Britain's Got Talent executive producer Amelia Brown on the art of producing ITV's Britain's Got Talent.
"We start with casting. The casting team are key and each year the team gets bigger. Casting gets harder and harder.
The key thing you don’t want to lose from BGT is undiscovered talent – and undiscovered talent is hard to find. In the earlier series, people turned up for television shows in their masses and queued up. Now, people still want to audition but they just need a little bit more encouragement.
We go to them more these days. We used to do a few days of producers’ auditions in Manchester and London, but we now have lots of smaller days in smaller towns.
It becomes a bit of a numbers game to ensure you have enough great auditions. We will see about 300 acts during the judges’ auditions, but only a proportion of those will make it to air.
A love of the show is the key skillset and personality trait that I look for in everybody who works on BGT. It sounds simple, but you would be amazed at how many people come in for interview and haven’t watched the show. It drives me bonkers.
We try to bring staff up through the ranks. People quickly become very highly qualified on BGT. You pre-record, you film live, you do live shows, you do the edit – so it sort of ticks every telly box in one show. So you then want to nurture the staff and want them to stay – they become very key to the show in the following years.
About 250-300 people work on the show if you count everybody from myself to researchers, lighting, rigging, editors, and producers. There’s about 30 in the key editorial team, and 30 in the edit.
The biggest challenge during filming is that all the acts have different requirements. A magic act may have fire or want to hang from the rafters, whereas a dog needs to have licences and may not like the lights, and then you have a kids’ choir who come with all the licensing requirements you have with children. Each act has its own set of rules. There is a researcher role called the fixer and that is exactly what they will do all day.
The audition shows take place over 10 or 11 days. We are there from about 4pm for the matinee performance and then there’s an evening performance. There are two different audiences.
My motto, which drives everyone mad, is I want options when it comes to the edit. The team film from 8-9am until midnight. We tend to film everything that moves at all times. There is definitely a few thousand hours of footage to get through.
The edit begins as we start filming. We have a marvellous system called the Montage Project and a whole edit system now where we pull together everything and organise it.
It is all about labelling. You have to be quite thorough and anal about labelling. Every contestant will have a list of every checkpoint that gets filmed – their arrival, their audition, their interview, their secondary interview, their leaving shot. And all that needs to go into a bin and needs to get organised. That is your starting block. If it is not organised straight out of the blocks, then you have got a problem.
We grade the acts we like most as we go along. So we will give everyone a grade from A to C. I write notes on what I like about them, and what I don’t like about them. Those notes and the series producer’s notes get used in the edit.
We then rough cut the stories, and from that decide who we want to go in which show and then start posting the shows together in the edit.
The edit is my favourite bit. It is where it comes to life. I think we have got the best editors in the business.
Organisation is key. Then it becomes about the producers; I bang on about this a lot but they need to watch everything. It’s difficult because we film so much. But woe betide if we get to a point and I ask a question about whether something is there - and they don’t know the answer. Because for me the devil is in the detail - you will find bits of reality that we filmed with a contestant where they are far more relaxed chatting to their mum that will show their personality much more than an interview question with a producer. All those little pieces are the gems now, and is how the edit has changed over the past six years. Those bits can make or break a story.
This show is run by WhatsApp. It is a great way for monitoring stories. We set up all the producers, the series producers and myself on a WhatsApp group. It helps us to keep up with changes, and means that everyone has got the information at the same time and knows what is happening. If something happens at the judging desk - say Simon is in bad mood or Alesha has said no to a load of kids - that is something we need to pick up on so it will go on the WhatsApp group.
You have to have a love of people and a love of storytelling. It sounds a bit vague, but if you don’t have those two things then you are on the wrong show.
Your management skills need to be good. The team is massive. Everyone works very long hours, they are on their feet a lot and they spend a lot of time together because we’re away. So keeping the team happy is key.
It is a massive show but you don’t want any member of the team to feel like they are just a cog in a machine. Everyone needs to know that their role is important, because if someone doesn’t do well in their jobs then everything does fall in like a house of cards.
The thing that keeps me awake at night is worrying that we don’t find new talent, thankfully 10 years in that hasn’t happened so far."
This interview is taken from an April 2016 Televisual feature on the art of producing entertainment TV shows.
The latest in a line of stylish John le Carre thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, Our Kind of Traitor stands out for a number of reasons.
It’s not just that the big themes of the story – about international money laundering and the impact of Russian money on British society – are particularly resonant in light of the Panama Papers revelations.
It’s also that, unusually for a Le Carre story, the adaptation plays like a road movie. One thinks of Le Carre in terms of dark interiors and alleyways and old fashioned Britain. But Our Kind of Traitor is based very much in the contemporary world, and saw the production team constantly on the go during the 10 week shoot, filming in Finland, the UK, Paris, the French Alps, Bern and Marrakech.
