The edit suite is where the story finally comes together in its polished and perfected form. In advance of EditFest London, Televisual asks five of the UK’s top editors about their creative approach
My process goes back to editing Super 8 films as a child. I work moment-for-moment so I work with my team to log as much as possible about each slate and take, so I can jump to any variance in line reading, gesture or character’s movement. It’s a lot of prep but makes the initial assembly come together in the most fluid way for me personally.
A film high on visual effects like my current project begins a year before the shoot starts, often long before the project is even green-lit by the studio. A more conventional shoot like my last film begins on day one of shooting. I like both routes as my enjoyment of the process is based upon the story and the talent around me rather than whether there are any visual effects involved. Also, I think every crew member thrives on the need for something new and different in a new job. Every film brings new creative, logistical, political and social opportunities.
Some directors will sit with you through dailies and give specific notes each day. Others will give more generic notes and wait to see what you put together. Either way has its merits and either way brings that variety that keeps us all fresh. Some directors like to sit through every scene, shot by shot while others like to give notes at the beginning of the day and return the next morning. I wouldn’t say that editing is part of the directing process but it is definitely an extension of the writing process. I often find I get on really well with writers. The producer of my current project, Steve Kloves who wrote most of the Harry Potter screenplays and wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys has become a very good friend. We share the same passions but we’re included at opposite ends of the process.
The essential skills
If you can tell a good story then you have a head start. Beyond that I think the greatest asset any crew member can have is to respect the roles of all those around you. There are many directors who believe they are auteurs but the truth is filmmaking is a collaboration. Part of being a good editor is understanding what all the other departments do and plugging Editorial into that machine.
There are no rules to a good edit. For me it is simply the moment when the transition between one cut and the next takes life within the scene. The excitement of the work comes from stringing these individual moments of life together into something cohesive.
Each story requires a set of different stylistic choices. Some of the greatest single edits of all time are the most obvious ones. But just because they are obvious doesn’t mean they are any less powerful.
I never follow the same method for some reason. It always depends completely on the material. I try to submerge myself in the story and make every edit for that. Sometimes I’ll start with the moment I think is the heart of the scene and then build the rest from there. Sometimes I’ll just start at the first shot and keep cutting till I reach the end of the sequence. It kind of depends completely on what’s happening in the scene.
I organise the rushes as simply as possible. Like a kind of ‘Fisher Price’ approach, with visual key frames for each setup. Then I separate each take with a little red dot so I can see where each one begins! After that I make select rolls for key moments. I want them to be immediately findable because wasting time looking for anything is taking away time and energy from the film.
Come on board
It’s always different but usually it’s best to be involved at script stage. Producers want suggestions about cutting scenes before the shoot begins because they’re desperate to save money. It’s amazing how editors can help with that! I’ve worked with very ‘hands on’ directors as well as ones who have no patience for the cutting room and have given me total control. I think the best directors are ones who give the editor space to experiment while paying attention to the big picture. The director is most effective when he/she can judge things from a bit of a distance. Sometimes it’s hard to see the grand scheme when you’re chipping away at the details. The last thing you need is a director who is obsessed with a two frame edit.
When it works
The edit is the final stage of the writing process. The main reason I’ve had the confidence to move into directing myself is that I’ve learned so much in the cutting room. Ideally the editor and director are very tuned into each other. Some directors don’t have the patience for detail in the cutting room so it’s the editors job to make thousands of decisions on their behalf. Sometimes it’s easier for the editor to make these decisions because they weren’t on the set and have an essential and unbiased clarity on what is good and what isn’t.
You need patience, compassion, empathy, a love of music, an obsession with stories and storytelling, determination, good taste, a thick skin as well as extreme sensitivity (which is very hard) and above all, a sense of humour.
Most of the time editing is best when it’s invisible. However, there are times when a cut can be effective when it jumps out at you but only when it’s completely tuned into the story. For me there has to be a strong narrative reason for a noticeable cut.
The beautiful thing about an edit is you can’t irrevocably break something. The material and the performances are all in there somewhere, it’s just about interpreting it. Filming is expensive, editing can be done quite cheaply so you get a lot of freedom.
Get on board
If it’s been done well and the DoP’s fantastic, the script and the cast is good, what you’re presented with is already part way to being what it’s going to be anyway. The camera style will dictate the editing style to a degree and the rhythms in the script also. There’s such a creative momentum already when the editor steps in, if you’re perceptive you can dovetail into what’s trying to be achieved without going against the grain of that. It becomes a natural progression.
You never get the opportunity again to see the material for the first time. It’s vitally important you’re not distracted then. You’re trying to be with the actors as much as you possibly can when watching those rushes or you’ll miss that golden thing which is your first reaction. I’m very reactive to performance and levels of performance, anything that rings particularly true or is idiosyncratic and interesting in a human way, I’ll mark up and try to get into the scene at some point.
