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The women taking centre stage

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23 February 2017

Three of television’s biggest entertainment shows – Strictly, The X Factor and The Voice – are directed by women. They tell Tim Dams about making it in a genre that’s traditionally been very male dominated

Back in 2014, Directors UK launched a hard-hitting report about the employment of female directors in TV. It revealed a worrying decrease in the employment of women directors.

The situation in multi-camera entertainment and comedy programmes was particularly shocking. The report found that only 5% of game and panel shows were directed by women, and just 19% of sitcoms.

There’s one area that is slightly better represented though: shiny floor entertainment. Three of the biggest shows on TV were directed by women in 2016: Strictly Come Dancing by Nikki Parsons, The Voice by Liz Clare and The X Factor by Julia Knowles.

“To see directors of such high calibre doing incredibly well in their craft – in a genre that has traditionally been very male dominated – and working across the main channels on big budget productions is inspiring,” says Beryl Richards, chair of Directors UK.

“This highlights that women are just as able to create great content, as their male counterparts. These directors, and many other women directors, show that there isn’t a lack of diverse talent out there, and the industry need to work closely together to help create more opportunities for women and other under-represented groups to work and to show their talent, to improve the current landscape and encourage new directors.”

The X Factor director Julia Knowles has been directing for over 20 years, with early credits including The Big Breakfast, The Word and Dance Energy. “At that point I was one of the few women directing in entertainment,” she recalls, adding that the ‘brilliant’ Janet Fraser-Crook (Later with Jules Holland) is another to have established herself as a director at that time.

Knowles thinks one of the reasons there are fewer female directors is that women are sometimes less likely to put themselves forward for jobs compared to men. Gender stereotyping is also an issue. Knowles recalls starting her career at BBC Scotland as researcher – all the while lobbying to be trained as a director.  She was led to believe that, in time, this would happen. A year later a man who she had been at university with arrived at the BBC and was instantly sent on the director’s course while she was expected to keep researching. She soon left to pursue her career elsewhere. And within three years of arriving in London was directing three hours of live TV every Saturday morning.

The Directors UK report gave a number of reasons to explain the challenges facing female directors. Among them, they found that decisions on hiring are influenced by the opinions of commissioners in a risk averse culture that keeps hiring the same directors. They also reported that production executives responsible for hiring are unaware of low figures for women directors, and that gender stereotyping is prevalent when hiring in specific genres.

Many say that getting that first break as studio director is key, but often very difficult. Parsons says: “There are not many HODs that are women – sound supervisors, lighting directors, production designers, camera supervisors etc. I think the studio has always been a male environment and hopefully as more women join the industry and work their way up through the ranks there will be more of us in key positions.”

Clare adds: “There has certainly been a great big push recently, to raise awareness of the work of female directors, in all genres.” She notes that Directors UK’s ambition is to see women working as directors on at least 30% of productions in 2017.

Talk to most studio directors and they will alight on a number of key attributes that makes for a successful director. The ability to communicate clearly and calmly under pressure is paramount.  “As a director you have to communicate your vision and listen,” says Julia Knowles. “If you can communicate and absorb the best of your team then everything falls into place.” And that doesn’t mean shouting and losing your temper. “Any director who starts the blame game has got it wrong,” says Knowles.

It also pays to be prepared, says Clare. “Whether that’s hours of meetings to discuss design aspects of the show or days in the office scripting music, the more across everything you are by the time you arrive in the gallery, the smoother the day will run.”

You’ve also got to be prepared, at times, to throw plans out of the window. Knowles recalls directing the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Norway in 2009, the year that President Obama won the award. Wclef Jean was performing and, on the spur of the moment, decided to walk off stage, through the huge crowd, and up to the royal box where the Norwegian royal family were watching. “At that point you have to forget your script,” she says. “It is about trusting the people you are working with, being able to communicate what you want, and having a calmness about you so that if a camera goes down or an artist goes walkabout you don’t panic about it.”

Indeed, most directors also say they like working with crews they know and trust and who are familiar with their way of working. Clare says: “I’ve gathered an army of hugely talented crew over the years; everyone from camera operators, vision mixers, script supervisors and floor managers, as well as having the privilege of working with some of the most creative lighting and set designers in the industry.  It’s definitely a team effort and so it’s hugely important to surround yourself with people you can trust and who understand the way you like to work.”

This also extends to facilities too. Clare has just shot the latest series of The Voice’s blind audition phase at Dock10 in Salford, the location of the previous two series. “Aside from it being a brilliant modern facility, with huge studio capacities and useful associated spaces, they also have years of experience technically delivering this show. This allows me to concentrate on the more creative aspects of the show.”

Many directors say they get involved in a project in the early planning stages, at a meeting with the executive and series producers. Sometimes, directors will come to a project before any design briefs have been sent out. But more frequently, the set and lighting designs may already be in place so it becomes more about working with key departments to bring the show to life.

