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Lupus Films: a top draw indie

Animation outfit Lupus Films has had its busiest year yet, creating  adaptations of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Ethel & Ernest. But, its founders tell Tim Dams, Brexit means there could be clouds on the horizon.

There’s a red front door on Islington’s Upper Street, sandwiched between a betting shop and a dry cleaners. Walk through it and up some narrow stairs and you suddenly find yourself in one of the UK’s premiere animation studios, Lupus Films.

Spread over the three floors, it’s packed full of animators, nearly 50 in all. They are putting the final touches to C4’s 2D Christmas special, We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. In the past year, Lupus has also delivered a film version of Raymond Brigg’s Ethel & Ernest, and TV series such as Disney’s The Hive.

Lupus was set up in 2002 by Ruth Fielding and Camilla Deakin, who first began working together in C4’s animation department in 1999. (The pair also went to the same school, Pimlico School...on Lupus Street.) Initially, Lupus outsourced its commissions to outside production houses but decided to bring the work inhouse for their 2012 sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog.

They wanted to make it in the same way as The Snowman, hand drawn in the UK. Fielding describes the decision as a turning point for Lupus: “We worked with a lot of talented people on The Snowman and the Snowdog. And we wanted to work with them again.” They’ve done so on Bear Hunt and Ethel & Ernest, as well as training up a host of young graduates. Lupus has adopted the same hand drawn look for the films, but a big change is that much of the work is drawn on animation platform TV Paint. It’s quicker to use, but only got the go-ahead because the artists were comfortable using it. “The artist is driving the technology, not the other way around,” says Deakin.

2016 has been Lupus’ busiest year. Business has been boosted by the 2013 animation tax credit, worth 20% of budget. A £100k BFI Vision Award in 2014 also enabled Lupus to develop a feature slate.

But there is a big question mark over how Brexit will affect the animation industry, which relies on international co-production. Says Deakin: “You are never fully financed by your UK broadcaster. You have to do pre-sales to European broadcasters who pay at a certain level because the pre-sale is to another European territory.”

(Ruth Fielding, left, and Camilla Deakin, right)

Key European broadcasters have quotas for the amount of European content they show. Until now, UK animation has fallen within these EU quotas. This made the UK a popular English-language bridgehead for US outfits like Disney and Nickelodeon to access the EU market. But this is at risk post-Brexit. There is also uncertainty whether the UK can access Creative Europe funding.

“We are going to need bigger pulls to retain the work here,” says Fielding. “So bigger tax credits, better corporation tax... At the moment, the pound means it is quite good to work in the UK. But we need to be on a level playing field with Ireland who are offering 32% tax credits for animation.”

And there is concern whether Lupus can employ the European crew of animators it uses for its programmes. On the day of this interview, the news bulletins lead with the story that British firms will have to name and shame foreign workers. Fielding and Deakin are both clearly shocked: “Say we have 25% of our animation crew from mainland Europe, we are going to be named and shamed for that. Why? They are talented, highly qualified individuals who are here paying tax.”

For now, the biggest problem is the uncertainty. “Animation takes a long time to produce. With a 24 month schedule, you don’t know going in to it where you’ll be coming out. It might mean broadcasters not committing to projects,” says Deakin.

Posted 17 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Interview: Steven Garrett, Character Seven

Like the spies and detectives whose stories he has brought to the small screen, Stephen Garrett has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

The Kudos co-founder sold his company to Shine for £35m in December 2006 – shortly before the financial crisis of 2007/8 – on the back of hits like Spooks and Life on Mars. Since leaving in 2014, Garrett has executive produced the most talked about UK drama of the year, The Night Manager, with The Ink Factory.

In February he also launched his new production company, Character Seven. He’s now readying another John le Carre TV adaptation with The Ink Factory, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which will be scripted by Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy.

