Three of television’s biggest entertainment shows – Strictly, The X Factor and The Voice – are directed by women. They tell Tim Dams about making it in a genre that’s traditionally been very male dominated
Back in 2014, Directors UK launched a hard-hitting report about the employment of female directors in TV. It revealed a worrying decrease in the employment of women directors.
The situation in multi-camera entertainment and comedy programmes was particularly shocking. The report found that only 5% of game and panel shows were directed by women, and just 19% of sitcoms.
There’s one area that is slightly better represented though: shiny floor entertainment. Three of the biggest shows on TV were directed by women in 2016: Strictly Come Dancing by Nikki Parsons, The Voice by Liz Clare and The X Factor by Julia Knowles.
“To see directors of such high calibre doing incredibly well in their craft – in a genre that has traditionally been very male dominated – and working across the main channels on big budget productions is inspiring,” says Beryl Richards, chair of Directors UK.
“This highlights that women are just as able to create great content, as their male counterparts. These directors, and many other women directors, show that there isn’t a lack of diverse talent out there, and the industry need to work closely together to help create more opportunities for women and other under-represented groups to work and to show their talent, to improve the current landscape and encourage new directors.”
The X Factor director Julia Knowles has been directing for over 20 years, with early credits including The Big Breakfast, The Word and Dance Energy. “At that point I was one of the few women directing in entertainment,” she recalls, adding that the ‘brilliant’ Janet Fraser-Crook (Later with Jules Holland) is another to have established herself as a director at that time.
Knowles thinks one of the reasons there are fewer female directors is that women are sometimes less likely to put themselves forward for jobs compared to men. Gender stereotyping is also an issue. Knowles recalls starting her career at BBC Scotland as researcher – all the while lobbying to be trained as a director. She was led to believe that, in time, this would happen. A year later a man who she had been at university with arrived at the BBC and was instantly sent on the director’s course while she was expected to keep researching. She soon left to pursue her career elsewhere. And within three years of arriving in London was directing three hours of live TV every Saturday morning.
The Directors UK report gave a number of reasons to explain the challenges facing female directors. Among them, they found that decisions on hiring are influenced by the opinions of commissioners in a risk averse culture that keeps hiring the same directors. They also reported that production executives responsible for hiring are unaware of low figures for women directors, and that gender stereotyping is prevalent when hiring in specific genres.
Many say that getting that first break as studio director is key, but often very difficult. Parsons says: “There are not many HODs that are women – sound supervisors, lighting directors, production designers, camera supervisors etc. I think the studio has always been a male environment and hopefully as more women join the industry and work their way up through the ranks there will be more of us in key positions.”
Clare adds: “There has certainly been a great big push recently, to raise awareness of the work of female directors, in all genres.” She notes that Directors UK’s ambition is to see women working as directors on at least 30% of productions in 2017.
Talk to most studio directors and they will alight on a number of key attributes that makes for a successful director. The ability to communicate clearly and calmly under pressure is paramount. “As a director you have to communicate your vision and listen,” says Julia Knowles. “If you can communicate and absorb the best of your team then everything falls into place.” And that doesn’t mean shouting and losing your temper. “Any director who starts the blame game has got it wrong,” says Knowles.
It also pays to be prepared, says Clare. “Whether that’s hours of meetings to discuss design aspects of the show or days in the office scripting music, the more across everything you are by the time you arrive in the gallery, the smoother the day will run.”
You’ve also got to be prepared, at times, to throw plans out of the window. Knowles recalls directing the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Norway in 2009, the year that President Obama won the award. Wclef Jean was performing and, on the spur of the moment, decided to walk off stage, through the huge crowd, and up to the royal box where the Norwegian royal family were watching. “At that point you have to forget your script,” she says. “It is about trusting the people you are working with, being able to communicate what you want, and having a calmness about you so that if a camera goes down or an artist goes walkabout you don’t panic about it.”
