For Spy In The Wild, John Downer Productions infiltrated the animal world with 30 robotic creatures kitted out with miniature cameras
John Downer Productions has built a business out of covertly filming animals with spy cameras. Back in 2000, Bristol-based JDP invented a ‘boulder-cam’ to film intimate shots of a pride of lions for Lion – Spy in the Den. A year later, a ‘dung-cam’ did the same for elephants, while an iceberg-cam captured polar bears in 2010. More recently, Penguins – Spy in the Huddle took the concept a stage further by creating animatronic penguins to infiltrate colonies of the birds.
Yet Spy in the Wild is on a different scale entirely. It’s not just a single species film. For this 5x60-min series, JDP has built 34 different animatronic spy creatures – from crocodiles to hippos, wild dogs, orangutans, langur monkeys and parrots. “It is a genuine step on from what you have seen before with John’s Spy series,” says BBC head of natural history commissioning Tom McDonald.
However, like its predecessors, Spy in the Wild is also “full of new revelations and insight in to the natural world,” says McDonald. Many of these come from close observation of animal family life that the robotic animals capture.
The first episode, for example, is subtitled love: it features prairie dogs rearing their young as part of an extended family, crocodiles tenderly caring for their hatchlings, and a chimpanzee befriending an abandoned kitten in some of the first footage ever captured of cross species rearing.
In particular, the series sheds a light on the similarities in behaviour between animals and humans. Endowing animals with human emotion used to be frowned upon by scientists. But that has changed over the past ten years, says Downer. “You can’t spend any time with animals without realising that so much of what they do is so much like us. It’s inevitable really. We are animals.”
Needless to say, making Spy in the Wild has not been easy. Each of the robotic animals is bespoke and takes up to nine months to make. Downer won’t put a price on each one, but says they are all expensive. “Every one that is destroyed is a disaster for us.”
The crocodile-cam, for example, has to be able to walk along a riverbank, clamber into the water and to swim – while being able to film and look lifelike enough not to alarm other crocodiles. Its carbon fibre skeleton was built by a bio robotics laboratory in Switzerland, while its exterior was created in London.
Producer Rob Pilley say it is an ‘industrial process’ to build the animals, encompassing robotics, programming and aesthetics. “You have to make them functional, practical and beautiful.”
Inside are remote controlled miniature cameras, shooting in 4K, and often hidden in the eye sockets of the animatronics. Producer Matthew Gordon says the cameras come from a wide range of manufacturers, but have been stripped down and modified to fit inside the spy creatures.
Deploying such expensive kit in the wild can be a fraught process, with producers fearful that it will be destroyed in an instant by suspicious animals. “It’s nerve wracking,” admits Downer.
So the team went to great lengths to make sure this doesn’t happen. A prairie dog cub, for example, was programmed to be able to make submissive signs – like wagging its tale, moving its ears and play bowing – so it would not be torn apart by the pack. The robotic meerkat, meanwhile, had meerkat poo rubbed on it so it would carry the scent of the group. In the end, only a few were destroyed, such as a spy tortoise crushed by an elephant. “We lost a lot less than we thought we would,” says Downer.
The team also had to choose very carefully where to place the hidden cameras. Chimps, for example, are very unpredictable so the filming team worked closely with local scientists to work out the places they might frequent. When placing the robotic animals, they had to be aware of their own safety as well as trying not to upset the animals. Pilley, for example, says he would wait till the heat of midday to place an animatronic crocodile egg inside a crocodile’s nest as that was the moment the mother crocodile would seek refuge in the river from the hot African sun.
The robotic animals weren’t the only ones filming each scene. Up to ten cameras at a time – from boulder-cams, dung-cams to termite mound-cams would also be placed in situ to contribute footage, as well as a long lens camera. “We can cut between them to get lots of different angles, which you can’t do in natural history very often,” says Downer.
Each animatronic shoot was a huge undertaking in its own right. JDP filmed for six weeks with langur monkeys in India, shooting from dawn till dusk each day. This meant, of course, lots of footage. The production team recorded 8,000 hours in total. “It’s quite a record as far as we are concerned,” says Pilley. “And of course you have to go through it all.”
Spy in the Wild airs on BBC1 on 12 January
Spy In The Wild deployed 34 ultra-realistic animatronic Spy Creatures to go undercover in the animal world, filming their behaviour.
