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On the wild side: TV natural history gets viewers closer

Natural history TV has always endeavoured to get the viewer closer to the natural world. But audiences are demanding ever more immersive experiences, and producers are rising to the challenge. Jon Creamer reports
For a long time now, natural history TV has faced criticism that while other television genres tried new approaches, new formats, and interbred with each other to create new hybrids, high end natural history stood apart, content to rely on technology, rather than storytelling, to wow audiences.

At the same time, major blue chip natural history buyers like Discovery found they could get big audiences with cheaper, docusoap shows that could be made in bulk, relatively quickly. This year, Discovery announced it was pulling out of its long-standing joint venture with the BBC that spawned breathtaking series such as Blue Planet.

But whether those criticisms of natural history TV ever rang true, they don’t now. Natural history producers are finding new ways to tell their stories while, of course, still using the latest technology to show the natural world in ever more fascinating ways. Natural history television has embraced the idea that simply showing audiences spectacular pictures of spectacular animals is no longer enough.

 “It’s a new competitive era now,” says Atlantic Productions ceo, Anthony Geffen. “Before you just made a film about a blue whale and everybody would buy it, but people are very demanding now. It’s almost as if natural history’s been around the world and we’ve seen everything and now it’s about how can we see it differently? There’s a much broader range of people getting involved and we’re seeing some really clever approaches.”

The drive now is to make ever more immersive shows. “The key is to create an immersive experience, something more visceral,” says Wendy Darke, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. “How do you allow audiences to get in to the natural world more and more and feel as if they are ar are actually there?”

That new approach is not to tell audiences something, but to drop them in to the action. “It’s a change in relationship with our audience,” says Darke. “Classically we approached it with the ‘voice of God’ where we knew something you didn’t and we told you the story of the landscape or animal you’ve never seen before. Then we went into the detail. And now our relationship with the audience has to be on the level.” Newly announced NHU shows like Oceans will try to do just that and new techniques will be dedicated to achieving that eye level approach. Technologies like octocopters, small, hovering radio-controlled gadgets that are useful for cheap aerials can also take a camera up close to subjects that would have proved difficult before. Icon’s md Harry Marshall has just come back from Ecuador where he used the gadgets to fly a camera through the rainforest canopy. “It’s getting shots we could never have got. In the past you had to climb up a tree, string a wire across 300 metres, put the camera on a pulley and it inevitably snagged. Now you get a glorified toy and fly it around the forest and get the most amazing shots.”

And crucially, give the audience the feeling they are in the thick of the action. And that’s important because the audience’s relationship with TV is changing, says the NHU’s Darke. “So many viewers are watching along with Zeebox or the Twitter feed, they’re responding to what they’re seeing and having a parallel conversation. The audience is engaging. The more we can engage eye to eye allows it to be a partnership.”

That eye-to-eye engagement also increases the audience’s empathy with what they’re seeing on screen. And creating that empathy seems to be more and more on producer’s minds. Natural history filmmakers are attempting to grab viewers beyond the core fans and core demographic and trying to do that by borrowing aspects of drama – making animal characters that the audience can root for. “Empathy is significant,” says Darke. “If you care it has value and meaning and you want to engage again and again. Animal drama is a new area we’re pushing into.”

Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s Disney feature doc Chimpanzee led the way, focussing on the story of one animal and his struggle. But that’s hard for natural history filmmakers who are wary of anthropomorphising animals. It’s a fine balance between showing a creature’s human traits to let the viewer empathise more with it, while not pretending the animal’s human. “Broadcasters are interested in the anthropomorphism of animals,” says Oxford Scientific Films’ head of development. Peter Collins. “It’s always a tricky area for us. You don’t want to impose human characteristics and behaviour too much. But there is a definite fascination with animals that behave in a seemingly human way.” And it’s a popular approach, and one way of gaining audiences put off by the classic take.

Of course, another way to immerse audiences in the natural world is through 3D. 3D seems purpose built for natural history TV but its uptake by broadcasters and producers has been patchy. While Sky still makes a big play of its 3D content, the BBC has abandoned the format for the foreseeable future. So many producers are also steering clear. But then those that have embraced the format are surging forward. Oxford Scientific Films’ Pandas 3D special has just gone out on Sky and its Meerkat 3D hit last year. “We feel natural history in 3D works extremely well,” says OSF’s Peter Collins. “The audience feels utterly immersed in that habitat. With the meerkats film you felt like you were in the Kalahari. It really adds something to the story and and makes it more accessible and appealing to the audience.” Atlantic Productions is a past a master of the format, pushing the technology further and creating lightweight rigs to fly among birds and macro rigs for shows like Kingdom of Plants and Micro Monsters. But the company’s also had to create a new business model to make the films work financially with an Imax release alongside TV and other digital platforms. But it won’t be long before the format really kicks in, says ceo Anthony Geffen. “The problem is there isn’t a lot of good 3D content. Even though millions of people have a 3D ready TV, they’re not watching in 3D because there isn’t the content. Sky’s growing well but the game changer has to be the new glasses-free 4K 3D TVs. They’re remarkably good.”