Indeed, most directors also say they like working with crews they know and trust and who are familiar with their way of working. Clare says: “I’ve gathered an army of hugely talented crew over the years; everyone from camera operators, vision mixers, script supervisors and floor managers, as well as having the privilege of working with some of the most creative lighting and set designers in the industry. It’s definitely a team effort and so it’s hugely important to surround yourself with people you can trust and who understand the way you like to work.”
This also extends to facilities too. Clare has just shot the latest series of The Voice’s blind audition phase at Dock10 in Salford, the location of the previous two series. “Aside from it being a brilliant modern facility, with huge studio capacities and useful associated spaces, they also have years of experience technically delivering this show. This allows me to concentrate on the more creative aspects of the show.”
Many directors say they get involved in a project in the early planning stages, at a meeting with the executive and series producers. Sometimes, directors will come to a project before any design briefs have been sent out. But more frequently, the set and lighting designs may already be in place so it becomes more about working with key departments to bring the show to life.
Knowles says there is a growing tendency to leave directors out of early stage discussions about a show. “I have fought very hard over the last four years to be included in discussions about the set, lighting. and editorial aims.”
Once the shooting, starts most directors say the adrenalin and nerves kick in. “I always get nervous, it never gets easier,” says Parsons. “But if it did get easier, then you might get complacent.”
Julia Knowles Director: The X Factor, The Royal Variety Performance, Nobel Peace Prize Concerts
What are the keys to a successful studio shoot? The key skills are communication and being passionate about what you are doing. Obviously preparation and all the ABCs are in there, like thinking it through, understanding editorial aims, making your camera plan. But the bottom line is communicating. Any studio director who starts the blame game has got it wrong. As a director you have to communicate your vision and listen. If you can communicate and absorb the best of your team then everything falls into place.
Key tips for studio directors wanting to learn the trade? Watching good directors and hearing them in the gallery is invaluable. I am of the firm belief that not everyone can be a good studio director. You have to have a certain brain that operates on different levels and the ability to hear different things at the same time.
Studio directing has a reputation as a male dominated profession. Why is this? The other thing you need to be a successful a studio directing is confidence. Possibly women are sometimes less likely to put themselves forward. And men often are. It is a big thing about confidence – trusting in yourself, trusting your team, being able to put yourself forward and not taking rejection as something that knocks you down.
Any new kit you’ve been impressed with recently? One of my favourite shots in TV is the close up. So I love it that we now have amazing lenses that can really work from a distance and give you incredible intimacy. I like using the junior dolly to get beautiful tracking shots in tight spaces or crowded spaces. It means you don’t have to have a gigantic piece of kit and two burly operators, you can be more discrete. Then there is the incredible quality of lighting products.
Nikki Parsons Director: Strictly Come Dancing, Robot Wars, So You Think You Can Dance
What are the keys to a successful studio shoot? To make a studio shoot run smoothly and on schedule is for me all about preparation. Going into a studio shoot with a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how you are going to do it is key. To have the right team around you, who you have a shorthand with, makes a huge difference. The studio is a very expensive environment to waste time working out how the shoot is going to work. Obviously things change on the day and you have to adjust, but to go in with a strong game plan is key.
What kind of skills do you need to make it as a studio director? I would say a creative vision, the ability to communicate that vision, people skills, an understanding of all departments and a clear, calm head in a crisis.
Any new kit you’ve been impressed with recently? The use of augmented reality in a live studio environment. It can transform a studio into a totally different environment, and bring an added level of excitement and set design.
Studio directing has a reputation as a male dominated profession. Why is this - and are things changing? There are not many HODs that are women - sound supervisors, lighting directors, production designers, camera supervisors etc. I think the studio has always been a male environment and hopefully as more women join the industry and work their way up through the ranks there will be more of us in key positions. There haven’t been as many women to step up and and say, ‘I want to do that.’ It’s a very hard thing to break into, and to find someone to trust you to direct a live studio show.
