The future and funding of the BBC has been the subject dominating this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival.
Armando Iannucci received a standing ovation after delivering a well-received MacTaggart lecture that called on creatives and the production community to rally to the support of the corporation in the face of government cutbacks.
Meanwhile, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale attempted to play down rifts with the corporation, using an interview here to insist the Tories were not driven by an ideological drive to dismantle the BBC.
A Leader’s Debate, styled on the televised political leaders debates ahead of the general election, also saw figures such as Sky’s Stuart Murphy and C4’s Jay Hunt speak up in support of the need for a strong BBC to help underpin the UK television industry.
The focus on the BBC follows weeks of political deal-making and debates about the corporation.
The government unveiled its green paper on the future of the BBC last month. At the time Whittingdale said the BBC’s operations had grown exponentially over the last decade and it was time to ask if its “range of services best serves licence fee payers”.
Last month the government also said the BBC had to cover the cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s, which could cost the corporation up to £700m.
Combined, the green paper and over-75s deal have created a sense that the BBC’s funding levels are under concerted attack from the Conservatives.
The fear factor was ramped up days before the festival by BBC director general Tony Hall, who warned that further cuts to the corporation’s funding and remit could result in more than 30,000 job losses across the TV industry.
The Edinburgh Festival has given the TV industry a strong platform from which to broadcast its opposition to cutbacks at the BBC.
For some, there is a sense that the BBC and its supporters may be tilting at windmills, in the phrase of media commentator Steve Hewlett.
In a session titled ‘The BBC: Under Siege' he asked if the people rushing to defend the corporation weren’t actually trying to target imaginary enemies.
After all, Whittingdale all but said yesterday that the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee when BBC Charter Renewal process concludes next year. He ruled out other funding mechanisms such as subscription, advertising and direct government subsidy. And the BBC has already negotiated that the licence fee will rise in line with CPI inflation, in return for striking the over-75s funding deal.
The incessant debates on BBC funding at the Edinburgh TV Festival can seem parochial.
But the £3.72bn the corporation receives from the licence fee is a vital source of funding for the UK’s creative sector, underpinning its success around the world. The BBC is also a crucial part of the civic identity of the UK.
For these reasons, many are frustrated that the government has now cut BBC funding twice in the past five years in deals struck behind closed doors with no public consultation.
And they are frustrations with the Conservatives that have all boiled to a head at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival.
If John Whittingdale came to the Edinburgh TV Festival with the intention of calming tensions between the government and the BBC, the Culture Secretary did a pretty good job of it in his Festival interview today.
Relations between the Tories and the corporation have been strained since the General Election in May, after which the new government announced that the BBC had to shoulder the estimated £700m bill for free licence fees for the over-75s.
Whittingdale played down fears that the Conservatives were determined to dismantle the BBC. ‘The idea that there is an ideological desire to destroy the BBC is just nonsense,” he said.
Whittingdale admitted the government had unwittingly created the impression of hostility to the BBC by announcing the over 75’s licence fee move so close to the publication of charter renewal.
“The reason this deal was done was a very obvious one – the government has a priority which is getting the deficit down and this represents a significant contribution to that aim,” he said.
Whittingdale was asked about reports that Rupert Murdoch had met the Chancellor George Osborne ahead of the deal. He said any suggestions that Rupert Murdoch may have influenced the deal is “conspiracy theory gone mad.”
By the end of his hour-long interview with ITV News’ Alastair Stewart, Whittingdale had left his Edinburgh audience in no doubt that the licence fee is likely to be the government’s preferred funding method for the BBC for the next ten years.
He played down alternative funding methods such as advertising, state financing and subscriptions, adding that the latter would be too technically difficult to implement at the moment.
Speaking after the session, BBC director of television Danny Cohen said he was “pretty encouraged by a lot” of what Whittingdale had said in his talk.
However, Whittingdale reminded the Edinburgh audience that he still has ways to clip the BBC wings, amid talk of whether the licence fee will be CPI inflation linked or if the government will move to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.
But he was broadly supportive of the work of the BBC. He said he didn’t think the BBC had a general bias to the left, adding that the corporation had not been partisan during the election.
