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Hidden Kingdoms: behind the scenes

For Hidden Kingdoms, the NHU drops the viewer directly into the world of tiny, unseen animals. Exec producer Mike Gunton tells Jon Creamer about filming life through a tiny lens

It has a very different look to most NHU shows. Was that intentional?
Yes, but not for the sake of it, it was driven by the editorial intent. You can’t explore the miniature world beneath our feet in a conventional way – either photographically or narratively – the physics of that world are so small and move so fast and the creatures live in such extraordinary ways that we had to reimagine natural history filmmaking. We’ve evolved almost a new sub genre of natural history.

The viewer’s dropped in amongst the action,why?
Because it’s such a bizarre world it was really important we find a way of putting the viewer in the world. The impetus was to try to film these animals as if they were big animals. If you could shrink yourself to their size and film them as if you were filming a lion, how would you film it?
There’s also a real comedic tone to the programmes
That comes from the animals. Everything they do is intrinsically quite funny. All the dials are turned up to 11 so their reactions, their behaviour and their interactions are quite comic. It seemed to us to be a real mistake to not let their character shine through.
You’ve also added lots of cartoonish sound effects
Their acoustic world is quite different so we wanted to create a world where the sounds are slightly out of our experience. And we have had a bit of fun with some of the larger than life sounds to help people engage. We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to get people to break out of their traditional way of looking at nature and saying ‘come down into this world.’

The sequences are very pieced together and constructed, why?
If you’re watching a lion hunt, you can gather lots of images from one vantage point but a mouse is in and out of frame in two seconds. To cover its story we have to remember what it did and build, almost from a storyboard, a shot list of shots you need to recreate the story you know you’ve seen already. There is a construction about it, it’s a reconstruction. This is atypical, but people accept that even in a traditional wildlife film you are showing highlights.
Compositing also plays a big part of that
Compositing is a significant part of it. The reason is the physics or optics of the photography. If you want to capture your animal and its perspective in the same shot, there’s no way we could create an image other than by taking two separate images and compositing them. It’s a solution to an editorial issue which can’t be solved by traditional photography. In other films you don’t have that challenge.
There also seems to be a greater intensity to the photography on this series
Yes, because there’s an intensity to the animals’ lives. Every second of their lives they’re hunting or being hunted. And we have moved to shooting on 4k Red cameras. There is something about the response of that sensor that does give you very vivid pictures. Because we’re shooting raw it gives us the opportunity to get the colours to be as rich as possible. The colours and the detail are very vivid. We’re always trying to give every close up detail, every strand of fur, every whisker, every scale on the foot of a lizard or piece of dust flying through the air
Did you dial it up in the grade?
Because we shot these raw it does give you much more of a palette in the grade and it does allow you to make sure the textures and colours are really vivid.

This show has elements of Life in the Undergrowth but you’ve tilted the camera upwards too
Undergrowth was a very observed approach. This is not under the microscope but in it. Rather than looking down at the subject you get the sense of what it looks like for them, that is the fundamental difference. And technology has come on since Life in the Undergrowth.
What have been the big changes to allow this show?
General miniaturisation. When shooting a lion or an elephant you might take tracks, a steadicam, ultra high-speed cameras, time-lapse cameras. That’s miniaturised down. That visual grammar that you see in normal scale films is transposed into this miniature world. None of these techniques has been completely invented but all been reimagined and rehacked to bring them into this world.
You’ve also shot in 3d?
We’ve been running 3d cameras in parallel, which has involved some re-engineering. We worked with Peter Parks on that. We’re doing a giant screen version of it for BBC Earth that will go to institutions and museums and some theatrical release as well as TVs. On the giant screen these animals do literally become the size of elephants.

