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The making of Natural World: Africa's Fishing Leopards

Ahead of its broadcast tonight, here’s a Q&A with the makers of Natural World documentary Africa’s Fishing Leopards.

David Attenborough narrates the story of a leopard mother and her two cubs, who must survive in the wilds of Botswana alongside some less-than-friendly neighbours: lions, wild dogs and hyenas. The competition for food is tough, and if they are going to make it they must learn a new skill - they must learn to fish.

Local cameraman Brad Bestelink filmed their story over 18-month, offering a rare glimpse into an otherwise hidden world. The show was executive produced by Harry Marshall and Laura Marshall of Icon Films.

What is the background to the commission?

Harry Marshall: We met Brad Bestelink while we were filming an episode of River Monsters and he told us about this extraordinary behaviour he had witnessed, while filming in the ephemeral wetlands of Savute, Botswana. Together we worked it into a pitch for the perfect  1 x 60 minute special.

How did you get it green lit / financed?

HM: We took the story to BBC’s The Natural World, who knew and admired Brad’s filmmaking talents and understood the unique quality of the story.  They were looking for a single species behaviour show for the next run of TNW. We needed a US production partner and Janet Vissering at NG Wild was looking for a Special for their Big Cat Week.  Once she had seen the tease we had cut it was a no brainer and we had our commission.

Who was on the production team with you for this and why?

HM: Brad Bestelink and Richard Uren were behind the camera in Botswana, both of whom know Savute intimately. Rupert Troskie, award winning wildlife editor crafted the images,  William Goodchild, the composer, gave the score the kind of twist that natural history music needs to take it beyond the cliché, and Steve Gooder collaborated with Brad in shaping the story and writing the script

Why did you go down the 4K route?  

Brad Bestelink: Natural history content will always increase in value, the only thing that would limit this would be the format it is shot on. Realising this, just over three years ago we switched out completely and went not only to 4K and 5K, we went in shooting at compression rates that equal cinema release deliverables to ensure that the material has legs into the future. We went 4K solely to future proof our content and programs.

What kind of kit did you use to shoot the film? 
BB: We exclusively use RED Epics and Dragons, on drones and for IR. For us, if it’s not between 4K and 6K with high compression rates, it is of little value to us. I prefer the old cinema styled lenses for that more natural feel (especially when you have so much resolution, they stops it looking electronic). The most important piece of kit me on this film was having an infrared converted Epic.

What were the key challenges you encountered during the shoot?

Finding the leopards, keeping up with the leopards and then getting them to trust us rather than try to lose us.

How did you manage to film the cat fishing sequences? 

BB: Many long evenings sneaking around, using infrared, when we were literally in the dark with it.

How did the film develop in post?  

BB: Assemblies started on location, then at Films 59. Developing the relationship in the film between crew and the leopards was one of the hardest aspects of the post process. As we went on, we pulled as far back on the human element as we could to keep it a blue chip natural history about leopards. This human element of the story was solely about gaining insight into an aspect of their emotional / private lives, and the writing and interpretation of this by Steve Gooder was superb. Subtleties were key... Less was really more and he really justified making it an integral part of the film.

What do you know now that you wish you had known before you started filming? 

BB: I would like to have known more about infrared prior to the fishing actually starting. We stumbled around in the dark with infrared lights and cameras and feel that if we had known all better how to use the gear we could have got more out of it rather than just the fishing component. It was only once the night fishing had started that we made the decision to get infrared, so it was a little like figuring it out as we went along.

What advice would you give to the many people who want to be wildlife film-makers like yourself?
Let behaviour drive all stories. See it - don’t say it. If you cannot say with pictures first, don’t say it at all

Africa’s Fishing Leopards; Natural World

TX: Feb 24th 2015, 8pm on BBC Two
Produced by Icon Films in association with Natural History Unit Botswana for BBC and National Geographic WILD US
Narrated by David Attenborough
Produced and directed by Brad Bestelink and Steve Gooder
Photography Brad Bestelink and Richard Uren
Editing  Rupert Troskie
Music composed by William Goodchild and Dan Brown
Executive producers for Icon Films Harry Marshall and Laura Marshall

Posted 24 February 2015 by Tim Dams

Taking the 4K production route

Given all the talk about 4K, should you shoot your next production in the format? Programme makers who have gone down the 4K route give their advice

4K offers startlingly clear, high-resolution images, and is slowly but surely growing in popularity amongst the production community.

