Director Elliot Hegarty and producer Ben Cavey tell Jon Creamer how they took BBC3 comedy Bad Education to the big screen
Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education, the BBC3 sitcom about incompetent teacher Alfie Whickers and his badly behaved pupils, came to an end on the small screen last year. But this month, the show gets its movie debut. Producer Ben Cavey and director Elliot Hegarty explain how they took it to the big svreen.
How do you transform a TV series into a movie? EH The greatest fear for a TV show going to the big screen is that it doesn’t feel like a movie but just an extended episode. Our conversations were about expanding this world so it doesn’t feel like we’d forced a small story on to the big screen. BC There have got to be clear reasons that this is a movie and is offering something that TV doesn’t. There’s a lot of content you wouldn’t be able to do on the BBC – outrageous moments we would have struggled to get past. There’s an edginess to it. And there’s obviously a scale to it that comes from the budget and a bigger narrative than we could do in thirty minutes.
What about in terms of production values? EH The reality of the shoot is you’ve got the same restrictions on money. You’ve only got a few crane shots so it’s about choosing when they’re going to be most useful. One of the main differences in a movie is you expect to see more extras, it’s a subconscious thing. We had to make sure we had enough people in the streets and beaches and schools. Aside from that it was serve the script as well as possible and have confidence in the script being a more cinematic story.
Do you have to be careful not to lose what was good about the TV show? EH Yes, so the story does start in the school and in terms of the shooting style we wanted to slowly develop what people loved about the show into a movie. I wanted to shoot it in a way where it starts very much like the TV show – very handheld, very chaotic with lots of frenetic movement and then as the story develops it becomes more of an action piece. We calmed the camera down and the lenses got longer, the camera height got lower. It was equally dynamic but more track and dolly. We had to lure people in to Bad Education the movie rather than Bad Education the TV show.
Was post production very different? EH The post process was the main difference. Our aspirations with certain effects and music meant we had to upscale the post and we were fortunate to work with people like Double Negative and Goldcrest. We needed crazy effects that had to match up to our Hollywood counterparts. It’s not good enough for it to be done by some bloke on a computer in Enfield, it has to be done to a certain spec otherwise people will be upset they paid 15 quid. We went into Goldcrest and graded with Rob Pizzey. That felt like a film to me, grading it in this wonderful huge suite.
Is there more pressure when making a movie? BC It’s a big weight you carry – wanting people to feel that they’ve got their money’s worth. You work very hard to make sure everything’s on screen in every way. Tiger Aspect and Cave Bear have invested everything themselves in the movie. We’re not taking fees, everything been rolled into go on screen and make it as big as possible. We are as deep into this gamble as everyone else is.
Was it hard to find the budget? BC The tricky thing is because the brand already exists and there’s a star attached, people think it’s a dead cert. So you can go to institutions that you would expect to be supporting a low budget British movie and you can really struggle. Nigel Green [from Entertainment Film Distributors] really supported it. Between them and Tiger they picked up the deficit I expected to be covered by others.
How big was the budget? BC The budget wasn’t huge. We had to focus and work long hours and lots of days a week. We went to war in the same way we got to war in the TV show. The Inbetweeners was famously the fastest shot film of its type and we did it two weeks faster. EH The shoot was just as stressful if not more so. We had very little prep time. We got greenlit very shortly before the start of the shoot and we had a five week window because of Jack’s availability. If we didn’t shoot it then, it would never happen. With only a few weeks to go we had no locations, few crew, half the cast and half the money. We thought ‘fuck it, let’s go for it.’ That seems to be how the British film industry works.
details In the movie adaptation of Bad Education, teacher Alfie Whickers takes his class on a post GCSE school trip to Cornwall where they end up getting involved in a bid to make the county an independent state Production Cave Bear Productions, Tiger Aspect, Entertainment Film Distributors Director Elliot Hegarty Writers Freddy Syborn, Jack Whitehall Producers Ben Cavey, Pippa Brown Executive producerNigel Green Co-producerSarada McDermott DoP Pete Rowe Editor Peter Oliver Colourist Rob Pizzey Vfx DNeg TV Casting Sarah Crowe Production designer Simon Rogers Music Vince Pope Post-production supervisor Mike Morrison Production manager Brett Wilson Cast Jack Whitehall, Iain Glen, Harry Enfield, Matthew Horne, Joanna Scanlan, Sarah Solemani, Marc Wooton Camera Arri Alexa
Director Brian Hill is celebrating 21 years of his indie Century Films with a new movie and a retrospective of his work. Jon Creamer reports
Documentary director Brian Hill has clocked up a CV stuffed with award winners by tackling serious subjects in surprising ways.