They included: Spy Orangutan, Spy Sea Otter, Spy Sloth, Spy Wild Dog pup, Spy Hippo, Spy Meerkat, Spy Macaw and Spy Rattlesnake. The series shot in 31 locations in 21 countries, and took three years to film, completing nearly 800 filming days.
John Downer Productions BBC commissioner
Tom McDonald BBC executive
Lucinda Axelsson Exec producer
John Downer Series producers
Rob Pilley Series director
John Downer Editors
Imogen Pollard Composer
Will Gregory Narrator
This article first appeared in Televisual's January 2017 edition. To get your copy of the magazine, email email@example.com
In an era when plenty of UK animation is farmed out abroad, We’re Going Bear Hunt stands out. C4’s Christmas special has a classic, timeless and very British feel – so it comes as a pleasant surprise to find the 30-min special has been produced by a crew of up to 100 working out of producer Lupus Films’ Islington HQ.
Lupus previously produced C4’s The Snowman and The Snowdog. Like that film, Bear Hunt is a 2D, hand drawn animation. However, there is a big difference. Bear Hunt was not hand drawn on paper but onto computer screens using TV Paint software. Many of the backgrounds were painted traditionally onto paper (and then scanned in), but the animation and colouring were done digitally.
It made the production process a lot quicker, says producer Ruth Fielding. It is a point echoed by co-director Robin Shaw, who was also the art director on Lupus’ recent feature animation Ethel & Ernest. “Technology has made it easier and faster,” he says. But, he adds, it can also present difficulties. “You can go completely down the wrong alley if you are not careful.” In particular, there was a risk that the animators, liberated by the technology, might put too much energy and detail into their scenes. He compares it to an actor who might overact.
Throughout, therefore, the mantra was to “keep it simple”, says fellow director Joanna Harrison, so that the story could shine through. “We wanted it to be a totally natural animation – no cartoony stuff, no anime – so the animation didn’t get in the way of the story.”
Harrison began developing the story last September. In many ways, she had to completely reinvent the book, expanding what is a very short tale into a script with enough story for a 23-minute animation. “You start with the book,” she says. “But books don’t translate very well into films. So you have to expand the story.”
Harrison began her animation career on classic 1982 animation The Snowman. “I wanted to make another film like that – one that really touches people’s hearts and that you can be proud of.”
Shaw expands, saying the ambition was to make “something that would be evocative of family films of yesteryear, classic children’s films like Swallows and Amazons and Whistle Down the Wind, full of children actually being centre stage and allowed to be unsupervised and to get into situations that aren’t necessarily the safest situations.” Shaw continues: “Jo and I determined right from the start that it was going to be done in a certain way.” Because once you start, there is no turning back, adds Harrison, likening animation to “a great big tanker” where it is hard to change course midway through.
Once development (the treatment, script and basic character design) was completed, pre-production kicked in with the construction of storyboards, recording of the voices (Olivia Colman, Pam Ferris and Mark Williams), the production of the animatic (which sees the storyboard panels edited together with timing and sound) and the start of sound design and music as well as detailed character and location design.
Production itself began in earnest in March. In total, some 30 animators worked on the series, with each individual animator having a target of five seconds of animation a week – which means about 12-15 drawings in a day.
Production was carried out in stages at Lupus Films, whose Islington HQ has enough room for about 50 staff at a time. When Televisual visited, the building was crammed full of background artists, animators, animation assistants, editors and compositors. It’s a reminder that the biggest challenge in creating animation is organisational – bringing together all the work of every single crew member.
Lne producer Isobel Stenhouse stresses the complexity of each stage. She picks out the work of the 24 animation assistants – many of whom are recent animation graduates and have been trained up to work on the film – who clean and in-between the animators’ original drawings. “It is seen as an assisting role, but you are not really assisting anyone at all…there is a very high level of draughtsmanship involved,” says Stenhouse.
She also flags up the work of the compositors, who bring together all the final elements and who apply camera moves, textures, additional FX and lighting. “It is probably the hardest task in here,” says Stenhouse. “People don’t really understand what goes into it.”
In fact, this is true of the entire process. Like so many great animations, the deceptively simple end result masks an incredibly complex and time-consuming production process.
Four years after it premiered The Snowman and The Snowdog to an audience of over 11m, C4 returns with a new Christmas animation. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, based on the children’s classic written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, is produced by the makers of The Snowman and The Snowdog, Lupus Films.
