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Life Story: The NHU's Mike Gunton on the BBC's new wildlife spectacular

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.

Posted 20 October 2014 by Jon Creamer

Director Tom Shankland on shooting James Nesbitt drama The Missing

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.

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

Posted 15 October 2014 by Jon Creamer
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