Published on: 03 June 2015 in Longform

Directors UK report from Creative Week

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Directors UK attended day 2 of this year’s Creative Week festival on Tuesday 3 June. Creative Week is an annual conference connecting the worlds of television, film and advertising for a week of content, speakers and networking. Marc Abbs from the Directors UK Digital team was there to report back on two of the sessions that we thought might be of particular interest to members.

Sense of direction

The first session we attended was framed as a kind of beginner’s course to directing; answering questions about what directors do on different kinds of programmes, what kind of creative control they have over a production, and what it takes to be a successful director. The session nevertheless revealed a number of important insights into the current state of directing, both in the UK and the US.

The panel consisted of multi-camera director Nikki Parsons (Strictly Come Dancing, The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance), drama director James Strong (Broadchurch, Doctor Who, Downton Abbey) and advertising director Olly Richards (of the Another Film Company agency).

“I really don't know what I'd say to people [who want to become directors] today because my path just isn't there anymore - Strictly Come Dancing director Nikki Parsons

The moderator Robin Parker started things off by asking Nikki what exactly does a director do on a show like Strictly? Nikki gave a very good description of the kinds of issues that a multi-camera director has to consider, outlining how they differ from those of a director working in the perhaps more familiar genres of drama and documentary. Nikki explained that on a production of Strictly’s scale, it is in many ways her primary job to bring together all the separate teams within that vast production. Her role encompasses everything from set design, to working out what needs to be revamped from the previous series, to working with the creative choreographer to ensure that the dancers’ ideas work within the camera coverage. At its heart though, directing a multi-camera show is storytelling just as is on any other kind of show. Nikki’s job is to tell the story of the “reality” aspect, and also to communicate the story and beauty of the actual dances to the audience at home.

Asked how she got into directing, Nikki told us that she originally went to stage school, but having decided that she didn’t want to perform herself, she began in production at the very bottom: as a runner. She worked for BBC News, where she learnt how to think on her feet and work live. She then moved to MTV. Nikki described the extremely creative environment that existed at MTV at that time, and the invaluable opportunity it gave her to try things out – and even try other people’s jobs! It was there that she first became a director, and shortly afterwards she went freelance. Many of the big multi-camera directors working today began their careers at MTV – people such as Hamish Hamilton who went on to direct the London Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies, the Oscars and the Super Bowl. This creative idyll no longer exists and seems not to exist anywhere else in the industry either, so what advice would she give today to people who want to become directors? “I really don't know what I'd say to people today because my path just isn't there anymore”.

(Members can watch a video of our own panel session on multi-camera directing, featuring Nikki Parsons, Hamish Hamilton and Geoff Posner. Non-members can read the live-tweets here)

The discussion then turned to director James Strong. James talked about the process that led to Broadchurch, explaining that he’d first met writer Chris Chibnall on the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, before they’d then worked together on United. When it came to thinking about what they’d like to do next, they’d wanted to make an 8-hour film – a concept that was quite rare at the time they were pitching it, but in today's binge-watching culture is fast becoming the industry norm. James talked of the value of having a director there as part of the creative process right from the very beginning; they went in as a pair – director and writer – with a clear conception of what the series would be and what it would look like. They’d shot test footage of the cliffs, so they could show producers the world they’d be depicting and highlight how the landscape would essentially be one of the characters.

“[Broadchurch was] my chance to exactly what I wanted - to make a show in the style I wanted - James Strong

Talking about how directors create their own stamp on established programmes - where they aren’t there at the beginning of the creative process - James said that this can vary from series to series. On a programme like Doctor Who every week is very different, so to an extent you can do whatever you want according to the needs of the script. It’s harder on a show like Downton Abbey where there’s already a set format (i.e. the upstairs scenes are shot in a very classical way, whereas the downstairs scenes are rougher and often shot using handheld cameras). You try and put your own stamp on it where you can, but at the end of the day you have a responsibility to work within the established continuity – in part because it’s obviously one that’s proved very successful, but also because if you don't you're unlikely to get hired again! Therefore, Broadchurch was “my chance to do exactly what I wanted – to make a show in the style I wanted”.