Garrett was approached by Simon Cornwell, one of Le Carre’s sons and co-founder of The Ink Factory, about working on The Night Manager on the day he announced his departure from Kudos. The Ink Factory was then in the early stages of developing the series. Primarily focused on film, it wanted a lead executive with a strong TV drama background to steer the project.

“It was a thrilling conversation in so many different ways,” says Garrett over the phone from Los Angeles, where he now has a home with his Californian wife. “Le Carre had been my inspiration for Spooks.”

Under Garrett’s watch, the script departed significantly from the novel, particularly in the final two episodes. He also brought in director Susanne Bier. “Le Carre’s stories are very British and very male. So it just seemed interesting if one was going to refresh and update a novel written over 20 years ago to have a director who was both not British and not male.”

Bier shot The Night Manager like ‘a six hour movie’, working out of sequence across all six episodes and stitching it together in the edit suite. “When it works it looks effortless, but it requires huge, huge effort, concentration and clarity of vision,” says Garrett.

Garrett says it is too early to announce on and off screen talent for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. After all, Beaufoy hasn’t yet started writing it. But the same filmic principles employed on The Night Manager will apply: Beaufoy will adapt all of it, and there will be one director across the series.

He also stresses that its setting in Cold War-era East Germany means that it is far removed from the aspirational glamour of its predecessor. “The Night Manager was international travel you wanted to go on yourself, whereas this one will be international travel you will be happy that others have gone on on your behalf.” But, like all Le Carre’s work, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is more than just a spy story or thriller. “It really is a Trojan horse for an exploration of character, human frailty and moral ambiguity,” explains Garrett.

And it is also incredibly difficult to adapt for television. “Spies tend to be loners. When they do talk to people they are not telling the truth to their loved ones or the people they are working with. So it is really challenging storytelling to communicate what someone is really saying or what they intend to do.”

The Cold War setting does make it easier though. Technical advances like smart phones and the internet make modern storytelling difficult, says Garrett. “Think of how many movies or TV shows you’ve seen where someone’s cell battery has gone or they have lost their phone. You need to recreate a world where there is no technology to generate suspense and isolation.”

Beyond Le Carre, Character Seven has a small slate of projects which Garrett says he is about to start pitching. He has already gone public with one of them: a London set supernatural series called The Rook which he is making with Lionsgate and Twilight author Stephenie Mayer’s indie Fickle Fish for Hulu.

“Essentially, the idea is to try to tell stories that organically have transatlantic appeal,” says Garrett of Character Seven’s slate. “So inevitably those are bigger scale stories.”

Like many recently launched drama indies, Character Seven is hoping to tap into the huge demand for scripted content from broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic as well as global digital players like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu.
Garrett reckons there are now 450 scripted shows broadcast in the US alone. “What that means is everyone is looking for ideas that are distinctive.” He picks out Amazon hit Transparent. “It is now lauded as one of the great pieces of scripted drama and explores a subject that was considered untouchable within very recent memory.”

For now, Character Seven comprises Garrett and one head of development in LA. “We will expand according to what happens and when it happens. But for the moment, it is liberating to be working in a very nimble fashion.”

Education Westminster School; Merton College, Oxford
1978 Granada trainee
1987 Channel 4 commissioning editor for youth programmes
1992 Co-founds Kudos, overseeing programmes such as Spooks, Life on Mars and Law & Order: UK
2006 Kudos is acquired by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for £35m
2014 Leaves Kudos
2016 Launches new indie Character Seven. Executive producer on The Night Manager, in collaboration with The Ink Factory

Posted 16 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Ross Kemp on extreme doc making

Televisual Factual Festival: “Iraq, Syria and Libya in one year was a bit of bridge too far for me – I’m getting old!” says Ross Kemp, as he lists some of the eight countries he has travelled to for his latest Sky1 series Ross Kemp: Extreme World.

But it looks like the former EastEnders star is going to be travelling just as much in the next 12 months, as Sky has just greenlit Extreme World for a sixth series.