Liz Clare Director: The Voice UK, Alan Carr’s Happy Hour, Little Big Shots, The BRIT Awards
What are the keys to a successful studio shoot? I’ve been very lucky to have worked in some of the UK’s top studio facilities this year (Elstree, Dock 10 and TLS), as well as with leading OB companies (CTV, Telegenic, Video Europe) in more challenging live environments. I would say the key to the success of all multi-camera ‘shoots’, regardless of their location, is to make sure you have the right team of people around you, with the right experience and the right level of resources to deliver the show you’ve been asked to direct. It’s a team effort and so it’s hugely important to surround yourself with people you can trust.
What kind of skills do you need to make it as a studio director? On a basic level, you need to be able to communicate well, be a team player, have a good technical understanding and be well organised. But there are more subtle ‘talents’ you acquire over time. On a practical level I need to be able to cope well in high pressured environments. But I also need a strong artistic sense of how to interpret the piece of music or dance in the most exciting way for the viewer.
Studio directing has a bit of reputation as a male dominated profession. Why is this? There have always been brilliant women directing television. Julia Knowles has been blazing a trail for years, as has the inimitable Janet Fraser-Crook, both a huge inspiration to me when I was starting out; Nikki Parsons has won numerous Baftas for Strictly, Barbara Wiltshire directs the funniest show on telly, Would I Lie to You?; Jeanette Goulbourn is one of the best factual entertainment multi-camera directors there is, with credits like Dragons Den and The Apprentice. And I am very proud to say, that this year I became the first female director of The BRITs. We’ve always been around, perhaps we’ve just become more ‘visible’ over the last few years?
Any new kit/technology that you’ve been impressed with recently? The brilliant LD on The Voice UK, Dave Davey has introduced the new PRG ground control, remote follow spot system. We are still at the pre-recorded stage of the filming and they seem to be working very well. It certainly seems like a safer and more user friendly system but I guess we’ve yet to test it in a live situation.
From Alien to The Mummy and Justice League, many of 2017’s biggest films are being made in the UK. But can this production boom be sustained in the era of Trump and Brexit? And is it crowding out British indie films? Tim Dams reports
For a medium that is over 100 years old, cinema is in surprisingly fine form. Movie-going remains a hugely popular past time, despite growing competition from small screen drama, the proliferation of social media, and threats from online piracy.
2016 was a record year for the box office in North America, with earnings at £9bn ($11.4bn). Box office receipts in the UK stood at £1.2bn, the second highest figure on record. Globally, the 2016 box office is likely to just fall short of 2015’s record-breaking haul of £30.8bn ($38.9bn) amid a slight slowdown in China. But the slowdown needs to be put into perspective, coming as it does after years of explosive growth in the Middle Kingdom; in 2015 as many as 22 cinemas were opening in China every day.
As the box office has boomed, Hollywood studios have alighted on a compelling formula for success: play it safe, play it big and play it global. Eight out of the top ten US films last year were sequels, prequels or adaptations.
Looking ahead, there is optimism for 2017’s slate of movies, with many fitting the familiar formula such as new Star Wars and Transformers sequels, superhero tales Justice League and Wonder Woman, and reboots of Alien, Bladerunner, The Mummy (pictured above), Mary Poppins and Murder on the Orient Express.
There’s something else familiar about these movies too: they are all made in the UK.
Made in the UK
Over the past ten years, the UK has established itself as the pre-eminent global hub for Hollywood filmmaking. It has been dubbed a ‘golden decade’ for the industry.
The UK’s top four biggest box office films of 2016 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Bridget Jones’s Baby and The Jungle Book – were all made in Britain. Spend on film production in the UK reached £1.6bn in 2016, the highest figure since BFI records began 20 years ago. The bulk of this figure was made up of 48 big budget inward investment films which spent £1.15bn, up 18% year on year.
