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Plimsoll makes its mark

One of the fastest-growing indies in Televisual’s 2017 Production 100 survey, Plimsoll has scaled up rapidly since launching four years ago.

The Bristol-based outfit, run by former RDF managing director Grant Mansfield, now has around 240 people on its payroll and reported a turnover of £14.5m over the past year. Focused on non-scripted programming, Plimsoll has produced over 40 series for UK and international networks, including Nat Geo’s Earth Live!, ITV’s Life at the Extreme and C4’s Rescue Dog to Superdog (which has been remade for Animal Planet in the US).

Speaking from Plimsoll’s Los Angeles office, Mansfield says that right from start he wanted to build a proper TV indie rather than a lifestyle business. “I always wanted to build a company of longevity,” he explains. He also wanted to do it outside London, in Bristol, where he began his career at the BBC.

Mansfield says he traded in a minority stake in Plimsoll to an investor to raise money to get started. This allowed him to make exec producer and development hires immediately, with Plimsoll adopting a build it and the commissions will come approach. “It meant that from day one I had collaborators…that money bought us time, but it also bought me expertise.”

Plimsoll’s team now comprises a who’s who of well known producers, from former BBC NHU boss Andrew Jackson through to the series producer of blockbuster Planet Earth II, Tom Hugh-Jones. “We hired producers with fantastic track records. The production talent is as important as the idea.”

The indie has also ploughed money into development. “You have to speculate to accumulate. And in TV production that means spending big on development – spending smart as well as spending big.” For example, the indie has three full time sizzle reel producers. “They can turn a tape around so quickly that we quite often use them to work out if an idea is strong enough to pitch.”

Plimsoll’s first commission was a single film for ITV, and then a big natural history order Predators, for Discovery. “Those two commissions were significant, because they pointed to the direction we were going – to be a multi-genre, non-scripted company.”

Despite all the talk about the drama boom, Mansfield believes the non-scripted market is primed for growth. “I genuinely detect a renaissance for non-scripted in the international market. The market is strong. There are lots more clients now,” he says, citing Netflix, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Hulu.

He points to demand for big landmark shows run by big name show-runners, citing Plimsoll’s Earth Live! for Nat Geo. “In the multi-channel world, there is so much white noise out there that a live event can become emblematic of a channel’s ambition.”

Plimsoll now focuses on all non-scripted sub-genres, working across factual entertainment, specialist factual, natural history, live and daytime. The growth of Plimsoll’s natural history output has been ‘a pleasant surprise’, admits Mansfield, who is best known for fact ent shows like Ladette to Lady, Dickinson’s Real Deal and Driving School. Head of natural history Martha Holmes, a former BBC NHU producer, was one of the first Plimsoll execs. “It seemed daft to be in Bristol and not be making natural history. I thought we will do a bit on the side and we have become one of the biggest producers of natural history programming in the world in terms of hours.”

Mansfield says another key moment in the company’s development was its decision not to strike a deal with a big distribution company but to take a stake instead in start-up distributor Magnify Media, run by Andrea Jackson. “I wanted to keep control of our IP,” he explains.

Most of Plimsoll’s staff are based in Bristol, working out of a building it shares with post house Films@59. Another 16 are based in LA, while a new Cardiff office is staffing up. Mansfield claims Plimsoll is now the biggest TV indie in Bristol. “The thing that I am proudest of is the work that Plimsoll has brought to the city. We have grown the Bristol market by all the shows we have had commissioned.”

Citing companies such as Icon and Aardman, he says there are now over 150 media companies in Bristol. “I am sure Manchester might dispute this claim, but I think outside London that Bristol is now the main media city in the UK. It is a hugely 
creative place.”

Should Channel 4 move any of its departments out of London, he believes that Bristol should be the place they move to. But he thinks that where Channel 4 spends its commissioning money is more important than where the channel is located. “Personally, I think the best place for Channel 4 is London. But if it is not in London, it should be in Bristol.”

