Published on: 14 May 2020 in Industry

Directing under lockdown: how we got The Graham Norton Show and Isolation Stories on the air

Reading time: 22 minutes and 6 seconds

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc throughout TV production, directors across all genres have been uprooted, and are having to come up with creative solutions to get their programmes on air.

In this interview, Steve Smith, who has been directing The Graham Norton Show remotely, talks to Paul Whittington, who directed an episode of ITV’s lockdown drama Isolation Stories, about the challenges — and potential opportunities — of directing their different genres under lockdown.

From Zoom techniques to mobile phone manipulation, the discussion shows how the search for creative solutions is a part of a director’s DNA. 

Paul: So how’s it working for you then Steve? 

Steve: Well, it’s kind of weird! Because obviously The Graham Norton Show is a very well-established series. We’ve been working together as a team for about 20 years since the very old Channel 4 days when it started. So what’s quite good is there’s a very small core team of people that really know each other and know how we work. We were due back on air the first Friday of April, and the team met early in March to talk  about what we were going to do.

Initially, I think people felt that it might still be possible to get into TC1 — that really big entertainment studio, even without an audience. Ant and Dec did Saturday Night Takeaway in there without an audience. But I think it became increasingly clear that we weren’t going to be able to get into a studio. We had a production meeting where we just thought if we’re going to have any chance of doing a programme, we have to take decisive action now to find a way of doing it differently.  We managed to set up a small green screen studio, because we thought if we could at least get Graham into something that looks familiar, like our studio, then it would feel a bit more produced.

Paul: That was going to be one of my questions: where is he? I thought you must have gone to a studio somewhere? 

Steve: We’ve managed to set up a little green screen with two locked-off cameras that Graham has access to. And very quickly we decided we were going to have to do all this over Zoom. So I started playing around with Zoom and discovered weird things. First of all, you should be able to record in full HD, but because the world and his wife are using Zoom, they are restricting the HD accounts. So I started firing off emails to various Zoom tech support people and eventually heard back that the chief executive of Zoom had decided that our account would be enabled with full HD! Also, with professional Zoom accounts, they have a facility where you can record clean audio feeds of everyone on the call — so you automatically get that. On top of that we’ve got Graham on a couple of professional broadcast cameras — we’ve got a master camera which is him presenting, and we’ve got a close-up camera for his interview with the guests.

Paul: So are you getting a live feed off those cameras?

Steve: No. What we do is we balance a couple of laptops underneath those cameras on Zoom pointing at Graham, and because Zoom also has green screen image effects, we’re able to make it so that when guests talk to Graham, they’re looking at Graham’s set. Zoom is our eyes on what Graham’s doing, and we can also see approximately the right camera angle. The other tip we learned very early on is if you also ask the guests to record in QuickTime on their end, you get an HD recording without it going through the broadband. So we use Zoom as a way of communicating in real time, but then we ask the guests to upload their QuickTime recording. 

Paul: How long does it take to shoot a show?

Steve: We’ve actually got into a really good routine. We record the show now on a Monday, whereas we would normally record on the Thursday for transmission on Friday. What we realized is that the post-production just takes forever. So, Monday morning around 11 o’clock, Graham and the entire production team will meet and we have a script readthrough. Then in the afternoon we schedule times for the guests to pop in and join us! I have to say it’s quite surreal, because one of the things about working on Zoom is everything’s very intense. The shots are quite tight, aren’t they? So there’s always something rather surreal when suddenly up pops Sandra Oh, or up pops Jeff Goldblum on your laptop and goes, “Hello! am I in the right place?” Then giving IT tips to someone like Patrick Stewart, where you’re kind of doing that whole thing: “You know the mute button. It’s down the left. Can you see? If you click there...”

Paul: Have they come to terms with it quite quickly? That varies from person to person, I guess?