High profile features such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Lasse Halstrom’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Paddington 2 all started shooting in 2016.
“It’s a remarkable time,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission, the organisation responsible for helping to attract inward investment films to the UK. Wootton says the number of enquiries the agency receives from filmmakers wanting to shoot in the UK, particularly from North America, has been “phenomenal.”
The reason for the high number of US shoots in the UK is well documented: a strong talent base, a generous tax relief, good locations and world class facilities.
This UK offer to US studios has only improved in recent years. The film tax credit was enhanced in 2015, increasing the rate of relief to 25% for all qualifying productions.
“The policy is working well,” says Andrew Smith, director of strategy and communications at Pinewood Group. “The UK remains an attractive place for film and high end TV.”
Wootton adds that the new government has ‘gone out of its way’ to reassure the US studios that the tax credits will remain a key part of UK industrial strategy. He notes that Culture Minister Matt Hancock visited Hollywood a few weeks ago to say as much, while the Chancellor Philip Hammond recently confirmed to US studios working in the UK that the government wanted to continue to support the tax regime.
The crew base has also enlarged. London is the third busiest city for film production in the world after Los Angeles and New York. But expertise has spread out from this heartland to the likes of Belfast, Bristol and Wales, which have hosted a string of big budget films and TV shows in recent years.
Amid strong demand, film facilities have also expanded – creating more space for Hollywood shoots. Pinewood is in the process of doubling in size; it added five new stages last July and is planning another five. Warner Bros-owned Leavesden Studios, meanwhile, plans to extend facilities at the 200-acre site by a quarter. North London’s Elstree Studios, home to Star Wars, is also building more stages and technical facilities. Belfast’s Titantic Quarter, home to Game of Thrones, has invested £14m to develop two more film studios. Screen Yorkshire has converted a former RAF base into the Church Fenton studio facility.
Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has announced a feasibility study for the largest new film studios in London, to be situated on 17-acres in Dagenham East.
And the UK’s talent base remains just as strong. This month’s Oscars will see British actors Dev Patel, Andrew Garfield and Naomie Harris up for Academy Awards. So too is musician Mica Levi, nominated for her score for Jackie; producer Iain Canning and the team at See-Saw for Lion, which is up for best picture; and production designers Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock for their work on Fantastic Beasts. Jake Roberts competes for the editing prize with Hell or High Water, Joanna Johnston for costume design for Allied, and Sting is in the running for best song in Jim: The James Foley Story.
Other British films or co-productions with nominations include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (up for both best sound mixing and visual effects), Florence Foster Jenkins, The Jungle Book, Doctor Strange, Passengers and The White Helmet.
Soho’s world-class vfx houses, many of them now part of international groups, seem to get ever busier too. MPC completed most of the work on Disney’s The Jungle Book, while Framestore played a significant role on Marvel’s Doctor Strange. All Soho’s big vfx houses provided shots on Warner’s Fantastic Beasts.
Currently, British post houses are working on vfx for 2017 releases such as Pacific Rim 2, Blade Runner 2049, Fast and Furious 8, and Dunkirk.
The film industry has also been underpinned by the rapid growth in high-end television production, which has given many service companies the confidence to invest in facilities suitable for film and TV. Spurred by the drama tax relief, introduced in 2013, the UK has hosted shows such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, Starz’ Outlander, Lionsgate’s The Royals and Fox’s 24: Live Another Day. The SVoD platforms have also invested heavily in the UK, with Netflix making The Crown and Amazon producing The Collection. The spend on inward investment high-end television programmes in 2016 was £478m, the highest since records began.
Can it be sustained?
However, there are concerns about whether the level of inward investment can be sustained. “We can’t afford to be complacent,” warns Wootton.
Brexit has provided an unexpected fillip to the industry by lowering the value of the pound and making the UK up to 25% cheaper for the US studios to film in.
