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Some highlights from Sheffield Doc/Fest

The UK premier of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opened Sheffield Doc/Fest in style, complete with a Skype session with one of the Pussy Riot protestors.

The industry sessions, while not featuring acid coloured balaclavas a la Pussy Riot, were a colourful mix.

Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt, BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow and BBC creative director Alan Yentob, were all interviewees in the Crucible theatre venue, while speakers from across the world and across the digital spectrum took to stages nearby across three days of presentation and debate.

Lucy Cooke's sloths took centre stage at a session hosted by BBC commissioner Cassian Harrison. Cooke's impassioned story about bringing not frogs (her first love), but sloths, from Costa Rica to Discovery (not the BBC), was a masterclass in how the internet can work for a producer. Posting a film online, seeing it turn viral, getting a commission, turning it into a series.

There was a strong digital showing. The Business of VOD revealed some of the first real opportunities to make some money selling through an online catalogue. The key message, which was echoed across multiplatform sessions, was to get your marketing right, planning the whole digital life cycle of your production, amassing as much interest as possible, including getting personally involved in forum-chat with your audience.

An Autopsy of Easter Eggs Live demonstrated how much care went into planning the marketing alongside Windfall Films' production, starting with a take-over of the Foxes Live twitterfeed. While Al Brown from Vice said that putting some of Vice channel's hard-hitting docs onto YouTube had exploded the number of views they were getting.

In a session featuring a fictional multiplatform pitch, Jordan McGarry of Vimeo revealed that she was working on a very similar idea to the one being pitched, featuring bands and linking into the music industry. One of the joys of the idea being that the bands bring their fans with them as an audience.

Back in the land of terrestrial commissioners, some of the UK's leading documentary commissioners revealed their favourite productions. Celia Taylor, the head of factual and features at Sky, picked A&E. "Just when you think there's nothing new in blue light territory, this comes along," she said. "I wish we had one of these. It's beautifully brought together, it makes me cry, it's the holy grail - bringing all the storytelling and intelligence of documentary making and making it returnable."

A&E also featured in a discussion on Documenting Institutions: Critical Revelation or Embedded PR?, where Channel 4 deputy head of Factual, kicked off the session by underlining that King's hospital, where A&E is filmed, felt that it was taking "a huge, huge risk".  Access was also in the spotlight in The Art of Access, from Palaces to Prisons, with Paul Hamann (Strangeways), Trevor McDonald (Inside Death Row) and Michael Waldman (Our Queen).

In a discussion of trends in European programming, there was a consensus that  broadcasters were moving away from more exploitative content. In France, according to Patricia Boutinard Rouelle from Nilaya Productions, there was increased demand for science, natural history, biographical content and programmes dealing with big, landmark issues. In Germany, there was always demand for history and  journalism, current affairs and human interest, said Elina Kewitz from German-based New Docs. Sahar Baghery, international TV research manager from Eurodata TV Worldwide, thought that European audiences would want more real life observation and stories with personal relevance going forward.

But what programming for an audience of mainly under 30 year olds? Speaking at a session addressing this demographic, we heard that Denmark's DR3 had found success with Generation Plastic, giving the camera to young people about to have cosmetic surgery. While Al Brown from Vice UK showed a film about Japanese suicide victims which was a hit for the channel. There was some disagreement about the slower pace and presentation of the film, but different treatments, such as BBC Three's Alex: A Life Backwards had been strong. Irene Stroyer from DR 3 added a touch of schadenfreude with the comment, "death is going very well in Denmark at the moment."

At the Director's UK session, there was a plea for directors to get a commercial share of IP and to be given more time, in the face of shrinking time for pre-production. There was agreement on the panel that the standard rate of £1500 a week was felt to be too much to charge for a director on his or her first or second job. Several audience members volunteered to take a lower rate of £1400 or £1450 for a week's work.

Posted 17 June 2013 by Pippa Considine

Upgrading the infrastructure as BBC S&PP relocates to Elstree

The relocation and renewal project for BBC Studios and Post Production to Elstree  included commissioning Custom Consoles to move and upgrade the infrastructure.

While the White City Television Centre site is being redeveloped, BBC Studios and Post Production has relocated its London studios business to Elstree and is providing HD TV studios at BBC Elstree and Elstree Film Studios in Borehamwood. The commission included moving the existing main production desk, production monitor wall and the lighting and vision monitor wall from Television Centre Studio 6 in London to the Elstree studio complex. Three additional desks have been provided, two from Custom Consoles' Module-R series plus a specifically designed lighting control desk.

