Published on: 31 October 2013 in Longform

Production & Post Forum provides inside track on programme-making across the board

Reading time: 16 minutes and 27 seconds

The Directors UK-sponsored Production & Post Forum gave audiences a rare insight into the process behind the programmes that so dominate our discussions. Read a report on the second day here:

Following the success of the Commissioning & Funding Forum in July, Broadcast made its second foray into the conference market this year with the Production & Post Forum, held at the BFI on 23rd & 24th October. After a diverse and busy first day, featuring the likes of James Hawes (The Mill) and Olly Lambert (Syria: Across the Lines), Directors UK headed to the Southbank for day two of the event.

First up was the panel session “Documentary Filmmaking with a Cinematic Look”, with speakers Milan Krsljanin (Arri), David Marks (producer / director, BBC Natural History Unit), Robert Shacklady (cinematographer) and Stephen Robinson (cameraman). The chair of the panel was Broadcast’s Simon Smith, and he began the discussion by asking the panel to define ‘cinematic documentary’. Robert responded by saying, “it’s what I want to go and see; it's telling the story of the director”. He reasoned that to achieve that aim it was essential that the director has a set of choices in the edit, and argued that therefore meant covering shots were as important as the more cinematic ones.

Stephen’s view as a cameraman was that the emergence of the 5D meant that, almost overnight, we all became filmmakers, and with that the expectation of the audience was raised. “There are now so many cameras to choose from”, Stephen said, “that certain producers will request a type of camera to shoot on regardless of its appropriateness.”

Milan Krslijan on stage at the Directors UK Arri ALEXA screenings last year.

Taking his turn to speak, Milan opined that the biggest influence on the genre is the expectation of audience. “Not every documentary should be cinematic; there are obs docs that benefit from small cameras”, he said. “But if you're making something epic for the big screens, then you may as well use best possible tools to achieve that”. Milan spoke of the benefits that these developments in new technology had provided, telling how much factual DoPs appreciate cameras that allow them to shoot in daylight without losing anything while doing so. A video of a recent speedway contest shot on an Arri camera was then shown, and Milan discussed how the large sensor had been ideal for achieving that cinematic, Skyfall look.

Stephen’s own views on large sensors were slightly more cautious. Whilst he agreed it was possible to get some fantastic images that way, it also slows up the process considerably. “I finish day with only the half shots I could get on traditional cameras”, Stephen said, “which is a real challenge when you're working on the hoof and on a budget”.

And whilst David was impressed with the shallow depth of field and dynamic range of these newer cameras, he was also slightly wary of bestowing total adulation on the technology. As good as the kit may be, “it’s all useless without people at the top of their craft, both in terms of creativity and technical expertise”. He also didn’t believe 4k cameras allowed you to cut time in the field, and warned that if that was happening, it was due to budgetary constraints.

Robert spoke up for the importance of sound design in creating a cinematic feel, to which Stephen agreed. Of even greater importance, according to Stephen, are “the relationships that you build with your subjects - far more so than the camera you shoot on”. “I don't want the filming to get in the way of what's going on in front of camera”, Stephen said, “by which I mean I don't want to keep changing lens”. Simon thanked the panel for their contribution, and with that, it was on to the next session.

Fixed Rig Documentary-making

“Fixed Rig Documentary-making” featured purveyors of the burgeoning genre David Clews (Head of Documentaries at Twofour), Nick Curwin (Chief Executive at The Garden) and Magnus Temple (Chief Executive at The Garden). The trio are responsible for the majority of hit shows past and present that utilise the fixed rig technology, and so chair Chris Curtis started the session by asking how it first came to be used. Nick explained how a progamme he produced called Going Cold Turkey, which observed recovering heroin addicts, borrowed the technology from fellow Channel 4 show Big Brother.

From this sprang the popular series The Family for the same channel, which employed 20 cameras over 100 days. Magnus explained how this technique allowed multiple perspectives, with family life playing out simultaneously. It also meant the show felt more like a drama than a documentary, due to the various cameras in any one room.

What followed, according to David, was the equally popular One Born Every Minute. That series was all about how big you could go, he said, but now that's changed with the likes of The Fried Chicken Shop and Up All Night: The Nightclub Toilet. Along the way there has been 24 Hours in A&E and Educating Essex / Yorkshire, which use around 60 or 70 cameras. Being able to film incidents and the reaction to them concurrently has been key to their success, David told the audience.

