While there’s a fashion in British TV drama right now for the dark and sinister – see Broadchurch, Happy Valley, The Fall, The Missing – the narrative of the television drama business itself is much more of a feelgood story – less Ken Loach grit and more Richard Curtis sunshine.
A golden age
It is, without doubt, a genre enjoying its place in the sun. “When I look back to the dark days at the turn of the century when drama seemed to be falling out of favour, it’s a complete sea change now,” says Carnival Films’ md Gareth Neame. “A decade and half later it seems to be healthier than it has ever been before.” Fifty Fathoms’ creative director (and winner of the Women in Film and TV producer award) Katie Swinden concurs. “It’s a really exciting time for drama. The ambition’s gone up, the money’s gone up and there are an awful lot more broadcasters looking for content across the board.”
And it’s the number of potential buyers that’s making for such a healthy sector. “There are more avenues to explore now,” says Murray Ferguson, chief exec of Clerkenwell Films. “There are more players – Starz weren’t around several years ago, Netflix are coming in.” In the UK, Sky has not reined in its ambitions in scripted, Channel 5 and UKTV are even commissioning small amounts and the traditional buyers like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 see drama as more and more important in their genre mix. “There’s a wealth of diversity and so many possibilities for pitching things into the market, probably more so than at any time I’ve been writing,” says Primeval and Musketeers writer and creator Adrian Hodges. “There’s an appetite for both adapted and original drama both in the UK and the States and in worldwide markets generally.”
And there are more possibilities to fund projects at a variety of budget levels. “When E4 first began that opened up a type of drama one could make at a slightly lower budget than you might have got traditionally from ITV1 or BBC1 and we made Misfits,” says Clerkenwell’s Ferguson. “Then you hit the mainstream through BBC1 and ITV1, and you can also think in a more ambitious scale where you might have funding from the UK the US and Europe as well.” And with so many funding levels open “it is creatively quite liberating.”
Broadcasters are also liberating their channels from the narrower confines of the past, says Red Production’s Nicola Shindler. “It feels like people aren’t pigeonholing their own channels. Stuff that might be on BBC1 might not have been on BBC1 five or six years ago. It does feel like there’s more risk taking across every channel.” Broadcasters have grown in confidence when it comes to their drama output and are far more willing to try new genres and formats. ITV stretched itself with Broadchurch as did Channel 4 with pieces like Utopia. After saying it ‘didn’t do costume drama,’ Sky then went on to make Penny Dreadful. BBC1 has recently been the home to often uncomfortably dark pieces like Happy Valley and The Missing that it perhaps wouldn’t have housed in years gone by. BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson said last month that “when I started in this job the constant criticism of the BBC was that it was focused only on traditional period drama. I’m so pleased that these are not the conversations we are having now. We have shifted the dial and modernised BBC drama. The overall feel of our output is modern, provocative, unafraid and bold in its confidence and swagger.”
Any time at all
All bets now seem to be off when it comes to scheduling drama too. “It’s a very exploratory time,” says Katie Swinden. “There are places like Netflix playing around with being able to download a series in one go and they’re also playing with weekly, more traditional scheduling. The BBC and Channel 4 have played with ideas of stripping stories across five days. What all the broadcasters are looking for is a powerful story that will engage the viewer and then they’re much more flexible about how they can best attract people to that story.” Donna Wiffen, ex-head of international drama at Fremantlemedia and now md of start up indie Duchess Street Productions, says that while there’s a big market for “event drama like Downton that you have to watch on a Sunday night because otherwise you read about it in the papers, or everybody’s tweeting about it, or your friends are telling you what’s happening.” Conversely there’s also the “Netflix box set binging.”
The variety of ways that audiences reach shows means there is less stress on the overnights than in the past. With less need to hit a mainstream audience in one go, there is not so much pressure to head straight for the mainstream with your output. “Shows are finding their audience or audiences are finding their shows,” says Swinden. So it’s more possible to have complicated storytelling or more complex, sometimes morally ambiguous anti heroes when you’re not trying to please all of the people all of the time. The target is no longer “couch potatoes,” says Wiffen. “Audiences are much more sophisticated nowadays. They target what they want to watch and they go out and find it. The way we watch has helped change that.” The days when viewers would sit and watch whatever was served up to them have gone. “Viewers are really smart,” says Sky’s acting head of drama , Cameron Roach.
“They just want the best content and they will sniff it out and track it down so it’s pointless us delivering anything other than exceptional content.”