It’s over ten years since Kemp swapped Albert Square for life as a documentary maker, winning a Bafta along the way for Ross Kemp on Gangs and a nomination for Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. He’s since made 75 films, which have won widespread acclaim for bringing current affairs to a much wider audience.

This is partly because of the proximity to extreme danger that Kemp often puts himself in. His latest series, for example, sees Kemp and his crew pinned down by sniper fire on the front line in Syria, with bullets visibly ricocheting off a wall above him.

He also manages to earn the trust of and ask challenging questions of interviewees who are rarely seen on camera, including a Columbian assassin who calmly explains how he tortures and kills his victims (it begins by scratching their eyeballs out with a needle). 

Kemp makes his documentaries through his indie Freshwater Films. Each film is usually shot over a two-week period by a six strong crew on the ground – Kemp, plus a cameraman, soundman, a producer, fixer and director. Back home, two or three researchers will research each programme for roughly five weeks, with two further weeks of research on the ground to secure access. Post production, which takes place at The Farm, usually lasts six weeks.

“It says Ross Kemp on it, but it is very much a team effort,” says Kemp, getting out his mobile to show pictures of him and his crew on the ground in Libya. “I own the company but I feel like I work for it and they tell me what to do...I get bossed around!”

As the years have gone on, he says it has become easier to gain access to stories. “It is because we are trustworthy,” he explains. “Always leave the country that you are in – the fixers, the people on the ground and the ones you have interviewed – in as good a state as you can. Then you will get asked back.”

He says his research team starts with a big pool of possible locations and stories, narrowing them down to the ones where they know they can gain access. “Access is the most important thing,” he says.

But why do many of the people on camera want to talk to him at all, particularly the likes of a Columbian assassin? “It happens a lot. We spend a lot of time convincing people that their message is important. He thinks he is going to die at any second. So it becomes a cathartic moment for him.”

Kemp’s trademark style is to take the audience with him on a journey into danger zones. And that is very deliberate, he says. “Audiences don’t want to be talked down to. They want to be informed but in a way that is inclusive and they feel they are part of the journey.” He describes himself as “the conduit to the story.”

It means asking direct questions the audience would ask. But once the interviews start, he says, the most important thing to do is to listen and not to judge. “My mum was a hairdresser, so I grew up in a hairdressing salon. I spent my time listening to the ladies and their stories – and I loved it. You’ve got to have an honest interest in human beings.” The series, he adds, is “about understanding human beings.”

It’s also, of course, about venturing to hostile environments. So what about security? Again, he pulls out his mobile, to show a video of him and his crew crossing the Libyan desert in a 4x4. Under his feet, in the passenger seat, is a machine gun. “This is our security,” he says. The crew also had an ex-army security advisor with them in Syria, Libya and Iraq “just in case we get in to trouble.” It is the first time he has had any advisors, he says.

Kemp spends more time on the road making films than he does at home with his young family. So how does he decompress? “White wine is a good one,” he laughs. “I like going to restaurants and chilling out with my friends and family. There is no deep psychosis.”

He and his team also practice a support technique called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), which is used by the British Army to help soldiers cope with traumatising events.  “We just sit round a table at the end of the day. No matter whether it has been a harrowing interview or you have been shot at or witnessed someone being killed, we all talk about it individually – camera, sound, myself and the director. And that is a very good way of escaping Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other kinds of trauma related things. You have got to talk about it as soon as you have witnessed it and share it with other people. Otherwise you trap it at the back of your head.”

Ross Kemp was speaking at The Televisual Factual Festival this week

Age 52
Education  Shenfield High School, Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
1990 Makes first appearance in EastEnders
1999 Leaves EastEnders. Signs two year deal with ITV, appearing in various dramas
2006 Sky’s Ross Kemp on Gangs wins Bafta best factual series award
2009 Ross Kemp in Afghanistan and Ross Kemp: A Kenya Special both nominated for Bafta awards
2016 Commissioned to make sixth series of Ross Kemp: Extreme World

Posted 11 November 2016 by Tim Dams
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