It’s still a minority pursuit for most in television production, however, as so few broadcasters have the capacity to broadcast in 4K.

Traditional broadcasters like the BBC have experimented with 4K broadcasts during big sporting events, but lack the infrastructure to deliver full data heavy 4K programming. 

Sky has trialled a number of 4K productions, and recently shot the Ryder Cup in 4K as part of an on-going trial.

But for now, most 4K content has to be streamed via broadband – from online outfits such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.

All this means that very little content is being commissioned in 4K in the UK.

Given that many consumers are still watching SD content on their TVs, let alone HD, it’s likely to be a long time yet before 4K goes mainstream.

Future proofing your archive

So why is anybody shooting in 4K? Future proofing their archive is one of the key reasons that programme makers cite when asked why they are shooting in 4K. 

“Technology changes so fast you want to future proof what you are doing, and obviously you want to be acquiring in the highest res possible,” says Brad Bestelink, producer, director and cinematographer at Natural History Film Unit Botswana / Icon Films.

“The idea is that in five years time when we want to rerun one of our films, and the channels and technology have caught up and they want to deliver in 4K, we can go back to the source of that project and can regenerate the entire project in 4K.”

Indeed, very few programme makers who have filmed in 4K have ever delivered a final master to a broadcaster in 4K. Instead their material is down-converted to HD. “We do all our acquisition in 4K but have never actually delivered in 4K,” confirms Bestelink, who recently made two Natural World programmes in 4K for the BBC2 strand: Africa’s Giant Killers and Fishing Leopards.

The best genres to shoot in 4K
Given the extra costs and technical challenges of shooting in 4K (of which more below), experts say that only very few kinds of TV shows are worth filming in 4K for now.

The strongest uptake has been for projects which can expect to have a long shelf life and are looking for superior picture quality, such as TV drama, films, natural history and music programming. Sport is also experimenting with 4K. Many commercials, given their short form nature, relatively high budgets and the possibility of a cinema run, are also shot in 4K now. Many high-end corporate projects are also opting to shoot in 4K.

However, 4K isn’t necessarily the best option for projects that generate lots of rushes, such as reality, documentary series and entertainment – the mainstays of much of TV production. Because 4K records at a higher resolution than HD, it will produce more data. This, of course, means more overhead in terms of storage, management and download times. 

Typically, a 4K camera will produce about 225-650 gigabytes of data an hour, or up to nearly a terabyte an hour in the case of 4K Raw on some cameras. The price of storage is falling year on year, so it is possible to work with this amount of data on location with plenty of drives, as well as a good MacBook Pro or an iMac with Thunderbolt and Raid storage. Even so, this adds to the cost and complexity of production and post production.

For someone used to shooting a reality show with lots of PDs shooting on multiple cameras, 4K “is probably going to be a mountain to climb”, says Richard Mills, chief technology officer at Onsight, which has worked on 4K projects including Conquest of the Skies for Sky and The Queen’s Garden for ITV.

He says producers need to think very carefully before embarking on 4K, asking “will it slow my production down or will it provide a genuine advantage?”

Karen Meehan, head of production at indie Off the Fence, says producers have to factor in hiring a digital imaging technician (DIT) on location to manage the sheer quantity of media that 4K shooting throws up. She adds that an AP could be trained to do this role. But this could impact on the welfare of the crew on a shoot. “You have got to bear in mind that if you are shooting all day, then someone may have to spend all night making sure everything is properly backed up.”

Choosing the right camera

Programme makers also have to carefully weigh up the choice of camera, and be sure that it can perform adequately for what they want to achieve. Is the camera reliable and easy to use or is it a prototype and untried? When shooting, will it be possible to see the picture on a 4K monitor? 

Mills says it is important to have someone on set who is familiar with the pitfalls of a particular camera. “They all have them. All the manufacturers keep on changing the menu structures, changing the firmware, adding improvements. So you have got to make sure everyone is up to speed.”