Knowles says there is a growing tendency to leave directors out of early stage discussions about a show. “I have fought very hard over the last four years to be included in discussions about the set, lighting. and editorial aims.”
Once the shooting, starts most directors say the adrenalin and nerves kick in. “I always get nervous, it never gets easier,” says Parsons. “But if it did get easier, then you might get complacent.”


Julia Knowles
Director: The X Factor, The Royal Variety Performance, Nobel Peace Prize Concerts

What are the keys to a successful studio shoot?  The key skills are communication and being passionate about what you are doing. Obviously preparation and all the ABCs are in there, like thinking it through, understanding editorial aims, making your camera plan. But the bottom line is communicating. Any studio director who starts the blame game has got it wrong. As a director you have to communicate your vision and listen. If you can communicate and absorb the best of your team then everything falls into place.

Key tips for studio directors wanting to learn the trade?
Watching good directors and hearing them in the gallery is invaluable. I am of the firm belief that not everyone can be a good studio director. You have to have a certain brain that operates on different levels and the ability to hear different things at the same time.

Studio directing has a reputation as a male dominated profession. Why is this? The other thing you need to be a successful a studio directing is confidence. Possibly women are sometimes less likely to put themselves forward. And men often are. It is a big thing about confidence – trusting in yourself, trusting your team, being able to put yourself forward and not taking rejection as something that knocks you down.

Any new kit you’ve been impressed with recently? One of my favourite shots in TV is the close up. So I love it that we now have amazing lenses that can really work from a distance and give you incredible intimacy.  I like using the junior dolly to get beautiful tracking shots in tight spaces or crowded spaces. It means you don’t have to have a gigantic piece of kit and two burly operators, you can be more discrete. Then there is the incredible quality of lighting products.


Nikki Parsons
Director: Strictly Come Dancing, Robot Wars, So You Think You Can Dance

What are the keys to a successful studio shoot? To make a studio shoot run smoothly and on schedule is for me all about preparation. Going into a studio shoot with a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you are going to do it is key. To have the right team around you, who you have a shorthand with, makes a huge difference. The studio is a very expensive environment to waste time working out how the shoot is going to work. Obviously things change on the day and you have to adjust, but to go in with a strong game plan is key.

What kind of skills do you need to make it as a studio director? I would say a creative vision, the ability to communicate that vision, people skills, an understanding of all departments and a clear, calm head in a crisis.
 
Any new kit you’ve been impressed with recently? The use of augmented reality in a live studio environment. It can transform a studio into a totally different environment, and bring an added level of excitement and set design.

Studio directing has a reputation as a male dominated profession. Why is this - and are things changing? There are not many HODs that are women - sound supervisors, lighting directors, production designers, camera supervisors etc. I think the studio has always been a male environment and hopefully as more women join the industry and work their way up through the ranks there will be more of us in key positions. There haven’t been as many women to step up and and say, ‘I want to do that.’ It’s a very hard thing to break into, and to find someone to trust you to direct a live studio show.


Liz Clare
Director: The Voice UK, Alan Carr’s Happy Hour, Little Big Shots, The BRIT Awards

What are the keys to a successful studio shoot?  I’ve been very lucky to have worked in some of the UK’s top studio facilities this year (Elstree, Dock 10 and TLS), as well as with leading OB companies (CTV, Telegenic, Video Europe) in more challenging live environments.  I would say the key to the success of all multi-camera ‘shoots’, regardless of their location, is to make sure you have the right team of people around you, with the right experience and the right level of resources to deliver the show you’ve been asked to direct. It’s a team effort and so it’s hugely important to surround yourself with people you can trust.     
 
What kind of skills do you need to make it as a studio director? On a basic level, you need to be able to communicate well, be a team player, have a good technical understanding and be well organised. But there are more subtle ‘talents’ you acquire over time. On a practical level I need to be able to cope well in high pressured environments. But I also need a strong artistic sense of how to interpret the piece of music or dance in the most exciting way for the viewer. 

Studio directing has a bit of reputation as a male dominated profession. Why is this? There have always been brilliant women directing television. Julia Knowles has been blazing a trail for years, as has the inimitable Janet Fraser-Crook, both a huge inspiration to me when I was starting out; Nikki Parsons has won numerous Baftas for Strictly, Barbara Wiltshire directs the funniest show on telly, Would I Lie to You?; Jeanette Goulbourn is one of the best factual entertainment multi-camera directors there is, with credits like Dragons Den and The Apprentice. And I am very proud to say, that this year I became the first female director of The BRITs.  We’ve always been around, perhaps we’ve just become more ‘visible’ over the last few years? 

Any new kit/technology that you’ve been impressed with recently? The brilliant LD on The Voice UK, Dave Davey has introduced the new PRG ground control, remote follow spot system.  We are still at the pre-recorded stage of the filming and they seem to be working very  well.  It certainly seems like a safer and more user friendly system but I guess we’ve yet to test it in a live situation.


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