I feel myself to be a frustrated actor. If the actor is upset you need to feel as upset as they feel. If a joke is funny you need to be there with them to find it funny. Soul and perception of humanity is the greatest tool. To be able to pick out seemingly innocuous idiosyncratic behaviour is essential. Anyone with enough time can work out how to make edits on an Avid, but it really is about the communication of emotions.
Big screen, small screen
Whether it’s TV shows or features it’s essentially the same thing. Instinctively when you sit down in front of an Avid and you start pulling material together it just feels exactly the same. I’ve bounced between the two. I’ve just done a TV pilot and from shoot to lock it was four weeks and yet on Suffragette we were close to nine months editing. You look at these two scenarios and think how on Earth did we take that long on the movie and how on Earth did we lock that show in four weeks? But in terms of trying to figure out the differences I find it very hard. I approach every job with exactly the same determination, dedication and passion. When you hit the material it’s the same job.
I’m often sent a late draft of the script to see if I have thoughts and notes but generally I tend to avoid that. It will have gone through so many clever people before me it’s better for me to come to it as fresh as possible. My job is to be the viewer at home, the guy who’s sat on the sofa watching it. The less I know about pre-production and production the better.
I’ve had scenes where the director says ‘I wouldn’t look at the stuff we shot past 6pm, it’s not so good.’ But when you look at that stuff it’s fantastic. When you chat to them you realise that day it was raining, the food was terrible, they’d gone into overtime the day before and everyone was tired. That might have influenced the way they feel about it.
Get it together
I tend to make my assemblies as tight as possible. If you have them loose you’ll end up having to take time out of them anyway. I tend to not worry too much about the visuals at that stage; I radio edit what the best takes are. If there’s some clunky visual editing then I can worry about that down the line. It’s whatever’s funniest, but I did the same thing on Doctor Who? – does it work? Are you getting the ups and downs and flows in conversation and the building towards suspense? If you close your eyes does it still make sense? That’s what I’m really worried about when I’m doing assemblies.
Once the director’s in there’s always something that doesn’t work – a joke that doesn’t land, a scene that feels superfluous, setting up exposition that’s unnecessary, so you start taking things out. You’re then on a mission to make it as much like a finished TV programme as possible. You’ll watch an assembly but you see 100 things that need fixing, you become obsessed with getting these things fixed. It becomes like a DIY project.
Room to breathe
Knowing what’s funny is really good, but if it makes you laugh it’s funny and if it doesn’t, it isn’t. It doesn’t really get more complicated than that. What does help is an understanding of how much clarity you need when it comes to story. Every good sitcom has a good story underneath the jokes but if that story gets so complicated you have to take jokes out to make time for it then there’s something wrong. It’s about how few words you can use to tell the story to leave room for as many jokes as possible.
You meet the director to see if you’re going to be able to work together. Then you talk to them and they start telling you their ideas about the story. But if you’re working with the right sort of director who trusts you he wants you to bring something of yourself to it. What’s the point of just being a pair of hands and doing just what someone tells you to do, you’d just be a robot. You need to give him what he wants but give him something of yourself. You may find something in the material he never thought of. That’s the way I worked.
I will talk to the director while they’re shooting and find out what they want on the scene and I will bear that in mind once I start working on it. With Joel Schumacher on The Phantom of the Opera he said to me ‘I want you to edit the film. I’m directing and you’re editing and when you’ve finished it, show it to me and if there are things we don’t like we’ll work on them together but if it works okay we’ll leave it alone.’ That gives you confidence. Some wanted to put their fingers in the pie all the time but I never had that very much. I find directors are easy to work with if they trust you, that’s half the battle, that they know you’re working to make their film the best you possibly can.
No rough stuff
The terminology I cannot stand is rough cut. There is no such thing as a rough cut. The thing you do first if the most thoughtful cut you make. It may not work completely because it may have come out too long or one of the characters didn’t work and you need to develop it a different way. All those things happen afterwards but it’s never a rough cut. You spend a great deal of time getting the best cut you possibly can to show to your director and the investors, that’s the one everybody sees first. Once you’ve done that you can see then where it doesn’t quite work and that’s where you work on it together. When you get down to it together you can say ‘this is far too long it doesn’t work’, or ‘we’re outstaying our welcome in this particular scene’ and he either agrees with you or doesn’t and when he doesn’t you get a film that doesn’t quite work.
The eyes have it
For a good cut you’ve got to get beneath the surface of the subject and understand the characters. I loved The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It’s a story about these sad people and you feel for them and that’s how you get beneath the surface of the subject. It’s got to be instinctive, you cut where it feels right. That’s why I love dialogue scenes. All the time I’m looking at the character’s eyes. It’s like when you’re talking to people you look in their eyes and you know whether they’re getting pissed off with what you’re saying or you’ve got them on your wavelength. It’s the same when cutting a film, you’re looking at these people’s eyes and one movement of the eyes says a page of dialogue.
