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The rise of the boutique vfx house

The last few years have seen a flowering of small boutique operators in the vfx market. Jon Creamer finds out what has sown the seeds

The big beasts of vfx still dominate the UK landscape.

Those big players remain responsible for the vast majority of the standout visual effects work throughout commercials, movies and high-end TV.

But they’re no longer the only show in town. Over the last few years, a plethora of small, nimble and highly talented vfx houses, often led by name talent from the big three, have sprung up in the UK and are producing award winning work on the best ads, big movies and high profile TV shows. Now working alongside the Tescos (or perhaps Waitroses) of the vfx world are small boutique shops, often specialised, but very proud of their produce.



Defining terms
Though the definition of a boutique vfx house is pretty broad, all the way from one or two man bedroom warriors with a couple of laptops right up to companies like Electric Theatre Collective, still sometimes referred to as a ‘boutique’ despite growing enormously since its birth three years ago.

For Will Cohen, formerly of The Mill, and now running his own vfx house, Milk, a boutique “is about culture and atmosphere. It alludes to a sense of personal service and first name terms. A bit of individuality and personality.” While the big shops sell themselves partly on the security afforded by their size, the boutiques pride themselves on being an intimate part of the creative process right from the off.  “Because of the structure in a bigger place, if you call up you speak to a booking person or a producer firstly,” says Mike Skrgatic of Time Based Arts. “There’s a process until you get to the creative person. When people come and work with us, they speak to a creative person first. It’s much more of a partnership.”

For Axis VFX’s Grant Hewlett, a boutique is more able to become another department within the production. “They’re a bit faster on their feet and they can get more involved. We want to get involved and offer our ideas.”
And it’s partnership that’s key to the boutique way of working, says Nineteentwenty co founder Scott Griffin. “In a boutique everybody is close by and hears feedback and it’s a much more cooperative process. You can sometimes get lost in the size of a bigger facility.”

The boutiques frame themselves as offering something different from the majors, but that’s not necessarily a criticism of the big players. “In film you need large companies,” says Milk’s Cohen. “You have to look at the evolution of visual effects over the last decade. [Vfx Oscar winner] Gladiator had less than 90 vfx shots in it, Maleficent had 3,000. In order to realise that you need large companies. In large companies creativity is pushed very high up the food chain and on the studio floor it’s more like a factory line. There is nothing wrong with that, that’s how you get through a package of 500 shots. In a boutique, creativity is more with the artists on the studio floor.”



Tech revolution
However a boutique is defined, their ability to exist in the first place comes down to a revolution in the costs of setting up a professional vfx house.  “I remember working in Soho as a runner when Silicon Graphics had an office in Soho Square,” says Axis’s Grant Hewlett. “The computers were a million pounds each and it was impossible to get any time on the workstations. It’s changed so much.”

“The cost of entry has come down,” says Derek Moore, md and founder of Coffee and TV. “It used to be that the business model of the big companies was built around leasing big machines but now it’s more about the quality of the talent. And if you are that talent, you may as well do it yourself.”

The vfx business is no longer about “flexing your technology muscles,” says Nineteentwenty’s Griffin. “Everybody’s got access to the same kit. It all comes down to who’s operating now.” And though size matters to an extent due to the amount of “firepower” big houses can throw at a job “the gap is not anywhere near as big as it used to be.”

Even just seven years ago, technology costs were putting the brakes on operators and artists going it alone with the initial trickle of talent leaving the big shops mainly being older, more established talent with hefty backing. “When we bought our first Flame, Autodesk told us that we were the youngest guys to buy a Flame in Europe,” says Time Based Arts’ Skrgatic. “At the time it was such a high price point.” As time goes on, the barriers to entry drop, and investors are no longer a necessity. “There’s no backing, it’s just Mike and I,” says Time Based Arts’ James Allen. “We put a bit of seed money down but it’s all cash flow, there are no rich uncles.” And that trend is set to continue. The introduction of Nuke made boutiques even more possible and “whatever software rolls out in the next 10 years, it’ll be pennies,” says Allen.

