The last few years have seen a flowering of small boutique operators in the vfx market. Jon Creamer finds out what has sown the seeds
The big beasts of vfx still dominate the UK landscape.
Those big players remain responsible for the vast majority of the standout visual effects work throughout commercials, movies and high-end TV.
But they’re no longer the only show in town. Over the last few years, a plethora of small, nimble and highly talented vfx houses, often led by name talent from the big three, have sprung up in the UK and are producing award winning work on the best ads, big movies and high profile TV shows. Now working alongside the Tescos (or perhaps Waitroses) of the vfx world are small boutique shops, often specialised, but very proud of their produce.
Though the definition of a boutique vfx house is pretty broad, all the way from one or two man bedroom warriors with a couple of laptops right up to companies like Electric Theatre Collective, still sometimes referred to as a ‘boutique’ despite growing enormously since its birth three years ago.
For Will Cohen, formerly of The Mill, and now running his own vfx house, Milk, a boutique “is about culture and atmosphere. It alludes to a sense of personal service and first name terms. A bit of individuality and personality.” While the big shops sell themselves partly on the security afforded by their size, the boutiques pride themselves on being an intimate part of the creative process right from the off. “Because of the structure in a bigger place, if you call up you speak to a booking person or a producer firstly,” says Mike Skrgatic of Time Based Arts. “There’s a process until you get to the creative person. When people come and work with us, they speak to a creative person first. It’s much more of a partnership.”
For Axis VFX’s Grant Hewlett, a boutique is more able to become another department within the production. “They’re a bit faster on their feet and they can get more involved. We want to get involved and offer our ideas.”
And it’s partnership that’s key to the boutique way of working, says Nineteentwenty co founder Scott Griffin. “In a boutique everybody is close by and hears feedback and it’s a much more cooperative process. You can sometimes get lost in the size of a bigger facility.”
The boutiques frame themselves as offering something different from the majors, but that’s not necessarily a criticism of the big players. “In film you need large companies,” says Milk’s Cohen. “You have to look at the evolution of visual effects over the last decade. [Vfx Oscar winner] Gladiator had less than 90 vfx shots in it, Maleficent had 3,000. In order to realise that you need large companies. In large companies creativity is pushed very high up the food chain and on the studio floor it’s more like a factory line. There is nothing wrong with that, that’s how you get through a package of 500 shots. In a boutique, creativity is more with the artists on the studio floor.”
However a boutique is defined, their ability to exist in the first place comes down to a revolution in the costs of setting up a professional vfx house. “I remember working in Soho as a runner when Silicon Graphics had an office in Soho Square,” says Axis’s Grant Hewlett. “The computers were a million pounds each and it was impossible to get any time on the workstations. It’s changed so much.”
“The cost of entry has come down,” says Derek Moore, md and founder of Coffee and TV. “It used to be that the business model of the big companies was built around leasing big machines but now it’s more about the quality of the talent. And if you are that talent, you may as well do it yourself.”
The vfx business is no longer about “flexing your technology muscles,” says Nineteentwenty’s Griffin. “Everybody’s got access to the same kit. It all comes down to who’s operating now.” And though size matters to an extent due to the amount of “firepower” big houses can throw at a job “the gap is not anywhere near as big as it used to be.”
Even just seven years ago, technology costs were putting the brakes on operators and artists going it alone with the initial trickle of talent leaving the big shops mainly being older, more established talent with hefty backing. “When we bought our first Flame, Autodesk told us that we were the youngest guys to buy a Flame in Europe,” says Time Based Arts’ Skrgatic. “At the time it was such a high price point.” As time goes on, the barriers to entry drop, and investors are no longer a necessity. “There’s no backing, it’s just Mike and I,” says Time Based Arts’ James Allen. “We put a bit of seed money down but it’s all cash flow, there are no rich uncles.” And that trend is set to continue. The introduction of Nuke made boutiques even more possible and “whatever software rolls out in the next 10 years, it’ll be pennies,” says Allen.
“We are only Foundry based 2D, we don’t have Flames or Infernos, we’ve built everything on a Foundry pipeline,” says Griffin. And as with many operators, connectivity means a small London office can be backed up by a larger space in Bristol. Cloud based rendering, still in its infancy, should also pull down more entry barriers and rental models on software mean small companies “don’t have to commit. That ability to increase and decrease only helps the boutique facility,” says Cohen.
More bang for less buck
And where technology has made boutiques possible, it’s falling budgets that have proved to be a further driver. “Through the recession lots of people were doing crazy stuff for very little money just to keep money coming through the door,” says Coffee and TV’s Derek Moore. “That made clients realise they could get great stuff done quite cheaply. When we came out of recession, budgets never went back up. That meant people found it hard to hit the margins, leading to a lot of the most talented staff feeling a bit disenfranchised and thinking they can do it better. What’s come about is a perfect storm of budgets dropping and technology becoming more affordable to allow the best artists to be able to prove to themselves whether they can do it better or not.”
Those falling budgets have led some of the top talent to the idea that if they stripped away some costs, they could deliver good work for the now more stringent budgets available. “It seems like the perfect opportunity now,” says Moore. “The cost of entry is low, clients want it, we’re old enough and experienced enough to have a good client base and you know there’s so much cost wasted in the big reception and bookings people and runners.”