This was a key challenge for Gail Egan of Potboiler Productions, who produced the film with Le Carre’s sons, Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell of The Ink Factory. Potboiler enjoys a long-standing relationship with Le Carre, having previously produced The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man.
Scriptwriter Hossein Amini boarded the project before the book was even published in 2010, working closely with Le Carre on the first couple of drafts. “His books are tricky adaptations. They deal with complex subjects and have lots of characters, all of them with journeys of their own,” says Egan, who secured backing from Film4 and StudioCanal for the film.
From the outset, Egan says the overriding ambition of the production team was to be true to the essence of the book so it appeals to Le Carre core fans, while doing so in an entertaining way.
Susanna White was hired as director for Our Kind of Traitor, impressing Egan and her partners for the different genres she has previously tackled on screen – from Generation Kill to Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang to Parade’s End.
White says she ‘campaigned’ to get the job after reading the script. “It just works as a strong thriller in quite an un-Le Carre way – in some ways it is more of a Hitchcockian thriller than a traditional Le Carre.”
She was also drawn by the emotional core of the story – a tale of a modern marriage between Ewan McGregor and Naomi Harris’ characters, and how McGregor is won over by the magnetism of Russian mafia insider Dima (Stellan Skarsgard). “For me as a director, it flexes lots of muscles because I had done action and cgi in Generation Kill, but what I love about Le Carre is the depth of characterisation.”
White emphasises two key challenges in making the film: its technical complexity and the need to achieve emotional depth while making sure the complex plot was told at pace.
Both of these were exacerbated by the fact that the crew was always on the move, even shooting scenes while they were moving from location to location. “We got on the Eurostar to Paris, and packed our bags in one carriage and were shooting a scene in another carriage for real. There the pressure on me as director is not to let on to the actors how stressed I am – to make them feel calm and that they have all the time in the world to achieve their ideal performance.”
The look of the film was particularly important to White, who says she fought to get as many dramatic locations into the movie as she could. For example, it was initially mooted to film a key Russian exterior using snow effects in Windsor. “It was crucial to me that we opened the movie with these big Russian landscapes…to give that sense of scale. I didn’t give up until we were allowed to shoot for two days in Finland for that.” Many scenes are also shot from the air to compound the sense of scale and movement.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was also a key part of the production team, helping to create the rich visual world of the film. Dod Mantle, whose credits include Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, worked with multiple, sometimes hidden cameras to capture the fast-moving, cosmopolitan world of Our Kind of Traitor.
“An awful lot of this film is moving,” he says. “I had to structure and package my equipment and to minimalise the stuff I use, including the lenses, because we had to move so often so fast, so quickly and in such small spaces.” His kit list included the Alexa XT and Canon C500 (see opposite for full kit).
Post production, acknowledges White, took “quite a long time” – some ten months in all, and also involved a number of pick ups. “Thrillers are very hard to do – you just have to keep it moving and can’t let people question things too long. It was all about finding the right balance between giving depth to the characters and keeping Le Carre’s complex plot moving forward.”
Our Kind of Traitor is released on May 13
Based on the John Le Carre book, Our Kind of Traitor is the story of an English couple who befriend a charismatic Russian, who unknown to them is a key money launderer for the Russian mafia. When he asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services, they get caught in a dangerous world of international espionage and dirty politics.
Director Susanna White Script Hossein Amini Producers Gail Egan, Stephen Cornwell and Simon Cornwell Co-producer Jane Frazer Production designer Sarah Greenwood DoP Anthony Dod Mantle Cameras and lenses Alexa XT with Leica Summichrom C lenses; Canon C500 with Leica Summichrom C lenses; and Canon K35 vintage primes; Indiecam 2K with C mount lenses; Phantom Highspeed with Canon K35 mm vintage primes. Editors Tariq Anwar, Lucia Zucchetti Grading Goldcrest Sound Halo Vfx One of Us Cast Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris
One of the most striking facts to emerge from the Televisual Salary Survey is the discrepancy between median pay for men and women. This has been a persistent feature of the survey since it began, and shows no sign of improving. In fact, the gap – which stands at £12,500 – is worse than it was last year.
Median earnings are lower for women at most levels in the industry. A female AP at a TV indie can expect £32k, while a male AP is likely to earn £37k. A female producer has a median salary of £40k; for a man it is £46.5k. A female producer director will be on £54.6k, while a man is on £60k; for series producers it is £52.2k and £70k respectively.
Many women believe they are being paid less than their male counterparts. “There is a definite pay gap between males and females in production roles, particularly shooters,” says one female AP. A female editor adds: “I know for a fact they pay me less than my male counterparts.”
She is likely to be right. Our figures show that a female offline editor typically earns a media salary of £32.5k, while her male counterpart takes home £55k.
