Director Phil Turner talks about making factual work for a new generation of audiences that are online and on the move.
According to a recent report by ComScore, people between 18 – 34 years old spend more time on their phones, laptops and desktop computers than they do watching live TV. Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer now enable users to download content to watch offline on their devices, and UK mobile operator EE has launched a new feature for its TV service enabling customers to record free-to-view programmes to their mobiles and tablets to watch on the move.
Now that so many of us are glued to our smartphones rather than our TVs, we caught up with Phil Turner, the award-winning director of My Last Summer, Benefits Street, Famous Rich and Homeless, and Make Bradford British, to ask him what his thoughts were in this rapidly-changing landscape.
Phil recently moved towards directing factual content for the BBC, specifically for its new BBC Three platform, and is hoping to make more short form films for digital rather than long form for TV.
Was there a change in mind-set as a factual director who previously worked on TV and is now working with online content?
There is a significant shift! However, I think it’s less about practicalities; you plan, pitch, prepare the shoot, edit, then get your work out there in much the same way. To be honest, the significant shift had more to do with pride! I had an exec friend of mine ripping me apart the other night because I was turning down a primetime Channel 4 documentary to work on a short form 10 minute film - it’s so alien to him! He was teasing me, saying I was making webcasts using webcams which in some respects may appear that way, but it’s certainly not the case.
I had to think really hard about whether many of my peers would consider this a ‘step down’; I don’t think it is, but from their point of view it seems as though it could be. Having said that, it feels like we’re forerunners in what inevitably is the way forward. Broadcasting is not going to be what it was; the future of broadcasting channels is going to be completely reimagined. It’s happing now and it’s going be online!
People seem to digest information differently now. I watch my 12-year old daughter and how she consumes her media, it’s all on her iPad, smartphone and laptop with the occasional glance up to the Sky Box to watch a pre-recorded show. Her and her friends don’t come in from school and watch TV like I did. The manner in which the ‘content’ is consumed has shifted. It’s on her way home or on her way out, being on a bus, walking to the park or if it’s indoors, it’s sat on her bed before she goes to sleep. This means the short form is for me a lot more appealing. You can grab people’s attention on key issues if it’s shorter and easier to digest. I’m certainly not talking about everyone here but definitely the under 30s who I presume feel like they have very little time at the moment. I know the under 16s feel that way.
How does this change in output affect timetables, budgets, crew and scheduling?
Timetables haven’t changed as much as you’d imagine, budgets have but in weird and subtle ways and yes the crews feel much smaller, for example I recently did a shoot in the US and was completely on my own. Scheduling is still the same because story arcs can take time but the total number of days has perhaps shrunk. Everything in my experience about how we make short form films is different from working on 60 minute ones, but of course there are a lot of similarities. It all depends what the scale of the production is; just because its shorter doesn’t mean the actual nuts and bolts are that much different.
The delivery routes and length of programmes differ, but the actual production is much the same and we need to keep production values high. For instance, I’d rather have the experience of a good sound person than say a researcher on the shoot if that makes sense? Hopefully the research will have been done, so we don’t need that particular expertise on the road, but the sound however has to be absolutely right.
These are more authored films and my approach is different because I’m concentrating on fewer characters and contributors - the stories have to be simpler and the shooting quantity less. I was making series such as My Last Summer and Benefits Street which were taking over a year to film; the immediacy factor was non-existent! All I could think of during this time was why can’t we just upload these rushes straight to a webpage - in their raw forms - almost uncut? These rushes are amazing - everyday we’re making great stuff - but it all gets lost in a six-week edit for a one-hour show filmed over a year! Madness! I mean I loved getting to know the subject and contributors really well but felt the stories were not deep enough after the edit to do that time justice. Unless you get to use all that material then what’s the point? Why can’t we upload it all at the end of each day! I love the idea of that, and for me that’s the direction I want to move towards. As a director it’s creatively freeing and liberating to see a brilliant story and get it out there in an instant. Traditional methods take so long leading the story to go out of date.
The big thing is you can take risks with new technology and discover new ways of telling stories. It’s also exciting connecting to an audience more directly and working out how you manage to place the films with the people who would want to see them. Finding the audience for your films and getting the social media right so they find your work after being redirected from platforms like Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, is key to this step.
Do you use the same kind of tech and equipment, or is everything on laptops and mobiles?