The BBC Natural History Unit’s three part Hidden Kingdoms focuses on the unseen worlds of tiny creatures in various habitats around the globe. The camera takes the perspective of the creatures and the show uses compositing and reconstruction, as well as hints of comedy, to tell the stories and immerse the viewer in those worlds.
Commissioner Kim Shillinglaw
Executive producer Mike Gunton
Series producer Mark Brownlow
Producer/directors Gavin Maxwell; Verity White; Simon Bell
Photography Rod Clarke; Mark Payne-Gill; Robin Cox; Rob Drewett; Kevin Flay; Jonathan Jones; Tim Shepherd; Alastair Macewen
Additional photography Mat Thompson; Howard Bourne; Keith Brust
Vfx Burrell Durrant Hilfe
Music Ben Foster
Film editors Andrew Chastney; James Taggart; Stuart Napier
Sound editors Tim Owens; Kate Hopkins; Max Bygrave
Colourist Tony Osborne

Posted 17 January 2014 by Jon Creamer

Adrian Hodges on making The Musketeers

For the BBC’s new Musketeers series, creator Adrian Hodges had to avoid thigh-slapping cliches while retaining the novel’s sense of adventure. Jon Creamer reports

The Musketeers is Adrian Hodges’ take on the Alexandre Dumas story for BBC1. The 10-part series takes its inspiration from the book but creates new weekly adventures for the famous characters. He explains the creative process

This is not a straight adaptation of the novel. Why?
I didn’t want to adapt the book. That would have locked us into doing a serial with a closed ending. I thought a ‘story of the week’ format with a serial element was the way to go. There are a lot of new shows, particularly from American cable, that are serials and very good but it gets harder and harder to generate new series of those.

What was the tone you wanted to achieve?
It’s a tricky genre; there are many traps in it. If you’re lucky you can make the Pirates of the Caribbean at the comedic end of the spectrum but that is the law of diminishing returns. The other way to go is very dark, very dangerous and very grim, like Game of Thrones. My view was you could have an action adventure but you could also do something that had a realistic background with real consequences and real dramatic tension and danger to it. The danger with this swashbuckling genre is it can be a little bit inconsequential if you’re not careful.

What did you want to do with the characters?
People have a view of what the Musketeers are but we wanted to go a little deeper. Aramis is famous as a womaniser but what are the consequences of that? With Porthos everyone knows him as the drunk fat guy. He’s not that in our show. He’s certainly a larger than life character, but he has a very real background. One of the things not widely known was that Dumas’s father was black. That’s one of the reasons we made Porthos a mixed race character because I wanted to refer to that.

How faithful were you to the period setting?
We’re not recreating 17th century France. If we did nobody would watch. Our show is explicitly a modern show very much in a modern idiom. What you can do is use history as a reference point but we didn’t want to get bogged down. The whole issue of what makes something modern is difficult. Clearly we know what makes Sherlock modern because they literally take it out of Victorian times and put it in the present day. But it’s also an attitude and a way of looking at things. I don’t think of The Musketeers as a period drama, I think of it as an action adventure series. In many ways it’s outside of its period but that’s not to say we weren’t authentic where we could be. But if it’s drama versus history, drama’s always going to win.

Where was it shot?
All the location shooting and studios are in Prague, the cg was done in Prague but the post was done in London. It is of course a financial consideration but it’s also because there are locations available in Prague that you simply can’t reproduce in England or France.

You’re an exec producer as well as lead writer, did you take a showrunner role?
It’s a show I conceived and a show where I was involved in every detail of its production and every detail of its writing. I worked very closely with the other writers, with Jessica Pope, Colin Wratten. It’s a very collaborative process.

How involved were you in production?
I was out in Prague for every block of shooting and I was there far more than I have been on any other show before. When the BBC and I agreed we would do it I was looking to do it in a way much closer to the American showrunner model. The revival of American drama has been so spectacular in the last few years that the days when the writer would simply deliver a script and then walk away are probably gone. For me the way it looks, the costumes, it’s all part of the same deal.

How does that work in practice?
It’s just as case of collaborating as closely as you can with all the key people. You spend an awful lot of time talking together about what you want the show to be and also what you don’t want it to be. Then a lot of decisions would be referred between us. It’s a continuing conversation and it’s about keeping an eye on the detail all the time.