Tellingly, one of the few jobs where a woman is likely to earn more than a man is higher up the production foodchain, at executive producer level. A female executive producer can expect £95k, while a man earns a median salary of £87k.
If you want to earn good money in broadcasting and production, it helps if you are a man over 40 who works in London in commercials or independent TV. Televisual’s 21st annual Salary Survey reveals – once again – significant disparity in pay depending on gender, geography and genres.
For an industry that prides itself on being liberal and open, it is genuinely shocking to learn that men continue to earn more than women, bringing home a median salary of £50k versus £37.5k respectively (see separate story).
This is the case right across the spectrum, with Salary Survey figures showing that men tend to earn more than women in similar jobs as diverse as assistant producer, editors, production managers, producer directors, producers and series producers.
Workers in London also earn more than their counterparts in the nations and regions. The median pay in London is £47.4k, while in Manchester it is £35.8k and £45k in Bristol and Glasgow. Perhaps less surprisingly, pay increases with experience, with median salaries crossing the £60k mark once people are in their 40s.
On a positive note, the median salary for people working in this industry is £45k, significantly above the national median wage of £27.5k. A majority of respondents also say that their pay has gone up in the past year, with 47% saying their salaries have risen, compared to 38% saying they have stayed the same and 15% reporting a decline.
Many report that the industry is busy, with plenty of shows in production helping to support levels of pay. One drama editor on £55k says: “Not only did I work more weeks last year, but my rate was marginally up too.”
Despite a widespread perception that both budgets and wages are decreasing, one reality TV producer says he was surprised that after ten years in the industry he was ‘finally able to force an increase in my rate.”
That said, such positive feedback to the Salary Survey is few and far between. Most commentary focuses on four concerns; flatlining wages; the salary gap between those at the top and the bottom of the industry; the imbalance between male vs. female pay; and working conditions that mean long hours but no overtime.
The long hours culture of the industry is regularly commented on, with many complaining that this is effectively driving down their real rates of pay. “There is no work life balance and we are all having to work evenings, weekends and Bank Holidays regularly for no extra pay,” say one researcher on £22k who accuses indies of ‘continuing to exploit workers.’
An edit producer who earned £55k last year says: “The level of work expected and the amount of hours put in are definitely not reflected in our wages. You don’t get over time or sick pay. As an experienced producer who’s now worked in TV for over 13 years I think pay has risen very little. You constantly have to fight for your rate.”
An AP on £29k has his own take on the root cause of the overtime culture in TV: “The absolute biggest problem is the phrase “That’s just telly though” being used to excuse every exploitation. There’s a Grapes of Wrath type mentality in the industry that needs to change; the mentality that it’s such a sought after industry to work in and if you don’t do it there’s always someone who will do it for cheaper”.
Many also say there is a kind of stigma attached to asking for what you’re worth – particularly for overtime. Says one freelance editor: “Everyone expects you will sit in the edit until 2am because you ‘love your job.’”
Many complain of the discrepancy in pay between production staff and unionised technical jobs in cameras and sound. A production co-ordinator on £26k says. “Production staff are incredibly underpaid, undervalued and overworked compared to the ‘technical’ jobs in the industry. Many colleagues like myself are jaded and looking to get out of the industry to do something that gives us more money or time to live our lives.”
Many contributors to the survey report that their pay has flatlined in recent years, blaming static or falling programme budgets. “Production managers and executives are using the ‘low budget’ excuse to increase hours and keep pay low,” says one researcher. “Salaries seem to have stayed the same for 10 years for most roles, but the workload has increased with budgets getting smaller but content ambitions getting bigger,” explains a production manager.
In effect, this means a pay cut because of rises in the cost of living, with many contributors pointing out that their wages are down 15-25% in real terms. “My rate has remained static for three years and I have to fight for every contract,” says one series producer on £54k.
Notably, the Salary Survey has plenty of comments from freelancers working in the Bristol TV industry who complain that the market has been ‘all but stagnant for a number of years now’ with the BBC in particular seen to be imposing unofficial rate caps and refusing to negotiate on rates.
Indeed, there is widespread anxiety among Salary Survey participants about what exactly they should charge, in the absence on any commonly agreed standards. Greater transparency on rates is needed, argues an AP. “It feels like they are determined by production managers whispering to each other. There needs to be some sort of routine and authoritative third party clarification of going rates, to take the power out of management’s hands. I wish Bectu were more proactive on this front.”
There is also plenty of commentary about the disparity in pay between those at the top and bottom of the career ladders.
One md (on £100k) of an indie making high volume series for the BBC and ITV acknowledges: “Creatives are being squeezed the most with falling budgets. The only way for us to make things work is to pay management less.” Adds another head of production (on £100k): “There are a lot of people at the top making huge sums and yet the people at the bottom still slog it out on £25-30k for many years. I’d like to see average junior wages rise.” Many argue junior staff are the ones taking the hit for programme budget falls – while those at the top and particularly talent are protected.