Other changes particularly in the advertising sector have also helped the push towards boutiques. Fragmenting budgets means a campaign is broken into many smaller pieces. “Now there is multiple output from the agency and different service providers can do that,” says Time Based Art’s Allen. “We can work on premium stuff with good agencies and directors and pick up a £50k job, which wouldn’t have existed before.” But for many, particularly those who reached a level of seniority within one of the big vfx houses, it’s often also driven by a desire to get back to the coalface of vfx. “At certain times of my life I could have been working in any other industry because a lot of it was spreadsheet based,” says Cohen. “We do still have spreadsheets here but they’re not a dominating factor.”
Get your hands dirty
But running your own vfx house is not all pure creativity. “Being a Flame op is a pretty painful existence anyway, you get used to your family life taking the brunt,” says Allen. “But when you’re running your own business all your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in it too, it takes a personal toll. In the same time we’ve had this business I’ve had three kids and Mike’s had two. In the early days as an owner, when there isn’t the money, your salary is the buffer.”
It also means having to keep your eyes on the bottom line like never before. “Before I was with Axis I’d run a couple of really small boutique companies and when we started those companies we thought we could conquer the world,” says Hewlett. “But it’s a tight margin business and you can easily lose your shirt on a job if you don’t keep track of things.”
There’s also the issue of getting the new brand out there, even if the new company is founded by well known artists. Nineteentwenty has Flame artist Ludo Fealy as a co-founder but even then “you forget how much gravitas companies like The Mill and MPC and Framestore have,” says Nineteentwenty’s Griffin. “Getting the name out there is the biggest challenge at the start. How do we let people know we are here and that we can do the work? The confidence builds and as long as you’re pragmatic you’ll eventually get there, but it won’t happen overnight.”
It can also mean literally getting your hands dirty again. “When you work for a large company a lot of stuff’s done for you,” says Milk’s Cohen. But with your own small boutique company you’re “micro managing every aspect from cashflow to everything else. On the first week here, one of the directors had his marigolds on with his hands down the toilet. You never would have considered that before.”
But if things do go well, and a boutique company becomes a success, how far can it grow before it loses the advantages that a boutique purports to engender? For many, the trick will be to push for growth in many distinct units rather than one big unit. “There’s an ambition to get a little bit bigger just so we have a slightly broader client base and more stability and visibility of income,” says Moore. “But there’s no point in becoming another massive facility.” His company, like Milk and Nineteentwenty, has a London office backed by a Bristol base, and several small satellite companies seems to be the way many boutiques envision future growth. “If you open somewhere else with 20 or 30 people you can very much replicate the culture you have in your main office rather than grow on your main site to 300 people,” says Cohen.
Another big change for those setting up their own boutique vfx houses is a different set of expectations. For the companies that set up shop in the 80s and 90s, many owners went on to become very rich. For today’s new companies, there are no such expectations. “We’re not in it for money,” says Time Based Arts’ Allen. “Ultimately you control your destiny, you work for yourself, you cut away the politics and the crap, that’s what we did it for. We want to do good work, and you can earn good money as an individual but gone are the days when you buy a machine and the machine’s booked out 24/7.”
“Our aspirations are a lot less than the generation that came before,” says Cohen. “We have lower aspirations. We do it because we like it and we can make a living and make it work but not it’s not about second homes in Gloucestershire and all that.”
Testament of Youth is based on the famous First World War memoir by Vera Brittain. The story begins in the Edwardian spring of 1914 with Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander), a youthful feminist fighting her conservative parents for the chance to go to Oxford alongside her brother and his friends. But then war is declared and all the young men enlist. Vera leaves university to train as a nurse and ends up tending to captured German soldiers on the front as one by one those closest to her are lost to the war including her brother (Taron Egerton) and fiancé (Kit Harrington).
The film was directed by James Kent who makes his feature debut and the DoP was Rob Hardy. They explain their approach to the film below
James Kent: director (HOLOCAUST: A MUSIC MEMORIAL FILM FROM AUSCHWITZ, THE SECRET DIARIES OF MISS ANNE LISTER, INSIDE MEN, THE WHITE QUEEN, THE THIRTEENTH TALE)
They’d been working on the script for a good three years before I came on board. The script was already pretty tight. I suggested my own flavours, but no one had been cast at that point. There had been initial noise about Saoirse Ronan playing Vera Brittain but she was unavailable. At that point we had about 25% of financing in place. You need to have a realism about whether the film will go ahead but until people feel that the bus is leaving the bus station no one will commit financially. They need to feel that this is a movie they will regret passing up on, and they won’t focus unless they feel that the film is probably going to happen. The vibe you give out is ‘we’re going to make this film.’
Heyday films took on, in film terms, an unknown director. So a lot of my work had to be done early to present a vision to the BFI and David Heyman and Lionsgate. I had to have a very strong independent vision to convince them I would ride above ‘debut film director’ and deliver them a movie at the end of it. They felt I could bring that fusion of drama and documentary, that I would make a film that would be fluid and handheld and wouldn't fall into Merchant Ivory world or heritage drama but would also have handsomely mounted production values. The thing I really brought to the table was a very subjective take. I wanted this to be very much Vera Brittain’s experience. That you would be hugging her throughout the story, that's what I hoped was my USP on the movie.