Grant Mansfield is the CEO and founder of Plimsoll Productions, which he launched in September 2013. Before that he was CEO of Zodiak USA. Previously, as md of RDF in London, his credits included Ladette to Lady, Holiday Showdown and Dickinson’s Real Deal. Before that, he was head of programmes at Granada TV. He began his TV career at the BBC, first as a TV news reporter and latterly as creator and producer of documentary series such as Driving School and Vets in Practice.

(Plimsoll leadership team, top, pictured left to right Rachel Morgan, head of specialist factual; Jonathan Jackson, financial director; Martha Holmes, head of natural history; Grant Mansfield, CEO and founder; Christine Owen, chief operating officer; James Smith, head of Plimsoll Wales; Karen Plumb, head of factual entertainment; Andrew Jackson, president of international production, Kate Beetham, head of development)

Posted 20 October 2017 by Tim Dams

Blue Planet II: How we made it

The producers of Blue Planet II tell Tim Dams how tech advances and military planning helped them capture the secrets of the deep

If any show can comfortably be predicted to become a blockbuster factual hit in the UK and around the world, it is Blue Planet II, made by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.

The original David Attenborough-narrated series about the world’s oceans aired back in 2001, winning two BAFTAs, two Emmys and nearly 10m viewers in the UK. It also sold to 240 territories around the world.

The NHU argues that there have been so many scientific discoveries in the oceans since then, as well as huge advances in camera and diving technology, that a sequel is justified. 

“A generation on from the Blue Planet stories, it is an opportunity to tell a bunch of new stories,” says executive producer James Honeyborne. He won’t reveal the budget for the seven part series, but some of the stats about the making of the show hint at its size. Blue Planet II has been four years in production and involved 125 expeditions to 39 countries. 

Initially, Honeyborne worked with series producer Mark Brownlow and a small team of researchers and producers to find the stories and to script Blue Planet II. This was done by plugging into a network of contacts among marine scientists for information about the latest discoveries about the oceans. “The basis of all these big, new stories are the relationships we have with our scientists,” stresses Honeyborne. “For something that ends up as entertainment telly, it does have an absolute scientific core to it.”

Over the course of a year, the team worked up and planned seven specific episodes: a big opening film, One Ocean, to introduce the audience to the central premise of the series, which is, according to Brownlow, that “you’re going to see things you’ve never seen before.” This includes footage of animal behaviour that has never been filmed, such as a fish that leaps out of the water to snatch birds on the wing through to a tuskfish that uses a tool to open clams.

Then come five habitat based programmes, each overseen by a specific producer: The Deep, shot from a manned sub in the hidden depths of the ocean; Coral Reefs, about the home of a quarter of all marine species; Big Blue, about life out in the middle of the vast open ocean; Green Seas, focusing on underwater forests of kelp and seaweed; and Coasts, where two worlds collide. The final episode, Our Blue Planet, has an environmental focus.

As these stories were refined over the course of the first year’s planning, the BBC pitched the project to co-production partners who stumped up a significant part of the budget. The show is co-produced with BBC America, China’s Tencent and CCTV9, France Televisions and Germany’s WDR. “They are part of the journey,” says Honeyborne.

Once the narrative arc of each episode had been planned, production began in earnest. “We had a core team of 25 people when we were really going full throttle with the filming,” reflects Brownlow. 

Almost immediately, though, came a stark reality check – and a demonstration that a natural history show can never simply follow a script like a Hollywood shoot, no matter how detailed the planning. The very first shoot ended in “abject failure, scuttled by El Nino”, says Brownlow. “You think OK, there’s a hole in the narrative, we have got less money now, we’re five minutes short, we’ve got to find another story that makes a similar point.”

