“The writer is absolutely essential to everything we do,” says Nicola Shindler right at the outset of this interview. Certainly, her relationship with writers helps explain the emergence of her indie, Red Production, into one of the UK’s most singular drama production companies over the past 15 years.
The Manchester-based outfit has worked with leading writers such as Russell T Davies, Bill Gallagher, Sally Wainwright, Danny Brocklehurst, Paul Abbott, Tony Marchant and Matt Greenhalgh to produce acclaimed shows such as Queer as Folk, Clocking Off, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey.
Shindler says her most important role to work as a script editor with writers, and to fight for their vision. “My job is to enable those people to do their job well – to protect them,” she says.
And one can easily imagine her doing this very well. Determined, charming and level-headed, you sense very quickly that Shindler knows what she wants and how best to achieve it. She says she shares the same tastes with many of the writers she works with. Tellingly, she works with many of them again and again – notably Sally Wainwright, whose recent credits through Red include ITV’s Unforgiven, Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, new BBC1 series Happy Valley and Sky Living’s one-off Last Witch.
From the outside, Red seems to have moved from producing edgy, cult drama like Queer as Folk towards much broader, popular pieces – often with a distinct northern voice and setting. But Shindler says there’s no such thing as a typical Red show, even though many people outside the company might see it that way. “We inherently go with what we think we would like, and I am naturally drawn to certain kinds of material.”
And what kind of material is that? She says it’s good drama or comedy that’s powerful, slightly provocative, not shy or retiring, cheeky and that has a point of view. “But mostly, it’s truthful and funny,” she emphasises.
Red had something of a fallow period a few years ago – something Shindler puts down to the timing of scripts and a difficult commissioning market.
But now the indie is busier than it has ever been. Last year saw six Red projects on screen, and it’s won four new commissions this year – Wainwright’s Happy Valley, Danny Brocklehurst’s Ordinary Lies,Prey starring John Simm for ITV and a fourth series of Scott & Bailey. It also produced comedies Pat and Cabbage for ITV and Heading Out for BBC2. And last week, Channel 4 revealed that Red was teaming with Russell T Davies on a Queer as Folk follow-up project that comprises two drama series, Cucumber and Banana and one online factual series, Tofu, that between them explore gay life in the 21st century.
Red shows have picked up plenty of awards too: Last Tango in Halifax won two Baftas this year for best drama and best writer (a second series is now in the pipeline).
This success is reflected in Red’s business, which turned over £22m in 2012 – up from £10m two years before. Shindler runs Red with md Andrew Critchley. While he very much takes care of the business side, Shindler looks after creative production. It’s a lean operation with just 17 staff in all. And, unusually, it’s heavily weighted towards creating new projects, with eight of its team working in development. “We are really just a bunch of developers and accountants,” she says.
Shindler says she was interested in writing from a young age, reading widely, going to the theatre and watching TV. But she admits she is not a writer herself. Earlier this year she told Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “I absolutely think that writers are born. You know that thing that everyone has a story in them. I don’t think that is true and I have read enough bad scripts to know. Writers just are writers…I’m not very good with a blank piece of paper, but talk to me about an idea and where it should go and I can start talking straight away.”
She set up Red in Manchester “because I lived here and I wanted to work around here,” adding that there was a strong crew base and drama tradition to draw on. Fifteen years on, Shindler says she is now planning the next stage in the company’s development. It’s been known for a while that the company is effectively up for sale. Shindler says there is nothing specific to report yet, only that “we are talking to people.” Shindler says she is looking for a corporate partner who can help bring money to the table to fund dramas at a time of falling budgets, and who also can help take Red shows and formats into international markets.
In the meantime, she thinks that the future looks promising for drama production. She welcomes the new drama tax credit, although Red hasn’t yet applied as none of its shows have hit the £1m an hour budget market that triggers the tax relief.
And she plays down concerns that have been aired by some producers that the tax credit will put a strain on the base of craft skills in the UK, meaning there will not be enough trained talent to meet rising demand. Instead, she thinks that producers will have to take risks on new, upcoming talent. “It means that the next generation will come up – and that can only be a good thing,” she says.
CV Beginnings: Shindler’s career began in the theatre at the Royal Court. After two years she moved into TV, and things took off almost immediately: she was script editor on the awards laden Cracker in 1993 and then on Our Friends in the North.