And that openness to finding content means “there is a willingness to try new things,” says Hodges. “Audiences are more diverse. You can get a substantial audience for a mainstream show as you always could, then you can also get a very satisfying audience for The Fall or Peaky Blinders and those shows have an enormous reach. We don’t have to make everything for a massive audience. We’ve got to get the right audience for the show.”
New ways of watching TV have opened audiences to drama, often international drama, that they may not have seen in the past and broadcasters are realising there’s a hunger for that. S4C’s drama commissioner Gwawr Lloyd says that for shows like her own Welsh set Hinterland, “the fact that it’s located in Wales is a huge part of the appeal. If you watch something from Scandinavia you get a glimpse into another world through a drama narrative, for me that’s a huge part of the appeal. It’s part of what makes something attractive whereas in the past that’s been a turn off.”
The world of TV drama has simply become much more international now. “We were much more parochial in what we were commissioning and producing here [in the past], so was the US,” says Carnival’s Gareth Neame. But the big international co production is becoming more and more common. “There are a lot more early conversations between UK and US producers about the coupling of talent and putting money into projects,” says Katie Swinden. The BBC’s Ben Stephenson reckons that “the UK / US television community is one community now. It feels like we can accept each other for each other’s strengths and how complementary we are.” US audiences are exposed to international, notably British, drama far more now and are therefore far more accepting of non US content. “New viewing platforms in the US that have given audiences over there exposure to British drama in a way they wouldn’t have seen before,” says Neame. “You still won’t see British drama on a US network but if you’ve got Hulu or Netflix you can.” And it’s the influence of those new platforms that are making the US environment far kinder to UK drama producers. “The old formula of a network 13 or 22-part series with standalone episodes so it could work in syndication has fallen away,” he continues. And now there are shorter runs with more authored pieces. “We’ve never been quite as strong on the mechanical side of things but a lot of this change plays to our strengths.”
The openness of audiences to international content means having an international focus doesn’t have to mean a cross border “pudding” any more. International drama, just means drama with scale. “I don’t have to say to a writer ‘you have to set it in China’ because that isn’t how it works anyway. You’re just pushing them for the biggest way of telling that story,” says Red’s Shindler. “International drama isn’t set internationally. Look at Happy Valley. It’s one of our best sellers and it couldn’t be more local to West Yorkshire. Not even Yorkshire, West Yorkshire. But it sold because the ideas behind it are so universal.”
BBC Key Shows
Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Our Girl, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, The Missing, Top of the lake, The Honourable Woman Recent Commissions
London Spy (Working Title TV); SSGB (Sid Gentle Films); The Last Kingdom (Carnival Films); Undercover (BBC Drama Production); Tatau (Touchpaper TV); The A Word (Fifty Fathoms); The Casual Vacancy (Bronte Film and TV); Taboo (Scott Free, Hardy Son & Baker); The Living and the Dead (Monastic) Commissioners
Controller, Ben Stephenson; head of independent drama, Polly Hill; commissioning editor BBC independent drama, Lucy Richer; commissioning editor BBC independent drama, Matthew Read; head of BBC Films, Christine Langan
ITV Key Shows
Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Mr Selfridge, Endeavour, The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, Scott and Bailey, The Widower, Cilla, Whitechapel Recent Commissions
Jekyll & Hyde (ITV Studios); The Frankenstein Chronicles (Rainmark Films); Midwinter of the Spirit (ITV Studios); The Forgotten (Mainstreet Pictures); Arthur and George (Buffalo Pictures); Jambusters (ITV Studios); Black Work (Mammoth Screen) Commissioners
Director of drama, Steve November; controller of drama, Victoria Fea; commissioning editor, Charlie Hampton; head of drama series, Jane Hudson
Channel 4 Key Shows
Southcliffe, Utopia, My Mad Fat Diary, Black Mirror, Run, Glue, Babylon, Top Boy, Skins, Misfits, This is England Recent commissions
The ABC (The Forge); Peter Kosminsky ISIS series (Archery); Coalition (Cuba); Humans (Kudos ); Cucumber, Banana, Tofu (Red); No Offence (Abbottvision) Commissioners
Head of drama, Piers Wenger; deputy head, Beth Willis; head of development, Surian Fletcher-Jones; commissioning editor, Sophie Gardiner; commissioning editor, Roberto Troni
SKY Key Shows
The Smoke, The Tunnel, Fleming, Fortitude, Penny Dreadful, Strikeback, The Enfield Haunting, Yonderland Recent commissions
Critical (Hat Trick); The Five (Red Production); The Last Panthers (Warp Films) Commissioners
Head of drama, Anne Mensah; commissioning editor, Cameron Roach; head of development, Beverley Booker
Under Milk Wood (fFatti fFilms), Hinterland (Fiction Factory); 35 Days (Apollo TV)
Commissioner: Gwawr Lloyd
Suspects (Newman Street)
Commissioner: Ben Frow
Legion (Red Planet)
Commissioner: Darren Childs
The Crown (Left Bank)
Commissioners: chief content officer, Ted Sarandos; original content vp, Cindy Holland; original series director, Peter Friedlander
Ripper Street (Tiger Aspect)
Commissioners: vp Amazon Prime Instant Video, UK, Tim Leslie; head of international content acquisition, Jason Ropell
With his new Sky 3D show about to launch, David Attenborough tells Jon Creamer why his passion for the development of natural history TV hasn’t dimmed
It’s pretty hard to overstate Sir David Attenborough’s contribution to British television. He’s regularly named in every ‘Greatest Living Briton,’ ‘Living Icon,’ ‘National Treasure’ and ‘Heroes of Our Time’ list that rears its head and, although he might baulk at such epithets, he has, arguably, defined the role of the television presenter and created the template for natural history broadcasting.