What isn’t having a patchy uptake among high-end natural history producers is 4K acquisition. Shooting in 4K has almost become the de facto standard. “Why would you go three weeks up the Congo to some remote lake and not shoot in a format that’s not beautiful and future proof,” says Icon’s Harry Marshall. “The investment in getting these shots is far greater than the cost of investing in the new technology and ensuring it has a long shelf life.”

And ensuring the content can go further than the living room if needs be. “When we think about producing content, we’re thinking of content in a platform agnostic world,” says the NHU’s Darke. “If we have a fantastic story we want to be able to put it on a big screen or take it into tablet form.”

Though pretty much no one is watching content in 4K right now, the consensus is that they will be soon enough and, once they are, even HD content will find it hard to compete. “We’re now reaching an era where the BBC’s great series were not even made in HD. Those series will be around as archive but I think some of the great subjects will be remade,” says Atlantic’s Geffen. “If I go to my 50-inch screen I want the best experience, otherwise why am I watching it on a 50-inch screen.”

Posted 25 October 2013 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes: Chris Shepherd's The Ringer

Animator Chris Shepherd is back with a new short – a mash up of gritty Loach-ian 
live action and stylized 70s Hollywood gangster flick. Jon Creamer reports

Chris Shepherd, the animator behind shorts including the David Shrigley designed Who I Am and What I Want and the live action/animation mix of Dad’s Dead is back after a long hiatus with a new (long) short, The Ringer. The film is a mix of live action and stylised animated fantasy sequences. It was shot in the UK and animated in France.

The Ringer ---- coming soon to 57th BFI London Film Festival, Cork, Abittbi Temiscamingue and Bruz. from chris shepherd on Vimeo.

Why come back to making shorts now?
I’ve written three feature films for different people and they’ve all entered development hell and never happened. I had one that went on for five years. After that period I thought ‘I’ll only be alive once so I’ve just got to make some films.’ My earlier films are more idiosyncratic, they’re more me. I’m back in that zone. I’m not trying to sell myself as anything. I’m just telling the story. Some people do it as calling cards, I just want to tell a story.

Is the story autobiographical?
It’s inspired from things that have happened but it’s not reality. I met my dad quite late in life and it’s inspired by that. I’d like the audience to figure out what’s reality and what’s not.

How did the film come about?
I’d made another film called Silence is Golden with Nicolas Schmerkin from French studio Autour de Minuit. Then I won the Canal Plus international award in 2010 for another film Bad Night for the Blues, so we managed to get the money together for this one from Canal Plus. My stuff’s always been quite popular in France. It’s great over there. It’s a bit like the way it used to be in Britain in the 90s. The funding structures are different.

How were the live action sequences shot?
The standard live action was shot in about four days by Simon Tindall on an Alexa. That was a straight drama shoot. We shot the stuff outside in Woolwich and the other bits in Soho. I wanted there to be a contrast between Chris the animator’s world and his dad Danny’s.

What about the fantasy sequences?
The blue screen shoot we did on 7Ds in Camberwell Studios. I downloaded the blueprints of a Mercedes and had chairs made by furniture makers called Hendzel and Hunt and they built a brilliant gearbox as well. In other scenes we just had key props. Then with Justine Wright (Last King of Scotland) we cut it together like a piece of drama.

What look did you want for the fantasy sequences?
I wanted it to be like 70s film posters. The film is about dreams and reconciliations. It’s about the dream of cinema. Danny wants to be a writer and both characters have aspirations, essentially hollow dreams. It’s in the reality that the father and son never really come together but in fantasy they do. It’s the Hollywood utopian dream, everyone’s happy in a Hollywood film. I was using the fantasy imagery to say that.