The editors featured in this article will be speaking at ACE’s EditFest London on June 20, sponsored by Televisual – www.americancinemaeditors.org
The team behind the new Clangers series had to bring the show up to date without losing its classic charm. Jon Creamer reports
For such tiny moon mice, the Clangers have had a very big impact on the nation’s consciousness.
The series, created by writer, animator and narrator Oliver Postgate and modelmaker and illustrator Peter Firmin, ran for just 26 episodes (and a special) on the BBC between 1969 and 1972, but it remains one of the best loved British children’s animations of all time.
Reviving it for the modern age then is a tough call. How do you update a classic without losing its original magic?
The team behind its reincarnation reckon they’ve cracked it although “we were nervous,” says Zoe Bamsey, Coolabi director of development and production. “You’d seen things like Bill and Ben and Andy Pandy come back and they hadn’t resonated.”
The key to making it work was involving, and getting the blessing of, the original creators. Postgate died in 2008, but Coolabi exec producer Dan Maddicott who had been a long time friend of Postgate and Firmin, began discussions with Firmin and Oliver’s son Dan about what the new incarnation should be. “Once the possibility of doing it came up, we got talking in detail to Dan Postgate who inherited the catalogue and Peter and after a very long time of chatting and discussing we agreed it could only be done if it was done absolutely ‘right.’”
Factory, the Altrincham based animators behind Fifi and the Flowertots, Strange Hill High and Raa Raa the Noisy Lion among others were then brought on board to help build the show and brought Firmin into that process.
And he brought some original source material. Firmin crucially still owned three of the original Clanger characters as well as the Soup Dragon, Iron Chicken and other props and crucially, one of Major Clanger’s armatures “At the time they produced that themselves in the workshop using bits of Meccano and filed wood,” says Factory’s md, Phil Chalk. ”It’s surprising the amount of dexterity you can get from that original armature. The range of movement was extraordinary given the low fi materials they had back in the day. We just brought that up to date with a modern armature from MacKinnon and Saunders, we’ve replicated those movements but made them more repeatable.”
But says Maddicott, “although the technology has moved on, we’re still using absolutely traditional stop frame characters.” After all, it’s pointless making it too slick. “With stop frame you don’t want to disguise the fact that it’s stop frame otherwise it begs the question, why do it?” says Chalk. “We want to maintain the integrity of the original.” So the characters and their costumes are all hand knitted. “We have a full time knitter in the studio to make sure the puppets are pristine in front of the HD cameras,” he says. The Clangers are all reskinned every two or three months to ensure matching colours and that “the integrity of the knit is maintained throughout.”
What has changed is the speed of the process though. Postgate and Firmin would produce much more animation in a day back in the DIY days of the 60s. “Back in the day Oliver, with Peter supporting him, would animate everything himself and would produce five minutes of animation a day in the shed. Now we’re producing just over a minute a day with six animators and full support crew in studio.”
The speed of production also comes from a desire to keep the feel and texture of the original. “We’re trying to be as faithful to the original as possible so we’re shooting as much as is humanly possible in camera,” says Chalk. The push is to eschew cg and use traditional animation rigging for movement, keeping backdrops in camera to a large extent too. “This is one of the most ambitious animations in terms of the scale of the backdrops and sets the company’s ever done,” says Chalk.
The ‘Living Cave’ measures 16 feet across, 12 feet deep and eight feet high “and that’s compared to traditional stop frame shows that take place on an 8 by 4ft tabletop set. In cg sometimes there’s a disconnect between the physical and the digital” aspects so “we’ve tried to ensure we’re capturing all the textures and strata of the various surfaces within the Clanger planet. You can only really do that by creating them physically.”
details Clangers is a brand new version of the classic children’s stop frame series that first broadcast between 1969 and 1972. It was made by Smallfilms, the company created by Oliver Postgate (writer, animator and narrator) and Peter Firmin (modelmaker and illustrator). The new show is produced by rights holder Coolabi and animation house Factory
Narrator Michael Palin Executive producer and design consultant Peter Firmin Executive producers Zoe Bamsey, Daniel Postgate CBeebies executive Jackie Edwards Series producer Dan Maddicott Directors Mole Hill, Chris Tichborne Head writer Dave Ingham Factory producer Phil Chalk Head of production Laura Duncalf Animators John Ashton, Jo Chalkley, Sue Guy, Will Hodge, Julia McLean, Kevin Walton, Fabrice Pieton DoP Richard Dando Production designer Andy Farago Puppets Mackinnon and Saunders Music John Du Prez
For its new Channel 4 drama Humans, Kudos took a domestic and contemporary angle on a sci-fi staple. Jon Creamer Reports
It’s set in a contemporary Britain but the story of Kudos and Channel 4’s new eight part drama Humans starts back in 2012 in Sweden.