“We are only Foundry based 2D, we don’t have Flames or Infernos, we’ve built everything on a Foundry pipeline,” says Griffin. And as with many operators, connectivity means a small London office can be backed up by a larger space in Bristol. Cloud based rendering, still in its infancy, should also pull down more entry barriers and rental models on software mean small companies “don’t have to commit. That ability to increase and decrease only helps the boutique facility,” says Cohen.



More bang for less buck
And where technology has made boutiques possible, it’s falling budgets that have proved to be a further driver. “Through the recession lots of people were doing crazy stuff for very little money just to keep money coming through the door,” says Coffee and TV’s Derek Moore. “That made clients realise they could get great stuff done quite cheaply. When we came out of recession, budgets never went back up. That meant people found it hard to hit the margins, leading to a lot of the most talented staff feeling a bit disenfranchised and thinking they can do it better. What’s come about is a perfect storm of budgets dropping and technology becoming more affordable to allow the best artists to be able to prove to themselves whether they can do it better or not.”

Those falling budgets have led some of the top talent to the idea that if they stripped away some costs, they could deliver good work for the now more stringent budgets available. “It seems like the perfect opportunity now,” says Moore. “The cost of entry is low, clients want it, we’re old enough and experienced enough to have a good client base and you know there’s so much cost wasted in the big reception and bookings people and runners.”

Other changes particularly in the advertising sector have also helped the push towards boutiques. Fragmenting budgets means a campaign is broken into many smaller pieces. “Now there is multiple output from the agency and different service providers can do that,” says Time Based Art’s Allen. “We can work on premium stuff with good agencies and directors and pick up a £50k job, which wouldn’t have existed before.” But for many, particularly those who reached a level of seniority within one of the big vfx houses, it’s often also driven by a desire to get back to the coalface of vfx. “At certain times of my life I could have been working in any other industry because a lot of it was spreadsheet based,” says Cohen. “We do still have spreadsheets here but they’re not a dominating factor.”



Get your hands dirty
But running your own vfx house is not all pure creativity. “Being a Flame op is a pretty painful existence anyway, you get used to your family life taking the brunt,” says Allen. “But when you’re running your own business all your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in it too, it takes a personal toll. In the same time we’ve had this business I’ve had three kids and Mike’s had two. In the early days as an owner, when there isn’t the money, your salary is the buffer.”

It also means having to keep your eyes on the bottom line like never before. “Before I was with Axis I’d run a couple of really small boutique companies and when we started those companies we thought we could conquer the world,” says Hewlett. “But it’s a tight margin business and you can easily lose your shirt on a job if you don’t keep track of things.”

There’s also the issue of getting the new brand out there, even if the new company is founded by well known artists. Nineteentwenty has Flame artist Ludo Fealy as a co-founder but even then “you forget how much gravitas companies like The Mill and MPC and Framestore have,” says Nineteentwenty’s Griffin. “Getting the name out there is the biggest challenge at the start. How do we let people know we are here and that we can do the work? The confidence builds and as long as you’re pragmatic you’ll eventually get there, but it won’t happen overnight.”

It can also mean literally getting your hands dirty again. “When you work for a large company a lot of stuff’s done for you,” says Milk’s Cohen. But with your own small boutique company you’re “micro managing every aspect from cashflow to everything else. On the first week here, one of the directors had his marigolds on with his hands down the toilet. You never would have considered that before.”

But if things do go well, and a boutique company becomes a success, how far can it grow before it loses the advantages that a boutique purports to engender? For many, the trick will be to push for growth in many distinct units rather than one big unit. “There’s an ambition to get a little bit bigger just so we have a slightly broader client base and more stability and visibility of income,” says Moore. “But there’s no point in becoming another massive facility.” His company, like Milk and Nineteentwenty, has a London office backed by a Bristol base, and several small satellite companies seems to be the way many boutiques envision future growth. “If you open somewhere else with 20 or 30 people you can very much replicate the culture you have in your main office rather than grow on your main site to 300 people,” says Cohen.

