It’s a year on since the UK animation tax break came into force, but the fight is now on to give live action children’s television the same lifeline. Jon Creamer reports
Children’s TV has always been the poor relation when it comes to dishing out commissioning cash.
But over the last eight years or so, while other genres were being squeezed, children’s TV budgets were being violently throttled.
Many broadcasters pulled back from commissioning local original content and the broadcasters that stayed in the game started paying a smaller and smaller percentage of the show’s production costs, leaving producers to scour the world for the shortfall.
That isn’t going to change any time soon. Even at the BBC, the mainstay of original kids TV commissioning in the UK, times are tight. Children’s TV was not ring-fenced after recent BBC cutbacks and CBBC and CBeebies have cut back accordingly.
But there has been a little sunshine peaking over the horizon of late. A year ago tax breaks were brought in for high-end drama and, crucially for the kids TV industry, animation.
After just a year with animation tax breaks in force, the advantages are now clear. “There is a real feeling of renewed optimism,” says Phil Chalk, whose indie Factory TM makes CBBC’s Strange Hill High and is in production on the updated Clangers series. “We’re looking now to the end of 2016 and beyond in terms of our production slate. It feels like we’re able to build a business now rather than lurch from the end of one production to the start of another. There’s some longevity now so we can invest in our people.”
The birth of the animation tax credit has already seen a whole host of shows finally get into production after being in stall mode for a long time. “It’s a game changer for the industry,” says Colin Williams, creative director of Northern Ireland based kids indie Sixteen South, whose animated pre school show, Lily’s Driftwood Bay has just been greenlit for season two on Nick Jr. “It made a second series possible. Without it, we couldn’t make the show here.”
With the UK now on a more level playing field with other countries, producers are getting to produce their shows in the UK rather than send production abroad, good for UK animators but also good for the finished product. “You almost can’t put a price on that it’s so important,” says Ben Butterworth of Q Pootle 5 producer, Snapper Productions. “It doesn’t make sense to me the idea that you can be the other side of the world working in different time zones, sometimes in different languages.”
Production houses are also attracting foreign IP owners to make their shows here too. “We’re looked on more favourably now,” says Factory TM’s Phil Chalk. “In the past people have bypassed us and gone straight to Ireland or France. But if we buddy with an Irish or French studio we can often times have 50% of the funding in place. We’re part of that equation now.”
But while animation is a mainstay of kids TV, live action shows haven’t been given the same opportunity yet. A campaign, led by Pact, is now on to change that. The success that not just animation, but high-end drama, movies and games have garnered from tax credits means that hopefully, the campaign will be pushing at an open door.
“There is a lot of traction” behind the campaign, says Kindle’s Anne Brogan. “For the first time a lot of people from a lot of different areas are really focussed on it – from production and Pact to the government. I hope it will get somewhere. It would have a huge impact, providing licence fees don’t go down or even stay the same as a result.”
For Billy Macqueen, co founder of Darrall Macqueen, “It’s a no brainer to do it. You’re keeping production in the UK, keeping IP.” Darrall Macqueen’s Topsy and Tim, a live action drama for CBeebies has proved a big hit, but a second series still has a 20% gap to fill before it can go into production. If a live action tax break were in existence “it would be a goer. We have brilliant technicians and great IP creators in this country but frankly, when you’re up against Australia, Canada, France who are offering almost 80% grants to their productions, you tend to get separated from the IP.”
And, for children’s drama, there’s an increased pressure now as an unintended consequence of the high-end drama tax breaks brought in last year. “Costs have gone up really significantly” in drama, says Brogan. “Ironically one of the drivers for cost is the fact there is a high-end drama tax break, which is terrific, but in certain crew areas it means those people who have got that expertise can command their price. In the past people were almost always prepared to take a lower fee for kids shows because they understood that the licence fee was that much lower. That’s no longer the case. We’re really in a complete crunch.”
For many producers of live action kids TV, it almost feels as though within the next few years, without a tax credit, the funding jigsaw will go from being very difficult to impossible. “There’s a lot more pressure now. You can’t just put your production fee in. If you’ve done that once or twice you’ve got nowhere else to go,” says Billy Macqueen. “The banks aren’t lending like they used to. In the old days you used to have a Programme Production Agreement from the BBC and a distributor’s contract and that was enough. Now it’s not. You’ve got to prove projections of how the series is going to sell and how the 50 or so funding elements are going to contribute. You’ve really got to give a guarantee.”
To add to that, other traditional sources of revenue have almost died away. “The animation tax credits are a huge advantage,” says Michael Rose of Gruffalo producer Magic Light Pictures. “But on the other side of the equation, we’re seeing continually declining DVD revenues and no real substitute income for them. Digital downloads are helping a bit but that’s a big issue for the industry. In the half hour specials we do we still have the advantage of a gifting market, but there’s still quite a heavy year on year decline.” And although “it’s a relief that suddenly you’re getting new players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in to the market,” says Billy Macqueen, it’s far from being a replacement yet.