He was, after all, right there at the birth of the medium in this country having joined the BBC’s nascent television service after failing to get a position with BBC Radio. “I got a job having seen one television programme - a play. I didn’t even have a television set,” he says.
But over the past 60 years his passion for television, and its ability to show the public the natural world in all its glory, hasn’t dimmed. This month sees the launch of his latest Sky 3D spectacular with Atlantic Productions, Conquest of the Skies.
And despite 3D not taking off in quite the way it was once predicted to, he’s still a great champion of the format. “It gives you a more complete picture of the world,” he says, and it’s another step forward in television’s ability to do that. “When it started the vision of the world television gave you was a very limited one. It was black and white with 405 lines.” The emergence of colour TV was a big leap from that “not because it’s more colourful but because it gives a more high definition picture of the world. That’s the same with 3D. Like colour, the world does have three dimensions after all.”
And the ability to capture more of the world in three dimensions has advanced rapidly. “We’ve been doing it for five years and when we started the apparatus was huge. It took 12 to 14 people to keep it on the road. Now it’s much more versatile.” But while 3D advances, television, in terms of picture excellence, has almost reached the end of history, he says. “The move from 405 lines to 5k is huge. If you projected the programmes I made in the 50s and put them on a screen the size of a house it would be intolerable but with 5k you can.” Because as far as the pictures are concerned “we’ve jolly nearly got everything we require,” he says. “We can do almost anything you can think of. You can film at night, you can film at the bottom of the sea, you can slow things down, speed things up and with cgi you can create anything you want. It’s a dangerous thing to say but as far as television is concerned, we are very close to the end of technical developments.”
But he says, technology is nothing if the story isn’t there. “A dud programme is not made into a good programme by making it in 3D,” he says. “Narrative structure is a very valuable thing to have. There have been good programmes that just go to a wonderful place and just dream about,” but you can’t do that in every programme. “Chronology is very important” in natural history, he says. “Viewers want to know where they are in a programme and keeping things chronologically in order is a very useful way of maintaining a narrative thread.” As is keeping that narrative and the script fresh. “There’s nothing wrong with a cliché in itself because the reason it has become a cliché because it is appropriate and it works.”
But, he says, cliché is simply taking “the easy way out. That’s the difference between good writing and bad writing.” And although “’I’m here in this exciting place and I’m going to find out’ is a very good way of starting a programme, if you’re the 15th person who’s said that in a week it doesn’t hold the viewer.”
As a central figure in the TV firmament for the past 60 years, he’s not sure he could have the same career now. “The television world is changing. What it’s going to be like in 20 years time is anybody’s guess but my suspicion is the way we view television and what we view is going to change quite profoundly.” And the type of series he is best known for might get tougher to realise. “It needs an organisation that has the capital, the ambition and the courage to put money into something for three and a half years. You require somebody who’s well financed and has got the will and the inspiration to make that sort of programme. If you were starting in television as a little independent it wouldn’t automatically be something you would start with.”
And even if it was, he doesn’t rate his chances if he was a young man beginning his career today. “I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting a job. The reason I did was that nobody else wanted to make natural history programmes in 1954. But if you put up a notice now saying ‘Wanted: young man to make programme about lions in the Serengeti,’ I guarantee you’d get 5000 applications all of whom might just as well be as qualified as I was.”