Another big change for those setting up their own boutique vfx houses is a different set of expectations. For the companies that set up shop in the 80s and 90s, many owners went on to become very rich. For today’s new companies, there are no such expectations. “We’re not in it for money,” says Time Based Arts’ Allen. “Ultimately you control your destiny, you work for yourself, you cut away the politics and the crap, that’s what we did it for. We want to do good work, and you can earn good money as an individual but gone are the days when you buy a machine and the machine’s booked out 24/7.”

“Our aspirations are a lot less than the generation that came before,” says Cohen. “We have lower aspirations. We do it because we like it and we can make a living and make it work but not it’s not about second homes in Gloucestershire and all that.”

Posted 16 January 2015 by Jon Creamer

Testament of Youth: the director and the DoP

Testament of Youth is based on the famous First World War memoir by Vera Brittain. The story begins in the Edwardian spring of 1914 with Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander), a youthful feminist fighting her conservative parents for the chance to go to Oxford alongside her brother and his friends. But then war is declared and all the young men enlist. Vera leaves university to train as a nurse and ends up tending to captured German soldiers on the front as one by one those closest to her are lost to the war including her brother (Taron Egerton) and fiancé (Kit Harrington).

The film was directed by James Kent who makes his feature debut and the DoP was Rob Hardy. They explain their approach to the film below



James Kent: director
(HOLOCAUST: A MUSIC MEMORIAL FILM FROM AUSCHWITZ, THE SECRET DIARIES OF MISS ANNE LISTER, INSIDE MEN, THE WHITE QUEEN, THE THIRTEENTH TALE)

They’d been working on the script for a good three years before I came on board. The script was already pretty tight. I suggested my own flavours, but no one had been cast at that point. There had been initial noise about Saoirse Ronan playing Vera Brittain but she was unavailable. At that point we had about 25% of financing in place. You need to have a realism about whether the film will go ahead but until people feel that the bus is leaving the bus station no one will commit financially. They need to feel that this is a movie they will regret passing up on, and they won’t focus unless they feel that the film is probably going to happen. The vibe you give out is ‘we’re going to make this film.’

Heyday films took on, in film terms, an unknown director. So a lot of my work had to be done early to present a vision to the BFI and David Heyman and Lionsgate. I had to have a very strong independent vision to convince them I would ride above ‘debut film director’ and deliver them a movie at the end of it. They felt I could bring that fusion of drama and documentary, that I would make a film that would be fluid and handheld and wouldn't fall into Merchant Ivory world or heritage drama but would also have handsomely mounted production values. The thing I really brought to the table was a very subjective take. I wanted this to be very much Vera Brittain’s experience. That you would be hugging her throughout the story, that's what I hoped was my USP on the movie.

It’s hard to get around that period film aspect. You have the architecture of the film, the old buildings, the costumes, the beautiful people wearing a better version of what they wear in Downton while at the same time you’re adapting a memoir that is a rock solid icon. You need to bring something true to our historical filmic routes but that feels like a new take for a new generation coming to A Testament of Youth.

You have a different list for heads of department than you would for television. They do tend to sit on either side of the divide so there was quite a new set of faces for me to consider. [DoP] Rob Hardy tends not to do television, [production designer] Jon Henson similarly. So that was very exciting to find I was looking at a whole new array of British filmmaking talent.

We had no cast when we started, no Vera. We’d mooted Saoirse Ronan as Vera but when she fell out we had nobody. By great good luck Alicia became free. She was our key appointment. Then it was about finding a Roland and an array of handsome young men and that's not unlike television apart from all the time you had to think of the commercial imperative. You’re looking for the best person for the part but while in TV you might be looking for one or two of those to pull in the crowd, in a film you have to be looking at that across seven or eight parts. Vera’s parents are Emily Watson and Dominic west, then you've got a big star from Game of Thrones playing Roland, that’s the world you’re in.