Concerns about 4K shooting have to be put in perspective though. In reality, there is little that is essentially different from HD shooting, says Bestelink.  “It’s just like if you move from, say, a Varicam to a Sony to something else. You learn the quirks and ups and downs of each rig. It’s not rocket science.”

In terms of 4K or above cameras, the Red Epic and Red Dragon as well as the Sony F55 are popular at the high-end. More affordable cameras like the Sony FS7, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K and Ursa, as well as the AJA Cion are making headway.  Popular 4K DSLRs include the Sony A7S and Panasonic GH4. 4K cameras are becoming increasingly affordable, says Ian Bradshaw, technical director at Title Role Productions. “Now you can buy a 4K camera (body only) for between £5-10k. Sony’s FS7 has caused a stir in the industry, as has the Blackmagic Ursa with very affordable pricing.”

However, 4K experts stress that it is vital to test them – and test again – before embarking on a 4K shoot. A bit like the shift from SD to HD, 4K can be unforgiving to first time users. Says Mills: “Focusing has got to be accurate, because if you are a bit out of focus you will notice it on a 4K screen. So have the best tools around in terms of being able to monitor it. Monitor in 4K or at least have ability to zoom the picture so you can see critical focus.”

4K can also look very sharp; viewers say it can be too digital and over realistic. DoPs, as a result, are choosing their lenses very carefully – both to provide resolution but also to take the perceived harshness off the pictures.

Cooke and vintage lenses are proving very popular with 4K filmmakers for this reason, helping to provide a softer, less clinical look to shots. 

Testing through to post production

Perhaps the key consideration when shooting 4K for the first time, though, is to run a test through to post production. “It’s important to check that what you are intending to do will pass through the system and come out with the results you want,” says Mills.

Producers have to ensure that their post house can handle 4K, and that they will not be charged huge amounts for data storage in the facility. 

To avoid potentially expensive 4K storage costs and to speed up editing times, the majority of 4K productions down-res to HD for their offline. However, final post production for a programme set to be broadcast in 4K has to done in 4K. Just before final post, the proxy file will be conformed back to full 4K. It means a facility needs to have adequate 4K monitoring. Grading and any correction work, reframing or compositing has to be done in 4K to ensure the picture quality is not eroded.

Once again, it’s important to stress that post should be pretty straightforward. “It is incredibly simple to do 4K in post now,” says Richard Moss, md of Cardiff post house Gorilla and who sits on Creative Skillset’s TV Council.

Moss adds that post houses should only charge a slight uplift for working in 4K, with most of the excess due to the ingest process and long term storage of material. 

At a time of ever tightening budgets, this shouldn’t be overlooked – particularly as a 4K production will already add to the bottom line in terms of more expensive cameras, on location storage and data management.

This goes back to the initial point raised by many 4K programme makers: given the extra costs and time involved, it’s worth being completely sure that your show needs to be filmed in 4K when so few broadcasters are playing out the format. 

Televisual is the media sponsor of the 4K theatre at this month’s Broadcast Video Expo (BVE), staging sessions each day on 4K production. Come and see us there (24-26 February).

Posted 19 February 2015 by Tim Dams

The making of C4's £16m saga Indian Summers

Conceived as a 50-part epic, there is a lot riding on the first series of C4’s Indian Summers.

ITV’s acclaimed The Jewel in Crown, David Lean’s A Passage to India and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi have, between them, set a high bar for onscreen sagas about the final throws of the British Empire in India. But it is now over thirty years since they premiered, which could play into the hands of Channel 4’s upcoming Indian Summers.

The ten-part series is set in 1932 in the hill station of Simla, where the power brokers of the British Raj gather each summer to escape the heat of the plains. Starring Julie Walters, it’s a colourful, multi-character epic that tells its story from both sides of the experience – British and Indian – while serving up a diet of intrigue, politics, murder and love.

It’s an unusual commission for C4, which usually focuses on contemporary, shorter run drama. Indian Summers will play on Sunday evenings, and is conceived to be “unmistakeably entertaining” and “relaxing viewing”, says C4 deputy head of drama Beth Willis.

