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UK VFX fights to stay on top

The UK’s vfx industry has become a world beating business, but negotiating the post Brexit landscape will be crucial for keeping it on top. Jon Creamer reports

The UK vfx sector is undoubtedly a major national success story with its growth outstripping pretty much any other sector in recent years.

Last year’s Screen Business report commissioned by the BFI found that the vfx spend on tax relief incentivised productions generated £773.9 million Gross Value Added (GVA) for the economy.

Add to that the vfx spend from advertising and other work like immersive media not eligible for tax relief and the total value of vfx to the UK economy was estimated at just over £1bn a year. And that total doesn’t include any spill-over value that advertising itself creates. The vfx industry also directly employs 8,140 people and supports a total of 17,490 jobs in the extended value chain.

Commercial Break
In the advertising world, the vfx houses are busy, but in a time of great change. “Advertising is always pretty turbulent,” says MPC London and Amsterdam md, Jonathan Davies. “In London, it’s a very crowded marketplace and there’s been some new start-ups opened this year so there’s more people competing for the same pot of work. You have to be on top of your game to win it.”

And the type of advertising work done by those vfx houses is changing rapidly. “For years, The Mill and others produced vfx for linear TV for broadcast ads, by and large,” says md Robin Shenfield. Now, The Mill also makes products like car rig The Blackbird, real time puppeteering system Mascot, and other activities outside the linear TV realm. “We’re producing a much more diverse range of what you could broadly call advertising content for lots of different channels and experiences where the visual content is a very important part but not the entire experience.”

And the customer base has changed rapidly. “The lines have been blurred over the years,” says MPC’s Davies. “We do traditional visual effects, immersive, live action production. Sometimes we work for production companies, sometimes for an agency with a production company, sometimes for a brand direct. There are a lot of production companies, there are a lot of big agencies, a lot of small agencies. It’s a lot more complicated than it used to be.”

Hitting the Ceiling
Over in vfx for film and TV, the biggest vfx-heavy movies and TV shows of the last decade would show the fingerprints of UK vfx houses both big and boutique, all over them. And film and TV production is certainly on a roll. Feature film production in the UK has more than doubled since the introduction of its tax relief in 2007, high end TV has done the same in the shorter period since its tax relief went through in 2013. Most established film facilities are expanding, and new ones are rushing to come online.

But that massive boom in production in the UK does not always work in the favour of vfx. With so much production on a film or high-end TV project based in the UK, often a production’s tax credit ceiling can be hit before vfx gets its share. Due to EU state aid laws, projects can only get tax relief on 80% of the total budget. “We’re starting to hit the EU state aid cap before you get to vfx and post,” says Neil Hatton, chief exec of industry trade body, UK Screen Alliance. “You can only receive tax credit on 80% of the total production budget. If you do a lot of shooting in the UK it’s probably likely that you’ll hit the cap. There’s nothing to stop you doing your vfx in the UK, you just won’t get the tax credit on it.” And as the growth market is the relatively more cash strapped SVOD productions, maximising tax credits for them is a priority.

That means “the more UK centric the production is, the more pressure it puts on taking the vfx out of the country,” says Framestore’s CEO, William Sargent. “That’s an anomaly.” It’s an anomoly that can see UK vfx houses winning work through their UK base, but then completing much of it through their Canadian subsidiaries. “Productions are looking to maximise whatever tax rebate they can on that visual effects spend, which perhaps means talking to a production through the UK location, but discussing what the options might be in Montreal and in Vancouver with their notable tax credit. That’s challenging,” says Cinesite’s chief VFX business development officer, Drew Jones.

Removing the Cap
At first glance, Brexit may have some effect on that problem. If no longer part of the EU, then the UK is not subject to its state aid rules. “If there could be an upside that I could perceive out of Brexit it would be that we should be allowed to regulate the vfx tax break on vfx spend alone,” says Outpost VFX founder, Duncan McWilliam. “One of the fastest growing parts of the film business is vfx, so surely we should open up a VFX only tax credit and make it very easy to apply for.” It’s something many in the industry have pushed for, but simply leaving the EU doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. “I’d be reluctant to forecast anything to do with Brexit,” says Framestore’s Sargent. “However, I would observe that, if you want to trade with a trading block, you tend to have to observe their rules. This is the irony of Brexit; you can leave but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to abide by their rules if you want to trade with the single largest trade body that we trade with.” Says Hatton. “If we did a trade deal, would it come straight back on us? The UK government is supportive of state aid legislation for other reasons, so we would have to make a case.” And realistically, it would have to be a case that would be looked on favourably by the EU.

And that case could be that breaking through those state aid rules doesn’t adversely affect either the EU, or a post Brexit UK. “Once you hit the cap, that’s not going to send vfx work from the UK to Europe, it’s going to send it to Canada, so it doesn’t benefit the EU in any way. Its something we should investigate,” says Hatton. But until the Brexit fog clears, it’s a vague hope at best.

The Talent Show
The downsides of Brexit are pretty universally agreed upon. A recession following a no deal Brexit is widely predicted and “we’re all directly affected, even in our industry, which is at the moment buoyant,” says Jellyfish Pictures CEO, Phil Dobree. “It is slightly concerning how no deal will affect our clients. Because if everyone starts pulling their horns in…”

The other big elephant in the room is talent. Whatever sector of the vfx market, it is very much a talent-based business. Vfx projects have become more involved, more complex and demand a huge range of different skills. Having the best people is key, as is a diverse pool of people that have grown up in different countries with different experiences. The UK, and London in particular, owes much of its vfx success to being a big melting pot of talent with a large proportion of employees from the EU.

It seems likely that current EU employees will be able to continue as before, but the bigger worry is about vfx artists who haven’t come here yet. Brexit is of course unpredictable, but “I can’t see free movement continuing,” says Hatton. What replaces it is unknown. But it seems certain that EU nationals won’t be as free to come to work in the UK as before. And that “might stem the flow of talent,” says Jellyfish’s Dobree. “Because they’re thinking ‘Can I really make a career, and my life in London?”

The Brain Drain
However benign any new system is, “the psychological damage is there,” says Framestore’s Sargent. “[Brexit uncertainty] has been going on for three years. If it’s settled on 31st October, it will still be there for a further two years” while a deal is done. “You still won’t quite know for a year after that what is really the case, how is the Home Office behaving and so forth. And so you’re talking about a five-year window in which people psychologically will feel uncertain and unwelcome.”

And the damage could already be happening. “I’m sure four years ago, when we were putting out job adverts, we were getting applications from all over Europe for people coming across for the first time to England,” says Outpost’s McWilliam. “And now I see our applications going out and, as much as any nationality applies, they tend to already be based in London or in England already. They’re not people moving country.”