What about the editing process?
The directors always do their own first cut, I wouldn’t presume to tell them how to cut the film but when they deliver a cut, Jessica Pope, Colin Wratten and myself will look at that cut and give them comments. It’s not about writers taking charge but everybody collaborating. I don’t want to imply I told everybody how to do their jobs, that would be absurd. It’s just about making sure everybody’s on the same page all the time                

Adrian Hodges’ new Musketeers series stars Luke Pasqualino, Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera and Howard Charles in the title roles along with Peter Capaldi, Tamla Kari and Hugo Speer. It’s a BBC Drama Production for BBC One, co-produced with BBC America in association with BBC Worldwide
Creator, lead writer, executive producer
Adrian Hodges
Executive producer
Jessica Pope
Colin Wratten
Lead director
Toby Haynes
Saul Metzstein
Richard Clark
Andy Hay
Farren Blackburn
Location manager
Jan Adler
Art director
Martin Mal  
Script editor
Madeleine Sinclair
Costume designer
Phoebe de Gaye
Murray Gold
Production designer
William Hughes-Jones
Arri Alexa
Picture post
Sound post

Posted 14 January 2014 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Mandela director Justin Chadwick

For the official Mandela biopic starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, Brit director Justin Chadwick had to capture the epic nature of Mandela’s life while also portraying a man made of flesh and blood. Jon Creamer reports

Making a film based on the life of Nelson Mandela would be a daunting task for any director.

Even before Mandela’s recent death (and this interview was conducted just days before) a biopic of such a universally respected figure had the weight of many people’s expectations pressing down on it.

So Justin Chadwick, whose CV takes in The Other Boleyn Girl and Bleak House along with EastEnders and The Bill, was reticent about signing on at first.

“At first I resisted it,” he says. “Mandela’s life represents 100 years of apartheid.” And it was the importance of that life that could stifle the film. South African producer Anant Singh had been shepherding the movie, based on Mandela’s official biography, to the screen for 16 years through various mooted directors. “I’d read a couple of the earlier drafts of the script and it was very reverential to the story and difficult to penetrate in terms of the characters,” says Chadwick. The danger was that the biopic of such a fascinating man could end up being boring.

The turning point came for Chadwick when he opened his Kenya-set movie, The First Grader, in South Africa. Producer Singh introduced him to Mandela’s friends and family. “I went for a cup of tea with Winnie and I was there for six hours.” And the personal relationships behind the politics started to come through. “I was able to find a way in to the story by showing them as men and women, husbands, mothers, fathers. We all know Mandela was a great politician but he boxed, he loved fast cars, he loved clothes, loved women. We show him and his flaws and that makes him real and gives an intimacy to the film.”

The approach was to be more City of God than Ghandi. “I was always talking about how we drop the audience in amongst it. To look at South American movies, look at anything that was away from traditional biopic or period movies. It was important for the crew to not just watch David Lean movies.” But as well as taking the influence of social realism on board “South Africa is a stunning country and we wanted a film that an audience would go to the multiplex to watch that had scale and car chases, that was exciting and visceral” while remaining real.

Creating cinematic scale while being in amongst the action also informed the decision to shoot on 35mm.  “I’d been a big champion of HD but when I went to Kenya I shot The First Grader on two-perf 35mm, mainly because we were in a very remote community. You know that with a 35mm camera someone will be able to fix it. It’s a mechanical thing and it’s tough.” It’s also mobile. “You can grab a 35mm camera and be in amongst the crowd. It was freeing. We were able to go into areas that I’m not sure an HD camera would have done in the same way.”

It could also capture the beauty of Africa. “You project it and the level of detail is beautiful and that’s raw, we didn’t have to manipulate that. We were catching crowds, huge riot scenes, helicopter car chases. We needed a medium that would offer a sense of cinema and give it an epic quality.”

Scale combined with realism also came from a technique he’d used on The First Grader – to only use people from the actual communities he was shooting in as extras. The crowd was one of the stars of the film. “You can feel the crowd and that energy in the riot scenes.” During the final scene showing Mandela’s release, “we’ve got 1000 people from that community. We started the music off and the celebrations and within minutes there were 10,000 people there. The cameraman and me just carried on shooting. We got lost for half an hour. One of the line producers caught up with us shouting ‘you’ve got to have a release form from every single person here.’ Many had been there on the actual day. You could feel the emotion, and that informed the performances.”

