Four top freelance cameramen and women reflect on how they covered 2011’s most seminal event - the Arab Spring. All four were winners or finalists in this year’s Rory Peck Awards (www.rorypecktrust.org)
I covered the first 10 days of the Egyptian protests from inside the HQ of the people who planned it – the April 6th Movement. I knew the news crews would be in Tahrir Square and I wanted a different take on the story. My biggest challenge was sleep deprivation, I was working alone with events happening 24 hours so I slept on the office floor with just a few blankets. I shot this story on a Z1. Al Jazeera wanted to air the film quickly (it was aired a few days after my return) so I was regularly sending tape rushes back to a crash edit in London. The pressure to be on top of what’s happening is constant.
I was in Libya from April until the end of the conflict. Early on I met a rebel commando in the West who invited me on their mission to re-capture the village of Al Majabira so I travelled with them to the frontline on foot. It was hard going physically, often walking 10 hours a day carrying 40 kilos of equipment. I shoot on a Panasonic 615 DVC Pro 25, which isn’t small, light or tapeless. I was sending material daily to Associated Press, ingesting, editing and filing direct from the frontline via a Bgan satellite transmitter and receiver. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and the pressure to turn things around quickly has increased dramatically.
I was in Cairo during the first week of revolution in Egypt working alongside photographer Jess Hurd. Within an hour of shooting on the first day – January 28th – we witnessed police using live shotgun rounds, firing blindly into clouds of tear gas. Because of this we were captured by the secret police. A senior officer took our camera memory cards then told us to leave, but we had switched the cards and walked away with cuts, bruises, a badly smashed knee, plus all our footage and stills. On top of the day to day stuff, we also had the problem of the government closing down the internet and phones, but fortunately the Intercontinental hotel internet was running.
The first voice to broadcast from Libya last February was Mohammed Nabbous, a Benghazi citizen turned journalist who was broadcasting via Livestream. I decided to go to Libya to film Mohammed and struggle to create the first independent Libyan satellite channel. We formed a close friendship as he underwent attacks from Gaddafi’s army. It was a never-ending roller coaster of highs and lows. On March 19th I got a phone call telling me that Mo had been shot and killed whilst out filming. That call changed everything about the film and it became the story of Mohammed Nabbous - an ordinary person who becomes extraordinary because of freedom.
After spending time with Sir David Attenborough, it’s hard to imagine that he will be 86 next May. At an age when most have long retired, he is still making and enthusing about programmes that are right at the cutting edge of television production.
Following on from his hugely acclaimed Frozen Planet, Attenborough’s next two projects are both in 3d. The Bachelor King 3d, which traces the journey of one King Penguin from awkward adolescent to adult, plays on Sky 3d this Christmas. Kew 3d, a series set in the Royal Botanic Gardens, is also in the works.
Both projects build on the success of the Bafta winning Flying Monsters 3d, which he made with Atlantic Productions. Bachelor King promises to be very different. “Flying Monsters got a lot of punch from cgi,” says Attenborough, speaking exclusively with Televisual just ahead of a Bafta preview screening of Bachelor King. “Well, there is no cgi in this, so we are taking the 3d one step further.”
The subject matter of the film was itself partly dictated by the restrictions that still hamper 3d shooting. “We learnt on Flying Monsters that having an immobile camera that takes four men to shift and forty minutes to change the lens is a huge problem.” Such a camera set up would be challenging for a natural history film where the traditional way of working, adds Attenborough with a smile, is “to crawl around keeping out of the way and, if you are lucky, to get close to some rare creature doing something unmentionable.”
So it was important to pick a subject that was “predictably there and that wasn’t going to run away,” says Attenborough, especially with a crew of 12 working on the programme at a cost of thousands of pounds a day. Attenborough suggested to his producer partner Anthony Geffen that filming take place in South Georgia, home to king penguins, three ton elephant seals and the biggest flying bird in the world, the albatross. “The marvellous thing about all three of them is that you could go at a time of year when they would all be there. And most of them, in fact all of them, would not be put off by a crew of 12.”