In this film, what played to our advantage was the youth of the main cast. For Kit Harrington and Alicia to dominate a film of this quality is a great showcase for them. In their mid twenties this was an opportunity for them. Vera is the best female role, if you’re in your twenties, that you could possibly be given. She’s not just playing the love interest.

Being new to film I was both astonished and relieved when I joined the project. I was astonished that it had to be done almost as fast as television - seven weeks. You have more resources that are largely oiling this machine so it can produce bigger production values in a short space of time but you’re still shooting three or four pages a day. I even lost a week off the schedule. We just didn't have the money for eight weeks but we still had to make the same film.

On the other hand I was relieved I had an extensive career in television, as it wasn't a shock for me. We burnt two thirds of the contingency in the first two to three weeks of filming, we were not able to go into any over time at all on any day. In TV terms you’re used to that, in film terms that's a very heavy restriction for a director. It’s only about £2k an hour when you go into overtime, which can give you a lot more but we didn't have that. But having done lots of TV drama, I never get overtime. £7m sounds like a lot coming out of TV, in film it’s considered a budget film. They chose me as we all knew this film wasn't going to get more than £7m of financing. They needed someone who could handle that - a director who isn’t going to go AWOL. Directors get very obsessive and anxious and don't give a toss about the budget. In TV you can’t have that attitude because you just won’t get used again.

The way you cope with a small budget is you hire a fantastic DoP. They will elevate, in the same amount of time with the same equipment, what someone else would make look ordinary. I knew that's what Rob Hardy would bring. I’d seen The Invisible Woman and I loved both Boy A and Red Riding. He’s also used to working within those restrictions. He hasn't yet done his Hollywood thing, which he will do.
That works all down the line with your crew. You have to surround yourself with people with a similar realism. On the floor you’re cutting and trimming your day accordingly - dropping scenes you can do without or rolling scenes into one scene and being economical with your takes. I probably did three with any given set up. But with a great actress and cast that should be enough. I remember Susanna White telling me that if you cast well, as a director you've probably done 60% 0r 70% of your work.


Two iconic directors inspired me. One was Jane Campion and The Piano. It’s her love of nature and her microscopic attention to the female mind and the intensity of those key love scenes.

And the other is David Lean. The film I love most of his is Brief Encounter and that internal monologue that Celia Johnson has in her head and the experiential female viewpoint. It’s also his love for stream trains and carriages and departures and you see that in Testament of Youth to a small extent. Pressburger is another one for the war and Gone with the Wind for the iconic shot over the stretcher-bearers. I confess I did steal that. But all directors always take from our legacy.

I knew the unifying factor over the entire film was this palpable sense of irony that the audience knew that terrible things were going to happen to those central characters.

When we entered act one it’s the glorious Edwardian summer so the lensing is wider and the colours are brighter. The whole thing has more fluidity. It's a liquid, languid optimistic view of the world as they and Vera possessed at that moment. Then, as it progresses, you enter darker more sombre worlds of browns and greys and hospital interiors. By the end the lensing gets extremely tight on Vera. When she goes back to Oxford it’s really just a backdrop for a psychological breakdown, a kind of shell shock she suffers. Then we’re incredibly tight on her face and its incredibly claustrophobic. The film has this narrowing on Vera’s face as we progress through the film.



Rob Hardy: DoP
(EX MACHINA, EVERY SECRET THING, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, BROKEN, SHADOW DANCER, STOLEN, RED RIDING: 1974, IS ANYBODY THERE?, BOY A, EXHIBIT A)

We do period movies a lot in this country and we do them well, but you want to make an outstanding period movie. We wanted to get to the heart of the story. It's a visceral journey but our visual grammar or ideas of what the period is are often led by period movies that aren’t necessarily authentic. I made The Invisible Woman, which is a dark film because those Victorian rooms were dark. So I didn't want to be involved in something that wasn’t going to be truthful. Rosie [Alison, the producer] and James really wanted that truth.