Kids producers are increasingly scrabbling around for smaller pots of money. “You have to look for every little piece of financing that is possible,” says Kindle’s Anne Brogan. “If you’re shooting in the UK there are regional incentives or you look to shoot elsewhere where there is a tax or cash incentive. We’ve shot in South Africa and we’re currently looking at shooting in Malaysia, India, South Africa again – partly for the sunshine but mainly for the money.”
More and more time and money is spent finding financing rather than dreaming up new IP. And while you’re finding financing, time is ticking away. Pre animation tax break, Sixteen South’s Driftwood Bay had orders from broadcasters, but had yet to plug the finance gap. The date those broadcasters wanted the show was fixed and “the longer it took us to finance it, the less time we had to make it,” says Sixteen South’s Williams. “The sooner you can get into production the more effective you can be with your budget.”
But the main argument for the live action kids TV tax break is one of competition. With other countries offering so many benefits, the UK production market will only last so long if it can’t match them. “Everybody else is bringing 20, 30, 40, 50, 80 per cent of the budget,” says Macqueen. “We’ve got away with it for a few years with our outstanding creative, but we’ve spent a decade saying ‘our creative is so amazing you can’t do without it’” but if it continues, they undoubtedly will find a way.
Another Film Co commercials director Steve Reeves tells Jon Creamer about the experience of shooting his first feature
Steve Reeves has directed over 400 commercials including the Agent Provocateur viral starring Kylie Minogue. Keeping Rosy, a low budget thriller that he co wrote with agency copywriter Mike Oughton proved a baptism of fire.
Was securing funding for the film a difficult process?
Getting the film made has been really tough. Not the shooting process itself, that was a very enjoyable experience. But getting people to invest in the script was difficult. There have been so many meetings with potential backers all giving contradictory opinions about how our script could be made good enough to be funded. They were all complimentary about the script but nobody would actually commit financially.
Did your background as a commercials director help with securing backers for the feature?
That counts for very little in feature films. There is a big difference between directing a commercial and directing a narrative over an hour and a half.
In the end myself and Mike (Oughton, Reeves’ co writer) made a short film, Taking Life, which is a version of a scene from the Keeping Rosy script. The short ended up being chosen for various festivals but we really made that to help sell the feature idea. It gave potential backers a better feel of what the feature could be and also proved that I was able to direct a narrative that was longer than a commercial.
Did you get longer with your actors than you would on a commercial?
The budget of the film was very low so I didn’t really get that long with the actors on set. We had to do so many set-ups every day that we were constantly moving on. Because of Maxine’s schedule, we had no time for rehearsals. We just had an afternoon read through before the shoot. There were many stressful times during the shoot so I was thankful that I hadn’t compromised at all during the casting stage because when you have great actors, you can work very quickly.
Did your commercials work allow you to call in favours (or beg for help) from crew and suppliers?
I’ve always believed that having a relaxed atmosphere on set is the best way to get great results. Because of this, I tend to get on pretty well with the crew that I work with and many of them offered to work on the film even though the rates are reduced. For example, the film was edited through The Quarry and Scot Crane and Paul Watts did an extraordinary amount of work on the film for very little financial reward.
What problems, hitches and glitches did you run into on the shoot and how did you overcome them?
The main problem was the lack of money. Because the whole crew and the actors were on a deal, the days were fixed with no overtime whatsoever – the schedule was gruelling to say the least. This meant that sometimes we just didn’t get time to shoot everything we wanted. We had to cut some scenes and rewrite others. Luckily Mike and I have a very good working relationship, and like me Mike is pretty good at thinking on his feet so we were able to adapt when necessary. It was heartbreaking to lose some of the more subtle little nuances within the script, but at the end of the day, telling the story is the most important thing so these compromises had to be made.
Is it your ambition to make both commercials and movies in the future?
One day I may make another film but making a movie is such a slow process. You spend so much time just waiting. Waiting for money to come through, waiting for an agent to give a script to an actor, waiting for the actor to decide whether or not to take the script on etc. This can take months and sometimes years. Advertising isn’t like that. It’s so immediate and that’s what makes it so brilliant. Once a job goes into production, it’s usually cast, shot, edited and finished within four weeks. Compared to film that’s is incredibly fast and making the film has really made me appreciate how brilliant it is to get to shoot adverts.
Also, you can’t beat the diversity of working in commercials. One minute you are in Scotland shooting a funny NatWest advert for M&C Saatchi and the next you are in a studio filming an emotional scene for a McMillan cancer advert for VCCP. Of course it’s frustrating when things get changed by clients but I will always love shooting adverts.
details Keeping Rosy was directed by Steve Reeves and co written with agency copywriter Mike Oughton. The DoP was Roger Pratt, the cinematographer behind many Harry Potter films. It tells the story of Charlotte (Maxine Peake), a lonely workaholic desperate to be cut a slice of the media agency she has devoted herself to building. But after she’s betrayed in the boardroom, she returns to her perfect docklands apartment and takes her anger out on her Polish cleaner with disastrous results. Cast
Maxine Peake, Blake Harrison, Christine Bottomley, Elisa Lasowski Director
Steve Reeves Writers
Steve Reeves, Mike Oughton Producers
Richard Holmes, Isabelle Georgeaux DoP
Roger Pratt Composer
Stephen Warbeck Editors
Scot Crane, Paul Watts Production designer
Alex Marden Art director
Factual features producers are using new shapes and tones and borrowing from other genres along the way to create a new generation of features hits. Jon Creamer reports
The big hitters of features TV have been around for a long while now.