David Attenborough was born in Isleworth in 1926. After Cambridge, he joined the BBC in 1952 as a trainee and became a producer. He first appeared as a presenter on Zoo Quest in 1954 when the original presenter was taken ill. He was made controller of BBC2 in 1965 but continued to produce and present. His landmark series include Life on Earth (1975), The Living Planet (1984), The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants(1994), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002), Life in the Undergrowth (2005) and Life in Cold Blood (2007) His 3D work includes Flying Monsters 3D, The Bachelor King 3D and Kingdom of Plants 3D for Atlantic Productions and Sky 3D and Galapagos 3D, Micro Monsters 3D, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D and Conquest of the Skies 3D for Colossus Productions
Watch Channel 4 head of factual and deputy chief creative officer Ralph Lee talking about what he would like to see on his channel. Lee was interviewed at the recent Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta.
Watch BBC2 and BBC4 controller Kim Shillinglaw talking about what she would like to see on her channels. Shillinglaw was interviewed at the recent Televisual Factual Festival at Bafta, her first interview since taking over the BBC2 and BBC4 role.
Here a group of directors (and members of Directors UK) give their response.
Gillies MacKinnon The Village, Inspector George Gently, Above Suspicion, Hideous Kinky
If you have worked with actors whose early careers overlapped with Alan Clarke you will find the most passionate loyalty towards the director. To these actors he represents the best of original and inspiring British directors, one who defined and changed television drama. Mark Lawson would be correct in saying that the role of director is almost institutionally watered down in contemporary television, but he would be wrong to maintain it has to be like that.
When I started making films, television was a great place to begin. There was BBC Screen 2, where many actors, writers, producers and directors working today began, making distinctive and often unlikely single dramas. For my own part, a story like The Grass Arena from John Healy's novel, featuring the first film role for Mark Rylance, who was a complete unknown at the time, playing opposite the wonderful now deceased Pete Posthelwaite, was a perfect opportunity to make a director led film- sadly a single drama which would have a bat's chance in hell of being made today. A single drama based upon an obscure story with no TV stars in it? And yet this film won awards wherever it was shown. These Screen 2 TV single dramas were made because they seemed a good idea, out of passion, not as a commodity, and not as a deal done between the network and the production company, considered a product designed to attract an audience.
The attitude towards the TV director was very different then. My first outing was on Jimmy McGovern's first single drama, Needle, produced by an up and coming young producer, George Faber. The exec was Michael Wearing. He met us and invited us to contact him if we had problems. As executive producer it was his job to decide upon the subject of the film, the producer, writer and director. After that he left us to get on with it. There were no other voices at large beyond George, Jimmy and myself. The point is that this older and simpler television culture gave every opportunity to young directors to dig deep, really test themselves and create something unexpected, not be assigned as illustrator of the grand plan.
We hear the claim that this is a golden age of British film, but check back 20 years to the UK Sunday reviews and you will find most films were British. This is certainly not true now, despite the legions of young people who are encouraged to choose film making as their career. I have spoken to young filmmakers who have been refused on the basis that they have not done enough workshops and I wonder if film in the UK has become institutionalised. I do wonder how many filmmakers of the originality of David Lynch, Lyndsey Anderson, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky or our own Shane Meadows would have emerged from this recent preoccupation with workshops.
After years of making feature films, I have been working in television again in recent years, largely because of the collapse of the middle budget film in the UK. As a director, you can either spend your life going to meetings about films, which are not happening, or continue to work in TV. Television single drama hardly exists now and a very different culture has taken over. There is now an obsession with viewing figures, which results in a far more commercial mentality. From what I hear, directors are often regarded as someone to do the awkward bit- working on set, looking after the visuals, getting the film in on time, working with actors - but these are only the most basic skills and what is missing now is the expectation that the director is more than a competent facilitator. The idea that the director is there to bring a special and perhaps unpredictable mind to the story seems to have been elbowed aside.
For my own part I would not complain, as I have been fortunate enough to work mainly with people who still respect and understand the director's role in the process. But I do recognise that drama as a commodity is the thing now, a culture that is not likely to produce many surprises. Some years ago a TV executive was constantly blocking our decisions and vital work on set had ground to a halt for want of his approval. Time was running out. When I explained to the executive the dire need for his co-operation, (he was back in London in his office) he said- "If I listened to you that would be the tail wagging the dog." I was astonished to hear that he, a person who had no awareness of the state of the production, considered himself the dog and the rest of us the tail. That was my first insight into a change in the mentality of some TV executives- thankfully not all of them I may add, and it needs to be stated that a good, responsible, communicating producer is a gift to a director.
British television was once considered a leading spirit but has more recently been relegated to imitator of America and even Scandinavia. I do wish television would create space for something completely innovative, free of so many conditions, free of knitting patterns, formulas, tried and tested theories and safe ideas spiced up to titillate and excite. An American producer once said that the American public doesn’t want to see something new. They want to see the same great drama they saw last week, but with different actors in it. I hope that hasn't happened here too.