And that could be damaging to the UK’s vfx pre-eminence in the long term if EU talent opts to stay in the EU. “Other countries are building their vfx capability, so our strength is certainly being diluted at the moment. I wouldn’t say its huge. But the point is once it starts it gathers momentum,” says Sargent.

Some are already hedging for that possibility. “It’s probably been an influence I would say in our decision to open The Mill in Berlin,” says Shenfield. “Having a base in mainland Europe, in particular, in Berlin, where there’s a lot of interesting things going on culturally and creatively, perhaps there’s a little bit of hedging in our mind around that.”

Current talk of Australian style points systems and high visa costs could be a significant problem for the UK vfx sector. “If suddenly there are major increases in these fees, and there’s a major lengthening of the visa processing scenario, then that will only exacerbate what really is already a skill shortage in the UK,” says Cinesite’s Jones. “We could not run these companies on just UK talent. The nature of the business is it’s very ebb and flow. We’re constantly expanding and contracting, and it has to be done quickly.”

If visa costs and immigration skills charges (charges that incidentally do not go directly to any training) for EU nationals replicate those for non-Eu nationals, there is a very significant cost implication for all UK vfx companies that have an average of 33% EU nationals in their  workforce. The current salary threshold for non-EU nationals is £30k and if raw EU recruits have to come in in at more than £30k “that will start to move the differentials of everybody,” says Hatton. “You can’t say ‘here’s a brand-new animator on £30k but you’ve been doing it for two years and you’re on less than that.’ That’s going to cause unrest. To move everybody up would put £18m of expense into the budget.”

The vfx sector has to make its voice heard now while the political situation is fluid. “We have got the potential, particularly as other parts of the economy will not be as buoyant after Brexit, to remain buoyant,” says Hatton. Influencing whatever government is in place will be key. “We have stability in the tax credits system, that’s not going to change and that’s the big message for people over the pond. There will be workforce challenges from 2021 onwards, but we’re dealing with them. And then there’s still the possibility that it’ll all be a bad dream.” You never know.

Posted 03 September 2019 by Jon Creamer

The Art of the Editor

American Cinema Editors' EditFest London 2019 took place in June at the BFI Southbank featuring panels and interviews with top editors from the worlds of movies, TV drama and docs.
Jon Creamer asked just a few of them what it takes to create the perfect cut

Lee Smith

Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Spectre, Master and Commander, Inception, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Truman Show, X-Men: First Class, Dark Phoenix, The Dark Knight Rises, The Way Back, 1917

Editing is very instinctual. The physical mechanics of cutting two shots together can be trained and learned but it doesn’t necessarily make you any good, it just means that you can join two shots together. That’s the least part. I’d say if I was exercising my brain on the film, probably only 10 percent of it goes to actually editing. The choices are far more important – the rhythm, the application of the music and sound effects. There are so many things that are involved in what an editor does.

Editing is also about your ability to listen to what other people say. In test screenings, an audience cannot tell you how to fix your film but they can tell you what is wrong with it. And you can’t argue with an audience. If an audience doesn’t like something and it’s very obvious on the [screening] cards, there’s not much point arguing. There is a problem but can it be repaired? Do we have the coverage? Do we have the scenes? Do we have the story? If not, can we reshoot and figure out how to do it? More often than not, you can fix many things. But you have to keep reminding yourself that sometimes you can take something and make a worse film.

Invariably if an audience is telling you that they got bored in the third act of movie, a lot of people’s reaction will be ‘the third act is boring.’ They’re always wrong. It’s undoubtedly the first act that’s boring. It’s cumulative. The third act could be absolutely pitch perfect but maybe you’ve brought the weight of a slack second act coming into the third act. Even though the audience are saying ‘we were bored with the end of the movie’, you have to be knowledgeable enough to know the end of the movie is very good, very solid and sound but that there is a definite lag in the first reel and a half. You just have to continuously analyse what those notes are.

The main thing when you’re working on features is assembling and editing everything that comes in on a daily basis. Even if scenes are only half done then I’ll half put them together because the job of the editor is to inform anyone if we’re missing something or something’s not working. They’re heavily reliant on you to be that person because obviously these features cost between $300k and $400k a day. You don’t want to find out you need something else after they’ve left the set or basically demolished it.

You’re the voice of reason. Sometimes they call me The Voice of Doom. But it’s best to take your medicine when you can do something about it. You’re watching for everything – performance coverage, coverage problems, technical problems – all of these things have to be assessed. If there’s a technical problem, is it salvageable? Can I make a considered guess as to whether a shot can be resurrected through digital effects? You do that on a daily basis. You’re trying to make sure the film is working even though it’s still being built in front of your eyes. You do your best to make sure that the film is going to work because as soon as they finish shooting, they finish shooting. You have to stay up to camera. You can’t be a week behind the camera because you won’t be giving them daily updates if they need to do anything different.

With vfx heavy films you’ve got to know what you can get, know the process and know how to get there and then imagine it. That just comes from working on a lot of these films. I would highly not recommend it to people starting out. You start out by editing drama and editing things that are in front of you. Then learn about the vfx process because there can be some pretty big sequences and you just have to imagine them. There’s not much point imagining what can’t be done. But as much as everyone thinks visual effects can do everything you still have to have the basis of a narrative story. You still have to have actors performing correctly with the correct eyelines. All these things have to be working.

The great thing in this industry is you never stop learning. Every film is a learning curve without exception. You come out of the other end having done and seen things you didn’t do on the last one. It’s what makes it such a fascinating job to be in. There are things that are common between films but, my goodness, there’s a lot that isn’t.

Pia Di Ciaula

A Very English Scandal, The Crown, Tyrannosaur, Belle, Stuart: A Life Backwards, Bert and Dickie, Journeyman, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hideous Kinky, Blood and Oil, The Street, Dirt Music, Hope Gap

While I assemble, I don’t re-read the script because I want the rushes to reveal the narrative. I only refer back to the script if there is an issue but I find that at this stage, the material is transforming the script into something new. Assembling is a difficult stage because I usually have many hours of rushes and it can feel overwhelming but it’s also very valuable because it’s the only time I will be alone with the footage and create my unbiased cut using my first instincts.  Sometimes I have to find a moment that I connect with emotionally in order to begin editing.

Besides the shape, rhythm and performances, choosing a point of view is also important. Revealing the subtext and finding the heart of the scene is key. Discovering how someone is feeling or what they’re thinking is part of the art of editing because it can often be the opposite of what a character is saying. We sometimes have to dig deeper under the surface through body language or the actor’s eyes to show the inner state of the character to find emotion.