IWC Media’s Location, Location, Location is 14 years old, Boundless’s Grand Designs has clocked up 15 years on our screens as has the BBC’s DIY SOS. Keo Films’ River Cottage brand is now 16 years old and who wouldn’t bet on The Great British Bake Off being around for some time yet.
The talent that sticks in features tends to stick around for a long time too. Alan Titchmarsh, who fronts Spun Gold’s Love Your Garden on ITV has been on screen since the early 80s. And then there’s Kirstie and Phil, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein…
And it’s perhaps partly because the centre ground of features is so well occupied, that commissioners and producers alike are looking more to the edges of the genre, trying to find new shapes and new approaches.
“We need to be brave at the BBC,” says the corporation’s head of commissioning for factual features and formats, Alison Kirkham. “It’s very easy to commission something that feels nine degrees from what’s working on the channel already but the audience don’t reward that in my experience. I would love to be pitched more ideas that are unusual and unexpected. For me one of the standout hits of the past few years is Gogglebox. It works for a number of reasons but also it presents differently, the shape is different and the audience respond to that.”
Because there’s a sense that tackling features subjects in the traditional way isn’t good enough any more. “We’re having most success with a twist on the standard features genre,” says Neil Smith, creative director at Betty. “We’re still looking at the same areas – property, consumer, food, dating etc. But we’re borrowing from other genres so the delivery genre is not features, it’s not your standard presenter/reveal show.” He points to Betty’s recent property show for BBC2, Under Offer: Estate Agents On the Job. “There’s plenty of property porn in it but it’s done as ob doc” as well as Channel 4’s Shop Secrets “a consumer show which we did as hidden camera with stunts.” Upcoming C4 show Best Chef, Worst Chef will have “access to amazing restaurants and chefs but will be a formatted doc.”
Keo Film’s md Debbie Manners is similarly trying to mix and match. “We’re trying to look at things that sit across more than one genre, that aren’t in the traditional, obvious space.” Keo’s Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s last piece was Scandimania, a mix not just of just food programming but travel and culture too in a doc style. “It feels as if we need some new ideas and approaches to the way we make factual TV,” says Manners. “Some of what we’re trying to do is access driven features. You can use certain forms of access as a window into different types of features like property or food.”
That mix and match mentality is coming through over at Outline too, says creative director, Helen Veale. But instead of new takes on traditional genre areas “the target is thinking of other areas where you can bring a features sensibility.” Outline has a broadcast pilot in with the BBC, So You Think You Can Drive? about bad drivers. “We’ve taken an area that’s been done before in terms of documentary and character, but we’ve brought a features sensibility to it. It’s got all the great characters and entertainment you might get from a Driving School doc but we’re coming at it from a features slant [Dom Littlewood and Cherry Healey will present] so there’s going to be that take home for the viewers as well.”
For Veale, that doc territory is a fertile ground for features. “It’s interesting to see where the crossover is between documentary and features and how you can get a little bit more structured learning into things that have previously been a doc territory” or conversely “where you can get unfolding character into things that have previously been a features territory.”
Though the single presenter to camera style isn’t going anywhere soon, there’s also a move to more ensemble cast for features shows, says Betty’s Smith. “We’ve been moving more to ensembles and finding our talent there.” He points to Estate Agents and upcoming Best Chef, Worst Chef in which a different café cook will learn from a different Michelin starred chef each week. “We’re using six Michelin starred chefs rather than one to present it.” Every commissioner’s current favourite Gogglebox is another example. “It’s an easier launch for the channel as they don’t have to pin their hopes on one person fronting a whole series.” And also individuals can then be plucked from the ensemble to front their own shows later on. “Mr Drew’s School for Boys is a parenting show as a fact ent proposition. And he came from another show where he wasn’t a presenter either.”
It could be argued that features programming has gone through one big change already. When the recession hit a few years back, features based on profligate spending, and unashamed property porn in particular, suddenly started to look less relevant.
And although there’s a feeling that the country is climbing out of the worst of it, the impact of the recession can still be felt in features. George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces and The House that £100k Built are post recession shows whereas Grand Designs is resolutely not.
But says the BBC’s Kirkham, features shows must still feel aspirational. “Make do and mend can feel quite depressing. The Great Interior Design Challenge and others are aspirational recession shows. They demonstrate that even in periods where the economy is tight, people still have dreams and want to be able to realise their dreams beautifully. I was struck by a piece of audience research that said the desire to own a house increased during periods of recession.”
Features shows must reflect the economic mood of the nation, and while that mood isn’t as desperate as a couple of years ago, “people are still budget conscious,” says Betty’s Smith. “In Estate Agents we managed to smuggle in high-end property porn because we were jumping on the backs of people selling £80m property in Mayfair or estates in Scotland. But on traditional features, everyone has budgets on their minds. I don’t think we’ve come out of recession thinking ‘yeah, we’re rich.’ Cautious optimism is where we are in development for property. But it hasn’t affected food shows. Britain is more confident as a food nation than ever before.”