It’s hard to get around that period film aspect. You have the architecture of the film, the old buildings, the costumes, the beautiful people wearing a better version of what they wear in Downton while at the same time you’re adapting a memoir that is a rock solid icon. You need to bring something true to our historical filmic routes but that feels like a new take for a new generation coming to A Testament of Youth.
You have a different list for heads of department than you would for television. They do tend to sit on either side of the divide so there was quite a new set of faces for me to consider. [DoP] Rob Hardy tends not to do television, [production designer] Jon Henson similarly. So that was very exciting to find I was looking at a whole new array of British filmmaking talent.
We had no cast when we started, no Vera. We’d mooted Saoirse Ronan as Vera but when she fell out we had nobody. By great good luck Alicia became free. She was our key appointment. Then it was about finding a Roland and an array of handsome young men and that's not unlike television apart from all the time you had to think of the commercial imperative. You’re looking for the best person for the part but while in TV you might be looking for one or two of those to pull in the crowd, in a film you have to be looking at that across seven or eight parts. Vera’s parents are Emily Watson and Dominic west, then you've got a big star from Game of Thrones playing Roland, that’s the world you’re in.
In this film, what played to our advantage was the youth of the main cast. For Kit Harrington and Alicia to dominate a film of this quality is a great showcase for them. In their mid twenties this was an opportunity for them. Vera is the best female role, if you’re in your twenties, that you could possibly be given. She’s not just playing the love interest.
Being new to film I was both astonished and relieved when I joined the project. I was astonished that it had to be done almost as fast as television - seven weeks. You have more resources that are largely oiling this machine so it can produce bigger production values in a short space of time but you’re still shooting three or four pages a day. I even lost a week off the schedule. We just didn't have the money for eight weeks but we still had to make the same film.
On the other hand I was relieved I had an extensive career in television, as it wasn't a shock for me. We burnt two thirds of the contingency in the first two to three weeks of filming, we were not able to go into any over time at all on any day. In TV terms you’re used to that, in film terms that's a very heavy restriction for a director. It’s only about £2k an hour when you go into overtime, which can give you a lot more but we didn't have that. But having done lots of TV drama, I never get overtime. £7m sounds like a lot coming out of TV, in film it’s considered a budget film. They chose me as we all knew this film wasn't going to get more than £7m of financing. They needed someone who could handle that - a director who isn’t going to go AWOL. Directors get very obsessive and anxious and don't give a toss about the budget. In TV you can’t have that attitude because you just won’t get used again.
The way you cope with a small budget is you hire a fantastic DoP. They will elevate, in the same amount of time with the same equipment, what someone else would make look ordinary. I knew that's what Rob Hardy would bring. I’d seen The Invisible Woman and I loved both Boy A and Red Riding. He’s also used to working within those restrictions. He hasn't yet done his Hollywood thing, which he will do.
That works all down the line with your crew. You have to surround yourself with people with a similar realism. On the floor you’re cutting and trimming your day accordingly - dropping scenes you can do without or rolling scenes into one scene and being economical with your takes. I probably did three with any given set up. But with a great actress and cast that should be enough. I remember Susanna White telling me that if you cast well, as a director you've probably done 60% 0r 70% of your work.
Two iconic directors inspired me. One was Jane Campion and The Piano. It’s her love of nature and her microscopic attention to the female mind and the intensity of those key love scenes.
And the other is David Lean. The film I love most of his is Brief Encounter and that internal monologue that Celia Johnson has in her head and the experiential female viewpoint. It’s also his love for stream trains and carriages and departures and you see that in Testament of Youth to a small extent. Pressburger is another one for the war and Gone with the Wind for the iconic shot over the stretcher-bearers. I confess I did steal that. But all directors always take from our legacy.
I knew the unifying factor over the entire film was this palpable sense of irony that the audience knew that terrible things were going to happen to those central characters.
When we entered act one it’s the glorious Edwardian summer so the lensing is wider and the colours are brighter. The whole thing has more fluidity. It's a liquid, languid optimistic view of the world as they and Vera possessed at that moment. Then, as it progresses, you enter darker more sombre worlds of browns and greys and hospital interiors. By the end the lensing gets extremely tight on Vera. When she goes back to Oxford it’s really just a backdrop for a psychological breakdown, a kind of shell shock she suffers. Then we’re incredibly tight on her face and its incredibly claustrophobic. The film has this narrowing on Vera’s face as we progress through the film.
Rob Hardy: DoP (EX MACHINA, EVERY SECRET THING, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, BROKEN, SHADOW DANCER, STOLEN, RED RIDING: 1974, IS ANYBODY THERE?, BOY A, EXHIBIT A)
We do period movies a lot in this country and we do them well, but you want to make an outstanding period movie. We wanted to get to the heart of the story. It's a visceral journey but our visual grammar or ideas of what the period is are often led by period movies that aren’t necessarily authentic. I made The Invisible Woman, which is a dark film because those Victorian rooms were dark. So I didn't want to be involved in something that wasn’t going to be truthful. Rosie [Alison, the producer] and James really wanted that truth.