Indeed, running throughout much of the commentary is a general exasperation at some people’s treatment at the hands of some companies in production. One edit assistant at a TV indie describes the predicament facing many junior staff well: “I’m in a fortunate position to have been able to turn down jobs for the following reasons: 1. ‘We don’t do lunch. A runner will bring lunch at your desk’. 2. ‘You’re paid until midnight, but we expect you to stay until the work is done, which may be 7am’. 3. Contracts that pay 45 hours, but include an Opt Out of the EU Working Time Directive. 4. Jobs with OK salaries, but on a “Freelance” (0 hours basis), with no guarantee of work.”
How the Salary Survey works
Televisual emailed readers asking them to respond anonymously to our online salary survey. We asked what they were paid in 2015, and details about their age, gender and job. We had 717 responses in all.
The annual figures quoted in the article are based on median earnings. The survey skews towards Televisual’s readership, which tends to reflect more senior levels of the business. Respondents had a median age of 36. 57% were male, and 43% female.
46% worked full time for a single employer, 50% were freelance, 3% part time and 1% unemployed. 49% worked in indie TV production, 18% in post production, 18% at a broadcaster, 5% in corporate, 3% in commercials and 2% in a facility.
Sky’s The Five was created by two of the biggest names in publishing and TV: author Harlan Coben and producer Nicola shindler
With over 60 million books in print worldwide, Harlan Coben is one of the most high profile thriller writers at work today. Yet despite having 28 page-turning novels to his name such as Tell No One, No Second Chance and Gone for Good, the New Jersey-based author’s work had never – until recently – made it to the small screen.
But he was specifically targeted by Red Production to help them create new drama series The Five for Sky. Red founder Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Queer as Folk) recalls: “We started having conversations with the Sky drama team about how you do a thriller on TV which has the same impact as a thriller you read, where instead of staying up to read the next chapter you have to watch the next episode.”
Red head of development Richard Fee then suggested approaching a thriller writer to help plot such a story, which could then be taken on by a scriptwriter. “We put together a top ten list of writers to work with, and Harlan was at number one,” says Shindler.
So Red approached him via his agent. Within two hours of getting in touch, Coben himself emailed straight back saying he had an idea. ‘Do you want to hear it?’, he asked.
Coben, speaking over the phone from the US, picks up the story: “I had this idea playing in my head, and I was going to write it as a novel, but I always saw it too visually to be a novel.”
He outlined the basics straightaway: a story about four friends, one of whom’s brother goes missing; twenty years later, one of the friends is a policeman and discovers that the young brother’s DNA has been found at a crime scene, suggesting that he is alive.
“That was such a good, gripping start that we said yes straight away,” says Shindler, who then travelled to New York with Fee to meet Coben.
Over the course of a two day visit, Coben talked through the storyline. And Shindler was impressed: “He always knew the ending. He had a brilliant opening, but then he has to know the ending too, otherwise he can’t start writing. It’s really unusual for a writer. Lots of them could learn from that.”
Shindler and Fee came away with a five page document outlining the story. “We then had to turn it into a ten part television series,” adds Shindler.
Danny Brocklehurst (The Driver, Clocking Off) was brought on board to write the script for The Five. The pair clearly got on well: “Danny brought a great sense of pace and a fantastic understanding of how to break things up to tell the story. Our mantra throughout this show was to not make it too timid,” says Coben. For his part, Brocklehurst would read a different book of Coben’s before writing each episode to get a feel for the way he tells stories.
Coben was involved throughout the scriptwriting process. “We would tell him that we have 20 minutes when nothing happens in episode seven, and he would go away and then throw ten ideas at you. It was a great way of working,” says Shindler.
The Five is set in the UK and filmed in and around Liverpool and Cheshire. A fan of British dramas such as Happy Valley, Coben says seeing his story through a foreign lens adds a whole new element to his typically US-based dramas.
Shindler explains that one of the big challenges of producing The Five was its scale. “We have never done ten hours before. And a single story over ten hours is really tough.” The budget was bigger than she is used to, with Sky’s investment topped up by a pre-sale to Canal Plus and backing from distributor StudioCanal, the parent company of Red.
The brief from Sky was to produce a show that would sit well with its American imports. So the production team aimed for a cinematic look to the drama to lend a sense of scale and ambition. “The storytelling is a little bit heightened, certainly in comparison with Happy Valley, and I think you need the visuals to go with that,” notes Shindler.
She credits director Mark Tonderai for creating the cinematic look of the series. Unusually, he directed the entire series – shooting for 127 days between March and October 2015. “It was incredibly difficult for Mark, but it really paid off for us because we had such a single, strong voice on it.” The Five was shot in blocks of two episodes at a time. “We had a two week break between each block where Mark recced for the next block and did a bit of editing. And we were editing while filming. It was like he worked 24 hours a day.”