The new facility is structured as two separate rooms and becomes the main technical control resource for the 11,800 square foot Elstree Studio D. A Custom Consoles monitor wall at the front of the production control room accommodates 26 video display panels of various sizes plus a studio clock and monitor loudspeaker. Facing this is the main vision control desk which is designed for use by a five-person production team. Technical facilities embedded in the desk include a production mixer, slow-motion effects controller and director-to-camera communication.

Immediately to the rear of the relocated front desk is a new Custom Consoles Module R desk with three computer-based workstations used in supporting production roles. Each workstation is equipped with a monitor display screen mounted on an Ergotron adjustable support arm.

Lighting and vision control are performed in a separate room. Here the monitor wall has been relocated from Television Centre Studio 6. The control desk here is designed for use by a team of three people with support from an additional colleague seated at a rear Module-R desk.

The first show to be shot at the Studios since the upgrade was ITV's The British Animal Honours, made by Whizz Kid Productions.  

Posted 11 June 2013 by Pippa Considine

Filming magic: the making of Card Shark for Nat Geo

The three-card Monte is believed to be the oldest card trick in the world.  It is still played on streets across-the-globe today and uses misdirection and sleight-of-hand to fleece thousands of innocent passers-by every year.  Although its origins lie in magic, the Monte is a con, pure and simple.

Card Shark – a co-production between Windfall Films and So Shoot Me TV – airs tonight at 9pm on National Geographic Channel. The programme takes an in-depth look at the history of cards, card magic and card cheating. But when magic is your topic how exactly do you film it?

So Shoot Me TV’s Kate Leonard-Morgan and Mark Leslie, together with Windfall Films’ Carlo Massarella, explain how they captured the secrets behind card magic through a mixture of stunts, street demonstrations and clever camera work.

The specialist
Drummond Money-Coutts is the perfect exponent of the card shark’s dark art. As magician to the world’s elite, he has honed his craft on the party circuit, eschewing the expected path working for his family’s bank. His undeniable talent, telegenic looks and good old-fashioned charm could, in another life, have made him a fortune duping a succession of hapless punters. Fortunate for us then that Drummond is one of the good guys!

The Game
The Three-card Monte is the basis for all the tricks in the programme.  Three playing cards are placed face down on the table – a queen and two ‘twos’.  Drummond then reveals the target card, before rearranging the cards quickly. The player is given an opportunity to select which one is the queen. Regardless of how many times he is challenged, as Drummond demonstrates the dealer always wins.
Drummond explains that he has used a simple switch manoeuvre, revealing where and how it was done. But it is imperceptible.

Capturing the action
It is commonly believed that sleight-of-hand works because, as the saying goes, ‘the hand is quicker than the eye’ – but this is usually not the case. In addition to manual dexterity (the result of thousands of hours’ worth of practice), sleight-of-hand depends on the use of psychology, timing, misdirection and natural choreography to achieve its magical effects – all of which was captured on camera.
We used a mix of visual styles, both on location (choreographed at a card table) and on the streets.
At the card table, we wanted to capture the action without exposing the magic.  We shot the series using a Red One and a Sony PDW800 as main cameras, as well as C300s and go-pros. Using multiple angles, we were able to challenge the viewer to keep up with Drummond’s moves.  Where we do explain the method, we used high-speed cameras to reveal the manoeuvres. 

In contrast, when we took to the streets we used multiple hand-held cameras to capture the action and to create a more immediate feel.

Shooting on location
Card Shark was filmed in London, Paris and Bangkok. Each location had its own challenges, but nothing could have prepared Drummond and the team for the extremes of weather we faced.  In London and Paris, we filmed on the coldest days of the year so far (-4 in London and -12 in Paris!), where the myriad challenges included keeping the kit functioning, the batteries charged and the magician’s hands from seizing up!  In Bangkok, we had to deal with the other end of the climatic spectrum: the heat and humidity posed just as many problems – to the equipment and the tricks.  Most of all we had to expect the unexpected.

The final stunt, involving Drummond, a Muay Thai boxer and shot glasses of sulphuric acid stretched us all to the limit.  We covered the scene with six cameras, on a jib, legs, hand-held and fixed to the table.  The trick had to be filmed live, as it couldn’t be interrupted and we had to guarantee complete coverage.  We wanted the live audience and the viewers to have a clear, comprehensive view of all the action and to be in no doubt of the very real danger Drummond was in… and to feel the stress levels as they rose.

What we’ve ended up with is a programme that poses just as many questions as it provides answers. Chief among which remains, for us, and for the viewers:
“How on earth did he do that?”

Posted 03 June 2013 by Pippa Considine
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