He’s now celebrating the 21st birthday of his indie Century Films with a retrospective of his work at the Bertha DocHouse and the release of his film The Confessions of Thomas Quick, a feature documentary about a Swedish prisoner who confessed to a series of chilling murders.
Hill made his name in TV but, he says, he knew “right away” that Thomas Quick was a theatrical piece. “The stakes are so high, the story is so dramatic,” he says adding that there’s an easier route to cinema for documentary now. “There is an acceptance that there are different ways to get docs out there than just TV. In other countries that’s always been the case. We’ve been spoiled in this country with several broadcasters who really believe in documentary and promoted and funded it.” But that landscape may be changing, he reckons. “People who want to make certain films aren’t finding that possible for TV so are turning to cinema.” And there are advantages to cinema. “People have paid their money, they’re not going to walk out after a minute, so you can allow the story to build. A lot of TV is about underestimating the audience. With this you can let people figure it out themselves.” Not that cinema is a route to riches. “Making feature docs is not the way to make money.”
To make the film, Hill secured access to both Thomas Quick and those who treated him and investigated his claims. No easy feat as those involved had experienced years of ridicule in their home country. But then Hill has always managed to persuade people to tell their stories on screen – prisoners and porn stars among others, while often persuading them to do it in song. Gaining trust is the key. “Often it’s about how you approach people. You let them know you won’t take the piss or belittle them. People ask ‘Will you make me look stupid? My response is ‘I won’t but you might make yourself look stupid if you say or do stupid things so you should really think about whether you want to be in the film.’”
People are more wary now, he says. And that’s down to a “regrettable tendency to take people’s stories and use them as entertainment.” And there needs to be a better reason than that. “If you’re making docs you have a certain obligation to explore issues that are socially relevant and important. I couldn’t make stuff that has no meaning or importance.” Over the years he’s made films about “family break up, prostitution, alcoholism, drugs, murder, rape, domestic violence. I did make a film about Robbie Williams that came at a time when I needed a bit of light relief from all the other stuff.”
But despite a lot of the subject matter being serious, his approach has often been playful. He’s perhaps best known for inventing the documentary musical alongside poet Simon Armitage. He’s just editing his latest set in a school within a Mumbai slum. “For the final song we’ve got a thousand kids all singing and dancing. It’s the world’s first ever Bollywood style musical documentary.” The form sprang from the fact that “people have been telling stories though song for thousands of years, we still are with musicals so why can’t documentary use that? Who says that all documentary has to be ob doc?” And it also makes the subjects of the documentary less like ‘subjects’. “You can feel uncomfortable about making documentaries of people’s lives and them being subjects of yours. If you put them in a musical they become part of the project. They’re creative collaborators.”
He’s not so keen to leap into other new forms of documentary like rig shows though. “I can’t imagine it’s something I’d want to do though some of them can be really good. But I don’t think it’s necessarily more intimate. All sorts of intimate scenes have been shot by people with crews.” Though he would love Century to make series with a rig shows’ returnability. “We thought we had that with The Secret History of Our Streets” which ran for two series on BBC2. “I thought that was going to be our Who Do You Think You Are? But nobody wants it any more. It’s extraordinary really. It was critically well received, it won awards, people watched it.” A returner “gives you security,” he says.
And that’s important for an indie that’s still resolutely independent. “There’s probably not many indies that have been around as long as we have that are independent still. I like that. I know lots of people who’ve sold. They like the money but they’re unhappy about becoming just an employee of shareholders. I don’t think I could do that. I’ve been my own boss for 21 years.” And free to not make the programmes he doesn’t want to make. “I’d rather do something else for a living than make rubbish.”
CV Brian Hill launched his production company Century Films 21 years ago this autumn. He has been a documentary innovator throughout that time directing the ‘first docusoap’ Sylvania Waters and pioneering the documentary musical with films like Drinking for England and the BAFTA-winning Feltham Sings. Other films from the Century stable include The Not Dead, which tells the legacy of war through three generations of soldiers, and the recent The Secret History of our Streets series. His film The Confessions of Thomas Quick opened in August
Big Blue Live exec producer James Honeyborne explains how his team is making the live natural history special for BBC1 charting the annual gathering of wildlife in California’s Monterey Bay
What’s the programme about?
It’s the story of a gathering that happens at a very special place that’s peaking in the next couple of weeks. It’s a unique moment in history as well. 60 years ago Monterey Bay was pretty much devastated by pollution and overfishing. All the animals had been hunted to near extinction. The revival of this coast line is an amazing good news story as well.
Why make it a live show?