The recession seems to have kicked off a return to simple pleasures. “When life’s getting more expensive and we’re worrying how to make ends meet, people want to know how we can do things more cheaply ourselves like baking bread or growing veg,” says Spun Gold’s creative director Daniela Neumann. “But also it’s nice to go home and see beautiful things and watch artisans make these beautiful things. It’s food porn, craft porn. It’s eye candy too.”
But even as recession recedes, that desire for simpler pleasures isn’t going anywhere soon, says Outline’s Helen Veale. “It may well have been the recession that prompted that feeling but it’s enjoyable, it’s nice exploring those good things with traditional values. It’s wholesome and people like that.”
Outline has seen success with The Great British Garden Revival and The Great British Food Revival and, says Veale, those shows are part of a rich seam within features TV. “We struck a chord with the Revival strand.” Viewers are keen to “look back at things we may have lost, knowledge that our grandparents and parents had that we have lost touch with.” And that’s shown both in Revival and in Bake Off, Sewing Bee and The Big Allotment Challenge, says Veale. “There is still a thirst for that. I don’t think everyone wants to learn to be a Victorian chimney sweep, but in unsettled times, we find comfort in the simplicity of that older, traditional knowledge and there is more scope in development of that.”
And that feeling ties in with a desire for authenticity, even within formatted shows. “There’s still an appetite for formatted shows and constructed shows but ones where people are in a real environment as opposed to taking a group of people who just want to be on TV,” says Spun Gold’s Neumann. “In Bake Off those people are genuinely passionate about what they do. It’s about finding those people and tapping in to what those great British passions are.”
In factual TV in general, the talk is of a move from heavy formatting and towards ‘authenticity.’ “Audiences want more unmediated formats now,” says Channel 4’s head of factual entertainment, Liam Humphreys. “They want something a bit more observed rather than a heavily formatted show hitting all the traditional beats over the course of an hour’s makeover. You need to make it as authentic as possible and hide the hand of the producer.”
But then over in the US, there’s a move from observed character led features to more formatting, says Betty’s Neil Smith. “It’s interesting that we’re moving towards character led shows here. They’ve been doing that for features in the US for some time but interestingly now they’re looking more towards formats. A couple that have really broken recently are 90-day Fiancé and Naked and Afraid – a relationship show in the wild. Normally they want ‘character led, character led, family business’ but now they’re saying they want some old fashioned formats.” Perhaps the wheel is turning back once again.
UK commissioners: what they want Alison Kirkham, BBC head of commissioning, factual features and formats
“On both channels I’m looking to push more into 9pm, to try to bring a different sensibility to our features output. We want more fact ent formats. The Gift is coming up from Wall to Wall that I hope will do that.
Also I’d love to commission more moments for the channel – I’m looking for the next generation of events for BBC2 that could be stripped across the week.
I’d be really keen to find some more specialist factual formats for BBC2 at 9pm like Who Do You Think You Are? and The Choir .
We need to be brave at the BBC. I would urge people to pitch shows that are not in various iterations on lots of channels. I’d love to see things that aren’t on UK TV at the moment.
I don’t think we’re ever done with competitions. There’s an appetite for them. But can we produce competitions that sit more authentically in the real world?
I’m keen to see more new, unexpected talent especially on BBC2. If you have talent you really believe in, I’m always keen to look at them and we’ll grow shows around them together.”
Liam Humphreys, C4, head of factual entertainment
“We’ve had success with male skewing factual features. Traditionally we do skew slightly female in the features space. Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home was the first time we’ve dipped our toe in and thought ‘can we do something more male?’ Gadget Man has been a fresh take on the factual features space. It’s playing with what you’d expect from a factual features format. It’s a slight parody of it. What you have is a lifestyle presenter who finds aspects of life quite challenging. That’s quite refreshing rather than have someone mediate everything and tell you what to do and what not to do. There are people who do a great job for the channel and will do for a long time, but some of the challenges are around lifestyle presenters telling people how to live their lives when audiences want more unmediated formats now, something a bit more observed, a lightly formatted approach rather than hitting all the traditional beats over the course of an hour’s makeover.
The Island set up a construct then let everything play out. There’s a real need for authenticity. The more format we can take out and hide the better.”
Richard Watsham, UKTV director of commissioning
“We’ve reprioritised our commissioning spend towards the entertainment channels. We used to commission across Home and Good Food, Yesterday and Eden. Now we’ll still do that kind of programing but it will come through the entertainment channels first – Dave, Watch, Gold are the three channels commissioning. Any lifestyle content, because it’s going to premiere on one of those channels, will need to have more of an entertainment slant.
Don’t underestimate our sense of ambition. There are lots of ways of giving a show scale. It could be through talent or geography or through doing something no one ever seen before. It’s a case of being unique rather than distinctive. Distinctive isn’t really good enough for us. Creatively that’s a good thing, it forces us to take more risk and therefore come up with more interesting, unusual projects.”
