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Highlighting the risks of reporting from war zones

Here are links to three films that clearly show the risks faced by freelance cameramen and women reporting from conflict zones.

Each of the films won top prizes at the Rory Peck Awards on 28th November, which is dedicated to the work of freelance cameramen and women.

The winner of the Rory Peck Awards for News, a young French/Algerian freelance film-maker called Mani, shot these astonishing scenes of fighting in Homs just as Free Syrian Army fighters were taking on President Assad’s forces. Broadcast on Channel 4 News, the footage of close street fighting in a besieged city is all the more remarkable when you consider that until recently Mani was a primary school teacher.

Meanwhile, the chaos of revolutionary war is perhaps nowhere better captured in this film by Spanish freelancers Alberto Arce and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, who won the Rory Peck Award for Features for their Libyan film, Misrata, Victory or Death.

I spoke with Alberto Arce at the Awards, and he said the film was shot shortly after the death of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Misrata last year, when most Western journalists had fled the area.  The reason he went to film in Misrata in such circumstances was a simple one. He had recently lost his job as reporter for a Spanish newspaper as a result of the recession. With a wife and baby daughter to support and few prospects at home, he thought to himself ‘Where is the most dangerous place, where there is no competition, where I will have a chance to sell my films.”

Arce and Villanova’s film is the story of an irregular unit of rebel fighters – office workers and shop assistants – on the front line. They are scenes that could have been shot in any war over the centuries, and Arce says they particularly brought to mind the circumstances that his grandfather – a Republican volunteer in the Spanish Civil War – must have fought in in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, Daniel Bogardo’s film, made with reporter Aiden Hartley, is notable for shedding light on a conflict that is woefully under-reported in the West. The winner of the Sony Impact Award, Terror in Sudan, made for Channel 4's Unreported World, provides direct evidence of Sudanese government attacks on civilians in the troubled Nuba region of the country. The clear impact of the conflict on children is especially upsetting in this film, and is a tribute to the Bogardo’s level-headedness in such extreme circumstances. The emotional challenge of filming the scene of an 11-year-old boy injured by an air attack was outweighed, says Bogardo, by the huge responsibility he felt to film it properly. “I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tell the story, because not a lot of people manage to get there.” Bogardo says crimes against humanity are being committed in the Nuba mountains – but nobody in the international community seems to care. “At least films like these mean that people cannot say, ‘We did not know.”

Rory Peck Trust director Tina Carr believes that more unsupported freelancers than ever are travelling to war zones, particularly because broadcasters and news agencies have cut back on permanent staff.

“There are so many freelancers going instead of staff – and that’s when it gets really dangerous. Young freelancers have always been drawn to areas of conflict – it is in their nature. But many of them haven’t got a clue that they should be prepared and trained,” says Carr.

Advances in camera technology also mean that it is more possible than ever for young and inexperienced freelancers to shoot broadcast quality footage. It also means they can take more risks too, able to stay in the field for far longer without have to return to a base to file.

It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn, therefore, that the Rory Peck Trust has provided 127 charitable grants to freelancers and their families in crisis over the last 12 months – more than every before. The average grant is about £1,500 - but this can go a long way to help many of the international freelancers that the Trust supports.

So it's worth noting that the Trust has launched a modest fundraising exercise after this year's awards via JustGiving - - raising funding in addition to the Trust's contribution from donors such as Sony, the BBC, Al Jazeera, ITN, Reuters and Sky News.

"The ability of freelancers to produce breathtaking and engaging footage in the most challenging of circumstances is an inspiration to us all," says awards sponsor Sony Professional Europe's head of AV Media Olivier Bovis. "But we should also thank them for the incredible sacrifices they make to connect us with stories that help us better understand the nature of the world around us."

Posted 30 November 2012 by Tim Dams

Lavish BBC pay-offs spark latest crisis at corporation

The lavish use of licence fee payers money on payouts and perks to senior BBC managers has become the third big crisis to engulf the corporation in as many months.