He did, however, call on the BBC to take risks and to avoid producing shows that are “obviously indistinguishable from a populist, commercial programme.”
He cited The Voice as an example, noting that it had been the subject of a bidding war between the BBC and ITV.
Elsewhere, Whittingdale suggested the government might be prepared to privatise Channel 4, so long as its remit remained intact. He stressed that he ‘hadn’t received a bid for C4’ and that ‘the ownership of C4 is not under debate’. However, he added that the broadcaster could still deliver its remit if its ownership did change.
Whittingdale also gave the impression that he would not be averse to a possible US takeover of ITV, so long as any new owner continue to deliver on its remit. US broadcaster Liberty Global has steadily been increasing its stake in ITV over the past year.
Televisual publishes the latest in its long line of surveys of the independent production sector, the Production 100, in this month’s issue.
Taken together, the surveys tell the story of the buccaneering indie sector since 1993, chronicling its growth from a nascent cottage industry to a world renowned, export orientated sector which has attracted huge inward investment.
There have been plenty of ups and downs in this story, with fortunes made for a talented, hard working (and lucky) few along the way. Quite a few fortunes have been made in the past year too, following the sale of indies such as Twofour, Blast! Films and Neal Street.
In many cases the buyers are broadcasters such as ITV, Sky or Discovery, reflecting a trend for media companies to diversify out of broadcasting. Their reasons for doing so are becoming more pressing by the year. Traditional TV viewing continues to fall, with the greatest decline among the under-45s, reported Ofcom last month. Viewing to ITV-owned channels fell the most, it said, between 2013 and 2014. Over in the US, concerns about the viewing habits of young customers have led to a sharp sell off in media stocks, with the value of Walt Disney, Viacom and Discovery plunging.
Broadcasters clearly view production as good place to diversify into. And on past performance, it clearly is: the UK production sector has powered ahead in the past ten years, almost doubling its revenues since 2004.
But are broadcast buyers too late to the party? One of the key findings from this year’s Production 100 survey is that, while producers have generally had a good year, they are cautious about the outlook for the year ahead. The market is more competitive than ever, they say, as more people chase riches in production. Not only are broadcasters pushing into the sector, but also a slew of well-known execs have branched out on their own this year, launching start up indies.
Yet all these companies are operating in a market where UK commissioning spend has been broadly flat since 2012, while international revenues dipped slightly last year. This trend looks set to continue amid pressure on the BBC licence fee, and troubles in the US media market.
Indeed, some argue that the TV business is in the late stages of a bubble. “There is simply too much television,” warned FX Networks boss John Landgraf last month, arguing viewers were overwhelmed by options. Based on the feedback to the Production 100, talk of a bubble in TV production is probably overstepping the mark. But significant growth, of the kind enjoyed by the indie sector over the last ten years, is likely to be far harder to achieve.
The September issue of Televisual is out this week.
The survey reveals the cameras, editing kit and technology that programme makers are using for their productions – and what they think of it.
Amidst a sea of competing new products, we’ve sought to establish which are the most popular technology brands and models in production today, as well as highlighting the key technology trends that are driving the market.
We’ve done this by asking senior production execs for their views about the technology they use in production.
We have focused on a number of key areas. We take the temperature of the camera market, revealing the most popular manufacturers and models, including Canon, Sony, Arri, Red and Panasonic.
The future direction of the indie production sector has come into sharp focus in recent weeks amid a slew of policy announcements, deals and financial results. From BBC budget cuts to strong ITV results, a Pact Census that hinted at plateauing revenues to a new deal for Top Gear, the events hint at a mixed outlook for indies in the next 12 months.
Pact’s annual financial census of the sector reported that total revenues fell by 4.2% in 2014 to £2.9bn. There are two key reasons for the fall, according to Pact. Overall commissioning spend by UK broadcasters fell from £1.76bn in 2013 to £1.63bn, with multi-channel broadcast spending significantly down. International revenues also fell from £939m to £891m, amid signs that the crucial US market is becoming flat and more competitive. It was the first time since 2007 that global commissioning levels had fallen, according to Pact.