Broadcaster Channel 4 Production A Lupus Films Production in association with Bear Hunt Films, Walker Productions and Herrick Entertainment Producers Ruth Fielding, Camilla Deakin Exec producers Norton Herrick, Helen McAleer, Julia Posen Directors Robin Shaw, Joanna Harrison Art director Martin Oliver Head of storyboard Aaron Lampert Head of layout Richard Fawdry Head of compositing Chris Gavin Editor Richard Overall Line producer Isobel Stenhouse Voice cast Olivia Colman, Pam Ferris, Mark Williams, Michael Rosen Music composed by Stuart Hancock ‘Me and You’ written and performed by George Ezra Post production Halo
Drama report: 2016 is the first year for Carnival Films without its global hit Downton Abbey. Md Gareth Neame tells Tim Dams what his indie has been up to
Under managing director Gareth Neame, Carnival Films has established itself as one of the UK’s elite drama production companies. With backing from owner NBC Universal, it has taken full advantage of the spectacular growth in demand for British-made drama from UK and international broadcasters.
Carnival’s global hit Downton Abbey bowed out on its sixth series on ITV last Christmas. “It is the first time in six or seven years we haven’t been producing Downton, so it has been quite a different year,” says Neame, reflecting on 2016. Nevertheless, Carnival has been busy. It won re-commissions for BBC2’s The Last Kingdom and Sky1 series Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. Carnival has also produced Sky’s upcoming Jamestown. Set in 1619, the eight-part drama charts the early days of the first British settlers in America.
Carnival’s full order book and the legacy of Downton helped it to generate £110m in revenues in the year to June 2016, making it the biggest drama producer in the UK (its nearest rival Left Bank, producer of The Crown, turned over £101m).
Such success no doubt contributed to Neame, a former head of BBC indie drama commissioning who joined Carnival in 2004, being appointed an OBE earlier this year for services to drama.
Despite this track record, Neame maintains that it is “still quite difficult” to sell ideas into broadcasters. He does admit, though, that seismic changes in the television market mean there are many more opportunities for drama producers than there were at the turn of the millennium.
He remembers the late 1990s as a “dark time” for British drama, and recalls watching the premiere of Survivor in 2000 which, along with Big Brother, ushered in the boom in reality TV. The production values, he remembers, were amazing. “Everyone at that point thought that drama was too expensive for the number of people that watched it, and that its days were numbered.”
However, Neame was subsequently credited with playing a key role in the renaissance of BBC TV drama, working with drama controller Jane Tranter. His credits included Spooks, Hustle, State of Play and Bodies. “I always had a vision for making classy, commercial, transatlantic shows.”
Since then, technology – specifically the launch of platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu – has helped to globalise the TV market, bringing UK drama to a worldwide audience. Neame points out that all of the key US buyers now have a presence in London, and know all about the latest UK shows and upcoming talent. “The Americans see the Anglophone world as one market, which they did not ten years ago.”
And they specifically like British drama serials, such as Downton Abbey, which played on PBS in the US and is understood to be Amazon’s most successful second run acquisition of all time.
International demand for drama serials, says Neame, plays to the strengths of the British authorial system, which has produced writers like Andrew Davies, Peter Moffat or Jed Mercurio. “We were always weaker at trying to do episodic, story of the week type things,” he explains.
He also says there are lots of benefits for UK producers like Carnival working with US-led global distributors such as NBC Universal. “Their rate card is very different,” he says, explaining that “they start from a different place” when it comes to financing shows. “A well made British show is as valuable to them as a well made US network show. There used to be a fundamental difference between the two, and there isn’t really now.”
Does that mean he always has to think of the international market when developing shows? “We are part of a very marketing and sales led company. So I suppose you are always thinking of distribution right from the beginning.”
But, says Neame, “I think I am just hoping to find an idea that travels.” He cites Jamestown, which he describes as a community drama about a group of people trying to get by in a particular (albeit very dangerous) precinct.
It’s during his description of the show that one starts to realise why he is such an effective advocate for his dramas. First he compares it to Downton. “The rules of engagement and context are different from Downton, but you still have a gang of characters who are trying to find romance, get on in their careers, make a name for themselves, make their fortune or survive.”
Then, he gets right to the heart of Jamestown’s likely appeal in both the UK and the US. “It’s about how the first Brits became the first Americans. As a show, it’s almost like a Western but with English actors.”