But, she insists it is a very C4 kind of project: “It gets very dark and there is a lot of grit and politics that is slid under the door while you are enjoying the characters’ world, their relationships and the sun. By the end of ten hours you have been on quite an epic political journey as well as a wonderful saga.”

The series is produced through New Pictures, set up by former Company Pictures boss Charlie Pattinson (Skins, Shameless). The project was brought to him by writer Paul Rutman (Vera) and director Simon Curtis as a two page treatment. It outlined a five series drama that would ultimately span 50 episodes until Indian Independence in 1947.

“I was completely smitten by it, instantly,” says Pattinson, who commissioned and paid for a script himself, as he was between companies. He sees Indian Summers as building on the demand for novel-like television dramas that unfold over multiple series, like The Wire or Mad Men. “It felt quite modern, in a way,” he says.

All3Media International boarded as distributor and Masterpiece for PBS, helping to raise the budget to £16m. From the start, the ambition was to shoot entirely on location, to give a greater sense of authenticity. But this proved to be a huge challenge. Pattinson travelled to Simla but couldn’t work out how to film there. “There are no vistas without modern buildings and towers,” he says. After a long recce, which took in other Indian locations and Sri Lanka, he chose Penang in Malaysia as the base for the drama.

The country shares a similar colonial history, with many British era buildings, but the area surrounding Penang is less developed. Indeed, a major challenge was to reclaim buildings overgrown by vegetation. One of the key locations in the series is the British club. “When I first went there, I had to hack through the jungle to get to it – it had been unoccupied for 30 years. The same with Ralph Whelan’s (private secretary to the Viceroy of India) house – it had virtually been devoured by scrub,” says Pattinson.

Unusually, the entire production – which ran from May–October 2014 with a crew of roughly 150 British and Malaysians – was filmed entirely on location. Says Willis, “We all assumed that we would do some stuff there and then come back to the UK to do interiors. But they pulled it off not doing that, and I think it shows. It is so wonderful when you see characters walking through the garden, through a house upstairs, and you follow them looking out of the window and it is the same garden. It is so rare in period dramas these days that you get that, that you don’t feel that you are in studio set – it makes it incredibly cinematic as a result.”

Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Red Riding) was hired to direct the first four episodes.  “I knew his work has a visual elegance, and knew from Hilary and Jackie that he is capable of getting performances, and that he had an emotional connection with this material and a bit of history – his father was Indian – and I felt that was important,” explains Pattinson.

Despite a top production team, casting was tricky. “Our cast is largely in their late 20s and early 30s. That is very hard age range to cast as so many of our actors head to Los Angeles in that age range, so we started casting very early. Also, it’s a big ask for people to relocate to Penang for six months –  and possibly for five years.”  Of course, whether it is a five year, 50 episode haul depends largely on how audiences respond to the first series of Indian Summers when it begins this weekend.

Julie Walters, Henry Lloyd Hughes, Patrick Malahide, Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Lillette Dubey, Roshan Set and Ayesha Kala
Executive producers
Charlie Pattinson, Elaine Pyke, Simon Curtis
Writer/exec producer
Paul Rutman
C4 commissioners
Piers Wenger, Beth Willis
Dan McCulloch
Anand Tucker, Jamie Payne, David Moore
Line Producer
Christine Healy
Production designers
Rob Harris, Andrew Purcell
David Higgs, Peter Robertson
Costume designer
Nic Ede
Beverley Mills, St John O’Rourke, Ellen Pierce
Red Epic at 4K
Post production
The Farm

Posted 13 February 2015 by Tim Dams

Football the winner as indies and viewers await impact

£11m per match. That’s how much Sky is paying for the rights to broadcast each of the 126 games under its new deal with the Premier League.

For the cost of just 90 minutes of football, Sky could produce plenty of dramas, comedy, entertainment and factual shows.

At current tariff levels, £10m would comfortably pay for eight hours or more of a high quality drama series - to which Sky would retain a significant portion of the rights to exploit in international markets.

Many analysts and the market think that Sky has overpaid. Sky’s share price fell by 5% this morning, the biggest faller in the FTSE 100, as the market digested the £4.176bn it is paying over three years, an 83% increase over the cost of the existing contract.