How did you work remotely with the French animation studio?
I worked by email and Dropbox, I designed stuff in England, then it went over to Clermont Ferrand where Autour De Minuit has a studio and we worked like that for six months on the animation. I would do guides like set ups and we just conferred as we went along. We bounced it back and forward. I’d take their files and start adding stuff. It was purely a visual communication we were doing. Mainly I’d use pictures to explain. I did animatics of everything as well. They were so fastidious. The detail in that animation is amazing. The rotoscope on the characters is all hand drawn, all of Big Tony’s tattoos and so on. They worked hard on it, people will think it’s a computer program but it was so 
hand crafted.

Was it hard to have the animation made in another country?
As I’ve got older I’m becoming a bit more mature as a filmmaker. As an animator you’re like a god. You think ‘I can create anything I want.’ But I’ve done a lot of live action recently and in live action you’ve almost got to embrace the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I always have scripts and storyboards and everything but when it comes to performance you’ve got to have a bit of space. I tried to have that philosophy for the animators because they’re like actors. If they have a bit of space they’ll give it more and get into the character. The Ringer is being shown at The London Film Festival, on Canal Plus and festivals around 
the world

The Ringer tells the story of a long lost father who comes back into the life of his animator son to try to get him involved with his crazy gangster genre film script, The Ringer, but also to form a connection with him. The film is a mix of live action and rotoscoped 70s film poster stylishness produced by Shepherd in the UK and Oscar winner Nicolas Schmerkin of French studio Autour 
De Minuit.
John Henshaw, Kieran Lynn, Dave Sommer, Milo Quinton, Priscilla Adade, Nicholas Gerard-Martin
Nicolas Schmerkin, Valentina Brazzini, Chris Shepherd
Chris Shepherd
Chris Shepherd
Simon Tindall
Justine Wright
Sound designer/mixer
Andy Humphreys
Ollie Davis
Justine Wright
Julien Bonnafous
Francis Canitrot
Damien Climent
Cyril Costa
Autour de Minuit

Posted 23 October 2013 by Jon Creamer

Dinosaur Roar: making a big noise across the platforms

Nurture Rights, the kids entertainment company set up by ex HIT exec Peter Curtis and Nick Barrington has signed a deal with the Natural History Museum to develop and market its pre-school property, Dinosaur Roar!, based on a classic picture book by Paul and Henrietta Stickland. The plans don’t initially include a TV series though, instead Nurture will work with the palaeontology team at the NHM to create an interactive dinosaur property for the under sixes including an online world, a touring dinosaur exhibition an IMAX experience and a licensing programme including new books, apps and more. A deal with Random House has been signed for the publishing programme. Nick Barrington explains the project

Why this book?
All the illustrations from the original book are recognisable as real dinosaurs. Both ourselves and the Natural History Museum thought there was an opportunity to expand the book and create a resource for the under sixes to teach them about dinosaurs. We wanted to avoid humanising the dinosaurs. We didn’t want them to go to school or have mummies or daddies. It had to be based on fact.

Why start without a TV series in the mix?
Because the subject matter is so rich if we just did a straight television series we didn’t feel there’d be enough to it so that’s why we’ve started with a website. Television is a closed format. You’re telling a story and it finishes. Museums wanted something very interactive that kids could really play with. Then when we talked to museums in the US we found there was a demand for an exhibition specifically for the under sixes as well as an Imax experience of about 15 minutes. In the US most museums have an Imax screen.

How did you develop the characters?
We work with the palaeontology team to enhance the designs. We take the real traits of each dinosaur and create a character based on that. It’s treading a fine line where we make it age appropriate but we don’t dilute the dinosaurs. Every quarter we have a dinosaur summit where we talk to child psychologists and literacy experts and we debate our development.

How are the new characters created?
They’re all made in Plastiline initially. They then get scanned, coloured and rigged for movement. Whereas it took Paul Stickland three weeks to do a spread we can do a book in a week. Then we’ll do stories on the website, animation on the website, craft activities, take the subject of dinosaurs and celebrate it across everything not just stories.

Did you bring in new expertise for the project?
We brought in a lot of digital consultants. One of the areas of excitement is working with people outside the TV area like exhibitions people and those with tablet, website, mobile experience and working with child psychologists on play patterns.

How is it different from a TV project? 
What’s been different is the longer development period as everything comes at once. Previously you’d make a TV series then you’d think about the website. Now we’re thinking about the web, the exhibition, the Imax, the storybooks. That’s why the bible is much more detailed. The development period is much longer because you have to have consistency across all your platforms

Will it ever be a TV series?
Our stories could easily be a television series with one story per episode. It’s in our plan but what we’re doing at the moment is making sure each stage is done correctly before we move on.

