Talk of The Traitors has swept the nation.
Looking for solid evidence as to how the series comes together, we held our very own roundtable with Ben Archard, Series Director, and James Tyndall, Missions Director, to get to the bottom of things.
There won’t be a banishment or a murder, but we will find out more about the craft behind The Traitors and delve deep into the heart of directing the show.
There are no spoilers for Series 1 or 2 of The Traitors UK in this article.
So. Who would like to begin?
Ben Archard: I’m Series Director on The Traitors. Studio Lambert got in touch, handed me a link to watch the Dutch version of the show, and invited me to an interview. I was absolutely gripped from the start. I vividly remember thinking, 'If I can watch something with subtitles, which has a ‘look’ that I think could be elevated, and I'm still gripped? This could really be for me.' I went into the interview being quite keen about it! It obviously worked out, they liked me, I liked them, and I was lucky enough to land the job. I feel really grateful that I did.
James Tyndall: So, I came in for Series 2 as Missions Director. Having binged what Ben and the team had put together for Series 1, like everybody else at home, it was one of those opportunities you jump at immediately. Ben and the previous Missions director, Mike Parker, had already set a really strong visual style, so I was coming in and trying not to muck that up! Being faithful to it, and trying to develop it where we could.
Ben: I find an interview for a first series easier, because there's no real preconceptions so you often go into it a little less guarded. For my interview for The Traitors, I shared my vision, and I was confident that the format was really, really strong. I knew that, with the support of Studio Lambert and the BBC, our resources would mean we could up it a touch and make it visually look even better than any other Traitors had been before. For a director, that’s a really exciting challenge.
James: Interviewing for an established series isn’t an open-goal, but you do have somewhere to go from the groundwork that was laid in the first series. ‘How can you build from the backdrop that’s already been cultivated?’ is a big part of an interview process for a job like this.
There are so many elements of this show that you have to manage. Breakfast! A mission! Chats around the castle! A roundtable! A traitorous plot in the turret! Interviews! Killings! How do you plan for that?
Ben: Exactly. You know, I usually have to fight really hard to get prep now as a director. Sometimes, people want you to jump into a project 2 weeks before as a Series Director – but, actually, the prep is almost as important as the directing itself. I really value that time. Studio Lambert were brilliant in recognising the importance of prep to ensure the outcome we wanted. I had around 12-14 weeks of prep on Series 1, which is unprecedented! I've never had that much prep before, and I used every ounce of it.
There are so many layers to getting the logistics right in prep - liaising with the set design team, bringing the right crews in. Then, there's individual camera planning - for the roundtable, for the set pieces at breakfast and everything else.
We were entering this hybrid of rig meets PSC crew, which is a really fascinating blend, and an approach that I'm really proud of. I love rig, it's brilliant and it's absolutely got a place in a show like The Traitors but the camera tech, for me as a visual director, is not quite there. So, I’ll do anything I can do on nicer lenses and nicer cameras. I knew I really wanted to try and get main crews in the castle, so lots of time and thought went into planning how we could do that and best achieve something that makes all that ‘reality’ look better than your standard fixed rig.
James was responsible for directing all of the missions. As Series Director, I’m overseeing the whole thing, so I’ll cast an eye over his prep and make sure I'm aware of what is happening, but James does a lot of the hard work with a separate DOP. We liaise and make sure that everything works together.
The set up for the ‘castle reality’ and the missions are quite separate, but in the narrative of the show, they are incredibly bonded, so we work quite closely to make sure that we understand what each other's doing. On Series 2, we wanted to tie the missions much more into the editorial.
James: I came onboard with a couple of months prior to rehearsals starting. I didn’t work full-time on The Traitors during that period but I had a good few weeks of prep. Generally, we film a mission a day, and with it being Unscripted, there are no retakes. So, having a plan for where you think the cast are going to land, and thinking through every single iteration of what they could do, is so key.
The missions team are super creative with their ideas, so for me it was important to come onboard at that early prep stage and, as a director, work out the best way to tell those stories visually.
Prep is so key to making sure that the visuals will be as good as they can be. As Ben said, you really don't always get that luxury of prep time. I've certainly come away from other jobs where I haven't felt that I got everything completely right, and usually that’s because the prep time allocated hasn’t been enough, so by the time you've come to shoot it, you've not had the time to think all of the scenarios through.
So, the game is now on. Tell us more about production.
Ben: This genre of TV has a rapid pace and can be quite intense at times. You know you won’t get a second chance to do things. We worked really hard to create this world and to create a bubble for the contestants, and you don't want to break that. You don't want to stop anything, you don't want to call action, you don't want to call cut. It’s as if we’re observing the action in a slightly doc-y way, actually.
The Traitors is a character-driven show that has been brilliantly cast. Our host Claudia Winkleman is an incredible character in the show as well. I was really passionate that both the castle and Scotland became a character too.
I’m often told ‘content is king’ – and there’s no doubt that the content on The Traitors is second to none. But I’m a very visual director, so I’m always chasing a cinematic vibe. I want the visual to match up to the brilliant, brilliant content.