I think live brings you something very different. We can take the audience whale watching live in real time and that’s something on most people’s bucket lists. There’s an experiential element to it. This will be the closest you can get to going on a scientific expedition in real time. And this gathering of animals is an event. We have a long tradition of covering events live. We don’t know quite what’s going to happen but that’s part of the frisson of excitement for the audience.
Does the experience of Springwatch help with something so different?
There’s a wealth of experience both in production but also on the technical end of things too. We need to take all our learning from that but this is different, everything’s different when you get into the ocean. The weather and the sea state will affect where we can be but just like Springwatch there’s a lot of great content to cover. We have to be flexible. We have a depth of content, which I think is reassuring.
Are you confident you’ll see enough sea life?
Some animals are more guarantee-able than others. We have three sea otter mothers that have given birth in recent weeks right in front of the aquarium. We’ve got sealions on the harbour breakwater just across the bay, there are Pelicans and Shearwaters. Some things we see every single day.
This year the fish shoals are coming very close to shore. We literally had them under the windows of our offices yesterday so a lot of the action is close to shore. We filmed a whale coming right into the harbour to feed the other day and it actually got stuck under a boat. There are opportunities we will seek that are more challenging. It would be amazing if we could see some of the big whales live, we stand a reasonable chance with that.
Is there infrastructure there already you can use?
There’s a lot of good science happening out here that is based on new technology. They have the bay covered in terms of hydrophones and cameras. There are people who have remote cameras on the sea bed picking up sharks as they swim past. There are scientists here who are even putting cameras on to some of the larger whales. Drones have been used to study some of these animals from the air which is great because with whales, when you’re looking down into the water you can see the length of the whole animal which is so impressive.
What will you attempt to show live?
We will always prioritise live and try to have live encounters with the wildlife but as with all live shows we will have elements of pre-recording. You want that to set up back stories and give context. We’re hoping to see animals live from the air, the surface of the water and under the water. We are planning to have live aerials scouting for things in the bay. Who knows what we might see? We might see giant sunfish, great white sharks, all sorts of creatures coming to this gathering. In addition to that we’ve got a boat that will be whale watching live and we are even doing some live dives in the kelp forest. We are absolutely trying to cover this place and I think that between us and the science that’s going on here it gives us a good degree of confidence were going to see some amazing animals.
Creativity, tech know-how and a cool head. Four of the UK's leading visual effects supervisors – among them two Oscar winners – explain the art of their craft
On Terminator Genisys, two weeks after winning the work I was on a plane to New Orleans where they were filming. You’re present on set in order to advise the client side super as to what we need and to acquire stills, bits of information, video, a whole host of different things. We had a good two thirds of the film so I was out there for the duration.
It’s a creative process, we’re not building a car. If something doesn’t work or the story changes you have to adapt to that and vfx is usually the one that is leant on. It’s a very instant answer whereas building a new bit of set is not so accommodating.
Yes, there is a better understanding of vfx but there’s the general notion that vfx can do anything. To a degree it can but I’m a very firm believer that it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. In most cases you should get as much as you can in the can then we’ll do the rest in vfx when you physically can’t do it. I still believe in using miniatures for certain things, sometimes they look great and real. I also believe in building fantastic sets. It gives the actors something to work with. Cg does look photo real but if you really get into the spot the ball competition you can’t beat the real deal.
You’ve got to be honest and say to a director, yes you can do this in vfx but if you can I’d advise you to build a bit of set or get something that’s practical because then you get something in the can and we can always enhance it if need be. To create from scratch, vfx is not cheap. It takes a huge amount of time. Also there’s a misnomer on set that vfx takes no time at all but it’s a crew of 500 for a year.
Back in the day vfx was just about ‘copy this board, copy that shot, job done.’ These days because huge sequences are pure vfx we have a lot of creative control. The director is not there at that stage to direct us so we have to do that ourselves along with the client side super and then suggest things to the editor. You are doing filming to a degree. You’re directing, designing and editing, which is great. Now we have a live art department throughout the entire film. When the production art department finishes we carry or right to the very end. There’s a lot more vfx and you’re creating characters and environments and this stuff all needs to be designed.
People skills is a big thing, you have to keep positive in this industry. These projects go through some very tough times and it’s quite stressful so you’ve got to keep upbeat. You have to be accommodating of everyone’s opinion. It’s a group led creative process but I’m aware also of being that one voice when dealing with the client.
FRAMESTOREGRAVITY; GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; EDGE OF
TOMORROW; WRATH OF THE TITANS; THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
It feels like we’re there very early in the whole process and practically the last ones at the end. You need to have an overview of the whole movie experience.