The financial challenges facing indies in their home market were underlined in Ofcom’s recent review of public service broadcasting. The regulator noted that investment in new UK content from the PSBs (BBC, ITV, C4 and C5) had fallen by around £440m in real terms, a decline of 15% between 2008 and 2014. The falls have been particularly acute in children’s programmes and in drama, it said.
Real term cuts to the BBC licence fee, the economic downturn, as well as the escalating cost of sports rights have led to downward pressure on original content commissioning since 2008.
This was a theme picked up by Arts Council boss Peter Bazalgette, speaking to the House of Lords Communications Committee in July. He noted that investment in original content across all UK broadcasters had fallen in the last five years, while the amount of money spent on sports rights had rocketed. “Our investment in original programming...has declined over the five years from 2008 to 2013 from £2.6bn to £2.4bn and I view that with concern,” he said, in comments reported by The Guardian. “The new Premier League deal, because of the competition between BT and Sky, the cost of the rights went up above £5bn. The new Premier League deal will represent 25% of all the money spent on broadcast programmes, but it will attract 0.6% of the audience because it’s on a pay [TV platform].”
Fears about falling UK investment in original programming were exacerbated by the government’s announcement that the BBC will have to cover the £650m cost of providing free television licences for the over 75s – representing 17.5% of its £3.7bn licence fee revenue.
Pact has urged the BBC not to cut content spend as a result, fearing that other broadcasters may reduce expenditure too. Speaking at the launch of its Financial Census, Pact chair Laura Mansfield said: “When we’ve looked at the numbers before, it is the BBC that is the real pillar of the public service broadcast system. If you reduce the BBC spend it has a mirror effect across the other broadcasters and you see not just a reduction of spending, but you see a potential reduction of quality. We very much would want a limited reduction, and actually we’ve been campaigning for an increase.”
The case for growth
Not all broadcasters, of course, are cutting back. ITV boss Adam Crozier has said the broadcaster will invest more, particularly on drama, in a bid to shore up its viewing figures after a 4% slide in the first half of 2015. Like many commercial broadcasters, ITV has seen revenues and profits surge as the UK has pulled out of recession and it has diversified into international production. The broadcaster has money to invest.
Sky also posted a 5% increase in revenue in its annual results last month as the pay-TV broadcaster passed 12m subscribers for the first time. Sky chief executive Jeremy Darroch called the UK its “engine of growth” after the territory delivered revenues of £7.8bn.
Following the success of original drama Fortitude, Sky has 35 productions in development, in production or on air in the next three years with 10 earmarked as pan-European “priority projects”. This includes its first co-production with HBO, The Young Pope, starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton.
However, many producers view with alarm the expansion of UK broadcasters’ inhouse production operations. ITV Studios has grown rapidly through a series of acquisitions in recent years. Wayne Garvie, chief creative officer, international production, at Sony Pictures Television recently described a vertically integrated ITV as “potentially a big threat to the independent community,” Sky is also pressing ahead with a strategy of acquring independent producers, snapping up Blast! Films last month. And many indies express concern about BBC plans to allow its inhouse production division to make shows for rival broadcasters.
If the independent production sector is feeling the squeeze, there are a few hints of it in Televisual’s upcoming Production 100, our annual survey of TV indies.
The full survey is published in the September issue of Televisua, but early responses reveal a sector that appears in good health. Budgets are ever tighter and competition remains fierece, and indies say slow decision making by broadcasters continues to put a strain on business. Yet the majority of indies say the business climate has been good over the past year, with plenty of opportunity in the UK market and abroad. The word that many use to describe the outlook for the year ahead is ‘positive’.
Indies were also given something to cheer about last month when Ofcom ruled that there is no need, for now, to reform the terms of trade, which have underpinned growth in the sector for over ten years.
Also, Amazon Prime’s headline grabbing deal with the former Top Gear team for three 12-part series underlined that competition for top quality content is only expanding as the market becomes increasingly global.
There’s no second chances when live directing. Here four of the UK’s leading live event directors explain the art of their craft
Denise Large The Grand National, The Derby, Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood
They don’t come any bigger than the Grand National from a sporting and production point of view, in terms of the vast area you have to cover.
The Grand National is in April, but planning begins around December. As well as getting the basics right, I always try to think of a new innovation that can enhance the viewer’s enjoyment of this amazing steeplechase.