Producing: She earned her first full producer credit on Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in 1996, learning on the job, and using the experience to set up Red in 1998, aged just 29. She was, she acknowledges, incredibly young. “But the younger you are, the more foolish you are.”
Founding Red: Almost immediately Red found huge success with Russell T Davies’ cult hit Queer as Folk and then Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off. Since then Red credits include: Bob and Rose (ITV), Burn It (BBC3), Unforgiven (ITV), Scott & Bailey (ITV), Hit and Miss (Sky Atlantic) and Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1). Shindler was awarded an RTS Fellowship last month for outstanding contribution to TV drama.
Phil Clarke, Channel 4’s head of comedy, on the kinds of shows he’s looking for
What was your opinion of C4 comedy when you took the job in January? I thought it was in good shape. There were some very good pilots which we then took to series: London Irish, Drifters and Man Down. There was also Toast of London, which I had produced. It was a bit strange that one – as an ex-producer of the pilot it would obviously be nice if it was made, but I needed someone higher up, like Jay Hunt, to decide on that. There were also some very good series and shows being made: Friday Night Dinner 3, Derek and The Mimic.Cardinal Burns was also winning awards and Noel Fielding was doing his thing.
What’s your strategy for C4 comedy? C4 has always been an alternative channel. But the tone of C4 comedy has spread onto other channels. So the question is, as an alternative channel where should we be?
And where should you be? There are three strands to our comedy, including one particular strand which I currently want to push. Firstly, there is the truly alternative strand, something like Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy or Matt Berry and Arthur Mathew’s Toast of London. I don’t think you would find shows like that on another channel. Both are clearly alternative, authored pieces, weird and wonderful and deeply original. Shows that are not frightened to really push the boat out.
The second is the show with a strong comic voice, and big jokes. The IT Crowd is an example of that. And Father Ted.Man Down with Greg Davies has big jokes but is also well crafted and structured.
And there is a third strand that I want to do more of – clever, knowing, witty narratives that are adult and acerbic. Peep Show would have a foot in that camp. They are shows that are often witty rather than laugh out loud, that are clever and have an intelligence behind them. I want us to own that ground more. Other good examples of that would be The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve.
What’s the most important factor in a pitch? Well crafted writing. Traditionally a channel would attract top talent with a big cheque and then the work follows. But what I am saying is that the writing is everything, and the writing is what attracts established talent to do stuff that they haven’t done before. And also new talent.
What’s your budget? Around £30m for C4 and E4. We have 14 to 16 series running at any one time.
What has worked recently? An interesting show at the moment is London Irish. Some people are offended by it. My position is fine, be offended. Some people think that being offended is some kind of human right, which it isn’t. I think London Irish is brilliantly written. It appears to be one thing early on – quite crude and they swear a lot at each other. But if you watch the whole series you will see the subtlety of the writing. It’s very nicely constructed – there is a little love story and it slowly bubbles to the surface. It is also original and genuine.
What’s your target audience? C4’s heartland is 16-34 year olds, but I think we shouldn’t worry about that too much – we should just worry if it is good. If it is good, then they will come.
What are you looking for? The headline is narrative, scripted comedies.
And for what slots? Of old there would have been a comedy slot, but now the comedies are all over the place. There is an editorial freedom in that.
How about film? I do have a budget to commission film scripts, and I am working very closely with Film4 so we have buddied up. It is a brilliant carrot to be able to offer people.
How important are pilots? I am trying to make more pilots. A lot of shows, Peep Show being a good example, are coming to a natural end and we need to get some more shows up and running. So particularly this year and next year I want to make as many pilots as possible. It perhaps means directing funds that would have gone to a series into making six pilots. But I think it’s important that we get a new coterie of shows, a smorgasbord of stuff to choose from.
CV: Phil Clarke Jan 2013 - present Head of comedy, C4 2003 - 2013 Head of comedy, Objective Productions. Credits include Fresh Meat, Peep Show and Star Stories. 1999 - 2003 Producer, then comedy editor, Talkback. Credits included Bo Selecta, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Big Train, Brass Eye 1998-1999 Producer, Absolutely Productions 1990 - 1997 Producer, BBC Comedy
Top C4 comedy shows of 2013 Show (rating)
1. Derek (2m)
2. Black Mirror (1.9m)
3. Peep Show (1.6m)
4. The Mimic (1.4m)
5. Friday Night Dinner (1.3m)
The Paula Milne-scripted Legacy is the mainstay of BBC2’s Cold War season this month - and was one of the first shows to take advantage of the new drama tax credits.