Kay Patrick Coronation Street, Holby City, In Suspicious Circumstances
Mark Lawson’s article makes two points. It contrasts the significance of the role of the TV director as opposed to that of the director in film, and comments on the advent of the American style “show runner” in British TV, particularly the emergence of the writer/director/producer, which he implies diminishes the central role of the director.
It’s a mistake to believe that the methods used by the publicity machine to sell a TV drama in this now crowded market place truly reflects the reality of the director’s role in television. Danny Boyle’s name was used to promote Babylon in order to immediately grab attention. It’s a selling point, in the same way that a Hollywood actor appearing as a lead in the West End is used to gain publicity and sell seats. If that actor were to be replaced by a less well-known artist, the role would still be the lead role, the success of the play would still depend on the effectiveness of his/her performance, it just wouldn’t be acknowledged in the promotion. Danny Boyle is a great director and after the Olympics a name the general public recognise, but ‘his replacement’ Jon S Baird played the same pivotal role. The fact that his episode was less about spot the shot (which I doubt the general public are concerned about anyway) and more about the episode itself doesn’t diminish his role. It’s just the publicity machine’s exploitation of a name and the critic’s response to it. As mentioned in the article, Danny Boyle had earlier directed Morse using the same skills, carrying the same responsibilities, expressing the same creative drive; it’s just that the publicity machine sold it on the success of John Thaw.
It’s true that there are attempts in the UK to adopt the American style show runner, with varying degrees of success. We’ve also attempted the American style of team-writing for series and are in the process of trying to do without scripts entirely and simply improvise. For me, coming as I do from acting, through to directing on radio, theatre and television, the most creative relationship is the one between writer and director followed closely by that between director and actor. This is a tradition that has evolved in this country through theatre and radio. The writer’s role is crucial but a director is an objective eye, an added discipline. Discussions between writer and director can bring out subtexts the writer hadn’t even envisaged. The director is the person who is going to make sure that subtext comes through visually and in performance. Directors are the eyes through which the audience will experience the work whether or not that role is recognised by the publicity department or the audience or the critics. Sometimes a writer may feel their work has been misrepresented by a particular director and want to have a go themselves just as some directors have worked on weak scripts and taken to writing their own, both with varying degrees of success. But the director has spent their professional life honing their creative skills, analysing scripts, learning to convey them through the work of crews and actors. Even film uses this collaborative process.
Television may not be acknowledged as a director’s medium - in recent years I have become keenly aware of just how undervalued the significance of their role is becoming - but the high standard of television in one-off dramas, series and soaps, will be the poorer if the importance of their contribution is denigrated and ultimately ignored.
Toby Haynes Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Musketeers, Wallander, Sherlock, Doctor Who, Five Days, Being Human
I was fascinated to read your blog on "Why television will never be a director's medium'. It is something that I have wrestled with in my career for some time, but I do feel times are changing.
My name is Toby Haynes and I have been directing television drama for the last ten years. I started out on Hollyoaks, before progressing through MI:High (a successful CBBC show running for 9 series), Being Human (directing the first two episodes), Doctor Who (5 consecutive episodes including a Christmas Special), Sherlock (The Reichenbach Fall) and an episode of Wallander. More recently, I've had the pleasure of developing and directing all seven episodes of an adaptation of Susannah Clarke's novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the BBC. I am also serving as Executive Producer on the series.
When JS&MN was first commissioned I think I was the first director in a long time to be trusted with directing a whole series. I remember my executives at the BBC talking about David Yates being the last to do so with State of Play. Producing such an ambitious period fantasy drama has taken several years and in the meantime I believe a positive trend has developed towards single directors taking on whole series - directors such as Hugo Blick, Yann Demange and Tom Shankland. I think the BBC in particular is beginning to trust shows to a singular vision, which is hugely exciting after years of slogging away at 'blocks' of drama.
It is gratifying to read your blog as the British media in general have been slow to pick up on this. The director is rarely mentioned in articles, reviews or blogs. As you point out, a show is usually publicised on its star or writer. I feel directors in TV are seen in the eyes of the media - and thus a large proportion of our audience - as technicians as opposed to artistic contributors.
However, with advances in technology there is very little to differentiate what we do in television with our counterparts working in film - quite often we have comparable budgets, bigger audiences and these days more complex storylines and character arcs. Thanks to the influence of American drama and other foreign imports, our TV shows have bigger and bigger ambitions and the audience's expectation of what quality drama looks and feels like is much higher than it used to be.
