Published on: 06 November 2014 in Longform

Production & Post Forum

Reading time: 12 minutes and 1 seconds


On 5 & 6 November the Production & Post Forum took place at BAFTA in London, this two-day event aimed to explore "the talent and technology behind the major shows on British television today".

Directors UK hosted a panel session entitled 'Production on a Budget', which featured directors Toral Dixit, Peter Nicholson and Matt Harlock. Here you can read a few tweets summarising the tips and advice they shared at the event.

The Directors UK session: 'Production on a Budget'

Directors UK's Head of Campaigns, Alison Bailey was also in attendance on Wednesday and you can read her updates from the sessions she attended below:

The art of broadcasting: in conversation with Melvyn Bragg

With a career that started in 1961 in radio before a begrudging move into the 'hot' world of TV, Melvyn Bragg was able to draw on a wealth of experience when discussing his thoughts on the production process in this early morning session. As his mentor Hugh Weldon imparted to him early on in his career: "There are three things to always consider when making any programme: the subject, the audience and the craft". Bragg then proceeded to offer his own advice based on the things he'd learnt. For instance, he said that there are two audiences you want to hit; when shooting a Pinter programme you want Arthur Miller to think 'that's good' but at the same time you don't want to miss the cultural opportunity to hit a scatter audience. "Neglect the obvious at your peril. Capture your story through clarity".

He also emphasised the importance of editing: 'When you're in the cutting room take no prisoners. Work with the director and the editor and don't hold back. Ask: what story did we shoot, what more can we do with what we've got'. But it's still important to be able to walk out of the room together afterwards! He said that the rough cut phase is when you need the most precision as this the most important stage in securing your subject - "once you're committed that's it!".

He pointed out that today's productions involve more entrepreneurial skill, to get the money to make it and to make the money work for you.

It's important to use the skills of your camera, sound and editing team to deliver. Taking risks is no bad thing but producers are more likely to want to take risks than commissioners and controllers. Although arguably it's not the best way to survive career wise as it can leave you exposed.

Bragg remains surprised by how little the arts are taken forward by broadcasters. Despite the fact that 51% of the population regularly take part in the arts and 2.2m people work within the industry it's still regarded as marginal in many ways. Interestingly Sky's approach and focus on the arts is taking up the public sector broadcasters' mantras in many respects and now devotes two channels to arts content (Sky Arts 1 and 2). In doing so they are shaking up the old structures and 'rules' and seem to be proving it works, delivering arts as entertainment but also as a way of informing audiences about ourselves and the world. It will be interesting to watch Sky's development of its own academy, with its aim of developing the craft amongst a younger cohort.

But Bragg empathised with the BBC, as they increasingly have to compete with other players like Netflix, that are using bigger budgets to draw away talent. The long term impact of this is yet to be seen. The solid core of BBC production is slowly disintegrating and to quote Hugh Weldon 'the BBC is the sum of its parts'.

Bragg considered the role arts programming has played over time in bringing down barriers. The Southbank Show had sought to present comedy, pop music, theatre and film and give them equal attention and prominence. It raised eyebrows but we were making a statement about art in everyday life. For too long arts programming was determined by the place in which it was taking place (ROH, National Theatre) rather than the work itself.

When asked about his approach to interviewing - a consistent feature of his career - Bragg responded that he always went for the artist, did things thoroughly and made them party to what was taking place. You need to research intensively as not only do interviewees know in seconds if you have a sense of their work, but it meant fewer filming days! And on editing principles, when condensing 3 hours into 25 minutes work to find out what leads - identify the 'heat' of the piece that reveals who the artist really is. Bragg recalled an interview with Pinter in which many of his questions were repeatedly met with slow short and seeming exasperated replies. At the time Bragg recalls it feeling fairly excruciating and thinking that he'd taken the wrong approach but in the edit it was clear that the interview had actually captured the essence of the man, what he was like in reality. The 'heat' only revealed itself at a distance.

When asked how much he believed production had changed over the decades in terms of pressure and schedule, Bragg didn't feel there had been a huge shift. But it was more about the landscape changing, when previously BBC and ITV had offered a type of protective canopy (once an idea got the go-ahead) to those in production. Now producers are faced with a much more complex picture and have to be more adaptable, entrepreneurial and multi-skilled.

Directors Matt Harlock, Toral Dixit and Peter Nicholson at the Directors UK 'Production on a Budget' panel

Case study: Utopia

Director Marc Munden discussed how Utopia achieved its distinctive tone and look, something he set about defining from the first arresting scene. Munden wanted to convey his strength of vision, heavily influenced by the graphic novel, to the crew, producer and broadcaster from the very outset: “I knew if I got that right then everything else would be easy". Writer/creator Dennis Kelly agreed that getting the first scene right defined the show, writing a lengthy standalone scene and shooting it on the first day was bold. Kelly was clear that he didn’t use his scripts as an opportunity to direct but Munden acknowledged that the stage direction had helped him go on to develop this genuine hyperreality. Munden’s clarity of vision, demonstrated by discounting over 10 yellow bags for the opening scene in order to find the ‘right one’ - resulted in a series that didn’t look like anything else on television.