In the first year of IMG’s Grand National coverage, I introduced the Scorpio Tracking Arm – a camera used in feature films. It’s a crane on top of a 4x4 which can elevate to a height of 16 ft and also extend outwards. Tracking cameras have been used in racing for many years, but seeing 40 horses from a high elevation while travelling at 35 miles an hour provides a tremendously dramatic shot.
Having the right people on a live specialist event is crucial. I have a fabulous team who I have worked with for many years. They are at the top of their profession and we have a good relationship. But at the end of it I have to call the shots and be a leader. There are ways of conveying those messages. I’m not one to shout and get hysterical!
The camera operators are my eyes on the racecourse and I rely on them to offer shots – which I will call for at an instant. Sound is just as crucial to bringing the drama and atmosphere to a race as big as the Grand National with 40 horses galloping around the track. Microphones are deployed inside every fence to pick up the unique noises you get when they are jumped or hit.
Probably the biggest challenge on the day is making a five hour broadcast appear seamless. You also have to keep your cool. You need nerves, but not to the point where they take over.
Dick Carruthers Led Zeppelin, Beyonce, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, The Killers, The Who, Oasis, Take That
The first thing I do is take the long view - what do we want to end up with ? Next I study the whole layout: band, the stage design, perhaps dancers, screens, venue, and start plotting camera positions and combinations like chess moves. No two gigs are exactly the same and this is absolutely key to getting the best shots to fit together.
I also do my homework; watching performances to tune into the the dynamic. I always like to see the way the instruments are played, interactions between band members or sometimes crowd reaction is key. I’ll make up a set list and listen to it over and over, to get an instinctive sense of the narrative arc, the pace and flow.
I will discuss with the artists all manner of things stylistically: how we are going to approach it, texture, effects, post production. Formats too: it could suit HD or now 4K, or in an extreme case, Super 8. Artists have all sorts of proclivities – perhaps strong preferences about angles they are shot from. They have to trust you, knowing you are going to make them look not just good, but amazing. You precision-capture what they do and by detailing it, enhance it.
World class crew is essential. I’m lucky to work with experts in their field, and I choose them on their unique skills. I’ve built up a great team of people who I trust to do a great job.
For performances I might work off one sheet per song - with lots of notes in different coloured Sharpie pens: structure, specific positions, special moves or moments to nail.... I like to inhabit a fluid mid-point between scripted and pure spontaneity; reacting to what happens, as it happens. Typically I cut stuff myself – I can just call it quicker and you get into the zone.
During any shoot, I joke, encourage and whip up enthusiasm, paradoxically the comedian as well as the clear, authoritative voice that the whole team lock onto and follow.
There’s no place for hesitation or panic, and its not a role for people lacking in self confidence – justified or otherwise.
That said, I wouldn’t go into anything with blind hubris – there has to be some trepidation and stress. You need to be razor sharp and very quick thinking - you are watching 15 to 20 things at once and co-ordinating 40+ people. I have learned to channel the nerves and adrenalin into an intense focus. It’s the best job in the world.
Paul Mcnamara Rugby World Cup, FA Cup Final, Champions League Final, FIFA World Cup
Covering a match will always involve a recce to the stadium beforehand. Stadiums are always updating, and there is always a possibility of new camera positions.
Most football directors do the vision mixing themselves, which is quite different from other TV genres. It allows you to get to the best shots as quickly as possible and in sport things happen very quickly with no rehearsals.
You are always trying to tell the story. You are trying to bring the viewer to the event and to give them the best seat in the house.
You might have 20 cameras for a match and each camera will be given a specific role. The main camera 1 shot is used to cover the majority of the game but all the other angles are used to enhance the narrative and to bring all the tension, excitement and drama to the viewer.
You have to tell the story of what is happening in front of you but you are trying to add to it the whole time. In sport there are natural breaks – corners, goal kicks, line outs or injuries. You use those moments to replay incidents that have happened.
You can also use those moments to go to crowd shots or manager shots to try to build up the excitement, the anticipation the pain and the passion.
There are always many editorial stories within each game. For example, one goalkeeper might have been dropped. When the goalkeeper that has been picked makes a fantastic save, you can make a great editorial shot by going to the goalkeeper sitting on the bench – applauding like a mad Oscar loser! In sport there is always a story. It means sports directors have to know their sport inside out.