Steve: I think so. Ricky Gervais was just saying how much he loves not having to go out for interviews; that he can just sit at home and do it. It makes you think — is this going to fundamentally change talk shows moving forwards? We’re not going to be able to travel internationally for some time, so some of the big studios may go: “Why pay to send guests to the UK to be on talk shows when we can do down-the-line interviews from their homes?”

Paul: Do you see a mid-point, to get back to the show pre-COVID, as it were? Presumably that’s a long way off, but what would be the next step toward that?

Steve: I don’t know, because this series ends at the end of May, and then we are due to be off air over the summer, and then back when we normally do our autumn/winter series. It might be possible that at some point it’s safe to work in a studio where you can have the set in, and you can have broadcast cameras. We might get domestic guests who can sit on the sofa, but I think international guests will probably be appearing via video link for quite some time. And if the Government say you can have audiences in buildings, but they have to be socially distanced, what would that sound like? Would it sound like half a dozen people not really enjoying something? A comedy show has always needed that wall of sound that you get from an audience. Our audience is normally 600 people on the show.

Paul: And how’s Graham found it then in terms of that very different dynamic? Is that something he’s still learning as you go?

Steve: Well, Graham is a brilliant performer anyway. I think what’s really interesting is Graham is a really good radio presenter as well, and there are skills from the radio show that transfer. We still do some visual gags on the show with stills and things — you’re hoping that people at home are chuckling along to them. It’s interesting, in a studio, when you rehearse comedy and entertainment shows, you rely quite a lot on the response of the crew during dress rehearsal to get a sense of whether things are funny. On Zoom, because we encourage everyone to mute their mics when we’re recording, Graham doesn’t even hear us chuckling along with the gags. That’s incredibly hard. 

And then the other thing that we’ve been trying to do is still keep some music in the show. So, we’ve had Christine and the Queens with her iPhone, trying to be inventive in her flat in Paris. Last week we did a performance with Mabel and her band, which was good — the band weren’t in isolation together.

Paul: I saw that — presumably that needed some kind of mix at some point?

Steve: So, Mabel sang her live vocal over a backing track, then all the musicians had their own version of the backing tracks that they play along to. The really funny thing was because everyone’s using different formats, I wasn’t quite sure what one of the musicians was recording on. But Perry, our editor, sent me a message saying: “I’m having terrible trouble because I’ve been sent a big close up with the bass in 4K, in a sort of super widescreen cinemascope, which is just taking forever to download”. So you have everything from mobile phone footage through to professional camera footage.

Paul: Have you had a lot of artists coming forward wanting to do this? It’s quite an exciting thing for an artist to do I would have thought.

Steve: I think people have all risen to the challenge of it. And I guess we’re probably one of the few outlets on TV for a live music performance. And of course, from a promotional point of view, the one thing you can still do is download music, isn’t it? 

Paul: Yeah, quite. Depending on what the government say over the coming months, are there other plans in place for how you might get back to some point of a studio operation, albeit without a live audience?

Steve: There’s a huge amount of work going on this week that Directors UK are feeding into and asking all committee Chairs and genre directors to get involved in, working out these protocols. So, for entertainment television, we’re talking about scaling down the size of the crew to have a minimum crew. We’re trying to work out how you can maintain social distancing between cameras. Can you have the same number of cameras in the same space whilst maintaining social distancing? 

Traditionally control rooms are full of producers as well as technical crew but it may well be that commissioning editors and executive producers have to watch via Zoom as you record the show. Can you physically get the same size set in? People are working on these protocols. I guess for you, this is one of the biggest difficulties with drama, isn’t it?

Paul: I think there are many challenges. As you say, those discussions are underway and ongoing now, exploring the minutiae of how to even approach it. But yes, a drama set has many challenges just purely with the proximity of people. Then there’s the lines of communication, whether you’re in a studio or actually on location. Locations obviously pose even more obstacles for you to overcome. It’s a complicated task to address all those things, and ensuring that as a production you’re adhering to all the health and safety guidelines that will be in place. There are so many challenges, both practically and creatively.

Steve: But also performance-wise. I’ve never done drama, but one of the things that I’m aware of is that when you’re filming drama, I think often the actors are closer together than you possibly would be in real life, to get that intimacy.