The original show, written by Lars Lundström, produced by Matador Films and broadcast by Sveriges Television (SVT) was a major hit in its home country, has already run a second series and has since sold to 50 territories. It posits an alternative present where the must-have gadget for every family is a synthetic human helper.
Kudos’s parent company Shine picked up the rights to make an English language version of the show and Spooks writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley were brought on board to pen it.
Channel 4 ordered the show in the UK and a co production was then signed with Xbox Entertainment Studios who planned to run the show on its network in the US. So far, all running as clockwork. But then Xbox announced that its US content arm, headed by Nancy Tellem, would be shut down as part of a wider series of job cuts. Suddenly Humans was left swinging in the wind with a co producer lost.
But not for long. The show was strong enough though to pick up a new joint partner, US network AMC, the home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The network came on board last year to take Xbox’s place.
The idea of humanoid robots with artificial intelligence living within society is well-trodden ground in popular culture from Isaac Asimov onwards. Even in recent months movie releases have included Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. But, says Sam Vincent, he and co writer Jonathan Brackley were confident they would have a “different rhythm and a different take on it. This is about two families ultimately – one very normal one and one very strange one. We felt excited that the issue was rising and rising and we were the only ones approaching it in this way.”
There is, in essence, “only one robot story,” says Vincent “what are they going to do to us? and all robot stories essentially ask that question.” But the trouble with a lot of sci fi takes on the subject, says fellow writer Jonathan Brackley, is that “it’s easy to get bogged down in the mythology and end up with something genre based. This gave us more scope to explore the ideas in a simpler domestic setting.”
It was the show’s “unique domestic setting” that was its main attraction,” says Vincent. “It’s a classic story but it’s doing it in a domestic setting which is what Lars had done on the original. We realised that what he’d come up with was a new way into this world” rather than the traditional sci fi thriller engine. “We realised it was a story about people and what technology does to people and how it changes us. It’s just extrapolating things that are happening now and seeing where that will take us.”
The pair have taken the idea and moved it on. The main characters “are inspired by the original,” says Brackley “but we’ve run with them and done our own thing. So they start off in a similar place to the original, but we take them on very, very different journeys.
What it does have in common with the original Swedish Version is that the sci fi element is stripped back to just the synths themselves. The world, and its technology, is resolutely 2015 Britain. “That’s one of the many things we took from the original,“ says Vincent. “They presented the idea as here it is, we’re not going to tell the back-story of how the synths got made, we’re starting in this parallel present. Lars told us when he was thinking about the original he thought about a version where you did see this preamble but then decided to dispense with that and present it as a fait accompli. That was one of the keys for developing the series and it appealed to all of us.”
The show is simply “an alternate now,” says Brackley “We weren’t trying to set it in the future, it was as if these synths had been invented say ten years ago, much in the same way something like True Blood just starts and it’s a given that vampires just are.”
And in common with the original series is the lack of any judgement on whether AI is good or bad. “From the very start we always said we were not going to take a clear authorial position on that. We were not going to present it either as a dystopia or a utopia, we wanted the audience to decide,” says Vincent.
details Humans is an English language adaptation of Sveriges Television (SVT) and Matador Films’ series, Real Humans about a parallel present where the must-have gadget for every family is a ‘synth.’
Broadcaster Channel 4 and AMC Length 8x60 Production Kudos in association with Matador Films Writers Jonathan Brackley, Sam Vincent Executive producers Jane Featherstone, Derek Wax Series producer Chris Fry Directors Sam Donovan, Daniel Nettheim, Lewis Arnold, China Moo – Young Production manager Louisa Rawlins Production designer Dick Lunn Art director Andrea Matheson Synth movement director Dan O’Neill Music Cristobal Tapia De Veer DoP Ula Pontikos, Stuart Bentley, David Rom, Simon Archer Editors Daniel Greenway, Johnny Rayner, Ben Yeates, Dominic Strevens Post supervisor Bea Arnold
Spooks: The Greater Good director Bharat Nalluri explains what it takes to turn a long running TV show into a theatrical movie. Jon Creamer reports
Bharat Nalluri was the lead director on Spooks the TV series way back in 2002 and then returned to direct the final episodes of the show in 2011. He then directed the final instalment of the Spooks world, with the theatrical movie out this month.
Why has the movie not happened before?