All the work featured in the Storyboard pages of July's edition - Maleficent work from MPC; zombie carnage from Axis and an unsettling ad from Home Corp and Prime Focus
Led by MPC vfx supervisors Adam Valdez and Seth Maury, MPC completed 875 shots for Disney’s Maleficent. Working closely with director Rob Stromberg and production vfx super Carey Villegas, the team created a host of creatures and environments including the initial scenes of a young Maleficent in a fairy world environment and Maleficent’s iconic castle. MPC also created huge battle scenes, a cg thorn wall and a full CG dragon and Great Hall interior for the climactic battle sequence.
Prime Focus/ Home Corp
Home Corp director Bruce Hunt tasked Prime Focus Animation director Martyn Pick to create 180 hand-painted frames showing a turbulent sea on the stomach of a live action model, calmed by the introduction of an Imodium Liqui-gel. The producer was Jules Pye, lead art-worker was Sharon Pinsker and the art workers were Martin Oliver and Fiona Woodcock.
Mitsubishi and Golley Slater brought in Blacionica to shoot the latest TV and cinema campaign for Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV, the world’s first plug-in hybrid 4x4 SUV. Tim Green was DoP on the shoot. 3D animation and design was by Tim Marchant, Rodi Kaya and Viktor Berg. Colour was by Envy and sound by SNK Media.
These are two new game trailers from Axis. One for Microsoft Studios’ Crackdown for Xbox One and the other for Deep Silver’s Dead Island 2. Crackdown for Xbox One was directed by Stephen Donnelly. Director Ben Craig’s announcement trailer for Dead Island 2, the follow up to Dead Island, starts with a coiffeured Californian out for a beachside run and ends, inevitably, in zombie carnage.
Spov completed this opening movie for Xbox One and Playstation 4 game, Watch_Dogs. Ubisoft Montreal asked Spov to visualise the interior workings of a super-connected network of devices, operating in a fictional near future version of Chicago, where the game takes place. Miles Christensen was creative director and Allen Leitch and Dan Higgott were exec producers.
Jany Temime: Costume designer: Gravity, Skyfall, six of the Harry Potter series, Children of Men
Costume design is artistic, dramatic, you have to understand the script brilliantly. You have to be able to visualise it and understand what the director wants to tell. And at the same time you are running an enormous department.
People approach the job in different ways. Some do it because they like to design clothes, but those ones would like to work in fashion. If you want to make costumes for films it is because you love the making of films. Your job will be projected on to the screen, it will be photographic. You have to have all the support of the film to be able to see your work on screen.
You work with a director. You have to visualise the ideas of somebody else. It’s not my film it’s their film. That’s a humility that designers don’t have when they start. After you’ve made a few films you realise that you are a service department and you have to help somebody express their ideas and vision. You’re as good as your director is. This is why I only want to work with brilliant directors because the rest is a waste of time.
Every actor has a different morphology and a different style. They are the ones carrying your costume. You have to help them to create the part. You cannot design the same costume for Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig; they walk differently, they approach the part differently.
On the big films you have four months. It’s a very short time, the first month is the birth month you’re deciding which way you should go. Then after that it’s very technical. But the director has spent three years or four years with this, the producer too. I arrive then I’ve got to produce 600 or 500 costumes very quickly. The time is a bit too short but that’s always the story.
Gravity was the hardest thing I did in my life, it’s hard to beat NASA but I’m sorry, my costumes look better than their’s ever did. Did you ever see the Russian suits? They looked like teletubbies, Sandra looked sexy in mine. I think I did a better job than them, I’m still waiting for them to ask me to design for them.
Every DoP photographs your costumes differently. On Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the film was very dark but Bruno Delbonnel photographed the dark costumes so brilliantly you could see every single detail. Every single stitch and embroidery could be seen.
On Gravity Emmanuel Lubezki is the most difficult, brilliant, amazing DoP. To get the white of the suits I had to show him 50 different shades of white and I’m not even joking. Every film brings you something different. The costume is not to be shown hanging in a wardrobe it has to be shown on the screen.
Jany Temime’s BAFTA Masterclass on costume design is at BFI Southbank on 23 July www.bafta.org
Hugo Blick’s latest thriller, which airs on BBC2 on 3 July, centres on the Arab israeli conflict and the conflict within its main character. Jon Creamer reports
After The Shadow Line, were you keen to stay within the thriller genre? I was keen to pursue the thriller genre. I was interested in exploring the psychology of a character propelled into a thriller that only really reflected upon them and who they were, as opposed to the character just being tested by the thriller elements. The woman and who she is is the starting point from where the thriller grows, and it’s because
of who she is that the thriller emerges, not the other way around.
Did The Shadow Line’s success allow you to add scale to this idea? To a degree I was aware the scale of this piece would need some international partnerships to realise it and because of previous success there were people out there willing to get involved. But you don’t look for scale, you just look to be sure you tell the story that is in your head. There’s one pulse of electricity that pulses through a story and you have to hold on to it wherever it goes. As long as that electricity is honestly constructed and you don’t kid yourself then it will be convincing and will have authority because it demands it. You don’t just get bigger because you can get bigger, you do it because the story needs it.