I go through a checklist before each game. If I have watched the teams and know how they play – including every player, sub and manager – and I have looked at my camera positions, then I would trust myself to bring that game through with the experience I have. I would never be blasé and think I can just tip up to this, because that would be the time that it bites you really hard.
No two sports broadcasts are ever the same. You have to be brave to make your decisions, and trust your judgement and experience. It’s a privileged position and a great honour to cover such fantastic events.
Steve Smith The Graham Norton Show, The John Bishop Show, Paul O’Grady Show Live
To start with, I try to assemble a team that I trust. The industry is much more freelance now, so us directors get a key group of people that they work with regularly, from a lighting director, a camera supervisor to a sound supervisor. They give you the confidence you need to make the programme.
Because budgets and schedules are much tighter, there isn’t the luxury of time to be able to make mistakes. You have to be ready to hit the deck running. For The John Bishop Show we record two shows a day. We have a four-hour window with an audience to record two one-hour shows. There just isn’t the luxury to do things twice.
So knowing your team around you are all really experienced and playing at the top of their game is really important.
Being a live event director is rather like being the captain of a plane. You have a managerial role and have to be aware of budgets and scheduling and facilities. And you have to be able to inspire and motivate people, and also firm in terms of knowing what you want.
But the most important thing is your creative vision. You are responsible for how the show looks and bringing that creative eye to bear is vital.
You also have to be prepared. In a live situation you only get one stab at it. You have to think ahead to where the danger areas might be and where things might go wrong. This often comes from experience.
Another really important thing is trust. One of the tragic things about this industry is that too many people try to be bosses and to control everything. As a director I like to create an environment where I have an overall vision for something. Then I like to ensure the crew have the ability to stamp their own mark on it. When you give people the freedom to express themselves, you generally get more out of it.
You can’t get away from the impact that The X Factor has had on the way we do things. The X Factor is a brilliant show, but it does have an enormous budget with a multi-million pound set and a phenomenal lighting rig. It gives commissioning editors expectations. They want everything to have the same production values. But The X Factor is ITV’s flagship entertainment show, and most other budgets don’t come anywhere near it. You have to manage those expectations – which can be difficult.
I chair the multi-camera directors group at Directors UK. What worries me is how we train the new directors of the future. These jobs are so pressured that commissioning editors and execs are nervous about letting someone new have a go. But at some point you have to have a go, or you are never going to get the experience.
With Directors UK we are trying to find solutions to how we can train directors of the future.
Some shows have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint, but the production sector needs to do far more.
Solar was used to power the entire shoot of Operation Grand Canyon with Dan Snow, while Springwatch ran its unit base and remote camera set ups with energy from renewable generators.
Meanwhile, Wonders of the Monsoon employed international cameramen to save over 100 tonnes of CO2 by reducing travel across six shoots, and Casualty recycles its sets and props.
These are just a handful examples of how TV productions have used innovative ways to cut their environmental footprint.
Other TV shows and films to boast impressive green credentials include Coronation Street and Film London-backed short film Terminally Happy – both shortlisted for the finals of this month’s Observer Ethical Awards.
Coronation Street, for example, was cited for being a ‘television drama of the highest quality with the lowest possible environmental impact’ after implementing a series of measures following its move to MediaCityUK.
A poor green record
Despite these success stories, the UK production sector has a poor track record when it comes to the environment. A ‘step change in behaviour’ is needed, according to BAFTA’s albert consortium, made up of leading broadcasters and indies working to reduce the impact of the TV industry.
The albert carbon calculator – based on input from over 1000 productions – has concluded that the average carbon footprint of an hour’s worth of TV is 9.4 tonnes – about the same as eight return flights to the US (see infographic above).
The consortium concludes that the TV and film industry must take a proactive approach to support the UK emission reduction target of 80% by 2050.
Even though employees in the production sector tend to be young, liberal, university educated and therefore, presumably environmentally aware, this has not translated into effective industry-wide action to reduce its carbon footprint.
Says one series producer with twenty years experience in the industry: “At no point has anyone ever brought up the subject of reducing our carbon footprint during a production.”