Looking back, Coben says he enjoyed making the switch from books to TV; he even makes a guest appearance as a waiter in one episode: “I’ve never collaborated in my life as I write novels, but with The Five everyone had their own ideas to add in a positive way.”
The Five is on Sky 1 from April 15th at 9pm
The Five is a ten part drama about four friends, Mark, Pru, Danny and Slade. When they were 12 years old, Mark’s five-year-old brother Jesse was bothering them so they told him to get lost. Jesse ran away. He was never seen again. Twenty years later, Danny - now a detective - learns thatJesse’s DNA has been found at a murder scene.
Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach, Sky
Nicola Shindler, Red Production Co; Harlan Coben; Cameron Roach
Paulo Pandolpho, Celia Haining, John Murphy
c/o Face North VFX
Sports indie Whisper Films has stepped up a gear with its F1 coverage for Channel 4. Tim Dams talks to co-founder Sunil Patel
A good start. That seems to be the verdict of most Formula One fans to Channel 4’s coverage of the sport since it took over from the BBC last month.
Viewers seemed to like C4’s new presenting line up, which includes drivers David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Susie Wolff and Karun Chandhok as well as presenters Steve Jones and Lee McKenzie.
Before the launch, C4 stressed the diversity of its new F1 presenting team, and talked up its history of innovating in sports TV, notably with Test Cricket and the Paralympics. “We have a unique ability to innovate with live sports coverage, and we are going to do the same again with Formula One,” said chief creative officer Jay Hunt.
However, few viewers thought that C4 had reinvented F1 coverage after watching its debut coverage at the Australian Grand Prix. That’s hardly surprising given that sports indie Whisper Films had less than 10 weeks to put together its coverage for C4. The indie won a competitive tender from C4, which picked up free-to-air rights to F1 in December when a cash-strapped BBC pulled out of its deal three years early.
The fact that Whisper is minority owned by C4 through its Growth Fund raised a few eyebrows at the time. However, C4 insists the tender process was properly managed. A C4 insider adds that the Growth Fund was specifically designed to back fledgling indies like Whisper, particularly in markets such as TV sport where barriers to entry are high and the sector is dominated by two players, IMG and Sunset + Vine.
Whisper was launched in 2010 and is run by former BBC Sports producer Sunil Patel, presenter Jake Humphries and former F1 driver David Coulthard.
To date, Whisper’s programming includes films for brands within F1 such as Red Bull, UBS and Shell; short films for the BBC; highlights programming for ITV; and a doc for BBC1, Racing With The Hamiltons: Nic In The Driving Seat. But the F1 contract takes it to a new level. Now employing 25 people, Whisper last year relocated from Ealing Studios to larger premises in Power Road Studios, Chiswick.
Patel says Whisper’s immediate priority for its F1 coverage is to “be credible and deliver the sport”. He adds: “We are not going to take it off into a new direction that is going to upset existing fans.”
“David Coulthard is there week in week out to be your comfort blanket, then we layer around him people who have absolute credibility – whether it be [technical analyst and Formula Asia Championship winner] Karun Chandok, [Williams F1 test driver] Suzie Woolf or [former F1 champion] Alain Prost.”
Looking ahead, Patel says he’s keen for Whisper’s coverage to bring a new audience to F1. “C4 stand for innovation, and that is where we will be pushing.” And that, he explains, is about “how we come on air, how we present the graphics, the talent line up, different voices and different opinions.”
Whisper is limited in how it can present the races as it takes core coverage from a world feed produced by Formula One Management (FOM). So any innovations will take place around the edges of its race coverage, particularly in VTs.
In particular, Patel thinks Whisper lift the production values of its F1 coverage. He praises the BBC’s coverage of F1 (which he used to work on). But he believes that F1 was ‘slightly underloved’ at the BBC, not by the people working on it, but at a wider level where it was seen as an expensive sport to produce for a niche audience.
By contrast, and speaking just before Sky snatched all rights to F1 from 2019, Patel insists that Whisper “has got C4’s backing to really go for it. The channel are really behind us.”
Whisper is shooting features to accompany the races on Sony F5 cameras “to give a Whisper feel” to all packages. The ‘Whisper feel’, he explains, is cinematic, high-end and glossy.
He says such a look is a calling card for Whisper. “In a relatively short space of time, we have created a production company that is well known for producing high end sports content – whether motor sport, American football, tennis or football. Whatever we do, we will do in a cinematic way.”
Other technical innovations have seen the Whisper production team move editing platforms from Final Cut 7 to Adobe Premier Pro. “Premier Pro has more bells and whistles to it. It lends itself to quicker workflows.”