But there is concern that exit from the EU will make immigration harder to the UK. This would hit sectors such as vfx, post production and animation which rely heavily on European skills and talent.
Here the film industry has support from The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is backing a plan with Creative Skillset and Film London to boost film production skills in the UK.
“When you speak to people in the film industry, one of the biggest concerns they have is that the government doesn’t appear to understand how diverse our film ecosystem is,” said Khan last month. The mayor recently met the minister overseeing Brexit, David Davis, to discuss how to protect the film sector.
“The reality is our diverse ecosystem relies upon talent from across the EU. What we can’t afford to happen is those talented people not being able to come to London.”
Because there is concern that the UK production sector is overstretched already. “We haven’t lost a single film as a result of skills shortages or crew shortages. But demand on our crews is very strong,” admits Wootton. He says the UK needs to invest more money into training new entrants, particularly from more diverse backgrounds. “We need more social inclusion and diversity and young people in our industry – that is a concern and challenge for us.”
The election of Donald Trump also brings some uncertainty. Trump has been vocal in his determination for American companies to make more of their products in America, prioritising local job creation over outsourcing around the world. Could he apply the same pressure to the US film industry as he has to sectors such as car manufacturing?
“It is early days – it is very difficult to know,” says Wootton, who points out that Trump’s focus so far has been on large-scale manufacturing. “At the moment, it is fair to say that the film industry and film stars aren’t exactly Donald Trump’s favourite people. It may be that policies change, and we will have to respond and get as creative as possible.”
Indie film concern
Meanwhile, there are also concerns that the boom in inward investment films is crowding out another story – a decline in British independent filmmaking.
The BFI figures show that spend on domestic features fell in 2016 from £223.3m to £205m. The figures also revealed that the number of domestic films was down from 199 to 129.The BFI says the 2016 domestic figures will be revised upwards as there is a time lag in obtaining information about UK production.
Still, it’s clear there is something of a disconnect within the industry between the buoyant inward investment scene – dominated by just a few films – and the indie sector where it is as hard as ever to secure funding.
That said, it would be wrong to talk about a collapse of the indie film sector, a conclusion drawn by respected film blogger and statistician Stephen Follows. After analysing the latest BFI statistics, he concluded that it’s not all doom and gloom for indie filmmakers, pointing out that the decline comes from a relatively high base – specifically the micro-budget boom of that late 2000s.
“Fewer films being made is not necessarily a bad thing”, said Fellows who noted that between 1994 and 2010 UK domestic features increased nine-fold but the opportunities to release such films had not kept pace.
Indeed, the wider picture of UK film – of strong investment, busy crews and facilities, world renowned talent and successful British-made films – is justifiably the big story of the industry in 2017.
Entertainment looks set to be the big broadcasting battleground in 2017.
The conflict began in last month when ITV’s version of The Voice went head to head with new BBC format Let it Shine on Saturday nights.
At both broadcasters there’s a determined push for more entertainment. There’s also a willingness, after many years of stasis that has seen the likes of The X Factor start to wilt and panel shows to lose their lustre, to try new things.
ITV alone has 38 new projects on its slate, while the BBC has over a dozen shows in paid development. Channel 4, meanwhile, has started to focus on the genre once again, and has tendered for a major new entertainment format.
The reasons for the renewed focus on entertainment are varied. Drama has been the big story in broadcasting for several years now, with TV channels and SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon investing billions in big budget shows such as The Crown, The Night Manager and War and Peace.
However, budgets at traditional broadcasters remain under pressure. A tight funding settlement at the BBC and a slower post-Brexit ad market for commercial broadcasters has highlighted just how costly big drama really is. “There’s a realisation that drama is very expensive, takes a long time to come to air, and that there is loads of it on all sorts of different platforms,” says James Fox, joint managing director at Remarkable Television, which makes Pointless Celebrities.