But is this enough to attract audiences who have just enjoyed Frozen Planet? Attenborough practically leaps out of his seat as he explains why it is: “If you get elephant seals rearing up 8ft high and fighting one another, if you see an albatross set off with a 12ft wing span, if you see penguins – not just one of them but thousands of them receding into the distance, I assure you in 3d it is going to look good.”
Attenborough himself takes a realistic view about the future of the 3d format, which has been relentlessly hyped by set manufacturers as the next big thing but has so far failed to take off with the viewing public or be adopted as a distribution platform by many broadcasters. He believes 3d will be reserved for ‘important shows’ only, rather than everyday viewing. “I doubt whether news bulletins will be in 3d,” he says.
For the moment, it also remains hugely expensive to make 3d programmes. Technical problems hinder the format too, notably that 3d cameras can’t use very long lenses. “If you went to a natural history cameraman and said, ‘I want you to make a really spectacular, hard hitting natural history film but you are not allowed to use more than a 75mm lens,’ he would say you are mad. Because these days natural history filming is absolutely at the top level. Frozen Planet has raised the bar – you have to be as good as that and then go to 3d. You can’t be 50% lower than that and say it won’t matter because it is in three dimensions.”
But he does offer the following advice to would be 3d pioneers, bringing to bear his years of experience as a programme maker and also as a former controller of BBC2. “Let’s not forget that programmes are about subjects, narrative, plot and an intrinsic story. Don’t just say, ‘I am going to do a 3d programme about swings and roundabouts and skyrockets unless you have got a story.” He also urges programme makers to be disciplined about the use of 3d. “In Flying Monsters we didn’t allow anything to come out of the screen until the very last shot – and then wallop. But if you do it within the first two minutes and every five minutes, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Beyond all of his advice, however, it’s Attenborough’s passion for the format that is so striking. As he describes the making of his current project, Kew 3d, it becomes obvious why he is working in 3d at this stage of his career. “The trick of a flower bud opening in time lapse, which was invented in the 1920s, is always mesmerising. But in 3d it is simply breathtaking,” he says. “You can’t stop watching it. It is just unbelievably beautiful in three dimensions. When we got the first time lapse back of flowers it was just wonderful. We were all sitting there looking at it in the cutting room and our jaws were just sagging at how beautiful it was.”
CV 1952 Joins the BBC in the Television Talks Department 1954 Launches Zoo Quest 1965 Controller of BBC2 1969 BBC director of programmes 1973 Returns to programme making 1979 Writes and presents the 13-part Life on Earth 1984 The Living Planet 1985 Knighted 1990 The Trials of Life 1993 Life in the Freezer 1995 The Private Life of Plants 1998 The Life of Birds 2001 The Blue Planet 2002 The Life of Mammals 2005 Life in the Undergrowth 2006 Planet Earth 2008 Life in Cold Blood 2009 Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life 2010 Flying Monsters 3d
What a year. 2011 has been marked by a series of momentous events that have played out on screen – from the Japanese Tsunami, the Arab Spring uprisings, the killing of Colonel Gaddafi, the London riots, the Royal Wedding to the European debt crisis.
And often these key events have been about the TV industry itself. In a year of big stories, one of the biggest has been the fall out from the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, which scuppered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bid to takeover BSkyB.
The hacking story effectively overshadowed the year’s other big TV industry story – the cutbacks at the BBC which will see 2000 jobs go, budgets trimmed and BBC3 move up to Salford. It also clouded Sky’s significant announcement that it was planning to double its investment in British TV content to £600m by 2014.
Perhaps bolstered by so many historic world events, it’s been a good year for television in terms of bums on seats. An early look at Barb data shows that 2011 is running neck and neck with 2010, when average weekly viewing figures were at a decade high with viewers watching just over 4 hours a day. The theory that people stay in and watch more television during difficult economic times looks increasingly true.