CV Education Seaford College, West Sussex; Birmingham University (English and Drama) 1988 Joins BBC drama production 2000 Head of BBC indpendent drama commissioning, responsible for shows such as Spooks, Hustle and Tipping the Velvet 2004 Joins Carnival Films as managing director 2008 Sells Carnival to NBC Universal 2010 Executive producer of Downton Abbey, winner of 15 Emmys and a Special BAFTA Award 2016 Appointed an OBE in 2016 Birthday Honours
Drama report: The drama boom has had many side effects, and right now one of the most challenging, say producers, is that there’s a shortage of experienced TV writers.
With fewer procedural, story of the week shows on air, there are fewer opportunities for writers to cut their teeth in writers’ rooms.
But broadcasters are nervous about taking a risk on newcomers for primetime dramas. “Because budgets are bigger, a lot of the time we are unable to give a break to a brand new writer,” admits Red Production’s Nicola Shindler.
It means there’s now a small group of highly in-demand, experienced writers who broadcasters want to commission to write their new shows. “Utlimately, there is only a very small pool of writers,” says Bandit Television md Phillippa Giles.
This group includes Paul Abbott (No Offence), Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster), Pete Bowker (Marvellous), Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies), Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), Andrew Davies (War and Peace), Russell T Davies (Cucumber), Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), Bill Gallagher (Paranoid), Tony Jordan (Dickensian), Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty), Kay Mellor (In the Club), Abi Morgan (River), Peter Morgan (The Crown), Peter Moffat (The Night Of), Steven Moffat (Sherlock), Ashley Pharoah (The Living and the Dead), Jack Thorne (National Treasure), Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing).
Drama report: ITV's drama boss Polly Hill says she wants great range on the channel
“Audience appetites are changing, and I want to reflect that,” says ITV’s new head of drama Polly Hill. The former BBC drama chief joined ITV a few months ago, and explains that she wants to “bring in huge authorship and drama that feels genuinely fresh and original.”
And that’s all about the writing, she says. “For me, it is about finding something that is fresh and finding a writer who has a story to tell.”
A fan of ITV shows Cold Feet and Victoria as well as US hits The Night Of, Stranger Things and The Walking Dead, Hill peppers her conversation with the word “range”. Asked what she makes of ITV director of TV Kevin Lygo’s call for “more fun and lightness” in TV drama, she says: “Kevin and I are in total agreement that we want a great range of drama on the channel. If you are going after a big audience, you have to be quite entertaining in the way you do it.” Shows can be really dark, but “you have to take audience with you.” Hill stresses: “What we are not going to do is make something deliberately niche.”
At a time when nearly all drama is serialised, she wonders if an episodic, story of the week type show might work. “We sometimes have to buck the fashion, go a different way.”
ITV commissions about 150 hours of drama a year. Hill says the biggest challenge she faces is cutting through in a crowded market. “I want extreme variety rather than everything in the middle and a bit similar...I am looking for great range and great differences between dramas.”
Drama report: The scripted boom has thrown up all sorts of challenges for drama producers, from rising costs to growing competition. Tim Dams on the reality of TV drama’s golden age
The boom in television drama is one of the big stories of 2016, a year in which big budget, British-made shows such as The Crown and The Night Manager have raised the bar in the scripted space. As we approach the end of the year, however, the real implications of the drama boom are becoming ever more apparent to those working in the industry. Many of these are positive but, as with any boom, there are downsides too.
Talk to any drama producer or commissioner, and they will acknowledge that the market feels buoyant. There has been a well-documented surge in audience appetite for high quality drama, prompting broadcasters around the world to invest more heavily in the genre.
Much of this increased investment comes from the US, where cable firms such as AMC, Showtime and Starz and digital players such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu recognise the power of expensive, high quality dramas to attract subscriptions and audiences. Netflix, for example, has 30 scripted shows now in production. In total, US broadcasters are expected to make 500 original dramas in 2017.
There are said to be around 60 drama commissioning broadcasters in the US, of which around a dozen will regularly buy or co-produce from British producers.
The UK market has seen less growth in broadcaster spend on drama. Producers say that the key terrestrials – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – are ordering about the same volume of drama as they have done historically. Their drama budgets have, by and large, remained fairly static too.
However, the UK market has been boosted by Sky growing investment in drama. It now commissions 8-10 shows a year. Virgin is a new commissioner too, announcing it will create four new dramas with All3Media. BBC1 is also spending an extra £30m on drama, following the closure of BBC3.