I’d just worked with Alicia Vikander on Ex Machina, so there was that connection. We’d already developed this dance together so there was a great deal of trust between us. In terms of the images I want to create a proximity with Vera Brittain rather than to be sat back and observing like classically shot movies. What we were after was something more inherently ‘in there’, like you’re in the room experiencing it with that person.
Technically there are certain lenses that for me mean certain things. I had two sets of lenses. One set was an anamorphic Crystal Express set and the other was a spherical set so effectively I had these two emotional states. The anamorphic lenses created this specific world she inhabited which was very much about her and the environment whereas the circle lenses were really used to break through that barrier and get super close when we needed to.
There were a number of recces as we had a lot of ground to cover. Effectively it was like a road move. We were in Sheffield, York, Leeds, Scarborough, Whitby, up on the moors, London, Oxford. When you try to recce something like that you’re spending most of your time in a car. And then you've got the major sections like the house, or Etaples or the trenches.
In London there are eight or nine period homes where you shoot. Every time you walk in there you can see a little bit of gaffer tape in the corner and the designer is tearing their hair out saying ‘I was in here last month.’ The great thing about Testament was we found this estate up north that had only been shot in once on a Tom Hardy film and they’d only used one room. So we did everything there; Vera’s parental home, the parade stuff, the trenches, Etaples and nobody had really shot there so we had the freedom to do that 360-degree thing.
From the beginning, this felt like a project that should shoot on film. We tested 16mm. I loved it but Rosie and James thought it was too edgy. We also tested some 35 mm which we put alongside what we shot on digital. I was using an F65 which is just great.
We took it to Asa Shoul at Molinare and he graded both so they looked very similar and we did split screen comparisons. The film is so much about Vera’s emotional journey and her face becomes a landscape, film was giving us so much more in many respects, the way it renders the skin and every detail in it. I’m not talking about pores but subtlety and colour. Knowing Alicia you can see colour in her face change when she goes through a certain emotional arc.
The problem was I was the only one who really wanted to do it. James had never shot film before. They got nervous. People want to know what they’re getting on the day, there’s an immediacy to digital that is reassuring.
In the end there was some effort to try to make the sums work for film but because it was a period piece we were moving around so much, in the end we were £200k shy of being able to shoot on film.
BBC Films and Heyday Films, Screen yorkshire and BFI in association with Hotwells Productions, Nordisk Film Production and Lipsync
David Heyman and Rosie Alison
Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer
Hugo Heppell, Zygi Kamasa, Richard Mansell
Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Dominic West and Miranda Richardson
Director of photography
Make up and hair design
The team behind Sky Atlantic’s big budget drama Fortitude explain how they recreated the Arctic in London and Iceland. Jon Creamer reports
Drama indie Fifty Fathoms’ 12-part thriller for Sky Atlantic is on air this month. The series, billed as Sky’s most ambitius commission to date, is set in the fictional Arctic frontier town of Fortitude.
The town has never experienced a violent crime before but is thrown into turmoil after the brutal murder of a British research scientist. Sheriff Dan Anderssen, head of the search and rescue team, investigates alongside a British detective who’s flown into help.
As the winter closes in, they find the murder was just the start. The drama was shot on location in Iceland with an extensive set build in a warehouse in Hayes, west London. The cast includes Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl, Michael Gambon and Christopher Eccleston.
I’d never shot that far north before and never anywhere that cold. The weather was very unpredictable – sometimes minus 15 or 20, sometimes minus three or plus two. We were expecting a lot more snow than there was which forced some of the shooting to go further north.
I was inspired by the quality of the light. The look is quite neutral. It’s a simple, classic, powerful look rather than too affected. We wanted to use the natural power of the light and of the landscape as there is a real elegance and a power to it but you’ve still got to be careful how to backlight it and how you move the camera around in it.
A big part of the story for me was the way nature was coming after you. I was trying to do that in quite a discreet way. You were under threat from nature – it’s too cold to be there, the animals around there will eat you and then it yields a parasite, something prehistoric that comes to get you. The wilderness and how the wilderness impacted on the individuals was part of the way we wanted to tell the story.
It was a difficult cast to pull together to rehearse thoroughly. We spent eight or nine days together but you can’t do more in that time than research and prepare and educate about how we’re approaching it. You don’t really do script work you deal with issues regarding the script. Simon [the writer] was quite active at that point as actors came into the film and he took their thoughts on board and built them in. That hopefully leads to more seamless performances when they’re more bedded into the story and the world. The big concern for me as it was such a large cast was to make them all feel that they belonged there and understand why they were there.
The landscape in Iceland is amazing and the magic hour is too. We were able to shoot at magic hour for a lot longer than you normally would because the trajectory of the sun is lower and the light stays in the sky that little bit longer. It means you’re able to pull detail out of the mountains at night when normally it’s just blackness. We rescheduled for that and we always did all our wides at that time.