The centrepiece of BBC2’s upcoming season on the Cold War, Legacy hits the screen this month thanks to the curious interplay of timing, talent – and tax.
Set during the height of the Cold War in 1970s London, the Paula Milne-scripted espionage thriller tells the story of a young spy who discovers the disturbing truth about his father’s complex past.
The 90-min single drama only came about thanks to extraordinary good timing. Slim Film and Television’s Simon Crawford Collins was meeting with BBC drama commissioner Lucy Richer in November 2012 to discuss a historical series he was developing. Richer mentioned in the meeting that she had just had a briefing from BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow, who was putting together a Cold War season of documentaries and was looking for a single drama to lead the season. Did Crawford Collins have a concept or idea that might suit – and crucially, that could be delivered on time?
A former producer of Spooks at Kudos, Crawford Collins had once met with Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, as part of his development research. Dearlove had recommended Alan Judd’s novel Legacy as one of the best books about life as intelligence officer in the Cold War.
So Crawford Collins immediately suggested the book to Richer, who thought it sounded promising. He phoned Judd’s agent that afternoon, found out the rights were available and offered to option the book the same day.
Given that the project would have to be delivered in less than a year, Crawford Collins wanted a top screenwriting talent for the script. “When time is against you, you need a really good writer,” he says. Coincidentally, BBC head of drama Ben Stephenson was having dinner with Paula Milne about the same time – and he gave her a copy of Judd’s book. Even though Milne was busy, she read the book – and decided she wanted to do the screenplay.
And so it turned out that, within a couple of weeks of Richer mentioning the possibility of a Cold War single drama, Paula Milne was working on Legacy. “That is unheard of in the drama world,” says Crawford Collins. “If only other things were that easy.”
The script was approved at the end of February. By that stage, Slim was planning the shoot. The timing was too tight to trawl for additional finance, but Slim realised that it could boost the budget by applying for the newly launched drama tax credit – which would add about 20% to the budget of over £1m provided by BBC2 and distributor BBC Worldwide.
Meanwhile, Slim had also lined up director Pete Travis for the project. Travis had worked before with Milne on the acclaimed drama Endgame, and had also directed Omagh and comic book adaptation Dredd. “He ticked all the boxes,” says Crawford Collins, pointing out that Travis knows how to deliver emotional and political stories, while able to tackle action on a cinematic scale.
Armed with a Paula Milne script and Pete Travis as director, casting proved straight-forward – more so given that Legacy was a single film that wouldn’t tie down actors for a long series. It meant the producers could aim high: Charlie Cox (Stardust) was cast as the leading man, alongside Romola Garai, Richard McCabe and Simon Russell Beale.
The production itself, though, was not so straightforward. The script determined that much of the film had to be shot at night. But, because of its tight schedule, Legacy had to shoot in July and August, when it didn’t get dark till very late at night.
The producers had to schedule in three weeks (out of four in total) of night shooting. The cast and crew would be called at 7pm or 8pm, when they would assemble for a cooked breakfast (caterers still work on the basis of a full working day). The shoot itself would not start until darkness fell after 10pm – but then only after the DoP had spent 45 minutes setting up his lights. “The hours of darkness were so precious we worked straight through,” says Crawford Collins. “We had to eke out every second of night time.”
Adding to the pressure was the decision to film Legacy in and around London, with shoots in residential areas in Ealing and along the Southbank. It was particularly difficult to find residential streets that would host film crews at night time.
And there were financial pressures too. Dramas that hope to claim for a tax credit have to shoot and spend their budget in good faith – and then apply for their rebate after the film is delivered. So producers have to finance the shortfall. In Legacy’s case, BBC Worldwide provided the gap finance – but only after Slim had ensured Legacy met the cultural requirements of the tax credit regime, and had received an advice letter from accountants Grant Thornton that the production would, in their opinion, qualify for the rebate.