Another executive producer adds: “I would say this doesn’t play at all as an issue in the industry.”
“The UK production industry is lagging compared to other industries,” confirms Aaron Matthews, industry sustainability manager at albert.
Matthews says one of the reasons is that TV production is largely staffed by freelancers who hop from one project to another. “Industry leaders in sustainability, like Unilever or Kingfisher, have a staff who they can effect change upon. Often, if you work for a production company, you might not find out much about the environmental policies of the company – you get the programme made and then you are off.”
Senior support required
Matthews adds that an on-going problem is the “delegation of sustainability down to more junior levels of a production.” Sustainability, he says, really needs senior support and has to be addressed in pre-production if it is to have any impact. “Not everyone has the ability to make the big decisions which can really affect the carbon footprint of a production, like what studio or lighting to use.”
There’s also a sense that the industry is tackling issues like diversity as well as health and safety, but it hasn’t yet given the attention to sustainability that it might.
That could change in 2015, a year when the issue will come into greater focus in the lead up to November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. The conference aims to achieve a universal, legally binding agreement on climate change, with a key goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to two degrees above industrial levels.
Meanwhile, the consortium has just started rolling out a new training course for independent production sector members, including All3Media, Endemol, Shed Media, Twofour, Kudos and IMG. 150 people will go through the course this year. This is on top of launching website mediagreenhouse.co.uk which provides advice on how to green a production and case studies of shows which have done so.
It is also launching a major industry survey of the sector to assess the level of understanding of sustainability and climate change and the challenges they raise for those working in the TV industry.
According to albert research, the single most significant contributor to carbon emissions in production is from electricity use to power production offices, studios, lighting, edit suites and crew accommodation. The environmental impact of travel is also significant, as are set builds, waste, diesel and catering.
Chosing to shoot in the UK or abroad can make a major difference, for example, to carbon emissions. An international factual documentary is, on average, the greatest emitter of CO2 by genre, responsible for over 40 tonnes per hour produced thanks to the air travel involved.
The increasingly global nature of UK production, which is focused on international markets such as the US and Asia, means this problem is only getting worse. Location based dramas also have a heavy carbon footprint, thanks to transport and on location energy use.
Production, of course, is only part of the challenge facing the TV industry. Distribution now accounts for increasing amount of emissions as audience viewing habits change. Modern distribution techniques to distribute multiplatform content are highly energy intensive, requiring vast numbers of air-conditioned servers.
“The most carbon efficient way to get a programme out there is to broadcast it from an antenna on a hill,” notes Matthews.
Matthews also believes the TV industry could be doing more to explain to the public the pressing need for everyone to change their behaviour so the UK can meet its climate obligations. Precious few programmes on television actually address the biggest issue facing humankind today, he says.
Of course, the industry has got to get its own house in order too. “If we are going to unleash the media’s power to sell us a sustainable world, then we need to make sure their operations are squeaky clean before that happens.”
Green case studies
Alaska: Earth’s Frozen Kingdom
Alaska was able to save money and carbon emissions by sourcing all their polar bear footage from Alaskan based cameraman Arthur Smith. He’s lived in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik in Alaska’s far north for more than ten years. The BBC used six minutes – 10% of the overall programme – of Arthur’s polar bear footage in the Winter programme, episode 3.
Acquiring this footage in the usual way by flying a UK-based cameraman to Alaska with 500kg of kit (25 x 20kg peli cases of kit is standard for wildlife films) would create carbon emissions of around 9.5 tonnes. So the Alaska production team saved roughly the same amount of carbon emitted by two UK homes in a year.
Trollied (series 4)
Trollied cut its stage power usage by 50% by removing a third of ceiling light fluorescents and reducing floor lamp lighting. The Roughcut series also reduced paper use by 80% by using an opt-in policy for call sheets and scripts, and sourced second hand props and dressings for the set and as, as far as possible, tried to source these locally. Left over perishable food on set was also donated to feed the local pigs!
Transport was one of the greatest challenges, representing over 50% of the footprint for series 4. Roughcut tackled it by largely crewing locally and accommodating the majority of the cast in the same hotel and transporting them to set together. It also made public transport the default.