We didn’t want it to look too Scandi. There’s a balance to be had where you definitely wanted a Nordic feel to it but at the same time you didn’t want to lose the drama and the shape to the faces and that happens if the lighting becomes too flat, too dogme style. We wanted to have a taste of that Scandi style but still be true to classic framing and lighting so we could increase drama with shape in the face.
Mixing the colour of the light was a really big thing so you’d have both cool and warm light in the same scene, just to mix it up so it’s not all just cool Scandi blue tones. We looked at Twin Peaks and others but mostly we liked Todd Hido and Tarkovsky and Saul Leiter stills rather than films.
We shot with the Arri on the Master Primes. We wanted to be able to shoot it wide open so when we’re in the interiors in the studio we’d be able to allow the exteriors to fall off focus so you wouldn’t notice they were backings. Our format was two to one so we tried to give it a little bit of a wide screen feel, to take advantage of the landscape. We shot the aerials on the last day of our block. We steered clear of the Wescam idea. We wanted it to feel like there was an entity or something in the air that had life, not just a beautiful, classically smooth image.
After I got involved last summer I went up to the Arctic with [exec producer] Andrew Woodhead and we plodded around in Longyearbyen, a settlement in Svalbard and got into the marooned aspect of it and the simplicity. It’s quite modern, simple, blocky architecture, not complex.
At the Iceland location we just used aspects of the town. We built into things and on to things. The buildings were there already but we painted them and added graphics and had streetlights and changed the general feeling of the place. We had a warehouse in Hayes [in west London] for the set. There’s the most beautiful modern structure in Longyearbyen - the mayor’s office and police station are all in this one building and Simon wrote that into the script so it allowed you to build something fabulous as it had to encompass all these different things. And it was quite modern, sexy architecture. All these elements fed in to what I could do for Fortitude.
It is a very isolated place so everything has got to be sent to you if you want a new bed or your fridge is broken. So things tended to be a little older and patched up so we tried to bring that element to it. That’s what we did with the hotel and the bar, it was kept clean but was quite shabby and slightly eccentric. We wanted to feel there was the personality of the people involved – the bedrooms and hotel rooms are all a bit scuffed but people look after them.
Exec/head of production
While we considered locations like Canada it didn’t last long. The feeling was we’re doing something distinctive and European and while it has an international flavour, filming in the UK or Europe became core to its creative ambition. I’m a real believer that where you shoot does infiltrate the DNA of what you produce.
It’s set in Svalbard but that takes two days to get there. And it became apparent that a lot of Europe is too lovely. It needed a frontier town. It has purpose and practicality, it’s not pretty but still extraordinary. Iceland became an obvious choice as they’ve got a film industry there – though they tend to do commercials or sequences of films – Game of Thrones goes there for ten days. Icelandics have a massive can do attitude. Amazing sequences up glaciers, helicopters – that stuff is ten a penny to them but when you say to them we want to take over this fish market and change it into a production base, that’s more unusual.
The second part of the production shape was basing ourselves in London for the interiors. That was a key decision in order to attract talent, both behind the camera as well as actors. It’s a 23-week shoot so you need to make it as palatable as possible when you’re a show punching above your weight. The tax break helps too. We had loads of meetings about what we would do if certain people were delayed by snow blocking roads, then the snow didn’t come. This is supposed to be the Arctic so we had JCBs going up the mountain bringing in snow to the town. The one thing you weren’t prepared for happens. You set up your post system for one style then you have a massive gear change because you’ve got half of London doing snow correction. On a show like this that’s why you need a contingency.
details Broadcaster Sky Atlantic TX January 2015 Exec producers Simon Donald, Patrick Spence, Frith Tiplady, Andrew Woodhead. For Sky, Anne Mensah, Cameron Roach Producer Matthew Bird Co producer Charles Hubbard Lead director Sam Miller Writer/creator Simon Donald Cast Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl, Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon Production designer Gemma Jackson DoP John Conroy Editor Trevor Waite Composer Ben Frost Post Encore Post Camera Arri Alexa
Tern producer Louise Say on taking new Sky One ob doc, Air Ambulance ER, to the high-end
"It’s more than a blue light series. It’s about getting under the skin of these everyday heroes.
"We feel we’ve achieved something different here, not just in the access but in the way we’ve filmed it. Technically it was challenging to rig the helicopters. We wanted to put three GoPros in a helicopter. We then planned to use a roving GoPro that could be strapped to a doctor or paramedic or put next to the red phone at base. That might sound simple but each helicopter is different, there’s limited space as there’s a lot of kit. We spent a lot of time developing a rig that worked and complied with the requirements of both the air ambulance and the CAA.
"The rig had to be easy to manage too. When the phone rings there’s three minutes to be ready to roll. Each day was a six camera shoot effectively. We had two teams: one in the north and one in the south. The PD was Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) trained so they were embedded with the HEMS team. They shot on a Sony PMW-200. Back at base the AP had a 200 as well, as we wanted to intercut between the two. That gave us the coverage, but we also did extensive aerials. We shot these on a Sony HDC-950 with an SSD Blackmagic recorder. We used Castle Air for that. In addition, we shot at all four bases across the country and we also did a high-end shoot as I wanted both pre-titles and cutting between bases to have a glossy cinematic feel. We used an Arri Amira for that. We also did a lot of set piece slow-mos, with the crew walking towards camera at sunrise, and then master interviews. We used those stylistic starts to sequences more than we thought we would. They became a major feature.