Every few years we would talk about turning it into a movie. But they wanted it to run as a TV show and no one had the time. Then there was the question of how we would distinguish between the TV show and the movie. I came back to the show right at the end of the final season and shot the last episode. Literally in the car park as we were leaving I said to [Kudos boss] Jane Featherstone ‘there’s always been a movie in this and we should kick start that again.’ We got in a room and started knocking out ideas and it moved fast from there.
Was the development process long?
The world was changing rapidly between 2011 and 2013. The world moved so fast it overtook our scripts. We were keen to capture the zeitgeist that the TV show did at its best.
How do you make it work for both fans of the show and new viewers?
It’s a really fine tightrope to walk: how do you not disenfranchise two sets of people. I genuinely think we’ve cracked it having played it to both audiences. There’s enough stuff in there for the fans to grip into. We also made it in such a way that if you’ve never seen it before it’s not going to ruin your enjoyment.
How do you take a TV series to a movie level?
We always talked in movie terms from the outset on the TV series. I felt the episodes were all little movies – 50 minute thrillers. When I came to Spooks I’d come out of making films and this was my first television, so I’d come with that aesthetic. But on a basic level we went abroad. We always talk about it on the TV show but never quite did it, maybe once. On this we went to Russia and Germany and we told back-stories in a different way. What was great was being able to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. In the TV series you’re leaving threads open across the season.
How does production process change?
The scale is a whole different beast. For an hour of TV we’re shooting 12 days. This was eight weeks – we’re shooting in Berlin and creating Russia. You do an action set piece in half a day on the TV show if you’re lucky. Here you’re spending a week on it. It allows you to spend more time working the drama and working with actors.
London is a big part of the film?
London has always been a huge background to the show and when you’ve suddenly got two months to shoot it and you’ve got movie budgets you can get into places you’ve never been able to get to. As I started this movie my whole family moved to Washington DC so it was a love letter for London and all my favourite places. It was 20 years of locations I’ve wanted to shoot and I managed to splurge them all out in one go.
With so many spy thrillers out there, is it hard to find your own grammar?
In reality we’re a kind of a mutt. When I started doing the show I’d just come back from doing very glossy, sexy studio movies in the US. I came back thinking I’m going to make the show really gritty and dirty and grainy – almost black and white. Then I watched a lot of British television and that’s what it all was, gritty and grainy and real. So I thought let’s make it as cinematic as we can. We shot with three cameras, 5.1 surround sound, we gave it all the texture of a movie. The reason I chose the river as central location is that it was the one place I could find wide landscapes. We upped the editing tempo so there were 650 cuts to the hour instead of the usual 200. We shot 70 pages of script instead of the standard 56 so it felt like it had this forward propulsion. I told the actors never to let up. There was no moment where you sat down and explained it all safely for the audience.
Do you stick to a very solid plan on set?
No, I always find if I plan and make shot lists and storyboards everyone hooks into them and you can’t take advantage of something that’s happening around you. Being super flexible on set usually leads to really interesting stuff. Plus it allows the actors to be flexible. I would never have done that 20 years ago but I haven’t done a shot list for years and years now. The great thing with actors is if you have their confidence, they’ll let you do anything. What you don’t realise as a young director is you can go to them and say ‘this scene’s not working, why is it not working?’ In the early days you’d be terrified they’d see the whites of your eyes and go for your throat but if you do it with confidence it’s a fantastic place to be.
Getting the director involved early on, and letting one director take on a whole series, can transform and elevate drama, says director Toby Haynes who helmed all seven episodes of BBC1 series Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
The producers knew they had this bestselling book and they were struggling to get a greenlight. It was [BBC exec] Matthew Read who said ‘why don’t we bring a director who could have something to offer the authorial voice of the piece?’ They had felt it was a bit too BBC2 and not very accessible. Matthew Read bought into making it more universal and more of an immersive audience experience with a director at the forefront of that, not coming in at the end, so the show could be born out of a cinematic vision.
My involvement early in the writing process with Peter Harness, the writer, meant we could be so much more daring with the way we tell the story. It’s not just aesthetics that make something feel cinematic, it’s the way we tell the story and the time we spend with our characters as they walk through the streets and live their lives. Being with Peter while he’s writing made sure the scripts had a rigour to them and every scene earned its place and had a point. I could inject the sense of pace I could normally inject in the edit process in the writing process. It meant everything had already gone through a stress test or a run through.
Anything that involved more technical stuff I would get in there early with Peter and make sure what was in the script was achievable and we already had a solution worked out. Sometimes in drama you can read a sequence that is unachievable. When I worked on the Reichenbach Fall episode of Sherlock, he was originally written to jump off the Shard. We could have done a version of that that involved a lot of green screen but it just wouldn’t have looked very good.