Most directors don’t brief me, they want my gut reactions and unbiased opinions. They want my fresh instincts because I’m not aware of any issues they may have had on set so it’s strictly about the material. They want to be surprised and shown the most interesting way to tell the story. Stephen Daldry gave me free reign on The Crown and wanted to watch assembled scenes every night from the previous day’s shoot. Despite the constant pressure, it allowed us to collaborate closely, discuss any pick-ups and be completely up to date.

Working with Stephen Frears was just as brilliant but the opposite experience because he didn’t watch any cuts on A Very English Scandal until after we had wrapped. We spoke every day during the shoot. After viewing rushes I would comment on what struck me, what moved me and if we needed any pick-ups.

The biggest misconception I had before I worked with Stephen Daldry and Stephen Frears was that these multi-award winning directors were going to micromanage me but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They both gave me space and freedom to create something special but I also felt completely directed and supported. Their trust was liberating because it allowed me to be bolder and more creative. Every director works differently and I love collaborating with them but it’s essential to have thinking time independent from each other.

Editors need to tell the story in the most succinct and interesting way. You can’t impose a style but allow the material to dictate it. You have to embrace the director’s vision and the cinematography but should elevate both to a new level. You could create visual associations that the director may not have thought about and restructure scenes to reveal the best version of the story. You need to ensure that everyone in the cast and crew are shown in their best light while still getting the highest production values. Editors also have to be strong yet sensitive, resilient, sympathetic, diplomatic and patience is definitely a virtue!

Will Gilbey

Bros: After The Screaming Stops, Mo Farah: No Easy Mile, Rise of the Footsoldier; White Island, Golden Years, The Wee Man, Angel

On a film like Bros, you don’t really start finding the story until the last month in the edit. To begin with, there was a very different idea of what it was going to be. The last third of it was going to be a concert film in the initial conception but then Matt and Luke were so incredibly open and un self-aware, you realised there’s something really exciting here.

In documentary, you end up with thirty times as much footage as you would do on a feature. In the edit suite the amount of work is staggering, just to get the footage actually cut down let alone even starting to edit. I used to get frustrated when someone would do eight takes on a scene in a feature but then in a doc there’s seven hours. I don’t know what I was complaining about.

To begin with in a documentary like Bros the production team is out in the field. You’re getting sent through the footage every day and at that stage more important than cutting is just logging everything and marking everything up. In three months time you’re going to need to find this footage. It’s so important to be completely boringly organised about everything so you know where everything is. You’re creating a sequence of every subject they hit in an interview – every time they talk about their parents, I’ll take every good clip from every interview and drop it in to that sequence. Every time they talk about their relationship as twins, I’ll do the same. Any time we want to do a piece about that subject there’s a clip of them talking about it. Other people probably have dozens of assistants typing in the metadata, but I have to watch everything. I don’t trust anyone to mark stuff up in the same way I want it.

If you’re editing a documentary, your editing is going to be exactly as good as how much time a director is willing to spend with you in the edit suite. I’ve worked on other projects where the director goes off to another project and you’re sat there hoping you’re getting it right. You’re finding the story in the edit so much that to be able to bounce your ideas off someone else is obviously incredibly valuable.

Editing is so much about having an eye and that really builds as you put the hours in. There’s reams and reams of stuff going past you. For the concert footage on Bros I had clips from 16 cameras. You’ve got to go through each camera’s three or four hours of material plus the rehearsal stuff and more. You tend not to watch that at normal speed so you have to develop an eye for picking stuff out that could be useful.

There’s a period on any project when I’ll say to my wife ‘I don’t know how to do this one, I’m completely stuck.’ About two years ago she said, ‘you always say this.’ Now I know not worry, this is a minor road block.

Posted 31 July 2019 by Jon Creamer

The Televisual Bulldog Awards - the night in pictures

The 2019 Televisual Bulldog Awards winners' dinner took place on Wednesday 3rd July at the Hotel Cafe Royal's Pompadour Ballroom.

The teams from all the winning productions attended including Sid Gentle's Killing Eve, Blueprint Pictures’ A Very English Scandal, Hat Trick’s Derry Girls, Zeppotron’s Would I Lie to You? BBC Studio’s Strictly Come Dancing, Minnow Films’ Grenfell, On the Corner/Rogan Production’s Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation, CPL Productions’ Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds, BBC Studios Natural History Unit’s Dynasties, Nutopia’s One Strange Rock and Wall to Wall who won the best indie gong.

The sponsors for all the awards were also at the dinner - thanks to Helicopter Film Services, 3Mills Studios, Platform Post, IMG Studios, Elstree Studios, ACS, CTV Outside Broadcasts, Envy, Clear Cut Pictures, Video Europe, Roundtable Films, Universal Production Music, GTT, Splice, Sony and BMG Production Music.

Here's the night in pictures

Posted 05 July 2019 by Jon Creamer

The Planets: Behind the Scenes

For the BBC’s latest landmark science series, the show set itself the task of telling the entire story of the solar system from its birth until now and on to what will happen to it in the future.

Ambitious in itself, but the show was envisaged as more than just an explanatory science doc. “From the very beginning we conceived this series as both drama and documentary,” says exec producer Andrew Cohen, with the individual planets treated as characters with their own distinct narratives.

As well as being a genre hybrid, the show’s action is a mix of elements too. Fronted by Professor Brian Cox, the series combines live sequences of the scientist in locations akin to the planets he’s talking about, blended with vfx of planetary events, archive footage of space explora-tions, cg builds and immersive sound design.

For dramatic effect
And to deliver on the show’s dramatic ambitions, the vfx had to evolve beyond the standard science doc format: “To deliver the sense of drama that we wanted in this series we needed to completely change the approach to our visual effects,” says Cohen. “These are not just graphics that explain things to the viewer instead they are an experience that takes you across the solar system and back in time so that we can become completely immersed in our story.”

The process began, says series director, Stephen Cooter, with the production team and vfx house, Lola Post, storyboarding all the key effects sequences pre-shoot and then deciding “which shots would be entirely computer generated, which would incorporate backdrops or foreground elements shot on location, and which would be pure, treated, cinematography. And then it was down to me and the other directors to bring back the elements and deliver them to Lola” where the vfx process could begin in anger.

The look of the vfx is a hybrid too. They had to be dramatic, but grounded in scientific reality (and complementary to the in-camera footage). Shots couldn’t be fluffed up with imagined nebula and background galaxies, but then, at the same time, much of the action is of events never seen by humans, which left space for imagination. “So it’s a nice blurry line,” says Lola’s creative director, Rob Harvey. Inspiration for many the vfx shots of human space exploration came from early Soviet and NASA archive. “It’s really unique stuff and it was all on black. You don’t get any stars. It’s odd framing. they didn’t have view finders on the cameras.” The aim was to make the vfx look “as photographic as possible, so the camera moves are sensible. There are pans, little crane moves, tracks but nothing really mental. It had to be based on what a drone could do or a satellite could see.” Any vfx based on probes or landers was created as though a GoPro had been bolted to the craft. Those shots were interspersed with real footage or stills of the launches and “it’s quite hard to spot where our stuff finishes and the real stuff starts,” says Harvey. “You keep the flow going so it’s not like ‘cut to CGI’ or ‘cut to wacky sequence.’ We aimed to make it look as though it could possibly be a bit of real footage.”