I’d just worked with Alicia Vikander on Ex Machina, so there was that connection. We’d already developed this dance together so there was a great deal of trust between us. In terms of the images I want to create a proximity with Vera Brittain rather than to be sat back and observing like classically shot movies. What we were after was something more inherently ‘in there’, like you’re in the room experiencing it with that person.

Technically there are certain lenses that for me mean certain things. I had two sets of lenses. One set was an anamorphic Crystal Express set and the other was a spherical set so effectively I had these two emotional states. The anamorphic lenses created this specific world she inhabited which was very much about her and the environment whereas the circle lenses were really used to break through that barrier and get super close when we needed to.

There were a number of recces as we had a lot of ground to cover. Effectively it was like a road move. We were in Sheffield, York, Leeds, Scarborough, Whitby, up on the moors, London, Oxford. When you try to recce something like that you’re spending most of your time in a car. And then you've got the major sections like the house, or Etaples or the trenches.

In London there are eight or nine period homes where you shoot. Every time you walk in there you can see a little bit of gaffer tape in the corner and the designer is tearing their hair out saying ‘I was in here last month.’ The great thing about Testament was we found this estate up north that had only been shot in once on a Tom Hardy film and they’d only used one room. So we did everything there; Vera’s parental home, the parade stuff, the trenches, Etaples and nobody had really shot there so we had the freedom to do that 360-degree thing.

From the beginning, this felt like a project that should shoot on film. We tested 16mm. I loved it but Rosie and James thought it was too edgy. We also tested some 35 mm which we put alongside what we shot on digital. I was using an F65 which is just great.

We took it to Asa Shoul at Molinare and he graded both so they looked very similar and we did split screen comparisons. The film is so much about Vera’s emotional journey and her face becomes a landscape, film was giving us so much more in many respects, the way it renders the skin and every detail in it. I’m not talking about pores but subtlety and colour. Knowing Alicia you can see colour in her face change when she goes through a certain emotional arc.

The problem was I was the only one who really wanted to do it. James had never shot film before. They got nervous. People want to know what they’re getting on the day, there’s an immediacy to digital that is reassuring.

In the end there was some effort to try to make the sums work for film but because it was a period piece we were moving around so much, in the end we were £200k shy of being able to shoot on film.


Credits

Production
BBC Films and Heyday Films, Screen yorkshire and BFI in association with Hotwells Productions, Nordisk Film Production and Lipsync

Director
James Kent
Producers
David Heyman and Rosie Alison
Screenplay
Juliette Towhidi
Executive producers
Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer
Executive producers
Hugo Heppell, Zygi Kamasa, Richard Mansell
Cast
Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Dominic West and Miranda Richardson
Co-producer
Celia Duval
Director of photography
Rob Hardy
Production designer
Jon Henson
Editor
Lucia Zucchetti
Costume designer
Consolata Boyle
Make up and hair design
Christine Walmesley-Cotham
Music
Max Richter
Casting
Lucy Bevan
Post
Lipsync
Camera
Sony F65


Posted 14 January 2015 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes: Sky Atlantic's Fortitude

The team behind Sky Atlantic’s big budget drama Fortitude explain how they recreated the Arctic in London and Iceland. Jon Creamer reports


Drama indie Fifty Fathoms’ 12-part thriller for Sky Atlantic is on air this month. The series, billed as Sky’s most ambitius commission to date, is set in the fictional Arctic frontier town of Fortitude.

The town has never experienced a violent crime before but is thrown into turmoil after the brutal murder of a British research scientist. Sheriff Dan Anderssen, head of the search and rescue team, investigates alongside a British detective who’s flown into help.

As the winter closes in, they find the murder was just the start. The drama was shot on location in Iceland with an extensive set build in a warehouse in Hayes, west London. The cast includes Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl, Michael Gambon and Christopher Eccleston.




Sam Miller
Lead Director

I’d never shot that far north before and never anywhere that cold. The weather was 
very unpredictable – sometimes minus 15 or 20, sometimes minus 
three or plus two. We were expecting a lot more snow than there was which forced some of the shooting to go further north.