The logistics of filming were akin to a military operation, with kit and crew being dispatched around the world – from the Antarctic peninsular to the Galapagos Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Each episode comprises 10 or 11 stories of about five minutes length, all shot in a different location. “We spent the best part of three years filming,” says Honeyborne. The final nine months were spent in post production, whittling down a shooting ratio of about 100 minutes of filming to one minute of final film. 

As so many of the marine stories took place in specific seasons, the production schedule allowed for crew to return to sites the following year. “You want to give yourself a chance to hit the story twice,” says Brownlow. Occasionally stories were filmed over three years, such as one sequence about orcas and humpback whales feeding on herring off Norway. 

Technological advances have contributed hugely to the stories in Blue Planet II. Rebreather diving kits, for example, meant that its underwater teams could dive up to four hours at a time, far longer than traditional scuba dives. Rebreather diving also produces no bubbles – which means fish aren’t scared off. “Rebreather diving gives our teams time to sit silently and watch, with no bubbles or disturbance underwater, and really get to know new creatures and their behaviours,” says Honeyborne.

Meanwhile, in The Deep episode, a crew led by producer Orla Doherty, filmed for over 1000 hours from a high-tech submersible at depths of up to 1km. Carrying UHD and extreme low light cameras, they captured previously unseen events such as hunting packs of Humbolt squid through to bubbling brine lakes at the bottom of the ocean.

The “bread and butter” camera for the series was the Red Epic Dragon, but this was supplemented by over a dozen others. For example, the Sony A7S and Canon ME20 were picked for their low light properties to film Noctiluca ‘sea sparkles’ glowing at night, around the wing beats of shoaling mobula rays, as they gather off the Mexican coast. “Lowlight technology is moving on so fast that we have scenes we have only just filmed because the technology didn’t exist just the year before,” says Brownlow.

The team also built an underwater probe lens that could squeeze through tiny cracks to give a wide angle, immersive view of life right inside coral reef. “We wanted to immerse the audience into the subject, so they could see what it was like to live as a clown-fish,” says Brownlow. “It has never been done before underwater. They are so light hungry. We have used them above water on projects like Hidden Kingdoms. But the camera sensors had never been sensitive enough to work with these light hungry lenses – until now.”

Infrared underwater cameras were also used to film the hunting technique of the bobbit worm. “If we’d shone a white light on this nocturnal ambush predator, it would have just stayed in its hole. But it can’t detect infrared light,” says Brownlow. “Even though we’re filming in complete darkness and can only see what is going on through the viewfinder, we can capture behaviour that’s never been seen before.”

A CATS Cam suction cup camera was also placed on the back of an orca, gripping on to the killer whale so the crew got a ‘fish-eyed’ view during a hunt. Between 12-48 hours later, the camera gently detaches to be picked up at sea later with its footage.

The Blue Planet team also worked with California firm Gates to build a brand new, underwater split screen lens, dubbed the megadome, which allows camera crew to film above and below water at the same time. It lets viewers see, for example, a walrus sitting on an iceberg above water as well as what is going on underneath. “It’s all down to sensor technology,” says Honeyborne. “You can expose above and below the water so everything is in focus. It looks and feels totally fresh.”

Drones also allowed the filmmakers to capture animal behaviour that had never been filmed before, including chains of plankton-feeding manta rays looping round and round to form a cyclone effect.

“The original series would have shot aerials on 16mm film, from helicopters,” says Honeyborne. “Now we have ultra HD drones that can be deployed anywhere they are permitted, and they have revolutionised the way we can immediately witness oceanic events from above.”

All this technology has helped the Blue Planet team get up extremely close to marine life, revealing previously unseen behaviour and allowing the viewer to empathise more easily with the challenges they face. Traditionally, this has been a big problem when filming marine life underwater – all too often things can feel very big and very blue. 

“It’s not our job to humanise them, and we are certainly not anthropomorphising them. But what we are showing you is that they have characters,” says Honeyborne.

One iconic sequence in Blue Planet II – of a bird-eating fish - neatly sums up how each individual story was put together.