At a time when broadcasters are looking at tightening their belts, entertainment is the place to go, adds Fox. “We can deliver at a fairly reasonable budget and still get amazing viewing figures. He cites Pointless Celebrities which averages around 4.5m viewers on BBC1, and can on occasion peak above The X Factor. Strictly, meanwhile, regularly tops 10m, while the final of I’m A Celebrity hit 10.5m. The X Factor has weakened to around 6m viewers, but programmes like Michael McIntyre’s Big Show are consistently getting over 6m. By comparison, the most talked about drama of 2016, The Night Manager averaged about 9m.
Feel good fun
At a time of political and economic uncertainty, many producers and broadcasters also say that viewers are increasingly hankering after joyful and fun distractions.
“It has been tough economically. I think people just want a bit of escapism,” says the BBC’s new head of entertainment Kate Phillips. “They want feel good telly and they want stuff that makes them laugh. There is not enough stuff on television that makes them laugh.”
This desire for ‘feel good’ telly spans all the broadcasters. ‘Nasty’ formats like Big Brother and Weakest Link – which thrived at the turn of the century when the economy was booming – have very much fallen out of favour.
“There has been a bit of a backlash against reality meanness. The audience is starting to want a bit more warmth, and a bit less of the heavy hand of the producer,” says ITV head of comedy entertainment Peter Davey.
This kind of thinking very much informs the development of new entertainment projects at Remarkable Television, says James Fox. “The brief I give to my team is you have to make me laugh as well as make me care there is going to be a winner.”
Fox adds: “Going back, a lot of our formats tended to be a bit more confrontational whereas now they are more joyful. Pointless is a good example. It’s all a bit of fun.”
Indeed, some of the most admired shows currently on TV are those that exhibit warmth, humour and entertainment – from Strictly through to Bake Off, First Dates, Gogglebox and The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. Even Simon Cowell has toned down the meanness on The X Factor’s most recent run.
Refreshing ITV’s slate
ITV has already unveiled a swathe of new entertainment shows for 2017, including Dance Dance Dance, where celebrities have to recreate iconic pop videos and dance movie sequences against augmented reality sets; Little Big Shots, a kids talent show hosted by Dawn French; panel show Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule; physical game show Bigheads; and new weeknight entertainment series The Nightly Show, billed as a cross between The Late Late Show With James Corden and Saturday Night Takeaway.
“We are trying to refresh things, that is no great secret,” says ITV’s Peter Davey, who wants indies to bring him “anything you think you would want to watch on ITV…bring us your whole box, from heartland to bonkers.” ITV, he explains, is looking for shows that are entertaining and funny and that could play during the week, not just on Saturday night. He cites ITV director of television Kevin Lygo’s desire to “have a few more laughs and more entertainment” on the channel during the week.
He picks out Little Big Shots, produced by Wall to Wall. “It fits in with the warmth. It’s very straightforward with very young kids, and they are not judged – it’s about letting brilliant kids show off.” Dance Dance Dance, based on a Dutch format by ITV-owned Talpa, is a very easy show that will allow viewers to “sit back, experience and enjoy.”
BBC wants more
Kate Phillips similarly stresses that the BBC wants more entertainment shows. “I’m not developing just two or three big pilots. I am spreading the development money. So already I have got well over a dozen shows in paid development and I have only been in the job three months.”
Phillips adds: “The message I am getting from the upper echelons above me is, ‘Go for it, we love entertainment and we want more of it.’”
Phillips says BBC director of content Charlotte Moore wants to try entertainment in different slots as part of the entertainment push.
Still, the focus is on “feel good proper belly laugh entertainment on Saturday nights, especially early Saturday night.” That could be quizzes, like Pointless. “It’s a brilliant format – you can all have a crack at Pointless. Everyone can shout out an answer, so no one feels stupid watching it But only the very clever will get the Pointless answer.” Or it could be a Total Wipeout style game show.