Paul: Absolutely, and the nature of the scene will be affected. In the very obvious sense, intimate scenes and love scenes seem to be off the table for the moment, as well as fight scenes. Any kind of physical proximity the actors are required to have, we’re going to have to find different ways of approaching it. So I think, inevitably, it’s also going to have a very interesting impact on story — the type of stories that are told, and how those stories are told. I suppose, in some ways, what’s exciting is what the creative challenges are, because I think as an industry we always search for creative solutions to challenges, and you don’t know exactly what that would be until you’re presented with a script. It’s quite exciting to think about how you might approach a story in a slightly different way.

Steve: So how did your involvement with Isolation Stories happen? And how quickly was that brought to screen? 

Paul: It was about four weeks from original idea to transmission. It was an incredibly fast turnaround. I came onto it because of my friendship and working relationship with Jeff Pope, whose original idea it was, and Jeff called me and said he’d got this notion of telling these stories about what’s happening in the here and now. 

When we started, I didn’t even know what the technology was and what the technology we were going to be using would enable us to do. But the practical concept for the starting point for us was what ITV had done with Ant and Dec a few weeks before, when ...Takeaway went back to their houses, as it were, and they’d sent Ant and Dec these remote camera kits, which are basically high end Samsung phones, with the FiLMiC Pro app on them. 

So there was already this sort of protocol, a practical set of tools, to enable somebody to film from their own home. We seized on that idea, and that kit was then sent to our actors’ homes, which of course requires them — and whoever they happen to be isolating with — to be very hands on in terms of shooting. What the FiLMiC Pro app enabled us to do was make sure that once the camera is up and running and set, we had access to that camera and could control that camera remotely. So we would be asking people in the in the actors’ homes to set a shot, and then we’d be able to go into that software and set the lens, set the stop, even press record and action and cut — and that was giving everybody a live feed from the actor’s home back onto our laptop. I mean, the picture quality was poor at best...

Steve: And that’s scary, isn’t it? Because you’re really going “We could be getting some great scenes here but until I actually see the footage back, I don’t know whether any of its usable!”

Paul: Exactly that. We were shooting complete days of drama without ever really seeing a whole lot back of what we were doing.

Steve: And were all your crew working separately from their homes?

Paul: Absolutely. We were all via Zoom — very similar to what you described on your show. So we were all in our little boxes on screen. And we all had direct communication with the actors there. And actually, what I found was once we kind of hit our stride with it, it was a wonderfully intimate experience. I thought that it was going to be very frustrating, very distancing (obviously) and remote. And yet somehow, once we’d kind of hit our stride, it felt like being on every other set I’ve been on — we just happened to be a virtual set. 

Steve: Now that you mention that, for me, perhaps the experience is not so different from what I’m used to — because I traditionally work in a gallery. So I have a stack of monitors in front of me, and will communicate either via the floor manager or via talkback to a presenter. So, in some ways, it’s not so different for me — but for you, I imagine you’re always working very close to the actor on the floor. 

Paul: Exactly that, and that was my concern about how removed it would feel and how the lines of communication would be difficult, both with the actor and with the crew. While you’re having a conversation with the actor, there’s many, many lines of communication happening at the same time on a regular set. So we had to be more disciplined about who talked when, and how we communicated with each other. 

But as I say, once we got into onto a roll with it, the conversations we had were all the same conversation we would have on an ordinary set. Once you’d understood the rules of communications, it was surprisingly similar.

Steve: And of course, you were mixing formats, because in the show there was footage on iPhones or on mobile phones that you’re using, plus a Zoom call between a family. 

Paul: I wish I’d have known what you know about Zoom! The whole Zoom HD thing we were completely unaware of. Our Zoom recordings were literally a Samsung camera shooting onto a screen, and then each individual’s home recordings of that screen. That was our most complicated challenge actually, having a kind of a four-way Zoom call play out and getting any kind of quality from it. And to get the rhythm of the scene going when everybody’s actually slightly lagging. 