Indeed, I find myself more excited about television offers than I do about film. It feels from my perspective that sadly, cinema is in a creative recession right now, whilst TV is enjoying a renaissance - the place you go if you want to tell ambitious, intelligent stories, develop rich three-dimensional characters and still have your work seen by a large audience. Artistically, television has caught up with cinema and in some cases surpassed it. It is interesting how many film directors are turning to television, as well as film actors.
Right now, television is an extremely exciting medium for directors, as it is for writers and actors alike. The industry is beginning to recognise the artistic contribution directors can make from a project's very inception. We are working hard to achieve equality with our better known and better paid collaborators, both individually and collectively (through Directors UK). What we need is greater awareness of our role. This is somewhere the media can help us perhaps: speaking of us in the same breath as writers will help audiences understand our artistic contribution and ultimately help us shake off our artistic anonymity.
Robin Sheppard The Last Witch, The Café, New Tricks, Kingdom, Lucky Jim
To follow on from Alan Parker there is another French word for a director - a 'realisateur' and this term more accurately encapsulates the unique contribution TV directors make - the ability to realise the script from page to screen. With flair and vision. To elicit the best performances with their knowledge and experience of working with actors. To communicate the look and feel of the show to the crew, shot by shot, and bring all the talent on set together to create and rich and authentic world.
Directors have a unique set of skills to make the transition from script to screen ideally collaborating with the writer and the producer to render the story in precise and compelling detail, making it compelling viewing for the audience.
The director's credit is up front, along with the writer and producer. It is this creative triangle that is the heart of brilliant TV drama. Ask any actor and they will tell you they are in the director's hands during the shoot - the director calls the shots on set.
So why are directors not given acknowledgement for their creative contribution off the set? Why is it the exception rather than the rule? What can we do to rectify this imbalance? We should be celebrating the unique vision the director brings, not ignoring it.
Simon Phillips (of Tools of Directing)
I agree with Robin Sheppard's comment [on the Guardian's website], as this is not just about celebration of individual directors, or if a director's name is used in either; pitching a proposed project or marketing the finished product. One of the reasons we are starting to see the true creative role of the director being eroded is because few people understand the nature of the work we do. That is evident in the article comments - but also of the whole industry. Partly that is because it is shrouded in terms such as “ flair and vision”. The intuitive talent basis of the director's contribution are part of why the real professional requirements to doing a good job, such as; scheduled time for planning, rehearsal etc. are being cut more and more.
The NHU’s Mike Gunton tells Jon Creamer how his latest show, Life Story, lets viewers get involved in the action like never before
25 years ago, Mike Gunton was producing his first show for the BBC Natural History Unit.
That programme, The Trials of Life, was a series that showed the cyclical nature of life and the challenges each creature faces to be born, to survive and to give birth to the next generation.
But it’s not just life that has a cyclical nature, TV often does too. A quarter of a century later, Gunton is now the NHU’s creative director and is producing the latest attempt to tell that same “fantastically strong story.”
It is the ultimate narrative and though natural history has sometimes faced criticism for relying on beautiful imagery at the expense of story, that charge can’t be laid at the door of this show, says Gunton. The series has “three levels of story.” With each sequence “a mini drama for that individual animal,” and each episode the story of a particular stage in every creature’s life. “Then there’s a stage three story, the biggest story of all which is to create the next generation.”
The show will focus on particular characters throughout the series. “There’s a bit of soapiness about it,” he says. The idea is that “unlike most series with an episode on mountains and then one on rivers that can be in any order, this is very much a serial.”
That focus on individuals rather than taking the “God’s eye view, observed and epic” will hopefully create “a very intense watch, it doesn’t wash over you, you get gripped by it.”
But it’s advances in camera technology that have made that personal perspective possible, says Gunton. “25 years ago, we said the best way of telling this story is to take an individual perspective. As technology has developed, we’re perhaps visually able to do that more intensely.”
Life Story was the first blue chip NHU series to take on 4K, and that’s been a revelation, says Gunton. “We’re obsessed with picture quality here but that wasn’t really the driver,” he says. You do get more physical detail “but it’s actually much more interesting than that.” 4K gives an “intensity of detail” that has allowed the directors to concentrate on “the parts of the animal that give you a window into their decisions, their eyes and reactions are very much part of how it’s been constructed and edited. The sensors we’ve used give a particularly shallow depth of field” and that means the characters focused on are pulled out of the landscape. And, as with drama, that gives the audience the ability to focus on, and empathise with, the main star of the show.