It became a production imperative to have one director. We were block shooting the sets in a particular location so you couldn’t bring in different directors as one day of shooting could mean shooting in all seven episodes, so I made myself indispensable in that way. It was a perfect storm that I took advantage of. It doesn’t happen very often but I hope it happens again. It has changed the way I work. From the stuff I’ve read since I’m less attracted to scripts that are already fully developed.
I’m really trying to fight the image of directors coming in right at the end and pointing the cameras and buggering off again. It’s sometimes quite hard for people to take in what we do, the scale of the job is so colossal.
There was a time when directing was just about coverage. TVs themselves were smaller so it was a close-up medium. Now we’ve all got big flat screens. Just before I did Doctor Who I’d been visiting my mentor David Yates on the Harry Potter set. Then I went to Doctor Who and realised we had pretty much the same kind of equipment – a similar camera with access to wonderful 35mm lenses. We had a dolly and track. For all the big sets and kit on a film like Harry Potter they were still just shooting with one camera one dolly and one grip. The fundamentals are very similar, all it takes is vision and good lighting and a really focused idea of what you need to achieve.
Television has evolved. You can achieve anything so directing it is important again. People are seeing the difference it makes if you have a director as an authorial voice. It only takes looking at Tom Shankland’s work or Peter Kosminsky and what he did with Wolf Hall to see what directors can do over a longer run when they’re given that canvas.
The licence fee takes centre stage in the manifestos, but other policies will be just as crucial for the creative industries.
The political party’s proposals for the creative industries have not been a particularly major part of the general election campaign.
After all, plans for the film and TV business aren’t a classic vote winner, or particularly a vote loser when it comes to the public at large.
But there are some important points of difference between the parties for the film and TV industry. And there are dangers, and opportunities, for the creative industries whichever flavour of government eventually takes power.
Licence to kill?
Most of the parties’ manifesto commitments are vague but generally surround the very British political obsession with the BBC, its governance and its funding.
The Conservatives have a philosophical dislike of the licence fee, but that’s always offset by a voting public which, while it doesn’t like paying fee, has warm and fuzzy feelings for the BBC brand.
So the manifesto pledge this time from the Tories is that the licence fee will be frozen, at least until Charter renewal, but not frozen out. The Conservatives also want to top slice the BBC’s income to pay for the roll out of super fast broadband continuing the top slicing they began in 2010 to pay for the World Service and Jeremy Hunt’s Local TV experiment.
And it’s the Tory’s antipathy to the licence fee that could be the biggest challenge for the TV sector. Whether a BBC staffer or an independent producer, it’s the BBC’s spending power for new programmes that stimulates the unique commissioning ecology of the UK and is a big part of what has allowed the growth of independent TV businesses and their success internationally.
Indie trade body Pact, while often at odds with the BBC when it comes to issues of in-house versus indie production guarantees and rights retention, sees the preservation of the licence fee as a big concern. “The licence fee tied to inflation at the next settlement with no top-slicing for non-TV use,” will be crucial, says chief exec John McVay.
The Labour Party’s manifesto is somewhat vague on the issue, stating that the BBC “makes a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life, and we will ensure that it continues to do so while delivering value for money.” A comment that suggests support for the funding model, but says little about what level the licence fee should be set at. The Liberal Democrats state that they want a licence fee that “does not rise faster than inflation,” leaving a glimmer of hope that the fee could at least rise with inflation if they have any say in it.
The SNP has plenty to say about the BBC, pushing for responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland to move from Westminster to Edinburgh. It’s also after a greater share of the licence fee to be transferred to BBC Scotland and it wants a bigger say in Charter Renewal and BBC governance for the Scottish government.
And it’s the BBC’s governance that concerns the other parties too, and its rivals. Commercial broadcaster trade body Coba’s executive director Adam Minns says: “it’s in the long term interests of the BBC that there is robust and transparent oversight that is independent and beyond reproach. If that is a dedicated body, then it needs greater independence, greater powers and possibly greater resources than the current model.” That will be up for grabs when the next government comes in.
Channel 4 crops up in the manifestos too with pledges from both Labour and the Lib Dems to halt any sell off of the publicly owned broadcaster. There’s nothing on the issue from the Conservatives in their manifesto, but plans for a sale were drawn up by the Conservatives in 2014 (but blocked by Business Secretary Vince Cable). A Conservative government without a Liberal Democrat partner to block it would mean a sell off could be tempting as the broadcaster could be expected to bag an estimated £1bn plus for the Treasury.
What a relief
But while the Conservative led coalition has posed threats to television with its licence fee antipathy, many of its moves in the creative industries have been undoubtedly helpful.
Firstly, the coalition government listened to the tax credit campaign from the animation industry and responded admirably. Tax credits for animation production have transformed the UK industry, turning it from a business that seemed to be slowly dying away as production and rights drifted to territories with more favourable tax regimes, into an industry with a bright future. Animation production spend rose from £46m in 2011 to £51.7m in the first year of the tax credit, 2013-14 – a rise of 11%.