“There’s no doubt that the market feels incredibly buoyant,” says Frith Triplady, joint md of Tiger Aspect Drama, which has produced 56 hours of drama in the past 18 months, such as Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street and ITV’s upcoming Good Karma Hotel.
Like many other producers, she points out that there are more buyers – particularly from the US – who are either commissioning British indies directly or providing co-production finance for projects.
That’s partly because international demand for British drama and talent is riding high, buoyed by global hits like Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Happy Valley. The key US buyers all have a presence in London. “The Americans now see the Anglophone world as one market, which they didn’t ten years ago” says Gareth Neame, the md of Downton Abbey and The Last Kingdom producer Carnival Films.
“The number of buyers is the most fundamental change in the last couple of years”, says Sid Gentle Films’ founder Sally Woodward Gentle (The Durrells). “A project doesn’t need to start in the UK anymore.” Sid Gentle, for example, is producing thriller Killing Eve from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge – which has been greenlit directly by BBC America.
However, direct US commissions – such as Netflix’s The Crown from Left Bank – are for now the exception rather than the rule. “There are more outlets that want drama…but it’s not like we are making 100s of things for Netflix and Amazon. Our core business is still UK network programmes,” says Red Production’s Nicola Shindler, the producer of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.
Much of the activity from US broadcasters comes in the form of co-production finance, rather than direct commissioners. Netflix, for example, has boarded Red’s ITV thriller Paranoid as a co-producer, taking worldwide streaming rights.
Netflix is also co-producing the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Watership Down, made by indies 42 and Biscuit Films. AMC, meanwhile, is co-producing Cuba Pictures’ upcoming BBC thriller McMafia, while National Geographic has teamed with Channel 4 to co-produce Peter Kosminsky’s as yet untitled Isis drama, made by Archery Pictures. Amazon US is co-producing Sky’s 43AD-set Britannia, which is produced by Neal St and Archery Pictures.
“Pretty much everything on our slate is co-produced,” says Kudos CEO Diederick Santer, citing The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic/Canal Plus), Humans (C4/AMC) and Grantchester (ITV/PBS).
UK commissions remain the lifeblood of most British drama indies. However, to achieve the look and scale in drama that audiences have come to expect, producers are topping up their UK broadcaster budgets – which have flatlined for several years at around £700-800k an hour – with US co-production money.
Or they are deficit financing with investment from international distributors. The amount that distributors are putting into drama has risen significantly, from £25-50k to around £200k-500k. Kudos’s upcoming Sky thriller Tin Star, starring Tim Roth, is deficit financed by Sky Vision and Endemol. Its budget, says Santer, is ‘way more’ than the Sky tariff, and its distributor backers are confident it can recoup from international sales.
Combined with the UK tax relief at around 20%, it means budgets have risen up to a minimum of £1.1m-£1.2m for many primetime shows. BBC hit The Night Manager, a co-production with AMC, cost a reported £3m an hour.
This rise in budget means that talent – both on and off screen – is keener than ever to work in television. So too are a host of new production companies.
A swathe of experienced TV producers and commissioners have launched their own drama indies in the past year, such as former Kudos bosses Jane Featherstone (Sister Pictures) and Stephen Garrett (Character Seven), ex-Film4 chief Tessa Ross and Working Title’s Juliette Howell (House Productions) and former BBC drama execs Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner (Bad Wolf).
Film producers have also pushed into TV, such as David Heyman (Harry Potter) who launched Heyday Television with backing from NBC Universal. Several of Sky’s new dramas are made by indies with a film background, including Riviera (Archery Pictures) and The Last Dragonslayer (Blueprint).
“The challenge is that everyone has cottoned on to the drama boom,” says Kudos’s Santer. Phillipa Giles, md of Rillington Place producer Bandit Television, says it is now a ‘very, very crowded marketplace’, and she predicts that some indies will have to ‘go to the wall’ in the next few years.
Meanwhile, Jill Green, md of Foyle’s War and New Blood producer Eleventh Hour Films, predicts: “At some point the bubble has to burst. All these companies can’t survive.”
The increasingly competitive nature of the UK drama sector has been made worse by a commissioning merry go round that kicked off in the Spring at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. Polly Hill has just arrived at ITV as its new head of drama, while Piers Wenger has recently taken over at the BBC and Beth Willis has stepped up at Channel 4. “The market has completely slowed down,” says one indie, who rues waiting much of the year for greenlight decisions. Another adds: “It’s been a really, really difficult year.”