The decision to switch editing platform was taken the day after Whisper won the F1 contract, adding to the challenge of producing the coverage. Says Patel: “We were also covering the Superbowl for BBC2 and BBC1 while setting up what we are doing on Formula 1. It’s been a busy and exiting time…and it’s been challenging.”
Whisper Films CV
Whisper Films was launched by David Coulthard, Sunil Patel, and Jake Humphrey (pictured) in 2010
Patel was previously a producer for BBC Sport where he worked on Euro 2008, Match of the Day, the Olympics, Wimbledon, The Open and Formula 1 coverage. He has also worked at Sky and IMG.
Coulthard is a former Formula 1 racing driver who won 13 Grand Prix during his career. He is now a pundit and commentator for F1.
TV presenter and journalist Jake Humphrey is the presenter of BT Sport football coverage and previously presented BBC Sport’s Formula 1 coverage from 2009-2012.
Three leading DoPs reveal the secrets of their craft, and explain the techniques they used to create hits like War and Peace, The Night Manager and The Secret Life of Twins
WAR AND PEACE
(Credits: War and Peace, Peaky Blinders, The Honourable Woman, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death)
You start off wanting to do the edgiest stuff you can do. [Director] Tom Harper and I wanted to reinvent Tolstoy. In the end you realise the real satisfaction is in telling the story in a simple but beautiful way. We set out to do something that would appeal to the BBC1 viewer.
I had six weeks prep which is probably not enough for something as mammoth as War and Peace. But you start where you start – and that’s at the script and we went through it scene by scene, working out what can we do here and what can we do there. You construct an ethos or an approach for connecting to the script visually.
We wanted it to be slightly old fashioned and referential to the old productions. But we also wanted it to be modern and fresh. Visually we wanted a simplicity to it – a Russianness if you like. The simplicity of Russian film is what makes it so special.
The way we lit the series changed as the story got progressively darker. Over time it became slightly grittier, with more contrast, less colour. It started off very colourful, and we eased the colour out.
We started episode one in St Petersberg. At that time, it was the most modern of cities. We wanted it to be glitzy, rich, glistening and very glossy looking.
In the grade, we started off in a direction that was quite Russian and quite dark. But you don’t want to alienate your audience. So, as hesitant as I was to change the look, we did change it, to make it brighter and more accessible.
Colour was really important to the story. I love colour. But in period photography you are slightly limited in your sources, to firelight and candles, so there’s a limited palette of colours. But I was keen, because people had such amazing costumes, to keep the colour in it – and not for it to become de-saturated. Lots of people use de-saturation as a short cut for filmic, but I don’t believe that is true. I believe what is filmic and cinematic can be still colourful.
We used the Alexa XT. We shot using 1970s Kowa anamorphic lenses which we cropped out into 16.9. I like the slight aberration of the anamorphic lens. It gives you a bit of a period look in that things are not entirely faithful and they are slightly different.
We shot most of it at T4 [focal length stop], because I wanted a bit of depth of field. It is very trendy nowadays to shoot very wide open, with a shallow focus. I don’t particularly like that – I find it distracting and gimmicky. And, when you have great actors, you don’t want to miss anything. An actor like Paul Dano likes to bob and weave – he’s a hard actor to keep in shot. It’s that sponteneity that makes him great, so you don’t want to be worried about him being in focus as well.
We shot lots on sticks, a dolly and a gimbal. This helped give a classical feel. We only shot handheld in the battle, just for flexibility. And we shot the Rostov family all handheld, to give them a slightly different edge so they were slightly more bohemian. But it was also about creating a difference. We shot the Bolkonsky’s in their grand palace on a dolly and sticks. For it to be effective you need to chop against something. The Rostovs were meant to be the people we related to more.
The inner life of the characters in the book is the hardest thing to depict. For the most part it was shot single camera, but we did have a second camera, and we were always ready to shoot if we spotted something – such as sky, snow or shadows.
The reason I am a DoP is to photograph what actors can do. It doesn’t matter what distractions or explosions there are. If there is no emotional core there, there is no point.
The job of the DoP is to give the actors the most comfortable environment in which to be able to do what they do. Being an actor has got to be one of the hardest things in the world. Everyone thinks they can be an actor. But when you see what great actors can do, you realise how special it is.
You have got to create an environment where it is as stress free as possible. So on a practical level, you shouldn’t create an environment where an actor can’t move more than three inches without having to be relit. You should light the set and let them walk around. And if they go dark, they go dark.
In my mind there is no division between me, the director, crew and actors; we are one. We are creating something together.
Being a DoP is not just about practical skills. It is about who you have become, why you are that person, and why you decide put your little spin on the visual. Good cinematography is something you feel not necessarily see.
THE NIGHT MANAGER
(Credits: The Night Manager, The British, Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent)
When I read the initial scripts, I was immediately drawn to the huge ambition they portrayed. The images that presented themselves in my head were no short of spectacular.