The other driver on the series has been to get the camera in amongst the action and keep it “fluid.” “In more observed films the camera is quite static and you’re a long way away on the end of a telephoto lens. We’ve tried to get the camera closer and off the tripod on things like Steadicams and gyro-stabilised mounts so we can move the camera with the animals.” And that aids that “intense sense of being with them. We’re not the only people to have done that but I think it’s something we’ve taken to the next stage.” In a wild dog hunt sequence, for instance, “we were able to put a camera in a helicopter and fly alongside the hunt very low. It’s not even a bird’s eye view, you almost feel like you’re running with them. It’s like watching Ben Hur.”
But despite the drive to immerse the viewer, 3D has not featured in this latest series. “I’m personally quite a fan of 3D,” says Gunton. “It does add that extra level of involvement.” The trouble is “it’s very expensive, the cameras are quite cumbersome and that does limit you. What you get in intensity of involvement you lose by often not being able to get the cameras close and to be able to move them and respond quickly.”
But there are other nascent technologies that will move natural history filmmaking on, says Gunton. “We’re messing about with thermal imaging cameras, which give quite a nice detailed aesthetic picture” in extremely low light. “It’s coming but it’s not quite there yet.”
Drone technology is a hope too. “We used it a bit on Life Story but there are limits,” for natural history, he says. “The top operators are very expensive” and “it is noisy and animals don’t like big things buzzing over them. They think it’s a predator. We’re experimenting to see what situations you can deploy it and get good natural results.”
He says the next important thing is developing camera stabilisation. “Finding cheaper, more robust, easily deployable, stabilised cameras” will prove a big leap forward. “With the next big series I’m doing, Dynasty” which will follow some of the Life Story animals “we’re trying to take that stabilised, fluid camera technology to the next level.”
Innovation is key. There are only a few box office animals and natural history filmmakers must capture them in new ways. “I give a talk about innovation,” says Gunton. “And one of the things I say right up front is today’s innovation is tomorrow’s cliché. Inevitably if something’s successful it gets taken up by everybody else. So you have to try to stay a step ahead.”
Mike Gunton is the creative director of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the executive producer of the new David Attenborough fronted Life Story. He has served as executive producer on NHU series including Hidden Kingdoms (2014), Africa (2013), Life (2009), Galapagos (2006), Life in the Undergrowth (2005), Life on Air (2002) and as producer on The Trials of Life (1990). He joined the NHU in 1987 to work on The Trials of Life after working on various BBC OU and science shows.He also set up indie Green Umbrella in the early 90s.
Director Tom Shankland explains how he kept his thriller taut and tense while retaining its emotional depth. Jon Creamer reports
Director Tom Shankland helmed all eight of the episodes of the upcoming Harry and Jack Williams drama The Missing. The series is about a small boy abducted during a French holiday and the emotional fallout for his family. The series is told simultaneously across two timelines.
What stage was the series at when you signed on?
There were four very tight, brilliant scripts to read when I first came in contact with the project. They had resisted the temptation to go into greenlight mode too early. They wanted it to be a very precisely told, eight-hour epic. And you can only do that if you’ve shown a lot of love to everything.
What struck you about the script?
It’s a very emotional story but what I responded to was its intriguing structure. I thought this should play as a fantastic thriller but also as a puzzle for the audience.
How did that inform the camera style?
I thought it would be good if the camera had a slightly objective approach so I wouldn’t move it often or, if it moved, it would have to be for a very good reason. I wouldn’t cut very much and try to let things breathe and invite the audience to lean in a bit to the story to participate in solving the mystery.
What else informed the style?
Ole [the DoP] and I found a great book of photographs by Wim Wenders of these empty spaces – absence became a bit of a theme. We also wanted the sense of being abroad through British eyes. I wanted that slightly exotic, slightly other, sometimes alienating, sometimes enticing setting that this couple would find themselves in while they’re having the worst experience of their life. It was fantastic thinking of this in more filmic terms with wider shots and textural ideas like using sound to give the audience this experience of being a fish out of water.
Did the locations affect the script at all?
We fell in love with the hero town when we found it [the drama was shot in Belgium but set in France]. It felt perfect. It wasn’t a hideous place for this family to break down in but equally it’s not a tourist place. It’s a real working town with great locations and it threw up ideas I could feed back to Jack and Harry so they could rework scenes. It was an organic, collaborative process. It’s the perfect way to work.
How did you work with the actors? We were lucky as we did have some good rehearsal time with Jimmy [Nesbitt] and Frances [O’Connor]. Even though we were going to shoot the present day scenes first I wanted to focus on 2006 [when the son is abducted] so when we went back to it, and the more immediate, harrowing, emotional scenes, there was a sense memory from that rehearsal week. It also meant Jimmy and Frances had got to know each other really well by that time.