How do you make money?
We make money from licensing the content and from the merchandise that goes with it so it’s funded the same way as pre-school television.

How will you market it?
Random House has a marketing budget, the Natural History Museum has a marketing budget and so do we. Then we’ll be looking for marketing partnerships with other regional museums. The museum piece is almost replacing the television piece in terms of promotion.

Why try this model?
Partly because we hadn’t done it before and we saw the market was changing. Television is still a massive driver but we see kids consuming media in a different way. We’d seen the success of older age groups with online based properties and thought there was an opportunity for the under sixes. We’ve always loved this book. For us the model of TV coming first still exists but not for this particular property.

Posted 22 October 2013 by Jon Creamer

Interview: All3media boss Farah Ramzan Golant

With her feet now well and truly under the desk, Farah Ramzan Golant, chief executive of the UK’s biggest superindie All3media, tells Jon Creamer about her plans for growth

“I do keep thinking ‘When do I stop being the outsider from advertising?’” So ponders All3media’s ceo, Farah Ramzan Golant about her first months in the TV world.

Well maybe now’s the time. It’s close to a year since she was plucked from a 25 year career in the ad industry where she’d risen to executive chairman of AMV BBDO, picking up a CBE along the way, and deposited into the world of TV production as All3’s ceo.

It’s certainly been long enough for her to start putting her ideas on how to grow the federal outfit, already the biggest indie grouping in the UK, into practice.  And she says, the initial signs are encouraging. “We’ve just closed our year-end and, though I’m sure I’m not meant to tell you, we’ve broken through the £500m-revenue mark.” (up from the previous £477m).

But that’s only the start, she says. The private equity backed company had one aborted sale in 2011, but another is not an immediate plan, she suggests. “Private equity is a pretty well documented model so at some point no doubt…” But until then All3 has some growing to do before the shareholders look to exit. “I feel a really strong sense of conviction from the shareholders that I’ve brought something new to the party.”

The plan now is to “make a few big priorities and not get distracted with a million things that a group of this scale could do,” she says. One thing that isn’t a priority is more acquisitions. “We’re always in the market for them but we are already at scale so we don’t have to buy. There are other ways to grow.”

One of those ways is represented by her latest deal that sees All3 taking a stake in comedian Matt Lucas’s indie John Stanley Productions. “Anybody would have wanted to take a stake in that company.” Being a talent magnet is crucial, she says, and “I’m really keen on start ups” as they represent a way to “get ahead of the curve” rather than be following it.

As well as investing in outside talent, she’s also keen on investing in the talent within All3media. Many of All3’s enviable spread of indies are closely identified with their founders and creative leaders, both a strength but also a worrying weakness. “A group this wide and diverse cannot just rest on the leadership of each company,” she says. “There’s always a danger that you forget about the next generation two or three layers down.” So the push is on to find “how we create space for them to have their own development slate, to be more visible to the group headquarters?”

Some have already been given that space, Andy Taylor was set up in digital start up Little Dot under the All3 umbrella and there are more to come. But she’s also interested “in a different kind of umbrella,” where start-ups could be grown under the wing of one of All3’s indies “like a hosted start up. Might a start up do better if it’s hosted inside a creative enterprise rather than inside the holding company? If Objective’s Andrew Newman or Optomen’s Pat Llewellyn could put their arm around a start up, that’s really leveraging our creative strength.”

New talent aside, the other concern for a superindie is keeping hold of the talent it paid the big bucks for in the first place. After all, many indie bosses who’ve had their companies acquired have left soon after their earn out period. But retaining top talent was always a concern in the ad industry too. “It’s a classic leadership challenge,” says Ramzan Golant. “You’ve got to keep your creative leaders motivated and incentivised.” Partly that’s about  “brute reward” but also about apportioning credit. Creative people “need to feel not only that they’re going to be incentivised and rewarded, they want recognition for their work.” And also that All3 doesn’t crowd them too much. “They have deep pride in their companies. There’s a fierce sense of tribalism.” But despite their independence “there is a recognition of their dream and how you’re going to help them get there.”