When it comes to the editing, there’s certain challenges in terms of mixing those formats and keeping the rhythm of the scene how you want it to be, when each take from each individual is different. But it had a sort of an authenticity to it, I think. 

Steve: There were four teams because you had four separate dramas. Was there a lot of collaboration between teams? Were you learning things that you then would tip off to the other teams?

Paul: I think I would have been had there been a bit more time. When I look back on it, the biggest challenge in many ways wasn’t the technology — it was just the time. You can find technical solutions and creative solutions to all these challenges if you have a little bit of time to think, but because of the speed of the turnaround (which was the right decision, because it was really important to capture this moment in time) that was the biggest challenge. Every step of the way we were learning. 

Steve: With Sheridan Smith’s episode, what was so lovely is the way that you’ve got the intimacy of working on Zoom, where you’ve got those kind of close shots, but also those moments where you had these beautifully-framed wide shots that gave away a bit of the house that she was in, and that sense of the aloneness of being at home and very much on your own.

Paul: Absolutely. When I got the script, even though I knew that the technology was going to be limited, I didn’t approach it with that in mind. I kind of approached it thinking about how you would tell this story if you had all the tools available to you. Of course, if we had all of that the final product would be more finessed and more polished. But in terms of the way we covered it, and the way we told the story visually, I don’t think it’d be fundamentally different. 

We still had that ambition for it; that this is a piece that thematically is about loneliness, it’s about isolation, it touches on depression. I had the same conversations with the DoP as I would ordinarily have if we were prepping to shoot this drama in the traditional way. We still wanted to have that storytelling ambition for it. We didn’t want it to simply be a kind of selfie monologue. 

Steve: Watching your episode, you can imagine ITV viewers really resonating with the show and the circumstances.

Paul: I think so, and I think that was Jeff Pope’s ambition for the series. All the episodes, ultimately, end with a feeling of hope. I think there was a consideration that where we are right now, you would need that slight little uplift at the end, but actually also to be quite honest about how difficult this situation is for a lot of people. There’s humour within them, but they’re not comedic sketches. They actually are proper dramas.

Steve: Yeah, I just loved that scene where Sheridan was on the bed, on the phone, and was being given permission to cry by a stranger asking, “are you okay?”

Paul: And that’s the key moment in a way. It’s fascinating when that question is asked of her. That’s a question that nobody else in her life has ever asked her, and it takes a stranger, a complete stranger on the other end of the phone to cut through all of that. Gabi Chiappe, who wrote the script, wanted to do something that was very honest, and it’s amazing. It was all about how much you can reach those kinds of truths in a short film — they’re all 13, 14 minutes long. And so you can go into some depth. 

Steve: I think that’s a really good point, because the short film is so important, particularly to new and aspiring directors.

Paul: That was my personal training ground. I didn’t go to film school, but I made short films. It’s good to be reminded that the technology that exists is such now that anybody can make a short film. We’re actually democratising filmmaking. Any young, aspiring filmmaker sat in their bedroom wondering what to do can write a script and get out and make something. When I first started out on my first short films, I had to save a lot of money and we shot them on 16mm. And then you’d have to get it processed, and you’d have to have a proper crew! Now it’s moved on in such a way that it simply requires an imagination and a mobile phone. And it was quite interesting to go back to that with Isolation Stories. It was a script, an actor, and a couple of mobile phones. And that was very liberating.

Steve: I think the point you make that’s really important is that as creative people we’re always trying to find creative solutions to things — and that’s what differentiates directors in the industry. I’m very passionate about climate change and sustainability, and I’ve always said that with that you need to be able to rise to the challenge creatively.

Paul: Of course, and there are the obstacles that will come with making sure that everyone on set is safe, but I’m actually quite excited by the creative challenges, because I think that’s in our nature. I haven’t got the answers yet, and you don’t really know until you’ve got the script in front of you. But the idea of finding those solutions is exciting.

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