Crawford Collins hopes he will get the money back from the taxman before Christmas. He calls the credit an “absolute God-send”. He adds: “It was a struggle to get this made – in fact I don’t think we’d have made the film if there wasn’t a tax rebate.”
DETAILS Broadcaster BBC2 Produced by Slim Film + Television Cast Charlie Cox, Romola Garai, Andrew Scott, Simon Russell Beale Commissioned by Ben Stephenson, Janice Hadlow Written by Paula Milne Based on the novel by Alan Judd Producer Rob Bullock Director Pete Travis Executive producers Lucy Richer, Simon Crawford Collins, Paula Milne, Alan Judd Line producer Elizabeth Binns Script executive Rebecca Ferguson DoP Felix Wiedemann Production designer Victor Molero Art director Lynne Huitson Composer Ruth Barrett Post supervisor Jessica Rundle Editor Stuart Gazzard Colourist Paul Ensby VFX Munky Cameras Arri Alexa
Twenty five years old this year, Artem is something of a rarity in a UK production industry that has embraced digital VFX with relish.
Based out of a 20,000sq ft workshop on an industrial estate in West London, and another in Glasgow, Artem makes things – by hand.
In the week I visit, Artem designers have created and built a 60ft whale carcass, a talking toilet and painstaking replicas of World War II tank commanders’ throat mics.
Artem’s longevity proves there’s still a demand for physical effects on films, commercials and TV in this digital age, and is a reminder that not everything can or need be created by computer.
Artem works on major projects for museums and exhibitions too, and last year produced 20 separate pieces for Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony including a 60ft high Voldemort puppet, David Beckham’s pimped up speedboat, trampoline beds, the Child Catcher’s carriage and a giant baby’s head as well as some of the night’s pyrotechnics.
To outsiders, many of these projects seem unthinkably complicated to produce. For example, Olympic engineers originally cast doubt on the feasibility of the giant baby’s head, saying it would weigh 22 tons, which was far too heavy for the stadium’s stage.
With a deadline of just a month, Artem worked on the design with materials used in aircraft manufacturing, and brought the weight down to less than a ton.
“In this business, you are often thrown a problem and you just have to solve that problem,” says Artem founder Mike Kelt. “If there is no ideal solution, you have to come up with the best solution. If you are nervous or get stressed, my advice is don’t get into the business – it is not conducive to a quiet life.”
Kelt began his career in the BBC’s special effects department in 1979. His first job was to build the inside of a Dalek, which was about to be blown up in the studio, so that viewers could see the inner workings of Dr Who’s legendary foes when it exploded. “It was a great place and a great learning curve,” he says.
He stayed for nine years at the BBC, leaving to found Artem in 1988 with four other colleagues, two of whom are still involved, Simon Tayler and Stan Mitchell. Together they bought a workshop and, in the early years, commercials became the mainstay of the company.
“In those days, advertisers had budgets to spend and because ads are quick turnaround, the cash flow was positive and we were able to build up the company,” says Kelt.
The growth of digital technology has, he admits, had a huge impact on the physical effects industry. George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy and then Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur tale Jurassic Park started to change the game. “We used to do quite a bit of animatronic creature work – but most of it has gone. And I don’t think anyone would build a spaceship for real now.”
Kelt says a generation of people who have grown up with computers now forget that things can be built for real. “Real is almost always cheaper – and it usually looks better too,” he adds.
That said, digital technology is far more prominent in physical effects than it was even ten years ago. Many props are still designed and created entirely by hand. But others will be drawn up on a computer, from where the design file will be routed to a giant robot arm or a 3d printer to mechanically create the prop. Even then, though, the prop will be finished by hand.
Walking round Artem’s workshop, there are props everywhere that it has created or is working on: a half scale Wright brothers bi-plane, robot suits, fake potatoes (that can be thrown at actors without hurting them), a dead body, the Churchill Insurance dog. In each case, the workmanship is extraordinary.
“I often think that the skills involved in physical special effects are more widespread than anything in this land,” says Kelt.
Kelt adds: “It sounds stupidly arrogant, I know. But a heart surgeon deals with a heart, and he knows a heart backwards. But we are dealing with a huge range of skills – things that happen in the digital world, precision engineering, sculpting and explosives for example. Although you don’t have to be an expert in all areas, by the time you are a supervisor you have got to be pretty good with it all. And that is where you get your solutions from.”