Meanwhile, there are well-documented fears that the international drama market is overheating, particularly in the US. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf warned this summer that the drama market is ballooning into oversupply, and that ‘the balloon will eventually deflate.’ Sky Vision boss Jane Millichip recently warned about the increasing amounts that distributors were investing upfront in drama in the hope of recouping from international sales. “We could be heading for a subprime mortgage moment,” she said.
Closer to home, indies are struggling with issues that characterise a booming market. Prime among them, says Nicola Shindler, is “a real shortage of high end writers who [broadcasters] want to commission a whole series from.” “Everybody wants significant writers,” confirms Eleventh Hour Films’ Jill Green. The problem has been made worse, says Shindler, because broadcasters rarely commission story-of-the-week procedural shows which have multiple writers on them and where writers learn their craft. It’s a Catch 22: as drama budgets have got higher, so commissioners want experienced writers – but there are fewer shows for them to cut their teeth on.
Kudos’ Diederick Santer says the relationship between top writers and producers has also changed, with agents having much more leverage as their clients have become more in demand. It’s no longer the case of simply meeting up for a friendly chat with a writer to discuss ideas.
There is also a scramble for book rights to adapt for TV. “Everyone is optioning books, and even rubbish books are going for a fortune,” says Santer. Beauty parades are now typical for hot books, with up to 10 indies at a time invited to pitch. Now more than ever it’s vital “to make sure you are not caught up in the feeding frenzy,” says Santer.
Meanwhile, the cost of making drama has risen. Demand for experienced crew and top talent is at an all time high, pushing up rates. Big shoots, such as Game of Thrones, will pay higher rates for their crew. “If you are still making something for a BBC budget, you can’t afford those rates,” says Red’s Nicola Shindler. “That has become really problematic for our production department.”
On the plus side, many producers say they are starting to take risks on new production, writing and onscreen talent, such is the demand in the market. Triplady says there is increasing room for new voices and talent in drama.
All the while, however, producers are wrestling with the impact of big budget co-pros like The Crown and The Night Manager. “The bar has gone on to another level,” says Eleventh Hour’s Jill Green. So producers are increasingly trying to find projects that will attract additional finance, most likely from America, and that can attract a big cast. But because a lot of the big name talent is being lured to America, “we have to up our game to deliver those ideas that will get them back,” says Green.
The production values of The Crown have also set a challenge for producers. Sally Woodward Gentle says: “I’ve just come out of a meeting where we were taking about a Coronation scene, thinking we are never going to have the money that The Crown has got – so should we bother?”
However, Woodward Gentle says that while The Crown’s reported £100m budget across two series has raised the bar for audiences, it “feels like a slight anomaly in terms of production budgets.”
Over at ITV, head of drama Polly Hill recognises the challenges and opportunities stemming from the “huge investment bubble” in drama. But she says not every drama needs huge production budgets. “It is important there is variety, a mixed ecology in drama….some fantastic shows have cut through internationally that haven’t had huge budgets.”
Indeed, ask producers and commissioners to name their top dramas of the past year, and a whole range of shows stand out beyond the likes of The Crown and The Night Manager. Several indies cite comedy dramas like Fleabag (‘timeless and completely contemporary’) and Chewing Gum (emotionally supersized, but not production supersized’) for showing, according to Triplady, that it’s misleading to think all drama needs to come with ‘the bells and whistles’ of a big budget. Others pick out the ‘humanity’ and ‘warmth’ of The Durrells, and the ‘addictive’ nature of Doctor Foster. National Treasure, meanwhile, ‘had something to say’, while the return of Cold Feet was an attempt to revive the relationship drama, a holy grail of the TV industry. Victoria (and The Crown) ‘spoke to us as a nation when we are questioning our place in the world,’ says Santer.
More than ever, producers and commissioners say that distinctiveness, range and diversity are vital for standing out in today’s crowded marketplace. “My main focus is on creating content our customers think is worth paying for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. More specifically, she describes this as “distinctive content that they would talk about with their friends.” ITV’s Polly Hill adds: “We want a great range of drama on the channel…it is about finding the things that are fresh and distinctive that sets them apart from anything else.”
The implications of Brexit and the US election were two of the big talking points at this year’s Televisual Factual Festival
Leading commissioners, producers, directors, financiers and distributors gathered at BAFTA for two days last month to discuss and debate the state of factual television at the Televisual Factual Festival.
