bath scenes, is handled with the same attention to detail and professionalism.

I May Destroy You stealthing
A scene from "I May Destroy You."I May Destroy You/HBO

It isn't just sex scenes that receive special attention on set. According to O'Brien, even bath scenes require a lot of preparation and collaboration.

"Bath scenes are always full-on because water only stays warm for a certain amount of time," O'Brien said. "Then you have to make sure special effects can provide the water, that it's at the right clarity level, and that it's hygienic."

Film tricks make it look like actors are having sex when they're actually spaced far apart.

Olly Alexander Neil Patrick Harris
A scene from "It's a Sin."Red Production Company

No matter how realistic a sex scene looks, there's always movie magic used to create the illusion. According to Thackeray, the combination of choreography, camera angles, and modesty garments and props make the scene look real.

"I'll tell the artists, 'This is how you do this position, and this is what we've put in place so there's no genitalia contact,'" Thackeray told Insider. "'Here's what you could be wearing, et cetera.' Most of the time, actually, there's probably about at least 6 inches or more space between their bodies."

Through careful choreography, the scene can look real when, in reality, "the rhythm's coming from their leg rather than their groin."

Basic sex scenes can be filmed in as little as two hours.

Ncuti Gatwa and Connor Swindells on picnic blanket
A scene from "Sex Education."Netflix

Thackeray told Insider he's worked on complex sex scenes, like a 60-person orgy, as well as basic sequences that he said can be filmed rather quickly.

Depending on how many shots and angles the director wants, he said it's possible to wrap filming after two hours, especially if "it's shot handheld, one position, and it's just a moment or a flash."

"If you've rehearsed the scene and the artists know exactly what they're doing, what they're wearing, and what's going to be seen, and wardrobe has been communicated to as well, it's going to be smooth and you're going to save so much time on the day," Thackeray said.

Adult performers can be used as cast members or body doubles in sex or nude scenes.

Two people lie in a bed in "Normal People"
A scene from "Normal People."Hulu

O'Brien told Insider that it's not unusual for productions to work with adult performers when they need body doubles.

Adult performers might also be brought in if a scene calls for cast members who are OK with nudity and intimate content.

The most difficult part about filming sex scenes can be the way production members handle this content.

Actors on "Normal People" hold each other during club scene
A scene from "Normal People."Hulu

Though some intimate sequences can be tricky to coordinate, O'Brien told Insider "there are not difficult scenes, there are difficult situations."

Intimacy coordinators can face challenges if the director and actors don't want the choreography or if members of the production team are hesitant to collaborate on each aspect of a sex scene.

"Is it actually right that I say, 'Do you know what? If you're not employing me to put in place the skills that I'm here for then I should just walk away from this production,'" said O'Brien. "So that's what's challenging."

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