Part of that help is a crucial part of the group’s expansion plans. The launch of All3Media America in January, the company’s LA based studio, is there to offer All3’s indies a bridgehead to the US. “There were individual companies west and east coast. We’ve been there for ten years plus but it was a benefit to create this infrastructure so the operating companies who are not yet in America can get off the tarmac straight into the campus.” And work through an All3Media America that already has “deal precedents and upstream relationships. NBC, Fox and CBS have all bought shows from us.” But All3Media America won’t just bring UK formats to US networks. Stephen Lambert’s Million Second Quiz for NBC is a US original. The show garnered tepid ratings on its initial outing but was a good statement of intent. It’s time “to challenge the perception that you’ve got to make it work here and then make it bigger there. Some things you might make there first and bring home.” Either way, the key is to keep experimenting. “When you’re successful that’s the time when you have to guard most against settling into old habits.”

Farah Ramzan Golant joined All3media in November 2012. Before moving into television production she had a 25 year career in the advertising industry, rising through the ranks of AMV BBDO, Britain’s largest advertising agency to become CEO in 2005. She was a member of the BBDO Worldwide Board based in New York and in 2011 was awarded a CBE for services to the advertising industry.She currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the National Theatre, the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group and the Advisory Board of the Cambridge Judge Business School.

This interview first appeared in Televisual's October edition

Posted 22 October 2013 by Jon Creamer

Storyboard: best of the month in vfx, animation and motion graphics

In this month’s round up of the best in animation, motion graphics and vfx, Axis cuts through for Infinity Blade, Studio AKA tells TSB’s story and Picasso shows some good will

Axis Animation
Infinity Blade: Origins short

Animation studio Axis and director Ben Hibon created this short film to introduce the latest instalment of the Infinity Blade: Origins video game. The film is designed to give newcomers and long standing fans a different perspective on the story of the Infinity Blade franchise. Hibon developed an illustrated take on the game’s art direction using both 3d and 2d animation and re-imagined the game’s main characters in his own design style. Working directly from Hibon’s designs the Axis team built the stylised 3d characters and used a mixture of texturing and shading to give them their 2d feel. These were then layered up with 3d and 2d hand-animated visual effects and environments creating a bold hand crafted feel.

Infinity Blade: Origins from axisanimation on Vimeo.

Studio AKA
TSB Bank spot

Studio AKA director Marc Craste and Damon Collins at Joint are behind this film for the relaunched TSB bank brand. The spot tells the story of the Reverend Henry Duncan and the history behind the building of the TSB bank showing the bank still has traditional values in a modern world. Craste chose to combine 2d hand drawn character animation within 3d cgi sets.

TSB - The Story from STUDIO AKA on Vimeo.

VW Feeling Carefree

Passion Pictures’ John Robertson was asked to pay homage to seminal promo Take On Me by A-ha for this VW Passat spot. Ordered by Deutsch Inc LA, Feeling Carefree pastiches many of the iconic moments from the original promo with the new VW Passat worked in to the film as a central character. Passion used a crew of 2d artists using pencil and paper to create the iconic shots.

Goodwill Stuff

New directing duo Alex & Remy, of The Pod (Picasso Pictures’ new directors offshoot) directed this, their first commercial project for US charity Goodwill via Saatchi & Saatchi NY. The textural, cgi, online film asks people to donate unneeded household items to the charity which in turn sells it to fund job training in the local community. The producer was Inga Johnson.

Goodwill - Stuff from Picasso Pictures on Vimeo.

Angels and Ghosts
Ticktockrobot’s Sara Kenney directed this 15 minute short. It was funded by the Wellcome Trust and tells the true story of a girl’s struggle with psychosis in her family. The film's purpose is to highlight a common problem and to direct people to the Angels and Ghosts website (which Ticktockrobot also built]. It was narrated by Samantha Morton.

Angels&Ghosts Trailer from ticktockrobot on Vimeo.

Not to Scale
Payments Councils ad

Not To Scale’s Pierre + Bertrand directed this stop frame style cg ad for bank switching body The Payments Council for Partners Andrews Aldridge.

Pierre + Bertrand - Payment Council - Simpler World from Not To Scale on Vimeo.

Happy Hour
Dave Gorman titles

Happy Hour created titles for Liberty Bell ‘s new Dave Gorman series Modern Life Is Goodish on Dave. The titles were directed by Gareth Owen.

Dave Gorman's "Modern Life Is Goodish" title sequence from Happy Hour Productions on Vimeo.

WWF We Don't Farm Like This

Fieldtrip directors againstallodds’ latest is for WWF showing what ‘bottom trawling’ fishing would look like repeated on farm land.

G4S online film

This online film for G4S’s Emergency Preparedness Suite was made by Wonky. The director was Miki Cash and the producer Vicky Brophy.

Posted 15 October 2013 by Jon Creamer
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