In the wake of the Savile and Newsnight scandals that cost George Entwistle his job, the BBC is facing widespread criticism in newspapers and social media after the Public Accounts Committee’s hearing yesterday into George Entwistle’s 450k pay-off.

MPs were told ten BBC executives had received "golden goodbye" payments totalling £4 million in recent years, including Entwistle and former chief operating officer Caroline Thomson, who left in September. Thomson left with a £670,000 pay-off – more than twice her £330,000 salary.

Tory MP Guto Bebb said: ‘It does look as though losing a job at the BBC is the same as winning the lottery.’

It also emerged that 574 BBC senior executives received private healthcare as part of their deals, worth in the region of £2m in total.

Former C5 chief executive David Elstein criticised the "gravy train" of BBC executives.

Elstein, writing in The Times, said: "Mr Entwistle claimed he had acted 'honourably' in resigning over the Newsnight fiasco. Well, honourable resignation would have involved taking no pay-off at all, having failed in the job.
"A less honourable resignation would have been to take the six months of his newly enlarged salary, as his contract allowed.

"His demanding the 12-month pay-off that sacking apparently entitled him to, while claiming to have resigned, was reprehensible. It is not possible to be honourable and greedy."

Entwistle quit earlier this month after 54 days as director general. On top of his  £450,000 pay-off, his exit package included another £45,000 for bills for lawyers and communications advisers.

The deal included up to £10,000 for the legal advice. He also received a year’s Bupa private medical cover, legal expenses of up to £25,000 to help him give evidence to two inquiries into the Jimmy Savile affair, and £10,000 for public relations assistance to cope with the ‘considerable amount of door-stepping’ from reporters.

His pension pot will also provide him with an income of £48,000 a year.

The large sums of money being paid out to senior BBC executives has led to many people expressing outrage on social media, including threats to withhold payment to the licence fee in protest at perceived profligacy at the corporation.

And it has threatened to overshadow the appointment of Tony Hall as the new director general. Hall, already the recipient of an £82k BBC pension, is being paid a £450k salary as director general.

Posted 23 November 2012 by Tim Dams

Clever cgi reveals what lies beneath major cities

New Discovery series Strip the City uses Inception-like cgi to pull apart major cities to explore the engineering and geology that keeps them ticking.

Produced by Windfall Films, which specialises in making visually arresting science television (Inside Nature’s Giants; Big, Bigger, Biggest), Strip the City is arguably the indie’s most ambitious series to date. Each show comprises about 50% cgi animation, and strips a major city layer by layer of its buildings, roads and rivers to reveal what lies beneath and to explore the hidden technology and infrastructure that keeps them running.

Billed by executive producer Carlo Masserella as a “fusion between geology and engineering”, Strip the City uses an impressive array of visuals to engage viewers with its complex science. In total, there is about 130 minutes of cgi over the six part series.

At times reminiscent of Hollywood epic Inception, the photo-real cg is employed to peel the glass off buildings, roll back the tarmac on roads and suck the water out of rivers to expose the workings of six cities: London, Rome, Dubai, Sydney, Toronto and San Francisco.

For armchair scientists, it answers the following kinds of intriguing questions: What stops Dubai’s sky scrapers, balanced on unstable sand, from toppling over? How did the ancient Romans build a city of a million people without modern technology? And how can San Francisco survive, sitting on a major earthquake fault?

In each case, Strip the City predominently uses graphics – rather than the traditional presenter in a hard hat – to reveal the answer. This, of course, means that the show is highly expensive to produce. Massarella won’t reveal the exact budget, but says it is at the “very high end.”

Two years in the making, Strip the City was backed by the Science Channel in the US, Discovery Canada and Discovery Networks International. To help win the commission, Windfall produced an early taster tape that used cg to showcase Canary Wharf being stripped away. Then, handily, Christopher Nolan’s Inception itself came out, featuring streets being torn up, which made the idea seem even more current.

To help make the programme’s budget work, it was set up as a Canadian co-production which allowed Windfall to access Canadian television tax breaks. Windfall found a Canadian partner to co-produce the show, Handel Productions, as well as a Canadian vfx house, the Montreal-based Modus FX, which has film credits such as The Twilight Saga and Source Code to its name.