The series doesn’t offer the audience the plot on a plate. Is there a greater confidence about audiences now? To be elliptical and play out the cards of your story in a certain way, that requires a certain amount of patience from an audience. That means you have to have a certain amount of strength and confidence that you know you can deliver ultimately on the story you’re intending. In order for me to do that I don’t start writing until I’ve considered the entire story and I know every significant character’s last line. When I know their last line and the construction of where I think that story needs to go in order for them to say it, that’s when I write it. I use the writing process to discover what I’ve already thought through, so there’s a strong structure from the word go and that somehow communicates a confidence to the viewer that you may not understand it all right now, or until the very end, but you will understand it at the end.
Each shot seems very considered for a TV project?
I work really fast, so there isn’t time to. We shoot eight pages a day. As a writer/director/producer you only shoot what you need. In a way that helps orientate everybody, particularly the actors. They don’t feel that they’re giving all sorts of performances that will be constructed in the edit. They know the tone of voice they’re using in this particular scene because we’re not going to cover it exhaustively. It’s considered only to the degree that there’s not that much else to offer.
So you don’t pre-plan shots too much? It’s the revelation of psychology that tells me where to put the camera. I don’t pre-set cameras, I don’t do anything like that at all. I try as much as possible to keep it clean until we walk on to the set. In big set pieces there will be pre knowledge of course, but as a rule I keep it as loose as possible.
Was there a particular style you wanted to achieve?
There’s none. The Shadow Line had a strong reference to noir, of course. Here I wanted to move away to a degree and really just look at the evocation of character, particularly Maggie Gyllennhaal’s. Whatever was best to serve that, that was where the camera would be and how it would look. However, I’ve always admired the work of cinematographer
Gordon Willis. He had a clean way of working which has a great drama to it but it doesn’t have fussiness, it has boldness.
Are you very sparing in what you shoot? I know what I want and what I don’t want. It certainly gives liberation to the actors. I tend to shoot two takes per set up. It’s very spontaneous, very immediate, very real and if you get to a fourth take it starts to lose that. I have to move fast. I’m a single director across the eight hours. So I move with a certain efficiency and speed. I’m a long distance runner so I’m used to that.
Are you very involved with all the other aspects of making the film? Once I’ve told you what the vision is you have to contribute to making that vision work by doing it for yourself. I don’t dictate anything then because once you’ve got that, your contribution will be yours. You’ll be free to make it as long as you’ve explored what that vision is at the very start. I often turn up and my designer Chris Roope will have built one of the division walls between Israel and Palestine and I won’t have seen it until the day I set up and it’s perfect. I trust him to do it and the endless other things he’s managed to do. I’ve never once been disappointed by him or any of the other crew.
The Honourable Woman is a political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The series centres around Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal), a woman deeply troubled by her past who tries to promote peace in the region .
Drama Republic and Eight Rooks Productions
Writer/director/producer Hugo Blick
BBC2 and Sundance Channel
Cast Maggie Gyllenhaal, Andrew Buchan, Lindsay Duncan, Stephen Rea
Executive producers Greg Brenman (Drama Republic) and Polly Hill (BBC)
The editors behind Harry Potter, Toy Story 3, All That Jazz, The Trip and Sherlock tell Jon Creamer about their creative approach ahead of this month's Editfest London
MARK DAY: “You have to forge a relationship with the director very swiftly. You’re going to be working with this person for hours a day for months on end.
When you get the dailies you do your version of the scene. That could be totally wrong, but you have to go with your gut instinct. It’s quite nerve tingling showing your work. Even with [director] David Yates who I’ve worked with for a long time, you’re still nervous you may have misinterpreted what he wanted.
You’ve got to have empathy with the characters you’re editing and with the script. Hopefully you’ll love the script you’re working on.
When a script’s written it’s one thing, when it’s filmed it becomes another and when it gets into the edit it changes again so it evolves over the months you work on it.
Patience is one thing you definitely need as an editor and diplomacy obviously. Sometimes you look at something and you think, ‘That’s not a brilliant scene you’ve directed there,’ but you don’t want to say that to a director especially if you don’t know them very well. It’s amazing what you can do to change a scene by re-editing. It can make a bad scene pretty good and a good scene brilliant. But you’ve got to be diplomatic.
I’m sure some directors are total autocrats and don’t listen to a word you say no matter how much you try to help them. Luckily I haven’t worked with people like that but I know there are people around who are like that.
For the first assembly you want the director to see everything that was shot and the whole script as it was written. That’s when you discuss it closely and scenes start to go.
Over the weeks or months it gets moulded into shape and then you show the producers and they have ideas on it and you cherry pick from those ideas. That’s what’s good and collaborative about filmmaking. Some people think nobody else can have a good idea but show a film to anyone and they’ll have some idea on how to improve it. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees because you’ve seen it so many times.
With vfx heavy films you get pre-vis to use as a guide. Then you pass that back to vfx and gradually over the months it will evolve and the character becomes lifelike. When I first started on Potter it was weird but I’ve done it a few times now so it doesn’t faze me.”