Nick agreed that the rig had grown, but pointed out that often the action plays out in tiny spaces, like Mr Drew's office in Educating Essex. Scale gives you options, he said, but you don't end up it with a sense of grandeur. “It's not CCTV”, Nick explained.

The panel agreed that an essential component in the success of the genre was the accompanying interviews. You get plenty of footage, David said, but the story is not always that obvious, so the interview can be vital in helping to convey the meaning of the scene. The difference between the shows is that, whilst on The Family the production team can interview immediately after an occurrence, on 24 Hours in A&E they may not get the chance until several weeks after an accident, which of course can have an effect on the conversation.

As one would expect, consent is a huge issue for fixed rig productions, especially in schools and hospitals. The work that goes into getting these shows on air is huge, Nick declared, and gaining compliance can take many man-hours. David spoke about the hundreds of home visits that occur before any filming takes place on Educating…, all necessary in getting them on board. All contributors and their families get to see the film before it goes out, which though usually a straightforward affair, can mean things need to be removed if there is any negative reaction.

Magnus spoke of the mammoth task facing the director of 24 Hours in A&E, describing how the crew film for 24 hours, working in 8 hour shifts. It’s quite different from normal directing”, Magnus told the audience, “where you're looking at rushes over long period of time. It's unfolding quickly in front of you and you have to decide what to follow”.

David then spoke of a misconception about the fixed rig genre, the idea that “you just press record on everything then put it together in edit”. “You're only ever filming three or four banks at one time, you’re not filming everything. You have to make quick, big decisions in the gallery”, he said.

28 episodes of 24 Hours in A&E were commissioned, Nick said, which went out in different blocks. You have to commission in volume due to costs, “and Channel 4 were brave enough to just go for it”, he explained. “Money goes on the big team, the huge array of cameras, and sometimes having two galleries”, Nick explained. There’s also the cost of cabling – Educating Essex used around 50km of it! – and post is costly too; “you can spend five days just blobbing out non-consenting contributors!” Nick said.

Fixed rig shows will soon be making their way to the Netherlands (Educating Amsterdam), and possibly France and the US too. The panel concluded by discussing why the genre had become so popular: “People get something out of these shows that they normally get with favourite dramas”, Magnus said. “We're trying to move people”, Nick declared. “Rig shows are trying to create a feeling similar to what screenwriters are trying to do in scripts. It’s a different thing to ordinary docs, which are in effect just documenting things”.

Broadchurch keynote session

Next up was the keynote Broadchurch panel session, featuring Matt Gray (DoP) and Jane Featherstone, Chief Executive at production company Kudos. Jane told chair Chris Curtis that the idea belonged to writer Chris Chibnall, who wanted to do something authored and personal, based on his hometown of Bridport, where much of the drama would be filmed (the studio scenes were shot in Bristol). “Chris' idea was a horrible thing happens in a beautiful place”, Matt elaborated. “He wanted to play with landscapes, both emotionally and geographically”.

A clip from early on in the first episode was then shown, which according to Matt, featured stylistic elements that would come to define show. “Ellie is quite emotional and visceral, whilst Hardy is more dispassionate, composed and slightly taken aback”, he told the audience. The scene also employed slow-mo, which was used to punctuate emotional moments throughout the series. Getting the slow-mo right was crucial, said Jane, and there was a big job in the edit ensuring they didn’t overdo it.

Broadchurch stars David Tennant and Olivia Colman.

Broadchurch was a character piece dressed up as a crime thriller”, Jane declared. “It was our job to facilitate great cast”. Staying with the actors, Matt explained how director James Strong was clear from the outset about not rehearsing, a technique he was familiar with from working with another British director, Marc Munden. Although it was a slightly risky strategy, and one which required the expertise and enthusiasm of the crew, it was a successful one: James used many of the first takes in the final cut, Matt revealed.

Jane then went on to discuss the “holistic approach” they took for the series, and noted the significance of receiving the drama’s soundtrack: “once we had that, we realised how little else we needed to add”, she said. “All about getting the balance of the overall show right, which was difficult at first but we got into a rhythm”. “If we'd over-groomed this show we'd have lost something”, Matt agreed. ITV allowed almost total creative control to the production team, Jane told us, and Chris’s vision from the outset was very clear. She pointed out how meticulous the approach to the series had been, declaring, “it was more thorough in the planning than any other show I'd worked on”.

Matt was the only DoP to work on the series, a process he described as “exhausting”, but one he was proud to have undertaken. The weather certainly played its part in the experience; although they were lucky with the sunshine in the summer, the torrential rain and freezing cold led to postponed scenes and, inevitably, going over budget.