I was inspired by the quality of the light. The look is quite neutral. It’s a simple, classic, powerful look rather than too affected. We wanted to use the natural power of the light and of the landscape as there is a real elegance and a power to it but you’ve still got to be careful how to backlight it and how you move the camera around in it.

A big part of the story for me was the way nature was coming after you. I was trying to do that in quite a discreet way. You were under threat from nature – it’s too cold to be there, the animals around there will eat you and then it yields a parasite, something prehistoric that comes to get you. The wilderness and how the wilderness impacted on the individuals was part of the way we wanted to tell the story.

It was a difficult cast to pull together to rehearse thoroughly. We spent eight or nine days together but you can’t do more in that time than research and prepare and educate about how we’re approaching it. You don’t really do script work you deal with issues regarding the script. Simon [the writer] was quite active at that point as actors came into the film and he took their thoughts on board and built them in. That hopefully leads to more seamless performances when they’re more bedded into the story and the world. The big concern for me as it was such a large cast was to make them all feel that they belonged there and understand why they were there.


John Conroy
DoP

The landscape in Iceland is amazing and the magic hour is too. We were able to shoot at magic hour for a lot longer than you normally would because the trajectory of the sun is lower and the light stays in the sky that little bit longer. It means you’re able to pull detail out of the mountains at night when normally it’s just blackness. We rescheduled for that and we always did all our wides at that time.

We didn’t want it to look too Scandi. There’s a balance to be had where you definitely wanted a Nordic feel to it but at the same time you didn’t want to lose the drama and the shape to the faces and that happens if the lighting becomes too flat, too dogme style. We wanted to have a taste of that Scandi style but still be true to classic framing and lighting so we could increase drama with shape in the face.

Mixing the colour of the light was a really big thing so you’d have both cool and warm light in the same scene, just to mix it up so it’s not all just cool Scandi blue tones. We looked at Twin Peaks and others but mostly we liked Todd Hido and Tarkovsky and Saul Leiter stills rather than films.

We shot with the Arri on the Master Primes. We wanted to be able to shoot it wide open so when we’re in the interiors in the studio we’d be able to allow the exteriors to fall off focus so you wouldn’t notice they were backings. Our format was two to one so we tried to give it a little bit of a wide screen feel, to take advantage of the landscape. We shot the aerials on the last day of our block. We steered clear of the Wescam idea. We wanted it to feel like there was an entity or something in the air that had life, not just a beautiful, classically smooth image.


Gemma Jackson
Production designer

After I got involved last summer I went up to the Arctic with [exec producer] Andrew Woodhead and we plodded around in Longyearbyen, a settlement in Svalbard and got 
into the marooned aspect of it and the simplicity. 
It’s quite modern, simple, blocky architecture, 
not complex.

At the Iceland location we just used aspects of the town. We built into things and on to things. The buildings were there already but we painted them and added graphics and had streetlights and changed the general feeling of the place. We had a warehouse in Hayes [in west London] for the set. There’s the most beautiful modern structure in Longyearbyen - the mayor’s office and police station are all in this one building and Simon wrote that into the script so it allowed you to build something fabulous as it had to encompass all these different things. And it was quite modern, sexy architecture. All these elements fed in to what I could do for Fortitude.

It is a very isolated place so everything has got to be sent to you if you want a new bed or your fridge is broken. So things tended to be a little older and patched up so we tried to bring that element to it. That’s what we did with the hotel and the bar, it was kept clean but was quite shabby and slightly eccentric. We wanted to feel there was the personality of the people involved – the bedrooms and hotel rooms are all a bit scuffed but people look after them.



Frith Tiplady
Exec/head of production

While we considered locations like Canada it didn’t last long. The feeling was we’re doing something distinctive and European and while it has an international flavour, filming in the UK or Europe became core to its creative ambition. I’m a real believer that where you shoot does infiltrate the DNA of what you produce.