The performances were also informed by the fact that real extras can’t take too many retakes. “Often we would use the very first take.” And that works for the actors too: “We’re not doing it over and over again. I’ll give the bones of the scene to the actors and we shoot two or three takes and, bang, we’ve got it. It’s very energising for the actors to have that clarity. Yes, you’re doing a movie and it’s got to be perfect but there can be energy behind it.”

The speed was also informed by the fact that this was an independent African movie, and there was a responsibility to “make sure the money went on to the screen” and not on spending days on take after take. And that’s where his TV background helped, says Chadwick. “That’s the training ground for British directors. We’ve got great TV and great crews that work in TV. Some of the crew that did Spooks and Bleak House and The Vice came with me and did Mandela. We know we’ve got to capture it quick. On Eastenders, when you’re doing 17 minutes a day, it prepares you.”

Justin Chadwick is the director of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. Chadwick starred in London Kills Me in 1991 followed by appearances in Heartbeat, Dangerfield, Dalziel and Pascoe, and others. His directorial debut was 1993 TV movie Family Style starring Ewan McGregor. He directed episodes of Eastenders; Byker Grove; The Bill; Spooks, and Red Cap before directing nine of the 15 episodes of the 2005 adaptation of Bleak House. Following his movie The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) he directed the feature The First Grader, in 2010 that starred Naomie Harris.

Posted 07 January 2014 by Jon Creamer

China in your hands

The Chinese TV market is booming and increasingly opening up to television from around the world. Jon Creamer asks UK producers about their experiences so far

With over a billion potential viewers and a staggering array of channels, around 3,000 in total, all hungry for content, the attractions of the Chinese TV market are obvious for UK producers.

The country’s current biggest hit, talent show The Voice of China, can pick up TV audiences of 120m and the lead sponsor on this year’s series paid £50m for the privilege.

The UK government, and the UK producers haven’t been slow on the uptake. An agreement was signed at the tail end of last year between the DCMS and its Chinese counterpart to promote more collaboration between the UK and Chinese TV sectors. Pact and the UKTI’s UK Television Exports Survey published last year showed revenues from UK TV shows in China in 2012 climbed 90% on 2011.

Many UK indies got their first taste of dealing with the Chinese market on the recent Pact-led trade trip that ended with a ‘memorandum of understanding’ between Pact’s members and CCTV 9, the state broadcaster’s factual channel.

So UK producers and distributors are already doing good business in the country. CCTV9 is becoming a regular destination for doc producers (BBC Worldwide recently signed a co pro deal with the channel). And UK formats have already headed to China in their droves. China’s Got Talent is a massive hit as is the local version of The X Factor. Studio Lambert’s Gogglebox is the latest export after All3Media International closed a deal with Jiangsu Satellite TV. Deals have also been inked on Undercover Boss, Supernanny and Secret Millionaire.

Local knowledge
But for a producer unused to the territory, China is not an easy place to work, says Paul Jackson, former ITV and BBC director of entertainment and now creative director of Beijing based Houghton Street Media (currently helping shepherd North One format The Gadget Show on to Shenzhen TV). “It’s such a different culture. You need a Chinese partner. The difficulty is finding an honourable one. Many times when people have been making shows and licensing formats subsequent shows get made without them; they get paid late, things are cancelled with no recompense. It’s a very difficult place to do business.” The ‘wild east’ reputation is still partly deserved.

There are other problems too. The Chinese government can change the rules at a moments notice. Alarmed at the number of talent show formats on the Chinese networks, the State Administration of Radio, Television and Film (SARFT) recently limited channels to one foreign format a year, and a ban on those formats in primetime. The expectation is though that Chinese broadcasters will switch to ‘co-development’ deals with foreign producers where they will become involved with a format earlier in its life span as a way to work around this.

The language barrier is significant obviously, and the broadcasting landscape is bewilderingly big too. Danny Fenton, ceo of Zig Zag, who is currently developing formats with, and providing consultancy for, Chinese broadcasters. He has been working through the London/Beijing outfit Zespa Media as well as Jackson’s Houghton Street. “You’ve got to have a relationship with a local producer partner,” says Fenton. “There are so many different broadcasters both national and regional. Leila [Monks, who recently went on the Pact trip for Zig Zag] met over thirty different channels when she was in China.”