Keeping it real
That grounding in some sort of reality led further into the vfx, with much of it created in-camera using a host of old-school physical effects in the studio which was then combined with the shot plates or wrapped around CG models. Physical effects helped to preserve the ‘reality‘ but budget and time constraints were a factor too – 20 minutes or so of vfx per episode on a documentary budget meant some clever work arounds had to be created to pull off a high-end landmark BBC look.

Shots include a drop down through Saturn’s thunderstorms complete with diamond rain. “To do that in CGI would need a ton of R&D a whole load a simulation, a load of rendering,” says Harvey. Instead , Harvey worked with special effects studio Pirate for many effects “mucking about and making a mess. If you pour boiling water into liquid nitrogen it generates massive cumulonimbus clouds that then condense. You shoot it really high speed and then you put these old flash bulbs inside the clouds on a stick.” Diamond rain was created by pouring a type of  Perspex mixed with dust from a section of guttering - “it just looks really lovely and twinkly and Dia-mondy.” The surface of Saturn and Jupiter, the gas giants came from a tray full of Hammerite paint with petrol and solvent tipped in. “It’s absolutely stinky but you just get the texture that you’d never get in a computer and you wrap that over the top of your cg model as a layer. It gives you more depth.”

Other effects include rain evaporating on the surface of Venus created using a camping stove hot plate. “It tells the story and it looks really photographic and beautiful and real because it is.” Air cannons shooting various mixes of dust and powders generated early universe shots too.

The chaos of physical effects also adds to the realism, says Harvey. “If you’re shooting a desert plate in Oman and you’ve got to make it look like meteor strikes, rather than generate that in CGI we grab little snips of stuff from our library. We use those elements to fill in the background of the plate, but then add all the high-speed studio stuff in. It gives you all the dust and atmosphere, and it’s real so you get happy accidents with the way particles collide or break up or interact with each other. It’s something tangible and believable whereas if you do that in cg there is a point where it just looks cg after a while.”

Sound ideas
Sound was also a big part of the series and completed at Halo along with the picture post.  It’s a “very vfx heavy show, a lot of the science is quite out there. The visuals on their own needed help in places to sell the ideas, ” says dubbing mixer, Rich Addis. The sound design was, like the vfx, grounded in a reality . Nasa radio astronomy recordings were used as a basis for much of the planetary sounds throughout. “They take radio waves into the audible frequency range. They’re not technically sounds but they are wave forms originated from planets and stars transposed into audible human range of hearing,” says Addis.

Alongside that, Halo also worked closely with location sound recordist, Andy Paddon, using the extensive recordings he collected from the various deserts, mountains, fjords, volcanic craters and frozen wastes that Brian Cox’s commentary was filmed in. “It was nice to have genuine sounds,” says sound designer, Jay Price. “There were lots of recordings of cracking ice and more abstract recordings which we could manipulate. A lot of the sounds were built from location recordings instead of off-the-shelf stuff. They were quite bespoke.” And as many of the stories are about the various planets’ similarities to Earth, especially the ‘terrestrial’ planets “having the sound grounded in the real and familiar really helps to sell the idea that these places were at one point very similar to the earth of today,” says Addis. “If you take something that is real then you mess with it, screw it up as much as possible, it sounds other-worldly but based in some sort of realism,” says Price.

As with the vfx, the sound design also had to represent planetary events that nobody has ever witnessed. “For the gas planets in the later episodes then it gets a bit more abstract,” says Addis. “There’s nothing solid so we had a bit more creative licence there.” Part of that involved “forever descending sounds as you’re moving further and deeper into the planet,” says Price. “It’s giving a sinking feeling sonically. Christopher Nolan used it a lot for the Batpod in The Dark Knight and he used it in Dunkirk a lot too.”

Another feature of the sound design was also the choice to often have an absence of any sound at all at certain moments. “There are huge moments when the visuals are big and stunning, the score is going great guns and we had huge sound designs but there are also really good, bold choices of taking everything out almost,” says Addis. “Huge planetary collision sequences where after the initial impact it just cuts to silence and you’re just absorbing these incredible visuals.”

The Science Unit, BBC Studios, co-produced with Tencent Penguin Pictures and The Open University.
Patrick Holland, controller, BBC Two; Tom McDonald, head of commissioning, natural history and specialist factual.
Series presenter
Professor Brian Cox
Exec producer
Andrew Cohen
Series producer
Gideon Bradshaw
Produced & directed by
Stephen Cooter (Mars & Jupiter); Martin Johnson (Venus & Pluto); Nic Stacey (Saturn)
Vfx super
Rob Harvey
Dubbing mixer
Rich Addis
Sound designer
Jay Price
Location sound
Andy Paddon
Graeme Dawson; Louise Salkow; Ged Murphy
Picture post
Sound post
Tom Hayward ; Julius Brighton
Original music
Anze Rozman for Bleeding Fingers

Posted 13 June 2019 by Jon Creamer

Good Omens: Behind the Scenes

A big name cast on a globe trotting vfx-heavy shoot made Amazon and 
the BBC’s Good Omens a work of Biblical proportions. Jon Creamer reports

It’s now 29 years since Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett published their best-selling novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

And while the pair had always envisaged a screen adaptation of the novel, it’s no surprise that it’s taken this long to make it to the screen.

The book tells the story of the birth of Satan’s son, the approaching apocalypse and the attempts by an angel and a demon to put a stop to it and preserve their comfortable lives on Earth. The action ranges across the globe and takes in miracles, destruction on a Biblical scale, the raising of Atlantis, alien invasions - budget lines to make any exec’s palms start to sweat. Doing the book justice on-screen back in the 90s would have cost the GDP of a small nation.

Screen adaptations have got close to the line before now. Terry Gilliam tried throughout the noughties to produce a movie version but the project fell short financially. Terry Jones and Gavin Scott were also reportedly writing a TV version in 2011 but again it foundered.

But by 2016, after receiving a posthumous letter from fellow writer Terry Pratchett urging him to go ahead with the project, it was announced that Neil Gaiman would write the scripts himself and act as showrunner with with BBC Studios, Narrativia and The Blank Corporation on board as co-producers.