James’s route into directing was via a Granada production course. He was sent to war zones to cover current affairs stories, and for a time he wanted to be a foreign correspondent. But he still uses the skills he learnt on that course – for instance, you soon learn that any stress you get on a set is nothing compared to the stress you find in a war zone! It’s something that’s allowed him to keep calm when others wouldn’t, which is an important skill for any director.

Robin asked James about his experiences remaking Broadchurch for a US audience, and about working in the US in general. James explained that for Gracepoint they decided to ape the visual style of the UK show, as the average American viewer wouldn't have seen it before. He allowed that you might look back now and say we should have made it more different, but that was the decision they made at the time. Therefore the main differences were behind the scenes: “there was more money, more crew, more politics, more diplomacy – the only thing there's wasn’t more of was time”.

Nikki had similar experiences of her own working on So You Think You Can Dance in the US. She has to do everything in half the time she would have spent doing it on Strictly. However, other than that the experience of working in the States was largely the same as working in the UK: you’ve still got a big crew you need to gain the respect of, and once you’ve done that you’re fine.

“There was more money, more crew, more politics, more diplomacy – the only thing there's wasn’t more of was time - on working in the US

Olly Williams works in another completely different sphere of directing: advertising. He highlighted the fact that advertising allows you to try lots of things out and adopt lots of different styles, but there’s always a need to work within certain parameters – for instance, there’s “not much call to scare people in ads”. It’s a very different process to TV or any kind of drama, as you have to tell a story so quickly. For that reason music and humour can be extremely useful to help communicate ideas. Advertising is always referencing film and TV, but that’s probably because “most people in advertising really want to be directing films!”

Describing his roundabout route into advertising, Olly told us that he’d originally studied film design, which led to working in production design, but then, frustrated by putting so much effort into making sets only to see them shot with such a long lens that no-one could actually see them, he finally decided to become a director. As well as adverts he’s since directed music videos for the likes of The Hoosiers, Robbie Williams and Maximo Park, as well as The Fly, his brilliant short film that we were lucky enough to see on the big screen behind the panel.

Ultimately, Olly said that the value of directing ads was that, in the absence of going to film school, they’ve allowed him to learn his trade, to try out different pieces of kit and work with decent budgets. 

The session was then opened up to questions from the audience. The first was from a young director who’s been on basic training courses through the BBC but has been unable to leverage those experiences into taking the next step in their career. What they wanted to know was how this seemingly-common problem is going to effect the industry going forward.

All of the panel members sympathised, noting that their own means of entering the industry no longer existed in today’s media landscape. Nikki lamented the fact that there are no small companies willing to give people the chance to try things out, in the way that MTV had allowed her to do. There's no ‘next step’ anymore and it's something that the industry needs to provide. James agreed, pointing out that at a time when companies are crying out for more and more content, they need to realise that if they don’t start training people now they’re not going to have the people to direct that content in the future.

“There are so many different layers and teams and they're all following you, so your clarity of vision is singularly important - on what you need to be a director

Another member of the audience asked the panel whether they’d found that the director has a different status on US productions, and whether the writer is always given priority.

James said that there’s a clear difference between network and cable television is the States. On network TV, the director is often no more than a hired gun, a “shot collector”. However, he pointed out that you’re paid far more to do that than you are here, so there’s a trade-off. On the other hand, cable has realised that to get the best results you need to have a director there right at the heart of the creative vision. It’s often a case of choosing your collaborators though; some showrunners can be fantastic and absolutely want to hear the director’s ideas, but plenty of others don’t and it can make for a difficult working environment. However this isn’t solely an aspect of working in the US, as the writer-producer model is one that the UK TV industry is increasingly opting for. On the other hand, Nikki described herself as always being a hired gun, so there’s very little difference to working here or in the US: “I’m never there at the beginning of a project”.

To finish, Robin asked the panellists what one attribute does a director need to have?

Olly: “Have an opinion”. Nikki agreed: “…and stick to it”. Echoing this, James said that directors must have clarity. Everything on set comes from the director, the direction the ship needs to move in comes from you. “There are so many different layers and teams and they're all following you, so your clarity of vision is singularly important”.