" I wanted all the bases to have a character. The idea was we were filming the work of the air ambulance teams over one summer, so we used a motion control time lapse – a 5D on a Genie motion control device with a Kessler slider – to get shots of daisies growing and so on. We also used a sound recordist to capture the sounds of summer and the helicopter. This layering adds to the high production levels.
"We had a triple consent protocol. A paramedic or doctor at the scene would get the consent of the patient verbally, or if they were unconscious we followed that up later through our channels at the hospitals. Then, if we wanted to actually use that story, we secured written consent and attended a visit. I had a designated consent AP as it’s such a key part of it. Then the contributor also had the option to watch the scenes before they were broadcast, so myself or my consent AP have been out doing viewings with patients."
While there’s a fashion in British TV drama right now for the dark and sinister – see Broadchurch, Happy Valley, The Fall, The Missing – the narrative of the television drama business itself is much more of a feelgood story – less Ken Loach grit and more Richard Curtis sunshine.
A golden age
It is, without doubt, a genre enjoying its place in the sun. “When I look back to the dark days at the turn of the century when drama seemed to be falling out of favour, it’s a complete sea change now,” says Carnival Films’ md Gareth Neame. “A decade and half later it seems to be healthier than it has ever been before.” Fifty Fathoms’ creative director (and winner of the Women in Film and TV producer award) Katie Swinden concurs. “It’s a really exciting time for drama. The ambition’s gone up, the money’s gone up and there are an awful lot more broadcasters looking for content across the board.”
And it’s the number of potential buyers that’s making for such a healthy sector. “There are more avenues to explore now,” says Murray Ferguson, chief exec of Clerkenwell Films. “There are more players – Starz weren’t around several years ago, Netflix are coming in.” In the UK, Sky has not reined in its ambitions in scripted, Channel 5 and UKTV are even commissioning small amounts and the traditional buyers like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 see drama as more and more important in their genre mix. “There’s a wealth of diversity and so many possibilities for pitching things into the market, probably more so than at any time I’ve been writing,” says Primeval and Musketeers writer and creator Adrian Hodges. “There’s an appetite for both adapted and original drama both in the UK and the States and in worldwide markets generally.”
And there are more possibilities to fund projects at a variety of budget levels. “When E4 first began that opened up a type of drama one could make at a slightly lower budget than you might have got traditionally from ITV1 or BBC1 and we made Misfits,” says Clerkenwell’s Ferguson. “Then you hit the mainstream through BBC1 and ITV1, and you can also think in a more ambitious scale where you might have funding from the UK the US and Europe as well.” And with so many funding levels open “it is creatively quite liberating.”
Broadcasters are also liberating their channels from the narrower confines of the past, says Red Production’s Nicola Shindler. “It feels like people aren’t pigeonholing their own channels. Stuff that might be on BBC1 might not have been on BBC1 five or six years ago. It does feel like there’s more risk taking across every channel.” Broadcasters have grown in confidence when it comes to their drama output and are far more willing to try new genres and formats. ITV stretched itself with Broadchurch as did Channel 4 with pieces like Utopia. After saying it ‘didn’t do costume drama,’ Sky then went on to make Penny Dreadful. BBC1 has recently been the home to often uncomfortably dark pieces like Happy Valley and The Missing that it perhaps wouldn’t have housed in years gone by. BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson said last month that “when I started in this job the constant criticism of the BBC was that it was focused only on traditional period drama. I’m so pleased that these are not the conversations we are having now. We have shifted the dial and modernised BBC drama. The overall feel of our output is modern, provocative, unafraid and bold in its confidence and swagger.”
Any time at all
All bets now seem to be off when it comes to scheduling drama too. “It’s a very exploratory time,” says Katie Swinden. “There are places like Netflix playing around with being able to download a series in one go and they’re also playing with weekly, more traditional scheduling. The BBC and Channel 4 have played with ideas of stripping stories across five days. What all the broadcasters are looking for is a powerful story that will engage the viewer and then they’re much more flexible about how they can best attract people to that story.” Donna Wiffen, ex-head of international drama at Fremantlemedia and now md of start up indie Duchess Street Productions, says that while there’s a big market for “event drama like Downton that you have to watch on a Sunday night because otherwise you read about it in the papers, or everybody’s tweeting about it, or your friends are telling you what’s happening.” Conversely there’s also the “Netflix box set binging.”
The variety of ways that audiences reach shows means there is less stress on the overnights than in the past. With less need to hit a mainstream audience in one go, there is not so much pressure to head straight for the mainstream with your output. “Shows are finding their audience or audiences are finding their shows,” says Swinden. So it’s more possible to have complicated storytelling or more complex, sometimes morally ambiguous anti heroes when you’re not trying to please all of the people all of the time. The target is no longer “couch potatoes,” says Wiffen. “Audiences are much more sophisticated nowadays. They target what they want to watch and they go out and find it. The way we watch has helped change that.” The days when viewers would sit and watch whatever was served up to them have gone. “Viewers are really smart,” says Sky’s acting head of drama , Cameron Roach.