Douglas Mackinnon, whose CV includes Doctor Who, Sherlock and Jekyll, was brought in as the sole director across the series. A big task for one person but, says Mackinnon, “myself and Neil recognised that one director was the best way to realise the script. The practicalities told us it was impossible for more than one director to do it. We’ve got very starry actors on very tight schedules so we had to fit in with them and we’ve got all these locations and CGI and so on. It was clear that however big a task it was, one director was key.”

The cast includes David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Jon Hamm among other big names and casting proved the relatively easy part of the production. “Normally you ask the casting director ‘can we get these people’ and you drop down from there but, actually, we just got all the people we asked for all the time.”

Mackinnon says “it’s the scale and ambition of it that’s the tricky bit” and points to the first page of the script that opens with “‘Exterior, Garden of Eden, Day.’ There’s a lot to fill in. The entire history of the world and its possible death.” And despite a “very good budget” the “director’s job is to stretch things.”

The first job though was to assemble his HoDs , a mixture of familiar faces and new. “As a director of a project of this size, the key is to make sure you’ve got the best people as your HoDs” and then give them the freedom to use their skills. “Part of my philosophy of directing is to let people express themselves when they get the ball. I wanted people to be bold with their decisions in every department. One of myself and Neil’s mantras was people should come to us with ideas and say “this might be insane but…”

But the overall tone had to be set by Mackinnon and Gaiman, because “it’s such an eclectic book. We fly through genres and we’re going from the very serious to the very comedic. The area we wanted Good Omens to inhabit was very close to being ridiculous but just on the edge. If you go too far you end up being a spoof show.”

The more “obvious” influences include Monty Python, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse (as well as Butch and Sundance for Tennant and Sheen’s characters). US show Legion was also a touch point.
Outside of film references the HoDs were given the avante garde jazz piano solo from Bowie’s Aladdin Sane  – “somehow, that got the spirit” – as did a picture of a single tile from an Istanbul mosque Mackinnon spotted in a documentary. “We used that as a colour palette reference.”

The target was “cinematic” and “a six-hour film rather than six hours of telly.” Mackinnon’s DoP Gavin Finney shot on Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini in ProRes 4444 (HQ) and 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Lenses included Leica Summilux primes and Alura zooms. “The package gave us flexibility to jump quickly between Steadicam, Technocrane and studio/dolly mode. Alexa gives very good green screen keys for vfx, and has great and flexible colour rendering which helped in the grade. The Alexa’s latitude could cope with the bright white sands of the Cape Town desert, very low-key hell scenes and everything in-between.”

Much of the look is also determined by the CGI. It’s necessarily a vfx heavy production with lead vendor Milk providing around 650 cgi shots covering the principal vfx sequences. But, says Mackinnon, the push was to make the vfx a seamless part of the narrative. “When I first did Doctor Who with Russell T Davies and David Tennant, the CGI shots were written into the script by Russell because they were so expensive. You would have five or six shots and that was your lot.” And that meant cgi had to be a showstopper. “What’s lovely now is you can move away from the clichés. You’re not just doing CGI shots for the exterior of a spaceship, CGI is involved throughout.”

For the two main characters, an angel and a demon, performing miracles is run of the mill and the vfx had to reflect that. Adam, the young boy who doesn’t know he is the antichrist, sees his imagination come to life. A cgi spaceship therefore had to be one that an 11-year-old would imagine, not the Death Star.

The vfx were extensive, says Milk’s vfx supervisor Jean-Claude Deguara. “You were pretty much doing a new effect for every vfx scene” which kept him busy on set advising throughout pretty much every shoot day. The vfx run the gamut of hellish creatures, explosions, water effects, a cracken, a speeding Bentley and the creation of one of the main locations, a Soho book shop that was scanned from a location on Berwick Street. But for all that, the thrust of the vfx was that they should fit in to the overall narrative, and not stand out as ‘moments’. “One of the first things that Neil ever said to me was he wants everything to feel like it’s all from the same place. It should all come together so everyone’s working together to harmonise the tone,” says Deguara.

But the vfx didn’t stop with Milk. The grade was with Gareth Spensley at Molinare and, says Mackinnon, much additional vfx occurred there. “There is a development now where a lot of the stuff that the vfx house would have done we now shift into the grade. The tech has caught up with us” allowing directors to sit in with a colourist to create many of the vfx that would have gone to the vfx vendor in the past. With the apocalypse approaching, the weather was a big part of the narrative and “80% of the skies we did with Gareth the colourist rather than Milk. A few years ago, Milk would have done that” but with more Flame plug ins now available in Baselight and other grading systems, the colourist can achieve more. “Neil calls Gareth a warlock because of the magic skills he appears to possess to change things,” says Mackinnon.

And the amount of vfx work achieved in the grade was new to Molinare’s Spensley: “The level we did it on Good Omens, that’s completely new for me. I don’t know of any episodic TV show that’s done it” to the same extent. “It could become visual effects but the reason it creeps into the grade is that if you break each shot down to visual effects then you would have hundreds and hundreds of vfx shots. And it becomes slightly unwieldy,” says Spensley. “Within the grade, we can probably get them faster and more cost effectively than if you break them into individual visual effects shots.” It also allows the director to sit in and make rough decisions in real time. “We can start something together in the Baselight and, if it’s the simpler end of things, they can reject it or proceed with it quite quickly,” says Spensley.

And with the original writer showrunning the production, and a ready-made fan base, that control becomes more important. “Five million people have bought the book already,” says Mackinnon. “Those fans will see a lovingly made version but also a bit more as well.”

Production BBC Studios, Narrativia and The Blank Corporation, in association with BBC Worldwide.
Broadcasters Amazon Prime Video and BBC2
Writer and show runner Neil Gaiman
Director Douglas Mackinnon
DoP Gavin Finney
Vfx Milk
Post Molinare
Music David Arnold
Executive Producers Neil Gaiman, Caroline Skinner, Chris Sussman for BBC Studios; Rob Wilkins and Rod Brown for Narrativia.
Commissioner For Amazon Prime Video by Amazon Studios and for BBC2 by Patrick Holland, Controller, BBC Two; Shane Allen, controller, BBC comedy commissioning and commissioning editor Gregor Sharp
Cast Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Jon Hamm, Frances McDormand, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Jack Whitehall, Adria Arjona, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Derek Jacobi
TX on Amazon Prime Video worldwide  on 31st May and on BBC2 at a later date

Posted 30 May 2019 by Jon Creamer

Survey: The Top Ten Pro Rental Cameras

Televisual’s annual top 10 listing of the UK’s most hired cameras is now in its thirteenth year. Jon Creamer counts down the most rented models of the past year

In this year’s survey of the top ten hire cameras, the perennial favourites still hold strong - Arri’s Alexa Mini and Amira are still going strong and Canon’s C300 and C300 MkII still hold their own.