The show has been in production for the past year, and has been a hugely complex organisational challenge, says series producer Rob Hartel. Each one of the six programmes has 22 distinct graphics shots. And each graphics shot is based on one, two or even three specially filmed plates from the location being featured. To lighten the load, Windfall broke the project down, with three directors and a team working on two films each.

It then had to work remotely with Modus on the vfx. After flying out to brief Modus, Hartel says that everything was done remotely via cineSync, a viewing platform that allows multiple people across the world to review visual media, from static images to movies. It’s rather like Skype, but also comes with drawing tools that let participants point at elements in the frame, sketch new ideas and write text notes, all synchronised in real time with everyone else in the review. “It was an extremely focused way of working,” says Hartel. “The feedback was all concentrated into one session.”

Massarella says Strip the City shows how much cg technology has moved on in the past five years, such that entire programmes can be filled with effects. Six years ago, he recalls, Windfall stripped a skyscraper of its glass for Big, Bigger, Biggest – and the shot took ‘forever’ to create.

“Now the technology has moved on rapidly, and broadcasters have faith that we can deliver,” he adds.


December 2012/January 2013
Executive producers
Carlo Massarella
Alan Handel
Series producer
Robert Hartel
Producer directors
Roeland Doust
Gwyn Williams
Oliver Twinch
Andre Barro
Caroline Harvey
Associate producers
Jonathan Shipley
Clare Stronge
Line producer
Karen Lee
Junior production manager
Michelle Cullen
Andrew Evans
Mark Hanford
Duncan Thomsen
Sarah Barker
Katie Draper
Vfx & graphics
Modus FX
Lead vfx designers
Martin Pelletier
Valerie Clement
Sony PDW F800

Posted 21 November 2012 by Tim Dams

Two Brothers on the making of animated series Full English

Original British animation series aimed at grown up audiences are rare on television.

The US has cornered the market thanks to shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, and it is tough to raise the funds for animated series in the UK.

So hats off to Harry and Jack Williams of Two Brothers Pictures, the new British production company behind C4 animated sitcom, Full English, which began airing this week. They partnered with with artist and lead designer Alex Scarfe (son of legendary illustrator Gerald) and Hollywood-based Rough Studios, the company behind The Simpsons Movie, to make Full English. Here they explain how they did it.

How did you get to make this for C4?
We didn’t go in with a notion or a treatment. We wrote a full pilot script and Alex drew the characters. So we went into C4 armed with those and set out the whole world. We also danced for them wearing short shorts.

Where did the idea for Full English come from?

The fact that Britain hasn’t yet done the quintessential English family in animated form. And the fact that animation hasn’t really been cracked in the UK yet. It’s such a popular medium and it’s right there for the taking. I’m sure we’ll get a lot of comparisons to Family Guy but when that came out people just said they ripped off The Simpsons so it’s all relative. It’s the characters that make a show.

How did you go about raising the money and making it?

This kind of high-end, hand-drawn animation is expensive, so we got an advance from the distributor, BBC Worldwide. The bulk of the deficit was made up with an advance from 4DVD, who have been incredibly supportive of the project in general. The final thing was to do a profit-sharing agreement with the animators, the incredibly talented powerhouse Rough Draft Studios. We also sold our bodies on street corners in Kentish Town. We didn’t make much money from that. Just lifelong friends.

What's been the biggest challenges getting it made?

Stamina. It’s taken two years to get the full series finished. So it’s a lot of work. A lot of rewriting and a lot of time in the studio recording – trying out voices etc... Our lead artist Alex Scarfe had huge amounts of design work – backgrounds, characters, props… We also wanted it to be punchy so it had to go through a lot of lawyers to determine what we couldn’t say or show. Especially as we were featuring celebrities – from Simon Cowell to Princess Diana.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started Full English?

How much lawyers cost.