Going it alone
But a local partner isn’t always a necessity. Many British producers work directly with Chinese broadcasters, particularly those now used to commissioning internationally. “In my experience the Chinese partners I work with don’t want to work with agents,” says Liz McLeod, True North’s executive producer for specialist factual programmes, who’s currently putting together a series on Chinese designers for CCTV9 and CICC. “In specialist factual and documentaries, they want to work directly with producers in the same way a British broadcaster wants to talk directly to the producer.”

Getting to know you
But that depends on a relationship having been built up over time. As in the UK, Chinese broadcasters want to work with people they know and trust. McLeod has been putting together co pros with Chinese broadcasters since 2006 and that’s significant. As with much else in TV, it’s all about relationships and that holds particularly true in China. “People in China always look to the long term and that’s true of their commissioning partnerships,” says McLeod. “You’re never going to be successful if you just go out to China, meet everybody and then go away again. The dividends are great if you put the time in but you have to put the time in.” That’s echoed by Sam Barcroft, whose Barcroft TV digital channel has just got a spot on Youku, China’s answer to Youtube (and garnered 11m views within a fortnight). The deal was done directly with Youku after an initial introduction by Pact. Says Barcroft: “The key to all relationships that have wide cultural divides is consistency and taking time. You’re unlikely to do any immediate deals. People need to go to China a few times to start warming that trust up.”

But even when the trust is warmed up, producers must get used to the Chinese way of doing things. “It takes a very long time to get a decision,” says Jackson. “There’s the old indie saying that a ‘no’ is the second best answer. But there is no word for ‘no’ in China so you’re not going to get the second best answer. You get this constant prevarication. It takes a long time.”
Despite that, “their lead times are tiny,” says Jackson. “I’ve been talking about some World Cup programming to Chinese broadcasters for next April or May. They genuinely have said to me many times ‘Paul, why are you pushing us on this? We’re going to have plenty of time after the spring holiday.”

Different strokes
Creative director of Ten Alps TV, Fiona Stourton, who is exec producing The Secrets of Branding for CCTV2 through Blakeway, says that on earlier Chinese commissions, it was a surprise how bureaucratic decision making was, and how many people had a say in the programme “It was rather like making quite a complicated international co production.” There was also much more control over narrative and script, tough for current affairs producers used to reacting to events and going with them. “They want sign off on the narrative by all the powers that be before they film a frame.”
Chinese co pros can be tough too. “International co productions are very new in China,” says McLeod. “So there aren’t years of protocols and systems. Everything is untrodden ground.”

But despite the problems, the will is certainly there from Chinese broadcasters. For one thing, working with UK producers helps Chinese broadcasters forge relationships with international broadcasters through co pro deals. And apart from getting good shows on their screens, broadcasters are interested in learning new tricks. Commissions are “as much a learning curve for them in how we practically make programmes,” says Stourton. Part of that is finding efficiencies in production processes. The big formatted shows are done “comparatively well in terms of what you see on screen,” says Jackson. “But when you look behind that they work incredibly long hours, the technical standards maybe aren’t as good as they’d like them to be. They want to make these shows better but they also know that if they learned to do them better they might also be learning how to devise them and develop them themselves. That’s the real key.”

The next big thing
“China’s gone big on dating shows and talent shows for the last three or four years. That’s a kind of entertainment they know very well from their own culture. And for social and political reasons the dating shows are important because of the screwed up gender balance due to the one child policy. What they haven’t got and are just beginning to think about is reality. Hunan Television just had a big hit with a Korean show called Dad, Where are we Going? which is sort of Challenge Anneka where celebs take their kids to difficult places to do good works. It’s kind of reality. That show’s second only to The Voice of China. The reason The Voice was so huge was because out of all the talent shows, it was concerned with story. Almost by accident, because of the way the audition segments are set up, it brought story into the equation in a big way for the first time in China and was a sensation. Story suddenly become part of their consideration and reality takes that a step further.”
Paul Jackson, Houghton Street Media

Posted 06 January 2014 by Jon Creamer
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