Asif Kapadia’s biopic of Amy Winehouse is a technical as much as a storytelling triumph. Tim Dams on the making of the archive doc
Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and career of Amy Winehouse is his first since the Bafta-winning Senna. It’s released this month on the back of strong reviews after a well-received screening at the Cannes Film Festival. The Guardian, for example, called it “intimate, passionate, often shocking, and almost mesmerically absorbing.”
But the film, which recounts Winehouse’s story chronologically from her pre-fame teens to her early death from alcohol poisoning, is as much a technical as a storytelling triumph. As with Senna, Kapadia has boiled down 1000s of hours of footage to make the 127-minute Amy. The film has taken over two and half years to make, he says.
Kapadia worked with the same Senna production team to hone and craft the film. Many of the techniques are the same too: there are no talking heads or a single voice over, but rather recorded interviews and archive audio tell Amy’s story seamlessly over a complex patchwork of footage. This looks effortless in the final film, but it left no room for shortcuts during production. The archive visuals had to carry the film alone.
The big challenge, however, was in the quality of the footage available. Much of the Senna archive was cinematic, shot by professional sports cameramen. In contrast, the material on which Amy is built comes from home movies, television news reports, YouTube clips, concert videos and mobile phone footage.
Almost none of it was filmed with the big screen in mind. “It was really hard taking this material and making it work theatrically,” says Kapadia. “People have no idea how hard it was.”
For a start, every shot had to be stabilised, reframed and colour corrected. Many had to be slowed down or speeded up. Nearly all had to be reformatted to suit the 1.85: 1 widescreen format that is common in cinemas.
One of the team behind Amy was colourist Paul Ensby of Company 3, who also worked on Senna. A key part of his job, he says, was to make the raw material acceptable for the big screen. That meant toning down and controlling “really vivid, garish video style colours” and “putting them into a film colour space”. He took the harsh edges off the TV footage, creating a ‘film curve’ around the sides to so it is not so bright and strongly lit. This helped create shape in the image, says Ensby.
He would also subtly try to focus the eye of the viewer on what they need to see, edging out non-essential material by reframing or darkening certain areas. “I’m trying to concentrate the eye on what we need to see,” he adds. “Otherwise it could be a tough watch because there is so much going on, like paparazzi flash bulbs.”
Kapadia also picks out key members of the team behind Amy, such as editor Chris King and online editor Jamie Leonard for their role in telling the Winehouse story effectively and making the film look so strong. The edit process took 20 months alone. “Every shot had to look as good as possible,” he says. Kapadia says that every image has been worked on, whether to reframe it or simply to bring out the eyes of the contributors, to make the film as cinematic as possible. “There’s a hell of a lot that has gone on in every single shot.”
He also cites the work of Matt Curtis, who was responsible for the graphics and titles. They play a subtle but crucial supporting role in the film. They are an almost continual presence, individually placed in different parts of the screen to explain who is speaking or to spell out the lyrics of Winehouse’s songs – which themselves assume a tragic resonance when set so strongly against the film.
And Kapadia is quick to emphasise the vital importance of sound in a documentary about a musical icon. Like the visuals, much of the original audio was amateur – from phones or home video. The film was mixed at Twickenham Studios by Tim Cavagin and Dafyd Archard, while supervising sound editors Andy Shelley and Stephen Griffiths worked on the dialogue and sound design. “The sound is what elevates it,” says Kapadia.
Reflecting on process of bring Amy to the big screen, Amy, Kapadia adds: “It is the most technically challenging film I have ever done. On a technical level it is far more complicated than a drama.”
Asif Kapadia Producer
James Gay-Rees Exec producers
David Joseph, Adam Barker Editor
Chris King Co-producer
George Pank Archive producer
Paul Bell Original music
Antonio Pinto Production manager
Raquel Alvarez Post production super
Miranda Jones Supervising sound editors
Andy Shelley, Stephen Griffiths Colourist
Paul Ensby Online editor
Jaime Leonard Graphics and titles
Matt Curtis Production co-ordinator
Alice Cady Researcher
Jack Symes Post production coordinator
Nadiya Luthra Re-recording mixers
Tim Cavagin, Dafydd Archard Sound mix technician