What next for Two Brothers?
We have several drama and comedy projects that we’ve written which we’re hoping will be officially green lit in the next couple of weeks. We also have several projects with some new, very exciting writers. We’re a boutique production company, and we have a small slate of projects we’re incredibly passionate about and will push to try and get on the air. As writers ourselves, we feel we’ve got a lot to add to the scripting process. In the right circumstances we’ll commission a script rather than a treatment, or a taster tape if we’re showcasing talent. We’re keen to keep developing comedy and drama equally – as long as it’s a good idea we’ll fight to get it made.

Posted 14 November 2012 by Tim Dams

Nothing to Envy gets animated for the big screen

"If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light," wrote Barbara Demick on the first page of her award-winning book Nothing to Envy. "This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

Published in 2010, Nothing To Envy was based on interviews with defectors from North Korea, one of the most impenetrable and brutal regimes in the world. It revealed the true scale of human rights abuses, poverty and famine in a country where hundreds of thousands have died of famine and in prison camps.

The subject could now reach a wider audience if a film based on the book comes to fruition.

Andy Glynne’s Mosaic Films recently won the rights to adapt the book and is looking to raise £3.9m to develop and produce a feature length animation about life inside North Korea.

Citing acclaimed animated features such as Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, Glynne says the subject matter lends itself perfectly to animation. “You can’t film inside North Korea, recreate the scale of what is happening or identify contributors, so this is a perfect way to raise awareness.”

Because of its large budget, Mosaic is running a multifaceted campaign to raise funds involving crowd-funding, foundation support, philanthropic giving and traditional feature film funding sources.

The website is the focus for much of the fund-raising campaign, which kicked off with a launch event last month at the Frontline Club. Given the long production time for animation, Glynne says he intends to use part of the money to fund virals and two other documentaries based on interviews with defectors to keep the issue in the public eye.

Glynne, who is also director of the Documentary Filmmakers Group, aims to raise an initial £150k to fund development, including a screenplay and powerful animation teaser to help unlock further finance.

Mosaic has already produced early concept drawings, above, which will be developed further.  “We’re trying painstakingly to find the right look and feel – it’s not 3d, cgi or stop motion but a 2d look which is as realistic as possible apart from sequences that are metaphorical and abstract.” The idea, he adds, is to give viewers “the strongest sense of what life is actually like there.”

Posted 13 November 2012 by Tim Dams

Interview: Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald is, undoubtedly, the most successful British documentary maker of his generation. Yet, curiously, he sounds surprised to be the recipient of the prestigious Trustees Awards at this week’s Grierson Documentary Awards – which has previously gone to directors such as Penny Woolcock, Norma Percy, Paul Watson and Molly Dineen.

Macdonald is, after all, the director of Touching The Void, the highest grossing British cinema doc – until it was overtaken last year by Senna, a film he executive produced. He won an Oscar for his first feature One Day in September in 2000, has two Baftas to his name and has also directed Life in a Day and Marley. He’s also carved out a successful feature film career, directing the likes of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play and the upcoming How I Live Now.

Documentaries, though, are “the things I love to do more than anything else,” says Macdonald, who is also co-editor of Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentaries. His surprise at winning the award, named after John Grierson, the founding father of British documentary, is partly because Macdonald feels that he has “been doing battle” with many of the things that Grierson felt documentaries should do.

“Grierson described documentaries as being the ‘creative use of actuality’ and that still is the best definition of what a doc is,” says Macdonald, who adds that Grierson explored the use of drama, animation, music and poetry in his films. “But he also thought of documentaries as being primarily educational, and I think documentary has moved away from that.”

Macdonald says that he is more interested in stories, people and storytelling technique than he is in exploring the big issues of our time.  “My films are not educational – certainly not compared to lot of people who have won this award before me who are very serious documentarians making serious films that alert people to issues that have enormous consequences. My films aren’t generally like that. They play with the form and use real life as a storehouse from which to draw interesting stories – stories that make you think, question things and provoke emotion.”