High-end drama, a genre that was similarly losing out to foreign competitors as productions headed abroad to take advantage of financial incentives, was given a similar boost, as was film tax relief. Televisual’s Film 40 report in this issue gives some indication of the transformation of the industry as US and international productions increasingly bring their big budget shoots to a newly enlivened UK.
Specifically, tax incentives for film, high-end TV shows and children’s TV have all been given a boost in the pre election budget. Film tax relief has been increased to 25% on all qualifying expenditure. Previously the 25% rate applied for the first £20m of qualifying expenditure and then 20% afterwards. Now the 25% rate applies across the board.
The same budget also brought in changes to high-end television tax relief. The minimum UK expenditure requirement changed from 25% to 10% and the cultural test for television will be revised to reflect previous changes to Film tax relief. The changes have been brought in to allow projects shooting outside the UK to bring just their VFX, post and secondary shoot work to the UK.
The tax relief on live action children’s television production has begun too and will mirror that for animation with the relief available at a rate of 25% on qualifying production expenditure. Live action kids TV has other challenges to face, but the new rules will give some welcome respite.
What the manifestos say
Promise to freeze the licence fee at least until Charter Renewal and have plans for more ’top slicing’ to pay for super fast broadband.
Will ensure the BBC “continues to make a vital contribution to the richness of UK cultural life while delivering value for money.” Also pledges not to privatise C4.
Will not let licence fee rise higher than inflation, and pledge to keep C4 in public ownership. Will maintain funding to BBC World Service and Welsh language broadcasters.
Want responsibility for Scottish broadcasting to devolve to Holyrood. Want more of the licence fee for BBC Scotland
Want to reduce the licence fee substantially and stop it being a criminal offence not to pay.
Will get rid of the licence fee and fund the BBC through direct taxation.
Writer Paul Abbott tells Jon Creamer about finding the tone for No Offence and the right way to make writers work together
With credits under his belt like Shameless, State of Play, Clocking Off and Touching Evil, you wouldn’t expect Paul Abbott to get ‘stuck’.
But his latest drama series, the dark and funny No Offence that centres on a group of CID officers in Manchester, proved to be a tough one to birth.
The idea was solid, says Abbott. “I wanted to write a jet black comedy cop show” but the trouble was getting the tone right: “That’s taken ten years,” he says. The difficulty was finding a way between comedy and drama that wasn’t “comedy drama.”
His initial drafts “came out like garbage. It was too fat and it was too vulgar. It was like fly trap paper. You just got stuck in policing stuff or stuck in a comedy riff.” And even when he started working on it with a team of writers “the comedy thing got in the way. We were getting cop lines then gags, cop lines then gags. Even up to draft three or four. These things have to come together.”
It wasn’t that the comedy wasn’t working in itself, he says. “They’d be brilliant gags that we all laughed at and said we can’t wait to make this. Then a week later we’re all saying ‘it doesn’t actually say anything. The gags are just there to inform the audience that it’s a comedy.’”
Getting it right “took ages, we cut it to absolute ribbons” and, he says, the team found that as they played the characters straighter and straighter “the funnier it got.”
The trick of it was also to keep the best of a police procedural too. “I thought we need to abduct the crime addicted audience and give them a really good time somewhere else” but while doing that ensure “you’re not disappointing them on the procedural.” And that became an imperative. “If we’d done a really good sophisticated piece of funny stuff that we were all really satisfied with but then the scripts were just hanging like broken arms, there’s nothing for those people. You’ve lied to them.”
Peppered throughout his description of the creative process is the word “we.” Abbott is a big proponent of team writing and it’s a process he’s been honing since his days on Children’s Hospital and Coronation Street at the beginning of his career. His indie Abbottvision, which he set up in 2008, is formed around a writers’ studio. “About eight years ago I bought a house next door to the house I lived in. When I got divorced I moved in.” He turned the place into a writing studio where a team can spend a few days working together. “The writers get treated like kings when they’re there,” he says. But the physical proximity forces them to collaborate too. “It’s creative Stalinism. You have to drag these people in. They don’t want to leave their little boxes. You have to purposefully engineer the communitarianism of it.”
And he does that both at the Manchester studio and his house in France. “That is ace. It’s like a little psychiatric unit, all fenced off.” But to make the team writing system really work, it needs a few days for the barriers to break down. “All writers meet around tables. They go to hotels for a night but half of that is getting there and feeling uncomfortable about having to talk to people about your work intensively. Then you only get five hours of legitimate traction out of it.”