A rumour came to the NHU in Bristol from some South African fishermen that they’d seen Giant Trevally – a big, aggressive fish – jumping out of the water and catching sea-birds in mid-air. But there was no scientific confirmation, or a single picture of this happening. “I was sceptical, to say the least,” says producer Miles Barton. But further research convinced the team it was worth trying to film. So they chartered a plane to an island close to the Seychelles. A team of four was on board, including cameraman Ted Giffords with a Cineflex gyro-stabilised camera and 800kg of equipment.

Barton continues: “We arrived and got very excited because yes, the fish were leaping out of the water and they did seem to be grabbing birds. But it happened very randomly and very fast.” The crew started out using the stabilised camera fixed to a boat, but the attacks happened so quickly and randomly it was difficult for Giffords to frame up on.

After a frustrating week with just a few shots filmed, the boatman suggested going to a remote beach where the Giant Trevallies gathered near the shore. It was a vantage point from which they could see the fish stalking the birds, and even predict the ones most likely to attack. “So we ended up going from a very high tech approach to the simple use of a camera on a tripod with the best local advice.”

The footage was amazing. Exec producer Mark Brownlow picks up the story: “They came back with the rushes, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible’. But we knew it could be even better and said we have to go back and film it with a super high speed [Phantom] camera.” The crew returned a year later (to catch the right season for the action) to shoot the sequence. The results are astounding, and are sure to become iconic images from the series.

Executive producer 
James Honeyborne
Series producer 
Mark Brownlow
Miles Barton, Orla Doherty, Kathryn Jeffs, Will Ridgeon, John Ruthven, Jonathan Smith
Associate producer 
Joe Stevens
Rachel Butler, John Chambers, Sarah Conner
Series researcher 
Yoland Bosiger
Sophie Morgan, Katrina Steele, Joe Treddenick, Georgina Ward
Production co-ordinators 
Jodie Allt, Nicole Kruysse, Sandra Forbes, Jennifer Foulkes, Sylvia Mukasa, Karmen Summers, Joanna Verity
Production team
Amirah Daley, Jack Delf, Alexandra Fennell, Joseph Fenton, Jack Johnston, Abbey Kaye, Francesca Maxwell, Chiara Minchin, Mohan Sandhu, Zeenat Shah
Production manager 
Katie Hall
Principal camera team 
Dan Beecham, Barrie Britton, Rod Clarke, Ted Giffords, Rafa Herrero, Rene Heuzey, Roger Horrocks, Hugh Miller, Roger Munns, Espen Rekdal, Gavin Thurston, Alexander Vail, Richard Wollocombe, David Reichert, Didier Noirot, Rod Clarke

Posted 20 October 2017 by Tim Dams

The rise of the streamers

Digital players were out in force at this month’s Mipcom TV programme market.

There were keynotes speeches from Facebook and Snapchat, while Mipcom execs revealed that 1,700 VOD and SVOD buyers from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu through to China’s Youku and Africa’s Showmax were at the market.

The growing presence of streaming players on the international stage comes as they invest ever more aggressively in new content.

Facebook and Apple have each pledged to invest $1bn in content. Facebook announced a number of new shows for its Watch platform at Mipcom, including an English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam.

Both Amazon and Facebook have been touted as likely bidders in the next round of Premier League rights sales, which is expected to open by the end of this year. Last month, YouTube’s fledgling SVoD service Red greenlit its first drama from a UK indie, 10-part sci-fi thriller Origin, which is being made by The Crown producer Left Bank.

Netflix, meanwhile, says it plans to spend a staggering $8bn (£6bn) on content in 2018, up from $6bn this year.

A significant portion is being spent in the UK, on factual and drama commissions. Last month, for example,  Pulse Films was commissioned to investigate the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in an eight parter for Netflix, while Fifty Fathoms is making The Eddy, directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, billed as the biggest scripted SVoD commission for a UK producer since The Crown.