Creative funding

The last session of day looked at how creative businesses and individuals can find funding and support. The panel consisted of Dinah Caine, the Chief Executive of Creative Skillset, Lorraine Heggessey, Advisor to the Channel 4 Growth Fund and Chair of the Grierson Trust, Deborah Sathe, Head of Talent Development and Production at Film London, and Jim Farmery, Director of Business Investment at Creative England. The session was interesting, but in many ways the best place to find out how and if these organisations can help fund you is to click on the links above and read about the various schemes outlined on their websites.

“[Lack of diversity will have an] impact on our creativity, productivity and excellence. Other industries are making changes and the brand loyalty to the creative industries may not last forever” - Creative Skillset's Dinah Caine

Dinah Caine drew the audience’s attention to the recent Creative Skillset Workforce Survey, saying that the findings of that will help dictate where their funding goes in future. In particular the fact that informal recruitment methods and unpaid internships are creating a barrier to entry for potential workers from socially and racially diverse backgrounds. If these things don’t change it will have an “impact on our creativity, productivity and excellence. Other industries are making changes and the brand loyalty to the creative industries may not last forever”.

Meanwhile Lorraine Heggessey stated that “there has never been a better time to set up a production company”. Companies like BT, Amazon and Netflix have spent millions investing in services, but are now realising that they need content if they're to attract loyal customers. As a result, everyone's commissioning and there are lots of chances to work with brands in interesting and creative ways, and a huge range of funding opportunities. “We’ve been saying for years that content is key, and now everyone else is realising it!”

Deborah Sathe said that the situation is far more troubled in the world of film, as film can no longer rely upon the same kind of guaranteed audience that TV has. This has led to the death of mid-budget films and a lack of support for domestic films that aren’t set in the past and don’t feature bustles. Film London is trying to change that, and to level the playing field to allow people who can't afford to support themselves to enter the industry. They aren’t just doing this so they can feel good about themselves; the audience is diversifying and content needs to as well if it's going to appeal to that audience.

(Members can watch a video of our own Meet Film London panel, featuring Deborah alongside Adrian Wootton and Rose Cupit. Non-members can read the live-tweets here. Film London also summarised what they do for emerging filmmakers in this article here)

Jim Farmery explained that Creative England are doing many of the same things as Film London, but on a country-wide basis. He highlighted the success of regional growth, particularly the BBC’s move to Salford. What this has allowed to happen is that creative people can now consider having a career in another part of the country. There's a progression and scale to career development that wasn't there before.

“We’ve been saying for years that content is key, and now everyone else is realising it! - Lorraine Heggessey of the Cahnnel 4 Growth Fund

One member of the audience asked how creatives are meant to provide a showreel (which is often a requirement to receive grant money) if we’re also told we shouldn’t be working for free.

Deborah stated that Film London wouldn’t expect a showreel to be made to a professional standard at entry level, they’d be looking for a visual sense, which can be conveyed with footage shot on the cheapest of equipment – even a mobile phone. Dinah agreed, saying that one of the brilliant things about their new digital platform, Hiive, is that when you’re creating a showreel, it helps you to find collaborators who are also working at your level.

If you’re willing to try new things and adapt to fit the needs of these new content providers then you might just find work in unexpected places

Another audience member related that a director at BECTU’s recent Freelancer’s Fair had said they’d had to go to the US because there wasn’t enough work in the UK anymore. At the same time, the panel seem to be saying there’s loads of content required and so there should be loads of jobs. Who’s right?

The panel allowed that this is always going to be an industry that it’s hard to find work in – that’s just the nature of TV and film. But Jim highlighted a group of filmmakers that Creative England have recently invested in; they’ve carved out their own very-profitable niche directing corporate fashion videos.

The main takeaway from the session is that content is diversifying. If you’re fixated on directing a big-budget film that appears on 60+ screens, or on creating 60-minute dramas for BBC and ITV, then you’re probably going to struggle. But if you’re willing to try new things and adapt to fit the needs of these new content providers then you might just find work in unexpected places.

You can find more coverage of Creative Week on their website and through Broadcast magazine.

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