Utopia’s startling mix of comedy and violence required strong casting with actors who were able to bring this level of dark comedy to life, as did the music. The graphic novel wasn’t featured a great deal in the writing itself but did underpin the show’s immediacy and symmetry. The language and violence were juxtaposed against the bright and colourful backdrop.  The subject of population control led to Munden’s use of point reference against 235 shooting – such an epic subject was reflected through the size of the framing. Executive Producer Karen Wilson had wanted to work with Munden as he has the vision needed to create such a world; others had assumed that there would be elements of animation but Munden was able to make this real in another way.

“Shooting is emotional hell, with 5% of what comes out of it being nice”, Munden.

Kelly confirmed he only had a vague sense of the direction the script was headed in, a key character only revealing themselves to him in series 2 for example, but this continual surprise was something that he could pass on to the viewer. The subject of population control was something that could be returned to and so Kelly always had a series not a serial in mind. It was a news item on the world population reaching 7bn that seeded the idea and was fuelled by the fact that there was nothing in Kelly’s politics that gave him an obvious answer to the problem. It’s the immediacy of the issue that forces Utopia’s characters to make decisions and choose a path as a way of dealing with the situation.

Utopia tackled real extremes that in turn created some complex logistics: children with guns, a father killing his child, children killing animals, and so in the second series a child psychologist was employed. To achieve authenticity Kelly was always clear has was writing about a person dying not an actor, and that violence should be shocking and brutal because everyday violence is appalling - it’s the violence that doesn’t shock that is really offensive. This is only heightened when it involves violence against children.

Lol Crawly (DoP) discussed how the first episode of the second series was shot in 43 and the rest 248 to create a different feel (set in the 1970’s) and this had been rooted in the motivation to create archival footage. The camera had remained the same but a different lens were used and post treatment (1970s chemically-based grading) helped degrade the images. Munden's sense of visual language was achieved by pushing the colour, pushing the framing and picking out the geometry.

Channel 4 have not re-commissioned the series due to low audience figures, although Utopia had begun to build up a loyal following and Kudos have not ruled out the possibility of it being picked up by another broadcaster. Discussions are currently taking place for a US version with David Fincher and HBO.

Production: State of the Nation.

The panel took a windy, whistle-stop tour through the top issues that had emerged in the Broadcast Indie Survey of 150+ production companies, in particular budgets, off-screen talent and commissioning:

Budgets: there was a general consensus that as there had been no increases in the last 5 years it was in effect a real term drop but at the same time there was recognition that to get the top talent you needed to pay them. In some cases budgets have gone down as there is less of a margin and so owning the rights for aftersales to try and recoup costs is increasingly important. Production companies were open to editorial risk as well as financial and this is an area where the broadcasters could play a supportive role. Production companies are faced with real challenges while levels of expectation remain unchanged and the quality must be maintained. Working mainly with the freelance population meant production companies aimed to build relationships and continue over into the next project whenever possible but the timescales weren’t always favourable.

The pros and cons of the tariff systems were touched upon, prompted by the fact that Richard Watsham, Director of Commissioning for UKTV, confirmed that his channel doesn’t operate a tariff/slot system, as its finds that this often defines the producer’s parameters. Watsham prefers that the producers bring the idea to the table and explore it creatively and budget on this basis; if it is too high then it can be reviewed editorially to bring it in towards a more realistic budget – UKTV profess to be audience and reputation, not tariff, led. Leanne Klein, CEO of Wall to Wall, and Laura Mansfield, MD of Outline Productions, both believed that the tariff system provides a broad framework for funding certain types of slots but that this is still flexible and can reflect the ambition to different degrees.

The introduction of terms of trade for terrestrial broadcasters has made things clearer and enabled less upfront funding to take place. International sales from IP and formal sales were now big drivers, but the producer’s ambition is still to get shows fully funded by British broadcasters wherever possible. Of Wall to Wall's last 20 productions 12 had had their deficits funded by the production company which hoped to recoup these costs through sales. Outline Productions confirmed around 25% of its productions were not fully funded. Agnieska Moody of Creative Europe gave a brief overview of a £100m fund running until 2020 aiming to plug such gaps and to assist domestic productions with development and distributions phases across film, tv and digital in drama, creative documentary and animation.

Commissioning: the focus is about the funding of exciting ideas and building a reputation. Increasingly US producers are knocking on commissioners doors and the competition is important as it drives the quality. Within this there are challenges like the BBC WOCC and whether or not ITV Studios is genuinely open to competition.

Talent: the panellists all felt the industry was in good health and that there has never been a better time to be in production. When asked whether they would advise their children to take up a career in the largely freelance industry it was far from a resounding and clear yes. And it was rather telling that Watsham confessed his move from production into commissioning came from wanting stability with four kids and a mortgage on his mind. His key piece of advice was that creatives should aim for their IP ownership as that was where the control and reward ultimately lies. In terms of pitching, the advice was don’t waste time and energy working up an idea that you haven’t at least floated for an initial response – a few lines to a short paragraph is enough to assess what interest there is… or isn’t.

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