BT’s shares, by contrast, were up by more than 4pc in early trading on Wednesday. It will pay a total of £960m compared to £738m for two packages, which is £7.6m on a per game basis.

Sky, of course, was in a difficult negotiating spot – and they have won a painful victory for the rights. Premiership football is still the main driver for pay-TV subscriptions. 60% of subscribers say they would consider to switching to a rival if it won the bulk of the rights, according to a recent of Ofcom report – way above any other sport or genre.

Sky admitted that the annual cost of the Premier League rights would be around £330 million more than analysts’ forecasts.

The broadcaster admitted that the increased outlay on football means that it will have to make “substantial additional savings to be delivered by efficiency plans.”

Sky chief executive Jeremy Darroch says that the broadcaster has “a clear plan to absorb the cost of the new Premier League deal while delivering our financial plans.”

The price rise has already raised speculation that the broadcaster will have to pass on the increased costs to their customers by charging more.

Ian Whittaker, an analyst at Liberum, told The Financial Times that if Sky passed the whole increase in rights costs on to consumers, rather than make cuts, bills would increase by more than 10 per cent.

Savings might also be found by cutting expenditure on original programming, which could have a significant impact on the UK production community.

Sky is now a major investor in UK content. It recently spent £25m on high-end drama Fortitude as part of its plan to broaden its offering to consumers, and to compete with OTT players like Netflix and Amazon.

But after the new Premier League deal it’s reasonable to expect that Sky won’t be commissioning quite so many of these kinds of shows in coming years.

Footballers rather than indie producers are the winners this week.

Posted 11 February 2015 by Tim Dams

All to play for as £4bn Premier League TV auction looms

First round bids for live UK broadcast rights to Premier League football are due in at the end of this week.

BT’s surprise move into Premier League football in the last auction drove up the cost of the rights by an astonishing 77% to £3bn. This year’s auction, for the three-year period beginning with the 2016-17 season, is billed as one of the most eagerly anticipated in the competition’s history. 168 live matches are up for grabs, split into seven packages (see list below). Sky and BT are seen as the likeliest victors.

But, with the possibility of Discovery-backed Eurosport and the Al Jazeera-owned beIN Sport joining the bidding process, the value of the rights could easily rise by another 20-30% say analysts – to £4bn.

Discovery boss David Zaslav reportedly travelled to London last month to meet the Premier League. The company took a majority stake in Eurosport last year, and tried to acquire Formula 1. The Qatar based beIN Sport is also seen as a possible bidder. The deep pocketed global sports network operates channels in France, the US, Canada and Australia where it holds rights to Serie A and the UEFA Champions League.

However, the pressure is on Sky and BT to emerge from the auction with a strong package of rights.

“The bottom line is that there is one set of rights that drives pay TV subscriptions in this country – and that is Premiership football. That is the one thing that Sky and BT cannot afford to loose,” says one leading sports producer. Financial broker Liberium recently carried out a survey of 500 Sky Sports customers, which showed that half would switch to rival BT if the latter won the majority of Premier League rights.  

This finding is echoed in a recent Ofcom report which concluded that access to sports channels ranked highest as a reason for subscribing to a pay TV service. And football is still the most important sport for subscribers to Sky Sports and BT Sport. A huge 60% of respondents said the Premier League was an essential part of their TV service. By comparison, no other individual sport or competition was considered to be essential by more than 22% (Test cricket was considered essential by 19% of respondents, Rugby Six Nations by 18% and Formula One by 18%).

There is so much at stake for both Sky and BT, that most observers believe they will be the highest bidders. “My gut sense is that it is a two horse race between Sky and BT,” says a media analyst. “The only question is whether BT gets more games than it did last time.” Many expect BT to at least attempt to increase its packages up from two to three of the seven available.

Observers contacted by Televisual question the commercial rationale for Discovery-owned Eurosport to put in a sizeable bid for live televised rights when it lacks its own pay-TV platform. Without this, they ask, how could it recoup the investment through carriage deals and ad revenue alone? “I think I will call it for Sky and BT,” says one analyst. “I cannot see any commercial reason why Eurosport would wish to get into a massive bid for live televised rights.”