Jane surprised those listening by revealing only four people knew who the killer was; even the actors were in the dark. The actors were constantly changing their opinion on set about who was responsible, whilst apparently the make-up team were running a sweepstake! But Jane’s view was that it wasn’t so much about who, but why: “it was a story of a community, and what happens to it when something awful occurs”.

“The emotional truth, the poetry, and seeing something like this take place at that length was so rare”, Jane said, and that was a big part of its success. There was a hook before every ad break, which made it so compelling. It was also brilliantly promoted by ITV, she thought, which helped attract an audience from the beginning.

Series two is being written, Jane confirmed, although “it’s not what you think”. There’s also an American version in the offing – which will star David Tennant and be adapted by the same team – and the aim is to “create that same sense of place there”. “Keeping it fresh key”, she said. “Chris is making a trilogy, if the second one is successful: the characters have an end point”.

Jane ended the session by telling how television has moved towards authorship, rather than the plot of the week structure of the previous era. Broadchurch proved that live, ‘event’ television was not dead; not just because of the ‘whodunnit’ element, but because it's also “emotional and moving. The unity of elements made you feel something”.

Multicamera masterclass

The final talk of the forum focused on multicamera directing, featuring masters of the trade Simon Staffurth and Russell Thomas and chaired by Guy Freeman. Guy started by asking Simon what the first thing he considers is when taking a job, to which Simon replied the set, and the number of cameras the budget will allow. “I ask for as many as possible!” Russell admitted. “I ask for toys in general. It keeps you at the forefront of technology, and also it challenges you to up your game”.

The “toy” of choice for Simon is the telecrane, due to its versatility, and the opportunity it allows the director to create a number of shots. Russell agreed that the crane was useful, but that he had actually gone without on live concerts a multitude of times. “If you always had the same stuff everything would look the same”, Russell told the audience. “It’s just as important that you are creative when you have four cameras as when you have 30. When you have four you have to go for long takes, so you have to make sure they're as beautiful as possible. When you have 30 it's still important but it's more about scale”.

“People think using more cameras makes it easier”, Simon ventured. “It’s actually the opposite. There's more people to talk to and things to consider”. Both agreed that the quality of the crew was essential to a successful production, and told how it was rare for crew members to work their way through the ranks too quickly. Guy then asked them both about their approach to the script supervisor; Russell conceded he didn’t script anything, “except in my head”.

“I know what shot is coming from what camera”, he explained. “And I like having fluidity generally; it makes me feel like I'm being more creative about it, although it's probably just laziness!” Conversely, Simon told Guy that he did tend to script his shows. He described how he worked with the PA to break the music down, and then work out where he would position the crew. Simon explained how beneficial YouTube is in researching acts before a live show, as it allowed him to “see a band perform a track previously and work out the routine for our show”. Russell agreed, saying it was particularly useful as “often bands won't rehearse”. He discussed how not scripting can actually mean you have to prepare more. He explained that bands are notorious for changing what song they are going to do, so his approach was to rehearse and record that, “then I can see how successful those shots were, and see if anything needs tweaking or reworking”.

Asked about their relationships with vision mixer, Russell responded by saying he tended not to interfere or communicate too frequently with his, “unless I want to change the pace”. Simon’s take was that studio entertainment shows meant there were many facets to consider; VT, computer graphics etc. “You're receiving messages all the time,” he said, “and the director has to feed it out. Any changes come to me and I have to get that message out there”.

“It’s important to do so in a calm way: panic instils panic”, he explained. “If something goes wrong, I know people are trying to fix it. Shouting doesn't help”. Guy then asked them how they felt about execs being on set, to which Russell told him he had no real problem with it so long as they don’t “break concentration.” There’s so much that can go wrong that it’s crucial there are as few disruptions as possible, he said. “It’s then that you really earn your money”, Simon said. “When there are disruptions and problems on set”.

Guy’s parting question asked whether there was a different feel when something’s broadcast live. Russell countered by saying almost everything he does now has some live aspect, even if it’s just a live stream online. “But when it's all live there is a totally different feel to it. You can tell when something is live and when it's an hour delay”. Simon agreed, explaining: “When it is recorded I watch what's going on on the monitors but I'm thinking about the edit. On a live show I'm thinking of what's coming next”.

And with that, the session – and, for DUK, the conference - came to a close. It was by all accounts an entertaining and insightful day, and one that we were very pleased to sponsor. We look forward to seeing what next year’s event delivers.

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