Is there a danger of going over the top with the harrowing post abduction scenes?
I never wanted this to feel like emotional pornography. There’s a fine line where the audience just don’t want to go there. It was vital we manage that and were respectful of the emotional sense but equally we didn’t want to make this a harrowing experience for the audience.
You’ve shot horrors and thrillers before. Did that experience come into play here?
Having done a lot of work in those sub genres you develop a sense of how to structure suspense and how to manipulate the rhythm – when you want to play a Hitchcock trick on the audience. They are genres that I love but with this I wanted to treat it differently. I didn’t want to play the games we’d seen before. We do have our genre moments but I was always looking to find a different approach to these beats and trying to stay within our quite composed style.
What films influenced the style?
I’m a big fan of 70s conspiracy thrillers and lot of things shot by Gordon Willis. The DoP and myself felt that there was something about a film like The Godfather where there’s a lot of tension but not a lot of camera movement or cutting. We were trying to get back to a slower burning cinematic style where you didn’t lead the audience with a manipulative visual language. I was keen that this felt like a grown up watching experience where you’re not going to be spoon-fed. I didn’t want loads of music telling you what to feel all the time. Dominik [the composer) has done an amazing job and I’m delighted we haven’t got loads of droaning suspense all over the place. That was all part of trying to achieve a sparer style. Because I was so confident in the tension inherent in the script, I didn’t feel we didn’t need to over cook the thriller dimension.
details The Missing tells the story of a child abducted during a family holiday and his family’s desperate search for him. The story is told across two timelines and two countries simultaneously Broadcaster BBC1 TX October Exec producers Willow Grylls, Charlie Pattinson, Elaine Pyke (New Pictures); John Yorke (Company); Harry and Jack Williams (Two Brothers Pictures); Polly Hill (BBC); Colin Callender (Playground); Eurydice Gysel (Czar TV) Producer Chris Clough Director Tom Shankland Writers Harry and Jack Williams Cast James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor , Tcheky Karyo, Jason Flemyng, Emilie Dequenne, Said Taghmaoui, Ken Stott Line producer Letitia Knight Production manager Koen Fransen Production designer Paul Cripps 1st AD Simon Hedges DoP Ole Bratt Birkeland Editors Una Ni Dhonghaile, Fiona Colbeck, Danielle Palmer Composer Dominik Scherrer Post supervisor Phil Brown Camera Red Epic-X
From the Storyboard pages this month, beastly behaviour from Glassworks; Lola blasts into space and Picasso crosses dimensions
Glassworks X-Pollination films
Glassworks’ senior 3D artist and in-house director Dan Hope created a series of films for X-Pollination, a bi-annual event in Amsterdam that aims to bring creative professionals from different backgrounds together to cross pollinate ideas. To illustrate this, the films show animals of different species...cross pollinating.
Lola How the universe works
After Lola completed the visual effects for both series one and two of Pioneer’s How the Universe Works for Discovery, it was again called in to supply vfx for series three across nine cg-heavy episodes. Each episode focuses on a different planet and Lola also had to recreate The Milky Way and a starship travelling through space.
Jaime Pardo Dolman promo
This is Jaime Pardo’s promo for Dolman track Monobrow. It’s described as a “playful blend of stark geometrics, tattoo imagery and vibrating skulls.” Pardo says, “stylistically I wanted to create something quite trippy
and menacing to match the track. I used a lot of 3D cg effects but in a way that hopefully looks more natural and not too digital.”
Trunk One of a kind
Trunk director Rok Predin’s latest film is One of a Kind. The film is described as “a contemplation about all the people who had to meet, all the tiny acts of fate and chance that had to come together, in order for you to sit here right now.” The producer was Richard Barnett and costumes for the 70 characters were created by Sara Savelj. The composer was Daniel Pemberton.
MPC Citizen spot
This spot for Japanese watchmaker Citizen was shot by John Kramer and looks back through the history of the brand. Filmed using the respective camera for the era portrayed – from a 1930’s hand cranked 35mm to a 1980’s VHS camera, MPC enhanced or degraded the shots to fit with the era as well as animating many of the older watches.
Picasso Rabbit and Deer
Rabbit and Deer, a film by Picasso Pictures director Péter Vácz, is getting its London premiere this month after a successful run through the international festival circuit. Mixing 2D, 3D and stop motion, the film is about the friendship between two characters who live happily in a 2D world and how they learn to live together when one becomes 3D.