James: You are right, the story is so key. For me, what happens on a mission can determine decisions that the cast take at that evening's roundtable, who they might choose to banish, and murder. I really have to stay 10 steps ahead to make sure we're not missing any of those moments on the missions so that they can connect back to the narrative, visually and editorially, once we’re back in castle reality.
Ben: Yes. I'm a director, but I stand by the fact that it's just as important to understand and know your editorial as it is to be able to call shots and make something look really good. Whenever I am about to go into a scene, I want to know what's been happening before, and I want to know the editorial, because that absolutely informs the way I direct something.
James: Completely. The missions are a break away from the intensity of the castle, but there isn't ever a moment when that scheming stops for the cast - they never, ever stop thinking! I’m balancing trying to create something that visually feels distinct from what you're seeing in the castle, whilst still being on guard for that story breaking out.
Thinking of the funeral march mission, I’m trying to keep the cast immersed in that bubble frame of mind throughout, but simultaneously, my aspiration is to make it look as filmic as possible. So, that's when that meticulous planning of the coverage, and being 10 steps ahead, pays off. Because you've got tracking car, drone, gimbal, steadicam, multiple cross-shot multi-camera scenes, all dove-tailing together. Creating something on this scale really only becomes achievable with the buy-in from the set producers who let you run with the vision, and also by working alongside the AD team, planning within an inch of it's life, so then it can flow seamlessly on the shoot.
Ben: That's testimony to your hard work James. That's a really good example of a mission that was intricately planned. I watched it with my family and I was genuinely getting quite emotional, and I work on it! The fact that a fictional set up on a show like The Traitors can bring you in, and feel so real, and that's down to the planning and the hard work of the missions team. You know, that was up there as one of the best ever missions on The Traitors, I think.
It’s up there with one of the best ever episodes of TV..!
Ben: Yes, it's a goodie.
James: That was a true collaboration between us as well. I looked after the moving part of the route, and then we sent the cast into the burial site, where Ben was set with the other half of the team. I think to have done some of those missions as a sole director would've been very tricky – splitting the work, we can make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep the bubble going and tell the story in the most authentic way possible.
Ben: James, I know you'd second this, but we work with 2 brilliant DOPs, Siggi Rosen-Rawlings and Matt Wright. We both lean and rely on them hugely. We've got an amazing production designer in Mat Weekes and his team, the sets they create are incredible. The sound team Fresh Audio, the lighting design team led by James Tinsley, are key collaborators that we just couldn't do the show without. I think a lot of people think that a director sits up top in a chair with their name on, and they do everything. Sure, we do a lot and there's a lot of pressure on our shoulders, but we really couldn't do this without the team that we carefully choose to surround ourselves with. They are absolutely at the top of their game. I feel very privileged that we have such an amazing support network around us.
James: Completely. The camera crew specifically are so multi-faceted in the sense that they can do long-lens mission coverage, but they're also all great single cam operatives in their own right. So, when they're thrown into a scenario where they've got a cover a scene single-handedly, if the story unfolding in a certain way, they are able to cover those stories no problem.
Ben: That’s so true. It's funny, I thought that we might have a hit on our hands... Often crew can't wait to clock off and get home, or stay late and earn the overtime. But the truth is, a lot of them were squabbling to stay on the late shifts so they could see what would happen in the turret, because they were so invested! I never before had any crew who were really so into the story of the show. I thought then, ‘crikey, if we can engage our crew, then we definitely must be doing something right’!
It's so compelling, such compulsive viewing. Can you tell us a little bit about a day on set.
Ben: We try hard to make an episode a day. Once the shoot starts, James and I become ships in the night. James is brilliant at what he does, I was really confident that he had all the balls and was juggling them at the right speed and the right time. When he needed to lean on me, or vice versa, you just find time in a busy schedule to connect, don't you? But the brutal truth is, they're long, intense, full-on days where you don't get time to catch up and converse as much as you'd like. It just comes straight back to why prep is vital on a series like this.
James: Absolutely. As Ben said, it's about remaining in communication via WhatsApp, or whatever medium you can, because the knock-on effects of something overrunning, or something not working in the right way visually, are massive for the show by the time you get to the edit.
I also simply need to be in the place that Ben can't be because he's got the rest of the show to look after. I’m on the ground much earlier in the day for the missions to get it all set and running, capture all GV shots (editors note: this is also called B-Roll or Cutaways), making sure it all looks great and we know exactly how we're staging things. When the convoy of cast, crew and host all arrive for a mission, we have to know exactly where we're going with it.
James: There have been times that I’ve heard 'Oh, you're just filming what's really happening - there can't be much craft to it ' about Unscripted. But I think a show like The Traitors is a great example of where that's absolutely not true.
The Traitors has a filmic aspiration, we use a lot of drama-esque filming techniques. But the challenge of it is, there are no retakes. You can't go, 'That was great, guys, now we're going to stop and do that again 2, 3, 4 times.' The choreography of that, which I think applies both to missions and certainly to the really intense moments of the show that Ben directs in the castle, is so key. That obviously starts in the planning but it's about maintaining that oversight of your craft as you're shooting, and not compromising on that when it might be easier to do.