The real magic comes after a few days when the team doesn’t even realise they’re working, he says. “Everybody thinks they’ve finished work when they leave the table. But all they’ve done at the table is colour in the vowels of their own name on a pad. The minute you move them in to a big room where they can flop back on a sofa and you bring in coffee and cakes they all start singing like canaries. It’s fantastic to watch. They start to work because they’re relaxed,”
The process is about breaking down the writerly ego. “Writers don’t share. But it’s the wrong job for competitiveness.” Ideas are one thing but “nobody can take your voice away from you and you can’t nick somebody else’s voice.”
It’s also about forcing people to be “smart” rather than “smart arse”. “Using your intelligence as a weapon is a bad habit in this industry. You’ve got to knock it out of people,” he says. “A lot of people in the industry are so foul, so horrible to each other. They’re so busy trying to look intelligent that their emotional intelligence is void. They’re writing smart in a way that’s not convincing.” And in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of the audience.
The key, he says, is to interrogate the writing again and again. “It’s rude to get it right first time. You’ve got to test it left right and centre” and not go down route one. Too many people make telly in a way that they think telly looks rather than how life looks, he says. And too much is written “right on the nose. It’s so literal and there’s no mischief to the storytelling. It doesn’t have to come out like sausages. The minute it works people leave it alone but the minute it works is the moment you should start creatively writing it.”
Paul Abbott set up his own drama indie Abbott Vision in 2008. He has created, written and produced a huge run of successful dramas since his beginnings as a script editor and writer on Coronation Street. He created Children’s Ward with Kay Mellor and went on to write Linda Green, Clocking Off, thriller State of Play (subsequently remade as a movie), Touching Evil, Exile, Hit and Miss, Shameless and latterly No Offence. He has won three Baftas alongside a straining mantelpiece full of RTS, Emmy, British Comedy and Writers’ Guild awards.
Eleven Film’s three part drama for Sky Living stars Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew Macfadyen and details the events that supposedly happened to an Enfield family in the early 70s when a poltergeist came to stay. Vfx outfit Munky and special effects house The Machine Shop teamed up to provide the spookiness and did their best to keep as much in camera as possible
Unusually, the collaboration between the two effects companies worked right from the start of the production process. “The production had storyboards for the key sequences so we started chatting with The Machine Shop to discuss how much they should do and what we should do and what would be the most efficient way of doing it” says Munky’s vfx super, Gary Brown.
As The Machine Shop began its test shots, they would send them straight to Munky for input on how vfx might improve them. “We could work closely with Munky – they could tell us ‘don’t worry we can paint you out there or take your line out there,” says The Machine Shop’s Mats Rivenes.
Right from the start though, the motivation was to “push as much in camera as possible,” says Brown. And much that came from the historical setting and style of the drama itself. Key references were classic films like The Excorcist: “The most important thing was that it was meant to have a 70s horror film vibe which was a lovely idea to work towards,” says Rivenes. “It meant that for a lot of the physical effects we used a practical approach that’s on its way out now. You tend to do most effects these days using more mechanical or scientific approaches but in this we were allowed to do a lot of puppeteering – getting inside furniture that needed to move and in that way give it character. It is set in the 70s so it made sense to do the effects in that sort of retro way – not letting them look funny or comedic but we did have that 70s approach. It was a lovely way to work as we got to get back to how effects were once made.”
And as the objects are supposed to be moving around at the behest of some evil entity, physically moving them adds that extra personality. “It’s about giving something soul,” says Rivenes. “You can move a chest of drawers across the room in a hundred different ways but when you get involved in it physically that helps.” And to aid that, Munky stayed on set during physical effects shots to explain where they could help. “Quite often our role was advising on stuff. On set we were still supervising when there were no vfx that day but lots of sfx,” says Brown. “For a lot of effects we would say ‘why not just do this in camera?’ We were using lots of old fashioned techniques too. We’d get the little girl to move backwards and then reverse it and it’s really spooky.”
Although for some sequences, pure vfx did turn out to be the best solution. “There was one sequence where the tiles come off the wall in a bathroom,” says Brown. “That was originally proposed as a puppeteered sequence but we wanted the tiles to have a bit more control and to make them feel like they have an intelligence. But that was pretty much the only area where we built cg assets and animated them.”
The speed of production also meant the two companies had to work together efficiently to solve problems as they arose. “You work towards a storyboard and you have an idea of what it’s going to look like and then you get on to set,” says Rivenes. A scene with a bathroom mirror shattering around a young girl had been planned as a purely physical effect but “we realised as we were talking through the shot that it wouldn’t be safe enough for the girl involved,” so the mirror was broken off set and animated and comped in by Munky later.
The reliance on physical effects helps a production in other ways too, says Rivenes. “When you give away too much to vfx or post production, the DoP and the director tend to lose a lot of their input. With physical effects they can look through a camera, which is the medium they’re trained in, and they can change it as and when on set.”