The festival took place on the same day as the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Both his election and Brexit, admitted many of the speakers, had caught broadcasters and the media completely off guard.
As a result, many said that the TV industry had to do more to successfully represent – at least in the UK – the 52% who voted for Brexit and to look more closely at the reality of life in 2016.
BBC2 channel editor Patrick Holland asked: “The challenge on BBC2, but also the challenge for you as programme makers, is how do we respond to this changing world?” The answer, he suggested, was “not to shy away from complexity” in storytelling. “We need to engage with what the world is that we’re living in and what the world is that we’re travelling towards.” As an example of a series that tackled the complexity of the world head on, he cited BBC2’s acclaimed documentary Exodus.
BBC2 editor Patrick Holland interviewed by Wall to Wall CEO Leanne Klein
Channel 4’s factual entertainment boss Kelly Webb-Lamb said she wouldn’t want to directly commission a show about Brexit or Trump. “But we need to think about what those things say about us as a world and Britain.” That might mean making shows that celebrate Britain, “looking at what we do well, who we are and feeling good about ourselves.”
Webb-Lamb also suggested that programmes need to be rawer and more honest. “We need to answer the “everything feels a bit scary” question.” She called on programme makers to “go another step further” to really get what people’s lives are like and how they feel about them. “Even on Channel 4 there’s a sense of wanting to mitigate against that a little bit and make things a comfortable watch.”
Similarly, the BBC’s acting head of formats and features Donna Clark asked the audience of producers and development execs to think about how they could incorporate Brexit and the Trump election, if not directly, then tonally into their format ideas.
Clark suggested that lack of diversity in the TV industry had been one of the reasons for its surprise at the events of 2016. “I think we’re a bit posh, we’re a bit white and we’re not particularly representative of everyone. When we think about today, we don’t represent that 52% either. I think that that often comes from the fact that, if you did a little poll of the commissioning teams, our politics and the sort of people that we are, we’re of a sort, of a strata and we need to try to represent everyone a bit more.”
Some recent commissions, she said, had tapped into the wider experiences of the UK. She cited Eat Well For Less on BBC1. “That feels just a bit more universal somehow and not quite so posh.”
Echoing the call for TV to more fully reflect the world we live in, Channel 4’s head of documentaries Nick Mirsky called on producers to “think about spaces and places we’re not supposed to be. Think about places where you can’t ring up the press officer of a hospital or an airline and ask for access.”
Mirsky continued: “If I were a Martian and I landed in Britain today and I had to form a view of British society based particularly on Channel 4 documentaries but on docs generally, I’d probably think that we had entered this golden world of public services where you are ushered into life by the One Born midwives and where you were educated by the great teachers of Educating Yorkshire and, if anything went wrong, the staff of A&E or the coppers on 999 made the world safe for you.”
While praising those shows, Mirsky said they create the slight illusion of a more orderly, safer, controlled world than the one we actually live in.
“Therefore, those projects such as The Paedophile Hunter, Skint, Benefit Street or BBC2’s Exodus, where you feel quite how unstable, chaotic and unsafe the world is, are particularly precious...I would like more programmes that reflect that.”
By contrast, Channel 5’s factual commissioning editor Emma Westcott said that viewers were after certain kinds of shows given the “incredibly uncertain world that we live in.” She cited programmes which have “personal endeavour and incredible industry” like The Great British Bake Off. She added: “I’ve got a lot of life change things coming through where you’re watching real people just taking control of their lives: whether you’re moving to Australia or you’re giving up the day job.”
Meanwhile, commissioners insisted that documentary TV remains vibrant and in good health, despite heavy competition from drama.
Mirsky admitted that on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon are starting to put pressure on factual departments in traditional broadcasters. “Somebody told me that there were 2m less people watching [terrestrial] TV last weekend than last year because The Crown was released.”
Platforms like Netflix are winning more subscribers, he admitted, many of whom are watching their dramas. “In some way that is scary, but it means we have to move the bar…We have had a golden period where documentaries are foregrounded on most channels, but competition is coming and we need to look out for it.”
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said ITV controller of factual Jo Clinton-Davis. “And there is a hunger for the truth.” She said the best docs at ITV have to be as big in scale and as compelling and full of twists and turns as drama. She cited ITV hit Long Lost Family. “Some of those episodes could be a single drama – you couldn’t make them up.”