Sky Atlantic unveiled the first fruits of its documentary push today, showcasing six of its feature length films at the Sky Atlantic Documentary Film Festival – a specially curated day of screenings, Q&As and masterclasses at the Rich Mix centre in Shoreditch.
The channel has invested in or acquired six feature length docs to broadcast from early November, and they were all on show at the Festival which acted as a launchpad for the films.
The season kicks off with the adrenaline-packed and moving The Crash Reel, from director Lucy Walker, a portrait of American champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s recovery from a terrible accident. The film opened the Sundance Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim.
The Crash Reel screened this morning at the festival, with Walker and Pearce on hand for a Q&A afterwards.
Other films include director Beeban Kidron’s Inreallife, Alison Klayman's Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing; Greg Barker’s Manhunt and James Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned.
From a standing start, it's a hugely impressive collection of films that Sky has assembled. And the decision to launch them at a day long festival seemed to underline the effort, both in terms of finance and time, that Sky has put into its documentary push.
“This is a statement of intent of our commitment to documentary film-making,” said Sky Atlantic director Elaine Pyke at the launch of the festival.
Sky head of factual Celia Taylor added that the investment in feature docs was “a long term commitment”, pointing out that Sky had invested in films that wouldn't deliver until 2015 and 2016.
Sky also confirmed two further films for 2014: the Johnny Depp fronted doc on Ralph Steadman, For No Good Reason; and the next film from Errol Morris, The Unknown Known, a portrait of former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld.
This follows a spate of other deals over the past 12 months, which have seen ITV buy The Garden and Big Talk, and Tinopolis acquire Firecracker and distributor Passion.
Independent TV production companies are proving attractive to private equity buyers. The Boom/Twofour deal was funded by private equity outfit LDC, part of the Lloyds Banking Group. Tinopolis’ acquistions, meanwhile, have been financed by private equity player Vitruvian Partners.
US firms like Core Media, the owner of American Idol-producer 19 Entertainment and part of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, are also looking to build their UK presence.
FremantleMedia and ITV are also said to be eyeing more purchases in the UK, while Entertainment One, Lionsgate and Pawn Stars producers Leftfield Pictures are also reported to be exploring the market.
They recognise the potential for UK producers to grow even more in international markets. With a global reputation for creativity, British producers are well set to meet demand for quality programmes from established markets like the US, from digital and VOD players like Netflix, and from growing economies like China, Brazil, India and Russia.
Tom Manwaring, managing director of About Corporate Finance, says: "Independent TV production remains a buoyant sector. We will see a number of deals in the UK in the next 12 months. There is no shortage of buyers for UK companies – it is a seller's market. From a seller's perspective, the big question is when is the right time to sell."
Ben Tolley, a partner at Clarity, which advised on the Boom/Twofour merger, said the deal is evidence that private equity buyers are returning to the indie TV sector: “It is an exciting time for the TV production sector. The value of distinctive content is being recognised with increasing investment from both broadcasters and non-traditional players such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Netflix and marketing agencies such as WPP’s GroupM Entertainment. It is only a matter of time before non-traditional players start to acquire their own production assets.”
Tolley added: “This makes companies with a proven record of producing quality programming extremely valuable - hence the rising interest from private equity players. Many other significant players in the UK and Europe, such as All3Media, Tinopolis and Eyeworks, are private equity-backed and it will be interesting to see what their owners do next.”
There are, however, some concerns about valuations in the sector, so buyers are wary.
It is also felt that there are a limited number of targets because many of the leading mid-sized production companies have already been acquired.
It means that many buyers, like ITV, Tinopolis and Leftfield Pictures, have looked outside the UK for deals, acquiring production companies in the US or other international territories. Many big production groups, noted Mediateque director Mathew Horsman in a Televisual column last month, are focusing on tying in talent with production deals rather than paying a premium to buy an indie outright.
However, it will be interesting to note what happens to many of the UK’s leading mid-sized indies over the next 12 months, among them Raw TV, Red Production, Love Productions, Keo Films, Nutopia, Atlantic, Windfall, October and Outline.