She is also working closely with other genre heads in factual and comedy, and notes that entertainment is ‘threaded through’ many shows on TV. “Bake Off came out of docs,” says Phillips. “There is a lot of crossover between what we all do.”
This is a point echoed by Remarkable’s James Fox, who says his indie is looking at “how you change the conventions of entertainment shows whose quite rigid structures have been around for 50 years.” Many are now borrowing factual storytelling and applying to entertainment formats. He cites Remarkable’s upcoming Sky1 series The Big Spell, a kids spelling format hosted by Sue Perkins. It’s part game show, but incorporates a MasterChef or Bake Off-like competition and behind the scenes interviews with the kids and parents.
Fox also cites ITV’s Dance Dance Dance, which is experimenting with an augmented reality set. Augmented reality, he says, “could be a real game changer”, allowing shows to have enhanced sets at potentially the fraction of the cost of a physical build.
Over at Sky, meanwhile, there is a sense that the broadcaster has focused its commissioning budget much more on drama than entertainment in the past few years. This may change under Phil Edgar Jones, a former Big Brother exec, who took on responsibility for the genre following the departure of head of non scripted commissioning Celia Taylor in November.
C4 rethinks strategy
It’s all change at Channel 4 too. C4 has not had a dedicated entertainment team for some time. The genre was merged with the factual entertainment department last year, run by Liam Humphreys.
Its entertainment slate includes traditional studio shows like The Last Leg, but much of its output is a mixture of entertainment and factual entertainment like Gogglebox and First Dates.
However, amid signs that C4 is up for investing in more pure entertainment shows, Ed Havard has recently been appointed head of entertainment, adding to his TV events and sports brief. Havard is also set to hire an additional entertainment commissioner in the new year, and is reportedly looking for a “major entertainment format” too. The channel has also just greenlit a reboot of 1990s classic entertainment series The Crystal Maze.
C4’s move is perhaps symbolic of a renewed TV industry focus on entertainment for 2017. And with new commissioning heads in place at the BBC, ITV, C4 and Sky, there is a sense of opportunity. “Often some of the biggest and bravest commissions happen when heads of commissioning departments are new in their roles,” says Remarkable’s James Fox.
Filmed entirely on location in Sri Lanka, the setting is one of the stars of ITV’s new medical drama Good Karma Hospital.
The landscape and light of the south Asian country suffuses the Tiger Aspect-produced tale of the lives and loves of doctors in a charity hospital, which stars Amanda Redman, Amrita Acharia and Neil Morrissey, and was written by Dan Sefton.
Bill Eagles (Strike Back, New Blood) directed the first four episodes. Sri Lanka, he notes, only has a small filmmaking infrastructure, most of it based in the capital, Colombo. Good Karma Hospital was shot in the characterful town of Galle in the south, where no British show has been made before.
Eagles directed a mixture of experienced and inexperienced cast and crew from the UK, Bollywood and Colombo for much of the 12 week shoot. “I thought it would be more of a challenge than it was”, he says. “But the supporting cast rose to the occasion.”
The days were long, with 12-hour shoots, filming five or six pages a day. “It was a lot of work to get through,” says Eagles. The days were also long so the crew could catch the light, with dawn at 7am and dusk 6.30pm. “There are very short magic hours – just 45 minutes. The light is limited.”
The heat of Sri Lanka was “extraordinary”; it was often 35C on location. “Your body works overtime to cool down. So just walking around the set all day makes you feel like you have run a marathon.”
The rain was a challenge too. Even though filming didn’t take place during the monsoon season, the rain would come every day. And it was the noise of the rain that was most disruptive to filming. “Even inside, it was like 10,000 woodpeckers hammering on the roof,” says Eagles.
But it is clear that Sri Lanka has made an impression. “It is a landscape like no other. There is so much more to explore photographically than we were able to in 12 weeks.”
Good Karma Hospital airs on ITV on Sunday 5 February at 9pm
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).