KEN SCHRETZMANN: “On live action they shoot first and you edit later, on animated films you edit first and they shoot later. The films take about four years and the first two are just editing storyboards.
In animation nothing locks down. You have to accept that the cut is in constant flux and not even under your control.
The beauty of working in animation is if I’ve got a two shot but what I really need is a close up I can just make a phone call and they’ll give me a close up. Or I can say this is all great but let’s nudge the camera over. Unlike live action where you’re stuck with what you have I can constantly ask for things that I need.
In terms of pacing, when you see multiple characters in the scene all the dialogue has been recorded separately on different days. As the editor, all that pacing is where I’m placing dialogue and deciding where action happens. I’m not relying on the actors’ pacing I’m building that from scratch.
Editing animation is a marathon. You have to approach it differently as an editor. You can’t just be working long hours and burning yourself out.
The most important things are a story sense, getting in synch with the director’s vision and understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with the latest revision of the script. A lot of it isn’t even technical, it’s being sensitive to the dialogue and rhythms of speech.
I come from a live action background and I was used to having discussions with the director alone behind closed doors. At Pixar, you never get alone time with the director. It’s usually you, the director, the story artist, a whole team of people in the back of the room watching you guys. There’s a whole formal review process where you’re showing cuts and discussing it and everything’s in public. Every time a director says something a whole bunch of people are in back taking notes because everything ripples out to other departments.
Sometimes it’s hard to say that the work is mine because so many hands have been on it. I would like to try a small live action film just to have the simplicity of having a choice of five takes and it doesn’t change. You can cut it and it stays there. Also looking at the screen and reacting to actors faces. Leading up to animation I’m cutting things imagining what it’s going to be and waiting for the day of actually seeing that performance.”
ALAN HEIM: “A good editor trusts their initial feelings when he or she first sees the dailies. You must be open to flexibility and be willing to rearrange and change almost anything.
The editor is interposed between what was shot and what the director thinks he shot so a certain level of tact and patience is required. That doesn’t even include the producer’s input, which can be strange.
Storytelling is the key to editing and I like to tell a story with as little exposition as possible. It confuses the audience.
I usually cut a full-length version while shooting is going on, which includes all scenes, even when I’m sure certain ones will go. Then the director will look at it and consider another occupation, at which time the tact comes in and we settle in to making the movie move.
Editors like to think of the process as the “final rewrite” so it really is a key part of the film where some errors can be covered or removed.
Good editing fits the material. Film, digital or not, is a plastic medium and it can’t be forced where it doesn’t want to go. The director of Godspell was thinking of hiring a “flashy” commercial editor to do his project. I said, “give me flashy shots and I’ll give you a flashy film”. And I did and we were all happy.”
MAGS ARNOLD: “The first-time viewing of the rushes by the editor is critical, because the response you have to those rushes is most likely the response the audience is going to have. You are the first member of the audience.
So, for me, the starting point is watching the material with an open mind, reacting instinctively to the emotional truth on the screen, committing that first feeling to memory and writing it down if that helps because when you watch it again later that first impression has gone. And in the act of manufacturing the cut, technical considerations like lighting, focus and continuity can sometimes supersede that first response.
With film gone, there are no selected/printed takes – everything merits a look. It’s important to watch everything in real time. Some directors shoot cover systematically, for example, a wide, followed by mids, then close ups etc. This makes it easier to remember and locate the bits you liked later on. But others shoot really long takes with the shot changing size throughout. Sometimes the dialogue is improvised and changes occur from one take to the next. This makes it more difficult to recall where the best bits are. If there is a lot of cover, there will be more, harder, choices. Getting to know your material is paramount.
Myself and the director usually try to have a conversation after I have seen the dailies. I find it more useful to watch the rushes cold and as impartially as possible. Talking afterwards is very useful, because I can discover what the director wants, and hopefully, between his vision and my reaction, we are off to a good start with the assembly.
The editor has to tell the director that something might not be working. You are duty bound to let them know as early as possible that you have concerns. This is one of the most perilous parts of the job. It often causes you great stress, particularly when working with a director for the first time.
An editor needs an organised mind, a great memory, good sense of rhythm, resourcefulness intelligence, a sense of humour (especially for comedy), the ability to work with other people without being an asshole, to not be an egoist, to stay calm and see the bigger picture (often literally) and diplomacy.
A good edit is when the emotional as well as technical reasons for an edit coincide. No compromises have been made. It’s deeply satisfying when that happens.”
TIM PORTER: “Some directors like to see assemblies on a Friday, others have no interest in seeing anything until it’s in a complete structure. Everyone’s different. Some directors like to be all over it, others don’t want to see it until it’s in really good shape because it’s too painful to watch with too many lumps and bumps in it.
Usually a director’s got a point of reference for either the whole piece or a particular sequence. People reference a lot, it’s a shorthand.
It’s about using your instincts and trusting that you know what’s good, just don’t doubt yourself. You’ll have 60 times more material than the length of the actual scene. You’ve got a lot of choices to make so you’ve got to use your instincts and commit to your choices. Edits go on for months so you’ve got time to refine. You cut it and cut it again.