Angela Jain, ITV’s director of digital channels and acquisitions, on the shows she’s looking for on ITV2
What have been your key priorities since taking over ITV2 two years ago?
Key priorities were comedy, injecting some smartness and wit into the programmes, 9pm series and a more determined focus on targeting a 16-34 audience looking for entertainment and fun.
Which commissions have worked well for you recently – and why?
Plebs was a concerted attempt to get into scripted. It worked because of the phenomenal talent in it, on and off screen, the incredible scripts and attention to detail throughout the production. It was the biggest scripted comedy hit in the channel’s history. The Big Reunion tapped into something new and potent – recent nostalgia – that, combined with the candid revelation of the popstars in the show made for a remarkable series and then a smash hit tour. The Magaluf Weekender was our attempt to tap into a rites of passage moment – the first time you go on holiday without your parents. Using a fixed rig we were able to capture much more nuanced conversations and enjoy the mayhem that is so much a part of growing up. It doubled the audience share for 16-24s in its slot.
What kind of changes would you like to see on the channel in the year ahead? I would like us to to strengthen our relationship with comedy both acquired and original. And find some more hit shows.
What are your commissioning priorities? What are you looking for right now?
Commissioning priorities are scripted, 9pm returning series and lots of things I didn’t know I was looking for.
What is the one big thing you are missing from ITV2?
A lightly formatted entertainment series for 9pm that has the potential to run to 10 series.
Which slots are the most important?
10pm is broadly speaking our prime time. And I tend to only commission for post 9pm slots. I am simply looking for hit shows from the widest variety of people possible that share the same sense of fun, surprise and quality you find in our best shows. I wasn’t looking for a sitcom set in 27BC. I wasn’t looking for a show about popstars who were no longer popstars, but there you go.
Which new ITV2 shows are you most excited about in the near future – and why?
A young magician called Ben is the star of a new hidden camera magic show we have commissioned called Tricked. The reactions are genuine. And I love magic so I hope others do too. We have a special for Halloween called Release The Hounds which is scary and funny. The production and production design is superb. I think people will be slightly surprised to find this on ITV2 and I like that unpredictability.
What kind of genres/shows don’t work so well for ITV2?
We don’t commission factual or features shows, we are entertainment in the broadest sense of the word. Shows that tell you how to live your life don’t work as do shows that are mean or arch or sneery.
How important is it to attach well known talent to ITV2 shows?
It isn’t. But if there is a logic, an authenticity, a point to attaching well known talent, please do.
Tell us about what you have been watching, reading and listening to outside work?
I have been watching The Story of the Jews and The Great British Bake Off, currently my older son’s favourite TV programme. I read Americanah on holiday –just wonderful and have been evangelical in my recommendation of it - and read Mr Wolf’s Pancakes or Bob The Man On The Moon pretty much very night. And it’s Radio 4 in the mornings and Radio 1 at the weekend.
Which shows on other channels have you admired recently?
Spy, Fresh Meat and Bad Education. In fact, we have commissioned a pilot from Freddie Syborn, the co-writer on Bad Education, a love story set in a post-apocalyptic world. Very exciting.
Any tips for pitching to you?
Be passionate, be succinct and tell me jokes.
Angela Jain CV 2011 - 2013 Present - director of digital channels and acquisitions, ITV 2007 - 2011 Head of E4 and Big Brother 2005 - 2007 Commissioning editor, factual entertainment, C4 2002 - 2005 Deputy controller of entertainment, Five
Before moving into commissioning Jain worked in production, producing and directing on shows such as T4, The Real Deal and Right To Reply. She started her career in Children’s at the BBC.
Top ITV2 shows of 2013
Celebrity Juice 2.45m (12%)
The Only Way is Essex 1.65m (8.4%)
The Big Reunion 1.57m (5.8%)
Britain’s Got More Talent 1.49m (8.1%)
Peter Andre: My Life 1.42m (5.6%)
One of the most remarkable films in the BFI archive, The Epic of Everest has been restored ahead of its world premiere at this month’s London Film Festival.
The 1924 attempt to reach the summit of Everest is best known for culminating in the deaths of two of the finest climbers of their generation, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine – sparking an ongoing debate about whether or not they reached the summit.