It’s set in Svalbard but that takes two days to get there. And it became apparent that a lot of Europe is too lovely. It needed a frontier town. It has purpose and practicality, it’s not pretty but still extraordinary. Iceland became an obvious choice as they’ve got a film industry there – though they tend to do commercials or sequences of films – Game of Thrones goes there for ten days. Icelandics have a massive can do attitude. Amazing sequences up glaciers, helicopters – that stuff is ten a penny to them but when you say to them we want to take over this fish market and change it into a production base, that’s more unusual.

The second part of the production shape was basing ourselves in London for the interiors. That was a key decision in order to attract talent, both behind the camera as well as actors. It’s a 23-week shoot so you need to make it as palatable as possible when you’re a show punching above your weight. The tax break helps too. We had loads of meetings about what we would do if certain people were delayed by snow blocking roads, then the snow didn’t come. This is supposed to be the Arctic so we had JCBs going up the mountain bringing in snow to the town. The one thing you weren’t prepared for happens. You set up your post system for one style then you have a massive gear change because you’ve got half of London doing snow correction. On a show like this that’s why you need a contingency.



details
Broadcaster Sky Atlantic
TX January 2015
Exec producers Simon Donald, Patrick Spence, Frith Tiplady, Andrew Woodhead. For Sky, Anne Mensah, Cameron Roach
Producer Matthew Bird
Co producer Charles Hubbard
Lead director Sam Miller
Writer/creator Simon Donald
Cast Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl, Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon 
Production designer Gemma Jackson
DoP John Conroy
Editor Trevor Waite
Composer Ben Frost
Post Encore Post
Camera Arri Alexa

Posted 14 January 2015 by Jon Creamer

Reaching for the sky

Tern producer Louise Say on taking new Sky One ob doc, Air Ambulance ER, to the high-end

"It’s more than a blue light series. It’s about getting under the skin of these everyday heroes.

"We feel we’ve achieved something different here, not just in the access but in the way we’ve filmed it.
Technically it was challenging to rig the helicopters. We wanted to put three GoPros in a helicopter. We then planned to use a roving GoPro that could be strapped to a doctor or paramedic or put next to the red phone at base. That might sound simple but each helicopter is different, there’s limited space as there’s a lot of kit. We spent a lot of time developing a rig that worked and complied with the requirements of both the air ambulance and the CAA.

"The rig had to be easy to manage too. When the phone rings there’s three minutes to be ready to roll.

Each day was a six camera shoot effectively. We had two teams: one in the north and one in the south. The PD was Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) trained so they were embedded with the HEMS team. They shot on a Sony PMW-200. Back at base the AP had a 200 as well, as we wanted to intercut between the two. That gave us the coverage, but we also did extensive aerials. We shot these on a Sony HDC-950 with an SSD Blackmagic recorder. We used Castle Air for that. In addition, we shot at all four bases across the country and we also did a high-end shoot as I wanted both pre-titles and cutting between bases to have a glossy cinematic feel. We used an Arri Amira for that. We also did a lot of set piece slow-mos, with the crew walking towards camera at sunrise, and then master interviews. We used those stylistic starts to sequences more than we thought we would. They became a major feature.

"
I wanted all the bases to have a character. The idea was we were filming the work of the air ambulance teams over one summer, so we used a motion control time lapse – a 5D on a Genie motion control device with a Kessler slider – to get shots of daisies growing and so on. We also used a sound recordist to capture the sounds of summer and the helicopter. This layering adds to the high production levels.



"We had a triple consent protocol. A paramedic or doctor at the scene would get the consent of the patient verbally, or if they were unconscious we followed that up later through our channels at the hospitals. Then, if we wanted to actually use that story, we secured written consent and attended a visit. I had a designated consent AP as it’s such a key part of it. Then the contributor also had the option to watch the scenes before they were broadcast, so myself or my consent AP have been out doing viewings with patients."

Posted 08 January 2015 by Jon Creamer
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