TELEVISION ON A GRAND SCALE
Once again, one of the key drivers of this viewing growth has been audience appetite for shows with scale – the ‘event TV’ phenomenon. Big budget entertainment series like The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Britain’s Got Talent have, of course, been big for many years. And they are retaining their popularity, despite wobbles for The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent this year.
But it is not just entertainment. Across drama, factual and news, TV has proved its ability to bring the nation together at the same time. The second series of Downton Abbey, for example, bowed out in November with over 10m viewers – the largest audience for a TV drama in a decade. “Downton Abbey has given us back that cosy Sunday evening viewing we remember from our childhood,” says Spun Gold md Nick Bullen. “On a broader level it’s got the nation talking in the same way that Dallas gripped us 30 years ago.”
ITV director of television Peter Fincham says the renewed success of Downton raises a wider point for the TV industry in 2011. “We have had a particularly good year in drama – and that requires significant investment. It shows that if you want a mainstream channel, you have got to invest – you have got to keep a schedule of original programmes in front of an audience.”
Factual has also proved to be a surprising draw. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding scored 8.7m viewers in February for Channel 4, its highest rating since Big Brother in 2008.
Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt says 2011 was the year when “baking hit the big time and global warming became watchable in Frozen Planet.” Indeed, The Great British Bake Off was perhaps the year’s most surprising hit, peaking at 5.2m for BBC2. It’s also been a strong year for constructed reality with The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea fighting for newspaper column inches. “Both have raised all sorts of interesting questions about how you can get a narrative feel into a schedule without commissioning conventional scripted drama,” says Hunt.
Then, of course, there was the year’s biggest rating event, the Royal Wedding, which peaked at 26.2m viewers across all channels.
Such impressive ratings suggest that mainstream television is more than holding on to its own in the face of increased competition for viewers from social media or video on demand. In fact, ITV director of programmes Peter Fincham says viewers are using the rapid advances in technology simply to watch more television programmes. “There’s been a huge growth of iPlayer and ITVPlayer time shifted viewing,” he says “And yet there’s a strong sense that linear schedules and a wide range of channels that show range of well made, well funded programmes are not losing their appeal.”
TV LEARNS TO LOVE SOCIAL MEDIA
Many believe that 2011 is the year that TV learned to work with new technology, particularly social media, rather than fear it. Says C4’s Jay Hunt: “I think factual TV as event has come of age, often helped by audience interaction on Twitter. Stand out moments for me included Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret and Hippo: Wild Feast Live which both brought in large young audiences and trended on Twitter.”
Hunt’s point is echoed by Twofour managing director, Melanie Leach, who says that new technology has really started to influence the shows that the indie makes. “It’s pretty unusual for us to be developing shows for C4 that don’t have lots of second screen applications,” she says. “Lots of people are in this space, so I imagine there will be quite a glut of new shows next year where the audience are really heavily involved.”
Leach adds that Twitter is also influencing the way programme makers think about their shows, citing Twofour’s well received documentary series Educating Essex. “The influence of Twitter and the way it trended on Twitter was extraordinary – it was really important for us as programme makers. For the first time we could see the nationwide conversation that our audience is having with the show.”
The other big technology trend to affect television has been the ongoing rise of user generated content. As the quality from camcorders and mobile phones has continued to improve, it’s led to more and more broadcasters making use of UGC this year.
In many cases UGC has underpinned the coverage of the big events of the year, says Tom Brisley, creative director of Arrow Media, offering an immediate and raw window into breaking stories, capturing unfolding events as they happen. The last moments of Colonel Gaddafi were captured on a mobile phone camera, and broadcast around the world. The full horror of the Japanese Tsunami was revealed by UGC. And UGC played an important role in revealing the scale of the London riots.