Macdonald thinks it is a fertile time for documentary making, which has migrated solely from television to reach wider audiences thanks to the internet and the success of cinema docs. “You can now make a doc about Peruvian parrots and reach everyone who is interested in Peruvian parrots via the internet,” he jokes. “And that is really exciting from a filmmaker’s point of view. But not necessarily from a producer’s point of view, because none of those things make money.”

But while filmmakers have more freedom, Macdonald acknowledges it is harder than ever to make a living as a documentary director. He recalls his first TV documentary for C4 had a budget of £140k. “One or two of those a year and you could make a living. Nowadays you are never going to make a living from one off docs when your budget is £40k. That restricts the scope of the film. And it means that filmmakers spend a hell of a lot of time not worrying about the film, but worrying about how to raise the money.”

And more and more documentaries are being churned out to a formula, he adds. He recalls how the production company behind Touching the Void went on to make a series of films that emulated the format, called Alive. “Everyone was made to a formula but reality doesn’t work like that.”

TV’s obsession with returning formats is one of the reasons he became interested in cinema docs. “As a filmmaker and person I am easily bored and tend to want to move on and find new things. Doing 20 versions of the same film is like a living death.”

This restlessness also explains his move into fiction. Macdonald maintains that his documentary making background has been helpful in the world of features, and vice versa. “When I do fiction I steal things I learnt from documentary, to try to make it feel as real and as spontaneous as possible within the confines of the script and schedule. But when I am doing documentary I do the opposite. I try to steal ideas from fiction and storytelling modes of fiction and put them into documentary. Each one feeds the other one.”

For now Macdonald is immersed in the world of features, completing the edit for How I Live Now. He is mulling an idea for a doc about another musician, “but it’s a bit pie in the sky at the moment.” But he very much keeps up with the latest in documentary making, and is quick to recommend two films, both about the Israel and Palestine – The Gatekeeper (“I bet that wins the Oscar,” he says) and Five Broken Cameras. “I notice that a lot of Hollywood actors I work with want to talk about documentaries. Because most of the films they are doing are not very stimulating, they always want recommendations.”

Born in Glasgow in 1967, Kevin Macdonald is the grandson of legendary filmmaker Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death) and the brother of film producer Andrew Macdonald (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later).
Macdonald began his career making biographical TV docs about filmmakers such as Pressburger, Howard Hawks and Donald Cammell. His first feature One Day in September won an Oscar in 2000, while Touching the Void won a Bafta in 2004. The Last King of Scotland marked his first move into fiction films, which also include State of Play and The Eagle. His most recent docs are Life in a Day (2011) and Marley (2012)

Posted 07 November 2012 by Tim Dams

HCA revs up Gladstone Motorcycles

Indie production outfit HCA Entertainment is diversifying into motorcycle manufacturing, launching a new range of bespoke British bikes. CEO Henry Cole tells Tim Dams about the birth of Gladstone Motorcycles

Henry Cole’s HCA Entertainment has carved out a strong reputation as a factual indie, working with all the key broadcasters as well as producing  films and commercials. Recently, it’s developed a successful niche as a producer of motorbike shows, making series such as World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides for Travel Channel and The Motorbike Show for ITV4.

Based in Oxfordshire, the 25-year old indie is now diversifying – into the motorcycle manufacturing business. In January, Cole will launch Gladstone Motorcycles, a new bike brand that will produce bespoke, hand-made British bobbers (prototype pictured below).

Bobbers are customised, stripped down bikes that are synonymous with the glory days of 1950s motorcycling. Cole is working with legendary UK manufacturers Norton and Metisse to produce the bikes, which will sell for between £25k and £35k. Six have already pre-sold.

Cole describes Gladstone Motorcycles as a luxury British lifestyle brand aimed at “the discerning hooligan”. It will also sell Gladstone accessories such as leather jackets and t-shirts.

But don’t expect to see Cole promoting the Gladstone in one of his biking programmes. “No way would I feature it in a show, or ride one in it,” he says, adding that he expects sales to derive from word of mouth.