Ben: Yes, I completely agree with that. I think Series 2’s opening scene with the owl is a great example of craft at work. It was bloody hard to film that. Then, when it all comes together and you watch it on TV and see people respond brilliantly to it online, you think 'you know what, it's worth every ounce of preparation.' Actually, there was one shot in that sequence which I literally had one take at, and thank God we got it, because that owl had made up his mind that he was never going to fly again. Getting that shot first time is down to the planning and the prep, that's vital across the board and I think it shows in the end product.
As a director, how are you involved in the shaping the narrative and telling the unfolding story?
Ben: From my perspective in the castle, there is a huge amount going on editorially and narrative-wise. We’ve got a brilliant team of Series Execs and Producers who track this and so I pretty much know what's going on most of the time. But we do have regular editorial updates and meetings throughout the shoot. Before a breakfast scene, we'll sit down for an hour and talk about what happened the night before, and during the day before, identifying key people to be looking out for over breakfast, working out where the story may or may not go. It’s all about the collaboration and having a brilliant editorial team around you.
James: With the missions, editorially everyone has a top line of what they want to come out of it with. There's always then additional story arcs which happen in the moment. Then, it's about being reactive to those moments and making sure that we're covering the story in the best possible way. Some of the missions have these massive, wide-scale sets which can only really be told with aerial shots. But then if something really integral to a storyline happens, something which you can only cover with up-close, hand-held coverage, it's about not being afraid to react and crash those wide shots to get that coverage. That, again, comes down to those discussions, as Ben says, with the editorial teams about key things which we want to focus on in each of those missions. Then, reserving the right to react to it if it does change.
Ben: One of the most challenging things for me are those early, big episodes where there's lots of contributors. I'm interested, James, if that's similar for you on the missions where they run around the corner and someone's asking you to 'get a single of so-and-so,' …
James: I'll tell you, in the first mission of this series where they all turned up in helmets and wetsuits, all matching…
Ben: 'Get a single of the guy in the wetsuit.'
James: Yes! 'I have. Hang on, which one?'... It’s a lot of people to cover at the start but as the numbers whittle down, the coverage gets slightly simpler as well. That first round table with 22 people must have been…
Ben: It was mind-blowing. It can be quite tough when you’ve got so many different faces and you’re directing around a table like that, sometimes you lose your bearings.
At first they can be a complicated thing, all the monitors, but I do love directing those roundtables though, and you absolutely settle into them as the series goes on. The roundtable discussion can last more than 2 hours and you are properly riveted from the moment they walk in. Sometimes the discussion is just properly engaging and I think, if we played out those entire roundtables out on the BBC, we’d all sit at home and watch the full 2 hours, they're that good.
James: I did that from the production office, you know? Many of us were there watching until the wee small hours!
I’m absolutely not surprised. There’s so much to unpick. As a director, you know that better than anyone, so how do you support the edit process?
Ben: On Series 1, we spent a lot of time setting the look. I designed it with Siggi, my DOP, and that was used as a basis for the grade – which was probably my biggest input into the edit process.
It's an incredibly complex shoot with multiple cameras and hours and hours of rushes – so good housekeeping is crucial. I want to keep everything organised along the way, so that we don’t lose a single shot. If everything is well-logged, I can point the editors in the direction of it then I feel like I’ve done my job well.
James: Completely. It's a really large edit team who work tirelessly to put this show together. I think as a director, it's about providing them with answers to every single question they could possibly have about how we shot it. So, we provide the camera plans, so they know geographically where we set everything up. We share which cameras have been shooting which things, where the slow-mos are, what the drones shot - a really exhaustive list of what's where. Though I think any director would love to be more involved in the edit process, it's a real collaboration in terms of the communication back and forth.
The Traitors has captured the nation – it has us all talking. Why do you think the role of the director matters in TV production?
James: The role of the director is so important is because as we know these days, budgets are getting squeezed, more and more roles are being combined - which sometimes is essential - but I think what sometimes gets lost in that, is that someone that is truly focusing on the visual end product. It’s a visual medium that we work in and I think having someone who's solely across making something that's arresting to the eye and knits the entire story together is such a key part of making a show. I think the joy of a show like The Traitors is that that you can do both, but that isn't always the case. I do think you can always tell when a show has that individuality of thought, from someone who's been allowed to concentrate on that. I think that's something worth guarding, no matter what.
Ben: I second that. I said earlier that I often get told in the genre of TV that I make that 'content is king', and sometimes the images and the pictures come second. I appreciate the content absolutely is king, and the editorial grips people and brings people into programming, but I firmly stand by the fact that, if I can bring my pictures up to a level where it matches that editorial, where it's better, then I've done my job. Whether everyone notices that when they watch it, it's not for me to say, but I certainly do. I think people watching would be more aware if it didn't look as good as some of the programmes do that we make as directors and that we helped support.