What comes through loud and clear from the survey is that, outside of high end TV, the Sony FS7 is still the dominant model. Along with the FS7 MkII it has solidified its position as the industry workhorse. Few in the hire market predict that changing soon.

It’s not the only game in town, however, with some, including Run Hire, saying “where budgets are constrained, the Canon C300 still retains its presence in the HD broadcast sector and shows no signs of disappearing yet.” The Kit Room also points out that “the C300 and C300 MkII have had a resurgence over the last year.”

Over at the high end, “full frame is making more waves” says Electra. Hotcam also says that “full frame cinematography will undoubtedly make a lot more noise.”

Shift 4 too predicts “more people looking to shoot full frame on large budget productions.” And it seems that Sony could be the beneficiary of that. Pro Vision says the Sony Venice “will have a significant impact on the drama market for 2019,” with Procam saying “the Sony F55 will be superseded by the Venice.” Video Europe is another that says the Venice is “really beginning to gather momentum now.” The Kit Room argues that “this year will tell if it is able to knock the Arri of its perch,” with VMI saying that “the Arri LF has failed to excite the market, so we expect that the Venice will become a really important camera.” But then there’s the new Alexa Mini LF on the horizon. That could make things interesting.

At the beginning of the year, Televisual sent survey forms to a wide range of camera hire companies, both large and small. Each was asked to list their five most rented cameras of 2018, along with the percentage of hires each model received. An overall ranking of the UK’s most rented models was then created by multiplying the average percentage usage of each model by how many hire companies listed it in their top five. Many thanks to the hire companies who took part.

1 Sony PMW FS7

Average Day Rate £144


Alias, Anna Valley, Bluefin,, Hotcam, The Kit Room, Progressive Broadcast, ProVision, Run Hire, Soho Broadcast, Video Europe, VMI

Prison Life, Raw and Real, World’s Wildest Holidays, Danger in the Line of Duty (wt) (Alias Hire), The Voice, Hunted, Renovate Don’t Relocate (Anna Valley), BBC Hardtalk, Travel Channel, ITN, ITV (Bluefin), Blind Date, Eating with My Ex (Hotcam), The Great NHS Experiment, Rich Kids Go Skint, 999 What’s Your Emergency, Life and Debt (The Kit Room), Red Arrows, Dancing on ICE, Paddington, Blind Date (ProVision), Dementia Choir (Run Hire)

It’s now the third year in a row that Sony’s FS7 camera has made it to the top spot in our survey of the production industry’s most popular hire cameras having first supplanted the Canon C300 back in 2017.

Sony has updated the camera since its birth, bringing out the second generation of the camera, the FS7 MkII back in 2016. That model has risen up the rankings too but it’s still the MkI that goes out on the bulk of broadcast TV productions.

Anna Valley, formerly Shooting Partners, says that the FS7 has become the “workhorse camcorder of the broadcast industry, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s a professional camera for a reasonable price and produces images of a great quality. It’s the staple kit and there are hundreds of them out on shoots at any one time for broadcast television.” Bluefin says the camera’s success simply comes down to the down to the fact that it’s “less expensive and almost as good as an F55.”

And its success also partly comes from a lack of anything new in its class that has managed to contest its dominance in the sector. As argues: “With no new cameras challenging in this market space I anticipate the Sony FS7 will go from strength to strength.” The Kit Room, too, says that the FS7 keeps its place “because there haven’t been any breakthrough Run and Gun cameras entering the market.”

But its ability to hold its position as the most hired camera also derives from the simple fact that many operators don’t have to spend a lot of time getting to know it on every production they work on. “It is also increasingly popular because of its familiarity to shooters, making it ideal for productions with heavy time restrictions,” says The Kit Room.

The release of the FS7 MkII hasn’t made too much of an impact on the popularity of the MkI either says Run Hire: “It’s our most hired camera and hasn’t been affected by the MkII coming on to the market, so I think that the MKI will still hold its own in every type of production for many years to come yet.”

Alias Hire too says the MkII has little impact on its popularity. “Our client base has still been very happy taking the earlier version. It shows that the advancements between the 1st and 2nd generation FS7 cameras are minimal. It’s not like the jump the C300 did from MkI to MkII. That jump was significant with the inclusion of 4K and the build quality. ”

2 Arri Alexa Mini

Average Day Rate


HIRED FROM, Electra, New Day, The Kit Room, Progressive Broadcast, ProVision, Shift 4, Video Europe, VMI

Women on the Verge, Zapped, There She Goes, Locked Up Abroad (Electra); commercials (The Kit Room); Milan Fashion, Ballantines Whisky, Norvia (New Day), Still Game (Progressive Broadcast); Victoria, Vera, Truth of Murder, Ackley Bridge, Emmerdale (ProVision); The Athena, Agatha Raisin, Bad Move, Good Karma Hospital (VMI)

It’s another year in second position of the most hired cameras for Arri’s Alexa Mini as the camera remains a mainstay for high end productions.

As Progressive Broadcast says: “the Alexa Mini continues to dominate the hire kit lists from drama and commercials in our market.” Pro Vision too says that the Mini “has again reigned supreme in the drama market which we predominantly service. That said we have seen a significant increase in the request for the Sony Venice both 4K S35 and Anamorphic.  However, the Alexa Mini still has a strong hold on the current market and is a proven camera choice.” Shift 4 also says that “the most popular at the high end for us are still the Alexa Mini and Amira. The Mini because it’s so versatile and being used mainly for dramas and commercials.” And then there are the very strong rumours of an LF version of the Mini soon to be launched.

3 Sony FS7 MkII

Average Day Rate £151


Electra, Hotcam, New Day, Run Hire, Shift 4, VMI

 A League of Their Own, Revolutions: Ideas that Changed the World (Electra); Coach Trip, Couple Goals, Eating with My Ex, Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor, Greatest Dancer (Hotcam); Football Channel, BT Sport, Cheryl (New Day); Inside the Bombsquad (Run Hire),

Sony’s original FS7 model still reigns supreme in the rental market but its younger sibling, the FS7 MkII, released in 2016, is slowly making its way up the rental charts, this year to third position.

VMI says that the FS7 MkII has taken over from the original FS7, “aided by Netflix quality acceptance” (it got a crucial Netflix Post Technology Alliance tick last year).

Alias Hire says that it expects to see “a climb in requests for the FS7 MkII version, but that’s just natural as the FS7 MkI models start to show their age visually. We’ll look to bolster our stock with a few FS7 MkII models while we wait to see if Sony come up with something groundbreaking enough to make an FS7 MkIII a huge hit.” The FS7 MkII, like its stablemate is considered a good “all-rounder,” says Shift 4. “DoPs on a budget will use them with nice lenses as well as self-shooters using Canon L series glass.”