On set, you need to make sure the shots in the vfx sequences will have the right impact or you’ll end up creating an entirely vfx shot that does have that impact instead. We can replace a lot of shots these days, more pressure will come to do that if the initial photography wasn’t what was wanted. But that pushes up the vfx budget. That’s budget that isn’t magically there, it has to come from somewhere else.
Rarely is there a time when it’s OK to leave the crew to it. Crews are becoming extremely savvy about vfx and they will correctly guess the right process a lot of the time. The danger is they will go ahead without you if you’re not on set. Seven out of ten times they’ll get it right.
There’s an assumption that the more vfx that get shot the more money there will be to do them, but actually the budget is set and we’re trying to minimise the number of vfx to make sure we get money on the screen where it really counts.
You try to make an agreement about what will be vfx and what will not. It can become very difficult to say ‘no, you can’t shoot it that way because we didn’t plan to do that’. Some shoots by their very nature get changed. That’s the nature of the way filmmakers work. You don’t want to limit their creativity so it is a fine balance.
In post the involvement the director has enjoyed by standing behind the camera talking to his actors starts to dissolve a little bit because the digital work he’s commissioned has a much slower turnaround. They’re busy doing directors cuts, ADR, sound mixing, scoring a lot of other stuff. The slow process of vfx is not often something they want to be too involved in so the vfx super starts to inhabit the role of proxy director. It is like a second unit so the supervisor has to consider what the director would shoot in the same way the second AD does. There is an directorial aspect to it, especially if you’re creating characters. Then you have to get into the head of the director and think about what they’re after. Scheduling time with the director and encouraging them to get involved is important.
The key thing is to establish a good relationship with the director, the 1st AD, and the DoP. Be clear up front about what you require, but be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. Feed your requirements into the 1st AD as soon as possible but also look to save them time if there is an opportunity. If there is an element that is key to achieving the desired result, you have to make sure you get it. However, if it merely saves you time in post, be willing to let it go if needs be. Understand the demands that the 1st AD is under and you’ll get on fine.
I’m usually sat next to or within earshot of the director and DoP for most of the shoot. You need the DoP on your side, as they can suggest solutions on the day, which can make the post work easier.
Lighting is the one thing that can’t be changed afterwards so get a good dialogue with the DoP – if the scene has been lit in a way that doesn’t seem right for post, you need to listen to why the DoP has lit it that way and then make a call as to whether you ask for it to be changed. It’s easy to obsess about what looks real, whereas the DoP is making it look beautiful – you need to get the balance right and here the relationship with the director is key.
I often advise people going on shoots to sit and look at the monitor and imagine that what they are seeing has just been loaded into the post-production suite. You then look at it with a more critical eye – it’s easy to be seduced by what you see when looking through the lens.
Being a vfx supervisor requires being able to think on your feet, an ability to adapt to fast changing circumstances, patience, knowing when to kick up a fuss and when to take a step back. And having more than one alarm clock!
Once the job is awarded we work closely with production and client to make sure we are as organised as possible before the shoot. We will be involved in the PPM process if required and will be briefed usually by the director. We will often have our team working on concept drawings, CGI builds, pre visualisation and concept testing long before the shoot.
On a more technical production we will often build a pre visualisation of either a whole commercial or selected shots. This will be done in CG, and will be based on real world information from locations and set builds. This is invaluable in conceptualising each shot. It gives everybody a clear idea of what we will be capturing and also how to capture it. We will quite often be able to export all this data from our CGI package straight to a Motion Control team. With some tweaking this gives them a running start in recreating this shot on set.
The moment I walk on set I go straight to the 1st AD and introduce myself. He or she will be your most important colleague on set. They will be the one to get you everything you need. This could be the infamous ‘Clean Plate’ at the end of a lengthy set up when the producer is stressing to move on. Or an alternate exposure plate, element pass or a rushed HDR image set (which if I don’t get my CG guys will kill me!) Inversely, I really do try to help them keep the fluidity of the shoot. Only asking for post essentials, and judging when I can miss something unessential.
A detailed understanding of all things 2D and CGI is imperative. It really helps to dissect the shot in your head and think how you would reconstruct it once you get into the suite. Then you know you have got everything covered.
It is a plus if you have good communication skills and can give a definitive answer when someone asks you, yes or no? There is no room for...’um, let me think about that’. It can be stressful on shoots when things take a left turn. Production and agency side look to us to give a confident, measured response and to keep calm when people are stressed out around you. There is a delicate balance in spreading your time and attention director and client side. I like to keep everyone in the loop 100% of the time and I make sure everyone knows I am thinking about what both sides require.