The tech we’re using seems initially more complicated because we’re thinking of different ways of broadcasting and distribution. The techies are brilliant at coming up with new ways of presenting and marketing ideas online. How do you tell a story in six frames for a GIF? That takes work. It’s like when you’re condensing a story into a meme – you need to get it just right otherwise it’s embarrassing. There’s a lot of chat about ‘360’ and other apps like Seenit, a really popular user-generated content tool. For me I like the more traditional production values, just presenting them in a new way. I’m still looking to use the best of the lower end in terms of cameras, so FS7 C300. I want to shoot on the Ursa Mini for my next film.
What are you up to now and what are your future plans?
I’m currently in development and in April I’m pitching a slate of ideas for stuff that wouldn’t necessarily work in the one-hour world, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work! They’re hopefully a bit edgier and certainly a lot punchier than the 60-minute format; they’re also more subtle, experimental and without narration.
I’ve just helped film a Digital Storytelling BBC Three short form doc titled Hack Me Metal Gear Solid, with Hannah Wesson, a ‘broadcast’ colleague from back in the day. We worked together on the Baby Borrowers, Boys and Girls Alone, and the Mary Portiss shows and this was not that different. It’s been a fast process, but for her with a shorter three week edit. The turnaround has been about four months for 2 x 15 mins. It’s been filmed in just over ten shoot days in total, plus the three-week edit, but the subject meant Hannah had to wait quite a long time to complete the filming. I don’t think this will be the ‘norm’ as I hope to pitch, shoot, cut, and upload in under a month for many projects. What I really want to do is film, polish and upload at the end of each day! Whether I can do that or not is up to the broadcasters though!
Most of the stuff I pitch is around eight minutes long, which is actually petrifying! But at the same time really exciting. I’m also pitching for feature stuff as well, 90 minutes in length. So I love the fact that it’s a mixed bag, one’s a 4 x 8 min series, one’s a 90 min feature, another one at 10 minutes, it all depends on the subject as not everyone’s story lasts an hour - but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. And with that you can find new ways of telling stories for audiences that are different to what we’ve been used to.
Do you promote short form work on YouTube and Vimeo?
BBC Three have a YouTube platform, as do Channel 4, which says it all doesn’t it? I’d like to take the plunge and upload straight to my own YouTube account but at the same time I like featuring on, and being associated with, established platforms like the Beeb and C4, so not yet. I hope to have my website hosting my documentaries soon!
Online audiences v TV audiences – what’s your priority now, or are you loyal to both?
I think I’m aiming at both audiences with different types of productions. The mobile and tablet audience is obviously perfect for the shorter stuff, i.e. waiting for a train, the journey on the bus etc. Having said that, I also see the longer feature stuff for laptops and TV. I myself watch short form stuff on my mobile and the longer stuff on my laptop, and sometimes if it’s a feature or a ‘broadcast’ I plug in my projector. Bizarrely though, my TV is currently leaning against the wall in my bedroom wrapped in bubble wrap, it’s been there since October last year.
How would projects for online work with regards to royalties?
Regarding royalties I actually have no idea and I need to speak to someone about that! I was hoping to ask Directors UK about the royalty bits and pieces - is that up to you and services such as yours to keep a track of?* Also this aspect about not being credited for BBC Three short form stuff needs to be checked and is a huge worry! It’s a disappointing situation to be honest.
*This is something Directors UK are exploring and we will keep members informed with our progress.
Part of the problem is analytics, it’s tricky getting the correct figures. You’d have thought it’d be easier? I’m chatting to the BBC Three Audience Team at the moment to figure that one out. I’ve found because the stuff is streamed on multiple platforms - iPlayer, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter – the audience coverage varies greatly. Copyright is a headache at the moment, I mean look at the music industry and how they have had to completely restructure everything. It’s complicated though as I do believe in a copyright free internet, but how does that even work? Where are the revenue streams coming from? How do the advertisers manage to keep up with the content or is it the advertisers who will be creating the content? If so, where do Channel 4 and the BBC sit? Complete change isn’t it? Since we moved from aerial switch-off to digital, Wi-Fi and 4/5G broadcasting!
What does the future hold regarding the rise of BBC Three, Netflix and Amazon now being production companies - does that mean a more diluted area or something to welcome?
BBC Three, Netflix and Amazon I think are brilliant - they’re the new platforms from which we can show what we do; it’s a massively changing scene! I love it just the same as radio smashed the Guttenberg printing press and TV did the same with radio; that’s not to say they’re obsolete but they had to adapt their own methods of delivery.
What’s important though is the stories that are being delivered, so long as they’re still strong and the characters and contributors are interesting then I’m not really bothered what platform it’s on, as long as people get to see good work that’s all that matters.