Channel 5 factual commissioning editor Guy Davies admitted that no factual show could compete with The Crown’s £100m budget. “In terms of factual output, we have to innovate and be fleet of foot. We can’t rest on our laurels.”
BBC acting head of documentaries commissioning Clare Sillery noted that docs can successfully borrow certain things from drama – such as scoring, storytelling devices and camera and lens technology. She also underlined the need for documentary to reveal the complexities of modern life.
ITV head of factual entertainment Sue Murphy interviewed by Betty joint md Neil Smith
ITV’s head of factual entertainment Sue Murphy said that the broadcaster is a factual leader in subjects such as the royals, animals, crimes and prisons. “But we have too many one offs, too many short series that aren’t going anywhere. There are not enough returning formats, and there is not enough factual entertainment.”
She admitted that from the outside, ITV’s factual could seem ‘slightly timid, a bit too conservative and a bit too middling – and that doesn’t get you viewers.”
She said big factual entertainment returnable formats were a key priority at ITV, citing shows on rival channels such as The Apprentice, Gogglebox and Bake Off.
Murphy noted that ITV doesn’t have many competitive formats and that many of the big current competitive shows on rival channels are past their heyday or have peaked. A food competition format is a priority. “With Bake Off going [to C4], it feels like game on.”
Animation outfit Lupus Films has had its busiest year yet, creating adaptations of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Ethel & Ernest. But, its founders tell Tim Dams, Brexit means there could be clouds on the horizon.
There’s a red front door on Islington’s Upper Street, sandwiched between a betting shop and a dry cleaners. Walk through it and up some narrow stairs and you suddenly find yourself in one of the UK’s premiere animation studios, Lupus Films.
Spread over the three floors, it’s packed full of animators, nearly 50 in all. They are putting the final touches to C4’s 2D Christmas special, We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. In the past year, Lupus has also delivered a film version of Raymond Brigg’s Ethel & Ernest, and TV series such as Disney’s The Hive.
Lupus was set up in 2002 by Ruth Fielding and Camilla Deakin, who first began working together in C4’s animation department in 1999. (The pair also went to the same school, Pimlico School...on Lupus Street.) Initially, Lupus outsourced its commissions to outside production houses but decided to bring the work inhouse for their 2012 sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog.
They wanted to make it in the same way as The Snowman, hand drawn in the UK. Fielding describes the decision as a turning point for Lupus: “We worked with a lot of talented people on The Snowman and the Snowdog. And we wanted to work with them again.” They’ve done so on Bear Hunt and Ethel & Ernest, as well as training up a host of young graduates. Lupus has adopted the same hand drawn look for the films, but a big change is that much of the work is drawn on animation platform TV Paint. It’s quicker to use, but only got the go-ahead because the artists were comfortable using it. “The artist is driving the technology, not the other way around,” says Deakin.
2016 has been Lupus’ busiest year. Business has been boosted by the 2013 animation tax credit, worth 20% of budget. A £100k BFI Vision Award in 2014 also enabled Lupus to develop a feature slate.
But there is a big question mark over how Brexit will affect the animation industry, which relies on international co-production. Says Deakin: “You are never fully financed by your UK broadcaster. You have to do pre-sales to European broadcasters who pay at a certain level because the pre-sale is to another European territory.”
(Ruth Fielding, left, and Camilla Deakin, right)
Key European broadcasters have quotas for the amount of European content they show. Until now, UK animation has fallen within these EU quotas. This made the UK a popular English-language bridgehead for US outfits like Disney and Nickelodeon to access the EU market. But this is at risk post-Brexit. There is also uncertainty whether the UK can access Creative Europe funding.
“We are going to need bigger pulls to retain the work here,” says Fielding. “So bigger tax credits, better corporation tax... At the moment, the pound means it is quite good to work in the UK. But we need to be on a level playing field with Ireland who are offering 32% tax credits for animation.”
And there is concern whether Lupus can employ the European crew of animators it uses for its programmes. On the day of this interview, the news bulletins lead with the story that British firms will have to name and shame foreign workers. Fielding and Deakin are both clearly shocked: “Say we have 25% of our animation crew from mainland Europe, we are going to be named and shamed for that. Why? They are talented, highly qualified individuals who are here paying tax.”
For now, the biggest problem is the uncertainty. “Animation takes a long time to produce. With a 24 month schedule, you don’t know going in to it where you’ll be coming out. It might mean broadcasters not committing to projects,” says Deakin.