Instead, the synergy between his TV shows and the bike business is more subtle. Cole says that manufacturers take his motorbike business ambitions seriously because of his television work. And Cole’s role as a TV presenter and the owner of the Gladstone brand is expected to drive media interest in the bikes.

HCA Entertainment first began producing bike shows in 2003. At that time, the indie was based solely in London, producing long running factual shows like Kensington Wives and Stars and Cars as well as commercials and corporate films.

Seven years ago, Cole decided to move out to Oxfordshire, while retaining a small London office. It was a big risk, he acknowledges, and HCA’s commercials business as expected quickly fell away. “The minute you move out of Soho, the ad industry thinks you are dead,” he jokes.

HCA focused mainly on factual TV, specialising on certain subject areas. “You have to specialise to succeed,” says Cole about running a factual indie. “We realised we needed to carve out niches in specialist factual programming, rather than having a scatter gun approach like a superindie.”

  HCA’s first major niche was in grime. It’s made 40 episodes of Grimefighters for ITV1, as well as Real Filth Fighters for Sky One and Supersize Grime for Channel 5 and is in development with broadcasters on more clean up shows. “We’ve got a wealth of contacts in the genre – broadcasters feel comfortable we will deliver the best possible access,” says Cole. Other HCA niches include cars (Stars and Cars for C5, Great Drives for Travel Channel).

So why is Cole diversifying from presenting motorbike shows into the motorcycle manufacturing business? One of the reasons, he says, is that there are very few customers to sell to in television, with only a dozen or so commissioning editors for his kinds of shows. “But, when you are selling a product like motorcycles and their accessories, the whole world is a potential punter. They can’t all be out at lunch!”

Posted 06 November 2012 by Tim Dams

Do channel brands still matter?

How relevant are TV channel brands in an on-demand world where viewers can simply search for the shows they want to see? Ahead of this week’s Promax conference and awards (8-9 Nov), four TV marketeers discuss

Matt Scarff, creative director, entertainment, Sky Creative
My local supermarket recently changed its layout. All the everyday items that for years I’d purchased without thinking, had moved to different aisles. It was chaos. Channel brands, like supermarkets can still be navigators and beacons of trust for viewers in the on-demand world. They help filter choices by shining a light of familiarity on relevant content for a new generation of ‘on-demanders’. But for channel brands to survive, there must be absolute brand clarity and this must extend to the on-demand experience: consistent, curated, easily navigable and trusted. These will be the keys to survival. Now, where will I find the milk?

Reemah Sakaan, director of network marketing, ITV
Are we really still having this debate? I don’t even understand the term ‘channel’ brands...brands are brands whether they sit on TV channels, the internet or your mobile. The greatest of brands don’t change over time irrespective of distribution method; in fact they stretch to fit it. As beacons of meaning and emotion, powerful brands have always acted as editors of choice and are more relevant than ever. In on-demand environments where audiences can navigate by the likes of Netflix or Hulu they are critical – a show called Happy Nuns branded BBC One sets up a very different meaning and expectation to Happy Nuns branded Playboy channel!

James Walker, head of marketing, Channel 4

While the digital and on demand world allows people to watch content whenever, and wherever they choose, it has also created a significant problem. How do you navigate a world of almost infinite content and find what you actually want to watch? The role of the channel brand in this landscape continues to be one of acting as an aid to decision making, a mental short cut which guarantees the quality and provenance of content. Brands have always been used as a navigational tool by people, and this role  becomes even more vital in a time where content, but not quality, is ubiquitous.

Rich Thrift, creative director, 5Creative
It is ultimately about brands understanding whatever medium they are working on.  For example, some second screen concepts show how programme content and social networking can marry, but in the main I feel that these are very much viewer-led experiences. Our Gadget Show 360 iOS app, on the other hand, shows the viewer that C5 has a keen and original take on that technology and thus hints at its attitude going forward with others. Whether it’s a promo, a show or an app, it is the simplicity of a great idea, the idea that elegantly masters the platform it is designed for, that will forge the relevance and reputation of a brand.

Posted 06 November 2012 by Tim Dams
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