I have been fortunate to work with [director] Susanne [Bier] on a few projects prior to The Night Manager. We have a well-earned creative trust in one another.
Our art director, Tom Burton, had done some initial groundwork on the locations. We began collaborating on the scripts, which set us on a location hunt through Europe for roughly six weeks of conceptualizing and brainstorming ideas. I continuously fed this information back to Susanne for some consensus as her knowledge of Europe and its nooks and crannies is so profound. The puzzle slowly started to come together. The journey through Europe was visually so important to grasp the atmosphere of these locations and then to translate them into the script. It gave me a good sense of where this film should live cinematically.
Being a DOP is a bit like being a chameleon. Each project is so different from the next and you continually have to re-invent yourself. Initially, everyone interprets a script differently and I like to just listen and draw from that. It’s a very interesting exercise to do. You will be amazed how different people visualise things. The art is to take from that what you can and interpret it in your own way visually, draw from your experience and with collaboration put it on the screen.
My approach right from the outset was to treat The Night Manager as a feature film and to try to service the ambition and scale that the scripts deserved. Trying to fit the complex nature of the scripts into a schedule and then realising our budget was not without its challenges.
At the outset I was concerned about the pitfalls of lighting and photographing (operating a camera) such a huge and complex script. I was always aware not to fall into that trap of compromising the look and feel of the show “just to get it done”; actually in hindsight, it put me inside the story, it put me into our amazing casts’ every action, nuance and subtlety that they so brilliantly portray.
I use both Alexa and Red. For me it is about what you want to achieve out of the script and what it demands. The Night Manager was so diverse and vast I really enjoyed using the Red Dragon. There is a certain ‘organicness’ that is created by this camera that I felt would be great for the story. I have had a great relationship with the camera. I can shoot in very low light with the Dragon sensor. I know how the pictures work and how to work them in post -production. We ran two cameras most of the time to get that “off angle” that is so appealing.
There were so many different worlds in the scripts that it presented me with the opportunity to treat each location with a different look and feel. It came down to how the lighting should work, how the camera should move and how the relationships between the characters developed.
It was important to us not to be contrived but to rather find the subtlety in our approach of TNM. All the creatives were on board with this concept.
Zermatt, London, Devon, Cairo, Istanbul and Mallorca all are so diverse from one another. We doubled Morocco for Cairo due to the present instability in Cairo and Mallorca for Istanbul for schedule purposes. The logistics involved were a constant challenge.
One of our major challenges was our demanding schedule, which was in constant flux due to the mere logistics involved. There was a lot of improvisation that took place and changes were constant, it was demanding on all the assistant directors involved to make our seemingly impossible schedule work. I think when we finally reached Mallorca there was a huge sense of relief amongst everyone.
THE SECRET LIFE OF TWINS
(Credits: The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants)
In The Secret Life of Twins, we were looking at identical twins, so any location that was evocative of symmetry was key to us. We looked for those mirror opposites on locations. More than any shoot I have done, my response on Twins was more to shape that it was to lighting.
We decided not to use handheld. I love handheld – you can be very responsive and the camera can be anywhere you want it to be. But what one has to sign up for with handheld is its visual signature, the camera’s point of view and presence in every image. For the audience it is not invisible or neutral. It is why someone like David Fincher doesn’t like handheld – he loves camera movement but he doesn’t want the heavy-handed signature of handheld.
I used a fairly obscure set of Russian lenses, Lumatech Illumina. I discovered them through a commercial I’d done. They are extraordinary, and flare like hell. They were perfect for Twins, but I haven’t used them since. They hit the right note for that project.
Over the last five years I have increasingly, and now almost exclusively, used the Red Epic – its most recent manifestation being the Weapon and the Dragon prior to that. I like the ergonomics of the small camera. I think Arri have now got there with the Mini, which is a brilliant camera too.
I love shooting in Raw. With my background as a stills photographer I have existed in the world of Raw colour space for a long time, and I can’t go back. I just think with a 16bit colour space – even if I ‘bake’ a look in for a given project – that Raw is always there as a sort of negative. You have enormous latitude that you can retain in post if you want but also throw away if you don’t want to.
In the doc world, I live on Angenieux zoom lenses. I use the Optimas, the shorter zooms. I am not really a fan of zoom lenses as lots of DoPs aren’t – with good reason. But Angenieux are the exception to that – they are every bit as good as the prime lenses I like. I’m also not sure any lens flares as beautifully.
When it comes to primes, my go to lenses are Master Primes. I would definitely point to Emmanuel Lubezki’s sensational work at the moment. His current style has a lot to do with the wide Master Primes he is using. I love what he is doing. I look at The Revenant, that very close up, close focus, extreme wide angle work – and don’t think he could do it on any other lens other than Master Primes. The lack of distortion and extreme geometry in them allows you to get very close to someone without distorting them in a way that some wide angles do. In many ways, I think they are the most naturalistic of lenses.