“They just want the best content and they will sniff it out and track it down so it’s pointless us delivering anything other than exceptional content.”
And that openness to finding content means “there is a willingness to try new things,” says Hodges. “Audiences are more diverse. You can get a substantial audience for a mainstream show as you always could, then you can also get a very satisfying audience for The Fall or Peaky Blinders and those shows have an enormous reach. We don’t have to make everything for a massive audience. We’ve got to get the right audience for the show.”
New ways of watching TV have opened audiences to drama, often international drama, that they may not have seen in the past and broadcasters are realising there’s a hunger for that. S4C’s drama commissioner Gwawr Lloyd says that for shows like her own Welsh set Hinterland, “the fact that it’s located in Wales is a huge part of the appeal. If you watch something from Scandinavia you get a glimpse into another world through a drama narrative, for me that’s a huge part of the appeal. It’s part of what makes something attractive whereas in the past that’s been a turn off.”
The world of TV drama has simply become much more international now. “We were much more parochial in what we were commissioning and producing here [in the past], so was the US,” says Carnival’s Gareth Neame. But the big international co production is becoming more and more common. “There are a lot more early conversations between UK and US producers about the coupling of talent and putting money into projects,” says Katie Swinden. The BBC’s Ben Stephenson reckons that “the UK / US television community is one community now. It feels like we can accept each other for each other’s strengths and how complementary we are.” US audiences are exposed to international, notably British, drama far more now and are therefore far more accepting of non US content. “New viewing platforms in the US that have given audiences over there exposure to British drama in a way they wouldn’t have seen before,” says Neame. “You still won’t see British drama on a US network but if you’ve got Hulu or Netflix you can.” And it’s the influence of those new platforms that are making the US environment far kinder to UK drama producers. “The old formula of a network 13 or 22-part series with standalone episodes so it could work in syndication has fallen away,” he continues. And now there are shorter runs with more authored pieces. “We’ve never been quite as strong on the mechanical side of things but a lot of this change plays to our strengths.”
The openness of audiences to international content means having an international focus doesn’t have to mean a cross border “pudding” any more. International drama, just means drama with scale. “I don’t have to say to a writer ‘you have to set it in China’ because that isn’t how it works anyway. You’re just pushing them for the biggest way of telling that story,” says Red’s Shindler. “International drama isn’t set internationally. Look at Happy Valley. It’s one of our best sellers and it couldn’t be more local to West Yorkshire. Not even Yorkshire, West Yorkshire. But it sold because the ideas behind it are so universal.”
BBC Key Shows
Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Our Girl, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, The Missing, Top of the lake, The Honourable Woman Recent Commissions
London Spy (Working Title TV); SSGB (Sid Gentle Films); The Last Kingdom (Carnival Films); Undercover (BBC Drama Production); Tatau (Touchpaper TV); The A Word (Fifty Fathoms); The Casual Vacancy (Bronte Film and TV); Taboo (Scott Free, Hardy Son & Baker); The Living and the Dead (Monastic) Commissioners
Controller, Ben Stephenson; head of independent drama, Polly Hill; commissioning editor BBC independent drama, Lucy Richer; commissioning editor BBC independent drama, Matthew Read; head of BBC Films, Christine Langan
ITV Key Shows
Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Mr Selfridge, Endeavour, The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, Scott and Bailey, The Widower, Cilla, Whitechapel Recent Commissions
Jekyll & Hyde (ITV Studios); The Frankenstein Chronicles (Rainmark Films); Midwinter of the Spirit (ITV Studios); The Forgotten (Mainstreet Pictures); Arthur and George (Buffalo Pictures); Jambusters (ITV Studios); Black Work (Mammoth Screen) Commissioners
Director of drama, Steve November; controller of drama, Victoria Fea; commissioning editor, Charlie Hampton; head of drama series, Jane Hudson
Channel 4 Key Shows
Southcliffe, Utopia, My Mad Fat Diary, Black Mirror, Run, Glue, Babylon, Top Boy, Skins, Misfits, This is England Recent commissions
The ABC (The Forge); Peter Kosminsky ISIS series (Archery); Coalition (Cuba); Humans (Kudos ); Cucumber, Banana, Tofu (Red); No Offence (Abbottvision) Commissioners
Head of drama, Piers Wenger; deputy head, Beth Willis; head of development, Surian Fletcher-Jones; commissioning editor, Sophie Gardiner; commissioning editor, Roberto Troni
SKY Key Shows
The Smoke, The Tunnel, Fleming, Fortitude, Penny Dreadful, Strikeback, The Enfield Haunting, Yonderland Recent commissions
Critical (Hat Trick); The Five (Red Production); The Last Panthers (Warp Films) Commissioners
Head of drama, Anne Mensah; commissioning editor, Cameron Roach; head of development, Beverley Booker
Under Milk Wood (fFatti fFilms), Hinterland (Fiction Factory); 35 Days (Apollo TV)
Commissioner: Gwawr Lloyd
Suspects (Newman Street)
Commissioner: Ben Frow
Legion (Red Planet)
Commissioner: Darren Childs
The Crown (Left Bank)
Commissioners: chief content officer, Ted Sarandos; original content vp, Cindy Holland; original series director, Peter Friedlander
Ripper Street (Tiger Aspect)
Commissioners: vp Amazon Prime Instant Video, UK, Tim Leslie; head of international content acquisition, Jason Ropell
With his new Sky 3D show about to launch, David Attenborough tells Jon Creamer why his passion for the development of natural history TV hasn’t dimmed
It’s pretty hard to overstate Sir David Attenborough’s contribution to British television. He’s regularly named in every ‘Greatest Living Briton,’ ‘Living Icon,’ ‘National Treasure’ and ‘Heroes of Our Time’ list that rears its head and, although he might baulk at such epithets, he has, arguably, defined the role of the television presenter and created the template for natural history broadcasting.