BeIn Sport, meanwhile, is perceived as “not so strong at tenders”, says one football agent contacted by Televisual. It recently lost the tender for French rugby to Canal+. However, it recently emerged that it has been using London sports rights specialist Mark Oliver as a consultant on Premier League possibilities.

Sky’s track record with the Premier League should prove advantageous. Its partnership with the Premier League has been mutually beneficially since 1992. “The relationship that Sky has with the Premier League has to count for something’” says one observer.

Sky won the maximum rights available to a single broadcaster in the 2012 and 2009 auctions, and its bid team is very experienced. Ofcom recently judged that Sky “continues to enjoy an advantage over other bidders”; it knows it can make certain numbers work as it has built a large subscriber base and can bundle its key sports channels with other pay TV services.

Sky could also benefit from BT Sport’s expensive £897m capture of exclusive Champions League rights.  This has drained money from BT’s war chest, and will have increased Sky’s determination to hang onto the lion’s share of Premier League rights.

BT also had to put aside £2bn last month to plug its swelling pension defecit, and is in talks to buy mobile operator EE for £12.5bn. Analysts also say BT may be more cautious in the amount it bids as a result of tests being proposed by regulator Ofcom to make sure it does not price rivals such as Sky and Talk Talk out of the broadband market. BT currently offers its sports channels for free to broadband customers, a policy it may have to rethink under the new rules.

Sky, meanwhile, will be constrained by higher debt levels following the creation of Sky Europe, which saw BSkyB pay £4.9bn to take over Rupert Murdoch’s pay TV companies in Germany and Italy. Even if Sky were outbid, there are some who say it might not prove catastrophic for the business. Says one analyst: “Sky is far less dependent on football now. In the 1990s, the success of Sky was driven by sport and especially football. Now its offering is much broader.”

BT will obviously want a bigger chunk of rights – but the big question is what is the maximum affordable bid for the broadcaster. Unlike Setanta, BT has proved a solid, well resourced second partner for the Premier League, based out of its new sports broadcasting HQ in the Olympic Park.

“BT are in it for the long haul. They have shareholder support, massive studios, and know the value of the rights to them” says a producer.

The auction could, however, be delayed. Virgin Media has asked Ofcom to intervene, claiming that pay TV customers pay too much to watch Premier League football because of the way the rights are sold. It says too few matches are broadcast, which drives up the price of rights. Ofcom has launched an investigation, which will be concluded after this month’s auction.

Whenever the deal does conclude, money will be the key decider. It is Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore’s job to get the best deal possible for the clubs. And it is in his interest to have two financially successful broadcasters, like Sky and BT, in the Premier League.

Premier League auction stats
168 live matches are up for auction, up from the current 154 – split into seven packages.

Up to 10 new Friday night games will be offered as part of one package that also includes 18 Monday night games.

No single bidder will be allowed to acquire more than 126 matches.

The current live rights are shared by Sky with 116 games, and BT with 38. In 2012, Sky bid £2.28bn, while BT bid £738m.

Premier League TV rights have soared since Sky paid £191m in 1992 over five years.

The BBC paid £204m for Premier League highlights in late January, allowing it to keep Match of the Day. This was 13.5% more than in 2012. ITV decided against bidding.

The 2012 process was run as a blind 
auction. Bidders had to submit a sealed 
offer for each package without knowing what others had bid or even their identity. This gave BT the element of surprise.

On-demand and internet clips will be 
auctioned at a later date. An auction for international broadcasters will also be held later this year. In 2012, international broadcasters paid £2bn for PL rights.                                                        

Sky remains the biggest UK pay TV retailer, with up to 10.7m customers. BT has 1m TV subscribers; in total BT Sport is available in 5m homes via different platforms. Total revenues of pay-TV broadcasters, including  Virgin and Talk Talk, hit £5.9bn in 2013.                    

BT won exclusive rights for the 2015-18 Champions League, and has some FA Cup matches and the Europa League. BT also holds rights to English Premiership Rugby, the NBA and some motor sports.

Sky holds the rights for Football League matches. Outside football, it has nearly all live cricket, all Formula 1 races, the majority of golf coverage, rugby league, darts and the NFL.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Posted 02 February 2015 by Tim Dams
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