The legendary British expedition was captured on film by Captain John Noel. A pioneering explorer and filmmaker, Noel shot The Epic of Everest on 35mm film (using a Newman and Sinclair Kine camera with an electric drive and Cooke telephoto lenses).
Initially, he carried his kit in watertight boxes on two sturdy Tibetan ponies. With two local assistants to help him, Noel would blow a whistle and reckoned he could have the camera ready to shoot within thirty seconds. In the later stages of the expedition, eight porters carried the camera kit in shoulder boxes.
Beautifully framed, Noel’s film opens with powerful images of Everest and the expedition team. Noel then records some of the earliest images of the Tibetan people and their culture, and follows the harsh conditions experienced by the climbers at each stage of their ascent, until the camera can go no further. A specially designed telephoto lens, filming at a distance of two miles, records the final attempt to reach the summit as Mallory and Irvine disappear from sight.
Noel was also an entrepreneurial businessman. He bought all photographic rights in advance of the expedition and set up a company, Explorers Films, raising finance from investors including the Aga Khan. Using the money, he bought a plot of land in Darjeeling where a lab was built. Teams of runners brought the rushes down to Darjeeling, where they were developed and edited. Clips, showing the progress of the expedition, were then dispatched to Pathe Pictorial News for distribution to cinemas around the world.
When he returned from the expedition, Noel released The Epic of Everest. The film was a hit – and Noel made a lecture tour of the UK, Europe and America with it.
Almost ninety years after it was filmed, the BFI has now restored The Epic of Everest and commissioned a new score, composed by Simon Fisher Turner, ahead of its premiere this month at the London Film Festival.
The restoration has taken some 18 months, and is based on two key versions of the film in the BFI collection, one of which was donated by Noel’s daughter Sandra. Both, says the BFI National Archive’s head curator Robin Baker, were compromised, with surface damage from scratches and mould.
The BFI has also restored the coloured tints and tones of the film, which had faded dramatically over time. Many black and white films from the 1920s had portions that were colour toned, and The Epic of Everest used the technique to great effect with dramatic blue tone scenes of Everest and moving final shots of a blood red sunset over the Himalayas.
“Two thirds of the film is in black and white but when the moments of colour appear it is sensational and transforming,” says Baker. The colour restoration, he says, is true to the aesthetic of the director and means that modern audiences can see the film as the public in the 1920s did.
The BFI worked closely with Deluxe 142 on the restoration of The Epic of Everest, following a successful collaboration on restoring nine of the earliest films directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The initial stages of the restoration saw the original films inspected, comparing and contrasting each in search of the best shot possible. The film then passed through a 4k ArriScan film scanner with wet gates, which can help eliminate scratches, while converting the film to digital files.
A long period of repair and restoration followed, with vfx software used to help fix images damaged by mould. One big challenge was restoring fast changing shots of clouds and mist blowing over mountains, and the vfx software helped speed up the process. “It was really successful at reducing the appearance of the mould,” says Kieron Webb, film conservation manager at the BFI. The film was then graded over a seven week period.
The Epic of Everest is now likely to find a wide audience. The BFI’s 2011 restoration of Herbert Ponting’s film of Captain Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, The Great White Silence, played in 150 cinemas and proved the interest in films about exploration. “There is a kind of extraordinary appetite for it,” says Baker, who reckons that The Epic Of Everest will appeal to many different potential audiences in the UK and internationally – those interested in Everest, mountaineering, Tibet and Buddhism among them.
The Epic of Everest world premieres at the BFI London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 18 October
The restoration of Captain John Noel’s film of the 1924 attempt on Everest is based on nitrate positives held by the BFI National Archive. The restoration, in collaboration with Noel’s daughter Sandra Noel, was carried out by the BFI and Deluxe. The film world premieres at the BFI London Film Festival with a specially commissioned score.
BFI National archive
Restoration supervised: Bryony Dixon, Jan Faull, Ben Thompson
Picture scanning and restoration: David Gurney, Peter Marshall, Ben Thompson
Film inspection and comparison: David Jones
Intertitle restoration: Peter Marshall, David Gurney Deluxe
Production: Mark Bonnici, Graham Jones
Colourist: Stephen Bearman
Digital picture restoration: Deluxe Restoration Team
Film recording: Paul Doogan
Score composed, orchestrated and conducted by
Simon Fisher Turner