4 Sony PMW F55

Average Day Rate £230


Bluefin, Electra, Hotcam. Progressive Broadcast, Shift 4

Commercials and corporate (Bluefin); Top Gear, A League of Their Own, FIFA World Cup Official Film (Electra); Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor (Hotcam); River City (Progressive Broadcast)

The Sony F55 is now a seven year old camera but still holds its place in the rental market. Alongside cameras like the Alexa, it’s testament to the fact that well built, well liked cameras can have a very long shelf life, especially if the manufacturers keep delivering firmware updates.

It’s also got a broad range of uses all the way from live production to high end dramas and it’s still being used on some of the highest end dramas around, DP Adriano Goldman uses the camera for The Crown, for instance, due to its relatively small form factor and its acceptability to the Netflix gate keepers and he professes to have no plans to change that despite the Venice and Alexa LF’s emergence.

It’s also found new uses too. Shift 4 says the F55 “has had a bit of a resurgence with the release of the R7 RAW recorder, as combining them allows you to shoot 4K RAW at 120fps. No other camera other than specialist ones such as a Phantom can do this so it has made it a popular choice for any high frame rate projects being done for Netflix for example.”

5 Canon C300 MkII

Average Day Rate £178


Alias Hire, Anna Valley, Bluefin,, The Kit Room, New Day, Soho Broadcast, VMI

Prison, Family Project (Anna Valley); Corporate (Bluefin); The Great NHS Experiment, Claimed and Shamed, The Homeless Filmmaker, Brexit Doc, The Last Witness (The Kit Room); Pottermore / DSTV Promo (New Day), docs (VMI)

6 Arri Amira

Average Day Rate £250


Electra,, Video Europe, VMI, Shift 4

The Grand Tour, Keith and Paddy Picture Show, This Time with Alan Partridge, Zapped (Electra); Danny & Mick Series II, Josh Series II, Man Down Series III, Raised by Wolves Series II VMI

7 Panasonic AW UE 70

Average Day Rate £135


Anna Valley, Hotcam

Life Behind Bars: Visiting Hour, Celebrity Call Centre (Anna Valley); Coach Trip, Couple Goals (Hotcam)

8 Canon C300

Average Day Rate £125


Progressive Broadcast, Run Hire

Fantasy Homes By the Sea  (Run Hire)

9 Sony A7S MkII

Average Day Rate £99


Alias Hire,, ProVision, Soho Broadcast

=10 Canon XF305 and Red Epic Helium

=10 Canon XF 305

Average Day Rate

The Kit Room, Run Hire

Sex Tapes, The Fraud Squad (The Kit Room); Oxford Street (Run Hire)

=10 Red Epic Helium

Average Day Rate £475

New Day, VMI

Great British Architects - Lutyens (New Day); Turn Up Charlie (VMI)

Posted 01 May 2019 by Jon Creamer

Channel 4 ponders its big move

Three cities are still in the running for the new out-of-london Channel 4 HQ and three for the 
two creative hubs. the indies in those cities say the potential prize is immense. Jon Creamer reports

Autumn is when Channel 4 promises it will finally announce the names of the three cities that have won the beauty contest to become homes to its new non-London HQ and two creative pied a terres.

Birmingham, Greater Manchester and Leeds are all still in the running to be the home of the new HQ with Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow the remaining potential bases for one of the two ‘creative hubs’.

And it’s not been easy to get this far in the competition. To get on the initial long list, Channel 4 set out a series of conditions, some practical – travel time to London, size of working population, office space that could offer “cutting edge connectivity and technology”  - and some literally a beauty contest - “quality of life and the general attractiveness of any new location” was considered “paramount.”

To get to the final six, cities had to make it through a pitch process in June and July in which teams from Channel 4, including chief exec Alex Mahon, chief commercial officer Jonathan Allan and chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brooke, visited 13 shortlisted cities and regions for “presentations and discussions.”

For those that didn’t make the grade, there was much disappointment. Municipal councils and their creative communities fought hard to be one of the chosen. The official prize is a chunk of the 300 jobs Channel 4 is to base outside London with the National HQ also including a “state-of-the-art studio” that will be used to produce Channel 4 programmes and events and broadcast live daily programmes including Channel 4 News which will be co-anchored from outside the London studio every night.

But it was a hard-fought battle because for the indies and facilities in those cities, the benefits stretch far beyond those 300 new taxpayers.

Part of it is simply a psychological boost. “For Glasgow it would be another vote of confidence” in the city, says David Strachan, director of strategy at Tern TV. Laura Marshall, md at Bristol’s Icon Films, says a C4 move to her city “would be a substantive acknowledgement of the wealth of creativity, innovation and ability to deliver.” Rollem md Kay Mellor also argues that a C4 move to Leeds would not just “hugely benefit our economy and community” it would “put Leeds firmly on the map as a visitor destination.” Back in Glasgow, IWC creative director, Mark Downie, reckons “it would underline Glasgow’s growing reputation as a winning city when it comes to culture, bolstering its civic self-confidence” in the same way that hosting the European Championships and Commonwealth Games and “being named a UNESCO City of Music and producing five Turner Prize-winners” did.

Creative director and founder at Leeds based True North, Andrew Sheldon, says that even before the final decision,  “the bid process itself has already had a positive effect - the enthusiasm for bringing Channel 4 to Leeds is tangible. It isn’t simply what it means to the television and digital industries here – it’s about what it says about the region as a whole. Channel 4 would really enhance Leeds’ reputation as a forward looking European city.”

But it’s important to remember that the entire process has been one that was forced upon Channel 4. The Conservative’s election pledge to move Channel 4 lock stock and barrel out of London was resisted strongly by the broadcaster and led to it negotiating that pledge down. That negotiation ended with the government agreeing that Channel 4 could keep a substantial base at its Horseferry Road building in London but would spread its staff and spend further afield. Channel 4 has pledged that commissioning editors overseeing significant budget and with responsibility for some of its biggest shows will be based across the three new creative hubs – alongside a variety of other creative and business functions. Indies in the potential cities believe that it will keep to its word and real decisions will now be made outside London. And that is a major prize.

For IWC’s Downie “There’s a long history of commissioners based in London having a piecemeal relationship with producers in Glasgow. By committing to a permanent presence in the city that era will be brought to an end. It will raise Channel 4’s connectivity by improving the sharing of information, promoting better and more frequent dialogue with the city’s creative community; and existing relationships will be deepened.”

For Tern’s David Strachan, ending that “piecemeal relationship” is central. “Regular dialogue is the key to building trust which commissioning needs. Proximity makes dialogue more possible. The communities of Scotland and Northern Ireland need that umbilical connection to the heart of Channel 4.”