Advances in camera technology have also led to the emergence of ever more ambitious rig shows that appeared on screen in 2011, such as 24 Hours in A&E, Educating Essex and Seven Dwarves. Meanwhile, the much hyped 3d boom failed to take off – but David Attenborough’s Flying Monsters 3d did win the very first Bafta award for a 3d show.
IT’S THE ECONOMY
Business for both broadcasters and producers has been tough but, somewhat surprisingly, better than expected this year – despite the gloomy economic backdrop of the European debt crisis.
Perhaps that’s because business could only get better after the savage cuts that the broadcast industry experienced in 2009.
Producers say that commercial broadcasters, buoyed by an unexpectedly resilient advertising market, have been spending again this year, looking to stock up on new shows. ITV, for example, recently posted good interim results, showing revenues up 4% to £1.5bn for the first nine months of the year. It also added that ad revenue was up 2%.
Channel 4 has been very much back in the market, with slots to fill post Big Brother and is working with a broader range of indies.
Sky, meanwhile, has emerged as a real production force thanks to its pledge to commission more UK shows. Sky One is starting to become must watch, with shows such as League of their Own and An Idiot Abroad giving it a much clearer identity.
Discovery, with former C4 boss Julian Bellamy at the helm, is gearing up its production ambitions in the UK. Channel 5 also feels like it finally has a clearer direction and more opportunity for producers after raising its profile with the acquisition of Big Brother this year.
David Granger, md of Made in Chelsea producer Monkey, believes the climate has improved dramatically from the year before. “There are far more commissioning opportunities across all channels,” he says.
Arrow Media’s Tom Brisley echoes this, highlighting that British producers are looking ever more outwards for commissions and financing, particularly to the US: “The factual world has been more buoyant over the past year. Both at home and in the US, broadcasters are ramping up their factual output, and ‘scale’ is the buzz word.”
Billy Macqueen, joint md of Baby Jake and Pet Squad producer Darrall Macqueen, adds: “Like many UK indies, international sales are key to our future and 2011 has shown that overseas broadcasters are hungry for well-made and original UK content – a promising sign not just for us, but for the industry as a whole.”
But, amid the positives, it’s worth reflecting that business remains very challenging. Spun Gold’s Nick Bullen speaks for many when he says the past year has been ‘very tough’ for independent producers. “Available slots are becoming few and far between, margins are being squeezed from all sides and broadcasters’ expectations do not always match their budgets.”
Peter Fincham agrees that there are likely to be challenging times ahead: “The wider economy is in a scary place. I wouldn’t be so foolish to say that it doesn’t affect television – of course it does.” On a positive note, he argues that the appetite for television seems to be enduring and growing, noting that people are still buying large numbers of TVs. “Compared to 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis in autumn 2008, there was a sense of, ‘Oh gosh, where will this end, will budgets hold up and will people cut their way through recession?’ We end 2011 with all the main broadcasters committed to investment. In the case of Sky you see a broadcaster committed to a substantially larger investment. And that’s because if you want an audience, you have to invest in content. There is no short cut to getting an audience.”
A better than expected year for production has also translated over to post-production. The shrinking budgets and difficult climate of recent years forced post houses to focus on tightening up their offer to clients, and to look at ways of ensuring a solid, sustainable future. “A lot of management time goes in to saying, ‘Right, what’s next,’ says Prime Focus UK md Simon Briggs. “The recession made smart people smart again. The challenge to business over the last few years has made everyone think hard about how to be successful.”
And success can come from surprising places. One of the year’s big success stories was Danish import The Killing on BBC4. A 20 hour foreign language drama series that demanded very close attention across many weeks, it proves that viewers still want to sit down in front of the television and watch something with range depth and substance as much as they ever did.
It’s success, thinks ITV’s Peter Fincham, should be noted by everyone in television. “You don’t stand out from the crowd by being small in the modern world,” he concludes.