It’s important to know when it’s your turn to say your piece. You don’t want to be the loudest voice in the room when you’ve got all those execs in. They haven’t come to listen to you necessarily. You support the director in those situations.
Showing it is nerve wracking. I’m not the director but I’ve still lived with this thing for weeks and months and you’ve still put your hard work and energy and focus into something.”
The editors featured in this article will be speaking at ACE’s EditFest London on June 21, sponsored by Televisual – www.editfest.com
Neil cross, the writer of Televisual Bulldog best drama series winner Luther, tells Jon Creamer about working across novels, TV and movies
His third season of the Idris Elba cop show Luther has won best drama series at the Televisual Bulldog Awards; the big budget NBC adventure series Crossbones starring John Malkovich, that he wrote and showran, goes to air this month and along the way he’s written Doctor Who episodes, movies for Guillermo del Toro, a Triffids reboot for Sam Raimi and a feature version of Luther is now in the offing.
But up until a decade ago, British crime novelist Neil Cross hadn’t even considered writing a script.
In fact he describes his entry into screenwriting as a “series of lucky accidents” followed by “recognising that luck, grabbing it and running away with it like the Andrex puppy.”
He’d picked up the ubiquitous Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee and “I could not make head nor tail of it. And the degree to which I didn’t understand it intrigued me.” He adapted his own novel Always the Sun as a way to learn and “through a series of Carry On or Hammer Horror coincidences, whichever way you look at it” the screenplay wound up in the hands of agent Michael McCoy, leading to a beauty contest around the London production houses where Kudos “took a punt on me” and gave him the chance to write episodes of Spooks. “I didn’t think of it as a career move but in the process of doing it I found out I loved it.”
And, he says, his novels and screenplays began to inform each other. “As a novelist I was still learning my craft – how to strip story down and be as unencumbered as possible. What I learned fed into storytelling on screen. Then what I learned about screenwriting fed into the novels.”
And the gulf between the two forms is not as wide as it used to be, he says. “TV has become, in a sense, a literary form of expression. The Sopranos was year zero in as much as it was approached by its audience in the same way as a Dickens part-work was approached by its audience - a big, long, fat story eaten up in chunks. The Wire clearly exists in cultural space that was, in the Victorian era, inhabited by the novel.”
So if that’s the case, why don’t more novelists cross over? Novelist ego, he says. “When screenplays are at their best the writer is invisible. You’ve got to be content with that. Even if you’re David Simon you’re still overshadowed by Stringer Bell. You’re part of a large corporate effort to make a thing rather than having your name in gold embossed type on the front cover.” And that doesn’t sit too well with most novelists. “They’re too encumbered by this notion that they have something important to say. I’m dancing around the fact that most novelists are scum. If I was stuck in a lift I’d rather be with a bunch of screenwriters than a bunch of novelists. Most novelists are carping, self-obsessed bores. With a bunch of screenwriters it’s like Easy Company in Band of Brothers. You’d just sit in that elevator and swap war stories for hours.”
But while the role of screenwriter may require a lesser ego, the power it affords is growing. His latest series Crossbones, a pirate adventure show for NBC starring John Malkovich, saw Cross take on the very American role of showrunner – and, he says, that was a huge leap for someone who only a few years before led the solitary life of a novelist.
The big budget, five-month shoot ran from a recreated 18th century town built on a disused naval base in Puerto Rico [“I thought the chances of it turning into Apocalypse Now were pretty high.”] and was a baptism by fire. “I took a certain English reticence to my role. I knew I was showrunner but it took a few weeks to realise quite what that means in the States. You’re the person where the buck stops at every level. You’re the boss and that was liberating and terrifying.” And something he coped with by “happily admitting that I was massively unqualified to take those decisions. But that’s how you learn, by consulting with people who know what they’re doing.”
And a development of the showrunner role in British TV drama can’t come soon enough, he reckons. “The position of showrunner is much to the benefit of television” because when “a writer develops a show and it’s filtered through another producer, there’s a pressure for a reversion to the mean. With something truly extraordinary that varies from the norm in any number of ways, there’s going to be a tendency to push it back into what’s more mainstream, more expected.”
Not that control is the be all and end all. He’s also written movies – horror film Mama for Guillermo del Toro and he’s scripting a Triffids remake for Sam Raimi along with his own Luther feature script (of which “there will be news soon”). “In features you have no rights at all but that’s how it should be. It’s a director’s medium. If you accept the necessary condition that a film script is not there as an expression of your vision, it’s just you telling a story as well as you possibly can for the director to interpret according to his or her vision, it becomes weirdly liberating.”
Born in Bristol in 1969. Cross lives in New Zealand with his wife and two sons. His novels include The Calling, Captured, Burial, Natural History, Always the Sun, Holloway Falls and Mr In-Between. On TV he wrote Spooks episodes in series five, six and seven and Doctor Who episodes The Rings of Akhaten and Hide as well as single film Whistle and I’ll Come to You. He created and wrote Luther series one, two and three and his NBC series Crossbones goes to air this month. His movie, Mama was released in 2013.