Rollem’s Mellor too says that being around the corner from commissioners “would allow our production company to develop a proper working relationship with them.” Icon’s Marshall echoes that saying “it would give west of England indies and freelancers easier access to commissioning.” That’s something that indies beyond London envy about their counterparts based full time in the capital. “We’ll look forward to having commissioners as part of the daily routine – the kind of contact that London producers take for granted in reception at Horseferry Road, but which is really important to building a long term creative and commercial relationship,“ says True North’s Sheldon.

Getting Channel 4 to set up shop in your city will inevitably give the local creative sector significant heft too. If Channel 4 build it, they will come, is the outlook for one big Manchester based facility. “Wherever Channel 4 move to, the commissioners will follow along with the production companies, this is the true value to any city that Channel 4 chooses.”

Any chosen city will see an influx of indies and new home-grown indies getting the confidence to set up shop long term. For Tern’s Strachan, “A growing production and commissioning community will create stability, continuity of employment, more confident pitches of greater scale.” Rollem’s Mellor says that “long-term I would hope that Channel 4 being in Leeds would encourage more production companies to make the city their home, and to enable us to grow and invest in proper studio space and post-production facilities in our city.”

A Channel 4 move means a city achieving critical mass in its production community. “There will be an influx of talent who have been considering where next to move to,” says Icon’s Marshall. “There will be economic investment in the city, one of the best places to live, through house purchasing, and of course the actual bricks and mortar of the hub.”

And that will also draw in talent, always a significant headache for non-London indies. “Channel 4’s presence will have an immediate impact on our greatest challenge, which is staffing. Their presence will help make Yorkshire somewhere that doesn’t just nurture talent but retains it,” says True North’s Sheldon.

That’s the prize for the winners. For the losers, it will be business as usual, back on the train and the plane to London and now with another destination to visit for those much-prized commissions.

Posted 07 September 2018 by Jon Creamer

Vanity Fair director James Strong on making a period drama with attitude

Putting Thackeray’s Vanity Fair on screen is far from untrodden ground. There have been around 13 adaptations of the story of Becky Sharp, Emma Sedley and their friends and families so far, all the way from a 1911 silent movie to a 1998 BBC version.

But the director of Mammoth Screen’s upcoming ITV/Amazon take on the novel, James Strong, hasn’t seen any of them.

In fact, says the director, whose credits include Broadchurch and Liar, he’s not really a big fan of period drama. “As a viewer, I sometimes find certain period dramas, particularly of this period, can be quite distancing - a little unrelatable to a modern audience.” And that made him the ideal fit for this adaptation that aims from the outset to be a contemporary drama in a period setting. That tone begins with Gwyneth Hughes’ scripts, says Strong. “They immediately have a modernity to them in the way they’re paced.”

And Strong was determined that the direction had to capture that tone. “I was very clear I wanted to approach it in the same way I’d approach a contemporary drama.” But, he says, “that’s an easy thing to say” and a little harder to get right in practice.

Initial thoughts were for a “mad, Trainspotting Baz Luhrmann mash up” but that was soon dropped. “The danger with that is it would tire after 20 minutes” leaving audiences dazzled but exhausted and missing the drama. “To have too stylised an aesthetic could risk detracting from the believability of the story,” he says.

The show needed to have “an attitude and swagger and fun to it” with the pace of contemporary drama, but had to keep the story real. Rehearsals with the cast steered clear of the text itself to keep performances fresh. “You have to catch lightning in the bottle a bit. On set we try to get the cameras up and running very quickly so we’re rehearsing as we’re shooting” so “you can often catch instinctive emotional reaction” - a technique used on Broadchurch and Liar. And the cameras were kept fluid so the actors aren’t restrained.

But alongside that contemporary feel, the show also needed to keep all that is good about period drama. Historical accuracy was not up for discussion, “it’s as forensically accurate as possible. The costumes, the etiquette, the houses, the décor, the military operations are all as accurate as you can be.” That extended to the decision to shoot much of the drama in the London, the novel’s main setting, despite the capital being “a nightmare to film in. It’s really expensive. The permissions are a nightmare, they take forever.” There was also extensive vfx clean up by Technicolor of out-of-period architectural details.

The series just “played around the edges with the format, the look, the music. It had a modern veneer,” says Strong. But at the same time the drama is shot in a “beautiful appropriate way,” he says. “There is handheld, there’s Steadicam, there’s movement but there are also beautiful graphic wides that allow you to enjoy our locations and sumptuous settings and scale. It’s a big story - you’ve got the politics of war, the battle of Waterloo. Its both epic and intimate so we had a to find a style that fitted those two things.”

Part of that came from the use of zoom lenses throughout the series  “There’s no tracking, there’s no unmotivated camera work. If there’s something going on the camera will be drawn to it. I told the operators that if there’s something interesting going on in the scene, then take me to it.” It was, says Strong, a way of using the set piece of a big composition but then using a zoom “to isolate characters in a more immediate way than that slow gentle tracking or the American power push.”

DoP Ed Rutherford shot on the Red Epic with a 6K Dragon sensor, another departure from traditional period drama production. “I love that Alexa look with the Cooke lenses where you’re trying to chuck everything out of focus and the shallow depth of field,” says Strong. But “I wanted this to be visceral. I didn’t want a soft-focus view of the past.”

Colours and lenses also help tell the story, says Strong. “As Becky rises there is literally more colour in her life” and as the Sedleys lose their money “the colour drains out of Amelia.” The lenses tell the same story, Amelia initially shot wider with the family she fits into “then as things go wrong, slightly longer lenses as she becomes more alienated.” There’s the reverse for Becky, long lenses while she’s different and separated from her environment and shorter wider lenses as she makes her way in society.

References for the look of the series spanned Kate Moss in her Britpop pomp, the photography of Saul Leiter and Gregory Crewdson, Blade Runner 2049’s colours, The Shape of Water “Del Toro does period and doesn’t feel stuck in the past.” A balancing act that Vanity Fair also manages to pull off.

Gwyneth Hughes’ seven part adaptation of Thackeray’s classic novel is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows heroine Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English Society.

Production co Mammoth Screen
Cast Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Simon Russell Beale, Martin Clunes
Writer/exec producer Gwyneth Hughes
Director/ exec producer James Strong
Exec producers Damien Timmer, Tom Mullens
Producer Julia Stannard
DP Ed Rutherford
Director episode 6 Jonathan Entwhistle
Line Producer Paula McBreen
Casting Theo Park
Costume designers Suzie Harman, Lucinda Wright
Production designer Anna Pritchard
Art director Henry Jaworski
Editor Steve Worsley
Camera Red Epic 6K Dragon sensor
VFX Technicolor

Posted 03 September 2018 by Jon Creamer
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