A lot of lensed have too much ‘lens’ in them. Vintage anamorphics are perhaps the most distinctive case of that. To my taste there is possibly too much anamorphic at the moment. I love using them on promos or fashion pieces. But for drama or something more ‘real world’, I find the ‘lens’ in them often too much with their horizontal flares and barrelling. I often find it too heavy handed a signature and it can take me out of the piece.
Channel 4 CEO David Abraham tells Tim Dams that privatising the broadcaster would damage the UK’s creative economy
Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham has run the broadcaster since 2010. From the depths of the credit crunch, he has steered C4 through a period of change that culminated last month in it winning the Channel of the Year prize at the Broadcast Awards.
Against this background, the government is weighing up options for C4, including privatisation, in a move that could raise £1bn. Abraham was interviewed on stage by Televisual editor Tim Dams at last month’s Broadcast Video Expo.
Given such a challenging TV landscape, isn’t the government right to seek a buyer for C4? “I have worked all my life in the private sector. Private ownership produces great media. But I am also a believer in what people describe in the UK as a special landscape where we have a mixed ecology – a BBC funded by the licence fee, Sky by subscription, and commercial broadcasters with public service licences like ITV, C4 and C5. In the case of C4, the model is set in stone, in government legislation. We have a remit and it is pretty specific: it says we should operate as a partnership broadcaster – we shouldn’t have inhouse production and should be a stimulant to the independent production sector. So all of the revenue we make from advertising gets spent with 100s of companies. We raise money in the private sector and spend it in the private sector, but spend in a way that helps both the creative economy of the UK and stimulates the viewer…To put Channel 4 News on for an hour at 7pm is not a commercial decision.”
What would happen if C4 went into private ownership? “If we were fully privately owned, [the new owners] would probably stick to the things we do for a while. But, in the end, to improve our profitability – which we would be obliged to do by our shareholders – we would probably look to slice away at that over time. That has been the history of how public service licences have been gamed over time. If you go back to ITV 25 years ago they had a much more onerous public service licence than today.”
You’ve said that a privatised C4 would have to cut costs to deliver profit margins of over 20%? “It is not just the amount of spend, it is how we spend it. Our breakout shows have often been the result of being able to stick with an idea through thick and thin and see it grow. We can afford to be a little bit more patient than you normally would do.”
What would the impact on indie production be? “Some analysts have said that of the £600m or so we spend, there are about 19,000 jobs connected to the work that C4 does. You have to assume that quite a significant proportion of the jobs would be at risk if we cut our budgets back. ITV work with less than 100 production companies, we work with over 300. You can see how we would have to change our behavior.”
Where are we in the process now? “C4 exists as a statutory corporation through primary legislation. So if the government gets to the point where it feels it is the right thing to do, there would have to be a debate in parliament, a vote and undoubtedly it would go through the Lords. We’re quite early in the process.”
But has C4 a long-term future on its own, given the changing viewing habits of younger viewers? “In a good way, that is what keeps us awake at night. The performance of the business over the last 20 years in responding to various changes has been quite good. We were very early on with digital channels: Film4 and E4 went ahead of the ITV and BBC digital channels. We have a very similar overall share today that we had 20 years ago. More recently what we have done is focused on the central question, which is really one of disintermediation... I was determined that we went on a journey to connect to individual viewers. When you go to All4, you are invited to register. That gives us a great relationship to more viewer behavior, and allows us to personalise what you are watching. We are seeing very strong growth in demand for online video because we have quality video and also have first class data. We now have 13m people in the UK registered with us.”
What percentage of C4 revenues come from online? “It’s getting towards 10% of our total revenue. We have already been through one revolution. About a third of our revenue comes from our digital channels, which didn’t exist at the beginning. So we have gone through three big stages of evolution; one was analogue single channel to portfolio; second was digital catch up services; and now All4 as a data-driven multiplatform service.”
1984 Begins career at ad agency Benton and Bowles, going on to found St Lukes 2001 General manager of Discovery UK 2005 President of TLC at Discovery USA 2007 CEO of UKTV 2010 CEO of Channel 4
On US ownership of UK TV companies: “In America you can’t own a big media asset unless you are an American citizen. They are quite happy to protect their own assets, but we are a smaller country with a more open market”
On BBC3’s move online: “We believe in a flexi-linear future. To make shows famous, you are often best off putting them on a terrestrial channel to get people to sample them.”
On commissioning: “Genres don’t operate in silos any more. Our genre teams share ideas at early stages together. Some of most distinctive shows have been the result of counterintuitive choices between genres.
Abraham was speaking at BVE in a session arranged by industry charity the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund (CTBF)