The steady increase in spend on UK content by streaming players is proving a boon for indies. Pact’s recent indie Census, for example, reported that producers are seeing strong growth from the international commissions, worth £486m in 2016, thanks in part to orders such as The Crown and Black Mirror from streaming services.

Producers, it seems, not only like the pay cheques that the streaming giants offer. They also say the likes of Amazon and Netflix are good to work with.

The Crown producer, Andy Harries, warned at last month’s RTS Cambridge Convention that UK broadcasters are in danger of losing more top talent to streaming services because they are too interfering during the making of shows.

Speaking ahead of the launch of the second series of The Crown in December, Harries noted that Netflix has signed up talent such as Shonda Rhimes, David Letterman and the Coen brothers to make shows.  “They are attracting all this talent because this is what they are saying to them: ‘Come and make stuff for us. You can do it the way you want to do it. We are going to finance it, you make it.’ And that is what talent wants.” His point was backed up by fellow speaker Andy Wilman, the exec producer of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, which airs its second season next month. Wilman said: “We have no notes – none.”

The streaming services’ increasing investment in the UK market is paying off too, with recent Ofcom figures suggesting they will soon be taking an increasing share of the broadcasting industry’s £13.8bn revenues.

In its 2017 Communications Market Report, Ofcom charted the growth of streaming services, and noted that for many viewers, the days of being tied to a TV schedule are fading. It found that the BBC iPlayer and the ITV Hub were the most popular on demand services, used by 63% and 40% of respondents respectively – followed by YouTube (35%), Netflix (31%) and Amazon (20%).

A recent report by OC&C Strategy Consultants argued that broadcasting could soon be controlled by one or two “super-aggregators” who would act as viewing gateways for consumers looking for a simple way to access a plethora of content.

Traditional broadcasters are starting to feel the pressure. 21st Century Fox chief executive James Murdoch last month acknowledged that Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix are “raising the bar” in terms of the amount that companies spend on content. In a sign that Sky is worried about the rise of streamers, he hit out at them for their lack of investment in jobs in the UK creative industries.

Murdoch said SVoD players make a lot of noise about how much they are investing – but don’t do so over the long term. “They show up, they do a big splashy deal with something and everyone fawns over them and says this is a great thing. There are very few companies that...really invest in thousands and thousands of people on the ground in TV and creative markets like the UK.”

Sky execs also complain that online companies face none of the scrutiny or regulation that affect UK broadcasters. Calling for a level playing field, Sky’s group chief operating officer Andrew Griffiths said at the RTS Cambridge Convention: “Not so many years ago, these companies were small and probably lacked influence. Today, they are some of the largest companies on the planet, with a reach and scale of financial resources far larger than anyone in this room combined. It is a lop sided contest and left unchecked represents a real challenge.”

Indeed, Sky’s proposed takeover by 21st Century Fox deal arguably no longer worries senior broadcasting execs as it once would have. Their focus of concern has shifted over to the digital giants instead.

C4’s outgoing chief executive David Abraham commented: “When I see the scale of the digital giants, my strategic question is: “Is any type of agglomeration of existing legacy media companies ever going to match the scale of what we are confronting?’ I very much doubt that is the case.

“If you are running a media company in this country, you spend more time thinking about how internet TV is going to change the shape of what we are doing.” Abraham added that the “huge global changes” arising from the growth of Amazon and Netflix “have perhaps not been as widely considered by politicians – maybe because they feel they can’t do much.”

It certainly feels like traditional broadcasters are on the backfoot right now. Some commercial channels are cutting programme spend because of falling ad revenues, a point noted by many indies in Televisual’s 2017 Production 100 survey. However, any big drop in broadcaster content spend at this crucial moment may prove a serious mistake, encouraging even more indies to look for business with the deep pocketed SVoD players.

This article is taken from the October issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here. The article has been updated since first publication to account for deals announced at Mipcom.

Posted 12 October 2017 by Tim Dams
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