He was, after all, right there at the birth of the medium in this country having joined the BBC’s nascent television service after failing to get a position with BBC Radio. “I got a job having seen one television programme - a play. I didn’t even have a television set,” he says.
But over the past 60 years his passion for television, and its ability to show the public the natural world in all its glory, hasn’t dimmed. This month sees the launch of his latest Sky 3D spectacular with Atlantic Productions, Conquest of the Skies.
And despite 3D not taking off in quite the way it was once predicted to, he’s still a great champion of the format. “It gives you a more complete picture of the world,” he says, and it’s another step forward in television’s ability to do that. “When it started the vision of the world television gave you was a very limited one. It was black and white with 405 lines.” The emergence of colour TV was a big leap from that “not because it’s more colourful but because it gives a more high definition picture of the world. That’s the same with 3D. Like colour, the world does have three dimensions after all.”
And the ability to capture more of the world in three dimensions has advanced rapidly. “We’ve been doing it for five years and when we started the apparatus was huge. It took 12 to 14 people to keep it on the road. Now it’s much more versatile.” But while 3D advances, television, in terms of picture excellence, has almost reached the end of history, he says. “The move from 405 lines to 5k is huge. If you projected the programmes I made in the 50s and put them on a screen the size of a house it would be intolerable but with 5k you can.” Because as far as the pictures are concerned “we’ve jolly nearly got everything we require,” he says. “We can do almost anything you can think of. You can film at night, you can film at the bottom of the sea, you can slow things down, speed things up and with cgi you can create anything you want. It’s a dangerous thing to say but as far as television is concerned, we are very close to the end of technical developments.”
But he says, technology is nothing if the story isn’t there. “A dud programme is not made into a good programme by making it in 3D,” he says. “Narrative structure is a very valuable thing to have. There have been good programmes that just go to a wonderful place and just dream about,” but you can’t do that in every programme. “Chronology is very important” in natural history, he says. “Viewers want to know where they are in a programme and keeping things chronologically in order is a very useful way of maintaining a narrative thread.” As is keeping that narrative and the script fresh. “There’s nothing wrong with a cliché in itself because the reason it has become a cliché because it is appropriate and it works.”
But, he says, cliché is simply taking “the easy way out. That’s the difference between good writing and bad writing.” And although “’I’m here in this exciting place and I’m going to find out’ is a very good way of starting a programme, if you’re the 15th person who’s said that in a week it doesn’t hold the viewer.”
As a central figure in the TV firmament for the past 60 years, he’s not sure he could have the same career now. “The television world is changing. What it’s going to be like in 20 years time is anybody’s guess but my suspicion is the way we view television and what we view is going to change quite profoundly.” And the type of series he is best known for might get tougher to realise. “It needs an organisation that has the capital, the ambition and the courage to put money into something for three and a half years. You require somebody who’s well financed and has got the will and the inspiration to make that sort of programme. If you were starting in television as a little independent it wouldn’t automatically be something you would start with.”
And even if it was, he doesn’t rate his chances if he was a young man beginning his career today. “I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a job. The reason I did was that nobody else wanted to make natural history programmes in 1954. But if you put up a notice now saying ‘Wanted: young man to make programme about lions in the Serengeti,’ I guarantee you’d get 5000 applications all of whom might just as well be as qualified as I was.”
David Attenborough was born in Isleworth in 1926. After Cambridge, he joined the BBC in 1952 as a trainee and became a producer. He first appeared as a presenter on Zoo Quest in 1954 when the original presenter was taken ill. He was made controller of BBC2 in 1965 but continued to produce and present. His landmark series include Life on Earth (1975), The Living Planet (1984), The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants(1994), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002), Life in the Undergrowth (2005) and Life in Cold Blood (2007) His 3D work includes Flying Monsters 3D, The Bachelor King 3D and Kingdom of Plants 3D for Atlantic Productions and Sky 3D and Galapagos 3D, Micro Monsters 3D, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D and Conquest of the Skies 3D for Colossus Productions
Watch Channel 4 head of factual and deputy chief creative officer Ralph Lee talking about what he would like to see on his channel. Lee was interviewed at the recent Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta.
Watch BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw talking about what she would like to see on her channels. Shillinglaw was interviewed at the recent Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta, her first interview since taking over the BBC2 and BBC4 role.