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Good Omens: Behind the Scenes

A big name cast on a globe trotting vfx-heavy shoot made Amazon and 
the BBC’s Good Omens a work of Biblical proportions. Jon Creamer reports

It’s now 29 years since Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett published their best-selling novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

And while the pair had always envisaged a screen adaptation of the novel, it’s no surprise that it’s taken this long to make it to the screen.

The book tells the story of the birth of Satan’s son, the approaching apocalypse and the attempts by an angel and a demon to put a stop to it and preserve their comfortable lives on Earth. The action ranges across the globe and takes in miracles, destruction on a Biblical scale, the raising of Atlantis, alien invasions - budget lines to make any exec’s palms start to sweat. Doing the book justice on-screen back in the 90s would have cost the GDP of a small nation.



Screen adaptations have got close to the line before now. Terry Gilliam tried throughout the noughties to produce a movie version but the project fell short financially. Terry Jones and Gavin Scott were also reportedly writing a TV version in 2011 but again it foundered.

But by 2016, after receiving a posthumous letter from fellow writer Terry Pratchett urging him to go ahead with the project, it was announced that Neil Gaiman would write the scripts himself and act as showrunner with with BBC Studios, Narrativia and The Blank Corporation on board as co-producers.

Douglas Mackinnon, whose CV includes Doctor Who, Sherlock and Jekyll, was brought in as the sole director across the series. A big task for one person but, says Mackinnon, “myself and Neil recognised that one director was the best way to realise the script. The practicalities told us it was impossible for more than one director to do it. We’ve got very starry actors on very tight schedules so we had to fit in with them and we’ve got all these locations and CGI and so on. It was clear that however big a task it was, one director was key.”

The cast includes David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Jon Hamm among other big names and casting proved the relatively easy part of the production. “Normally you ask the casting director ‘can we get these people’ and you drop down from there but, actually, we just got all the people we asked for all the time.”

Mackinnon says “it’s the scale and ambition of it that’s the tricky bit” and points to the first page of the script that opens with “‘Exterior, Garden of Eden, Day.’ There’s a lot to fill in. The entire history of the world and its possible death.” And despite a “very good budget” the “director’s job is to stretch things.”

The first job though was to assemble his HoDs , a mixture of familiar faces and new. “As a director of a project of this size, the key is to make sure you’ve got the best people as your HoDs” and then give them the freedom to use their skills. “Part of my philosophy of directing is to let people express themselves when they get the ball. I wanted people to be bold with their decisions in every department. One of myself and Neil’s mantras was people should come to us with ideas and say “this might be insane but…”

But the overall tone had to be set by Mackinnon and Gaiman, because “it’s such an eclectic book. We fly through genres and we’re going from the very serious to the very comedic. The area we wanted Good Omens to inhabit was very close to being ridiculous but just on the edge. If you go too far you end up being a spoof show.”

The more “obvious” influences include Monty Python, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse (as well as Butch and Sundance for Tennant and Sheen’s characters). US show Legion was also a touch point.
Outside of film references the HoDs were given the avante garde jazz piano solo from Bowie’s Aladdin Sane  – “somehow, that got the spirit” – as did a picture of a single tile from an Istanbul mosque Mackinnon spotted in a documentary. “We used that as a colour palette reference.”



The target was “cinematic” and “a six-hour film rather than six hours of telly.” Mackinnon’s DoP Gavin Finney shot on Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini in ProRes 4444 (HQ) and 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Lenses included Leica Summilux primes and Alura zooms. “The package gave us flexibility to jump quickly between Steadicam, Technocrane and studio/dolly mode. Alexa gives very good green screen keys for vfx, and has great and flexible colour rendering which helped in the grade. The Alexa’s latitude could cope with the bright white sands of the Cape Town desert, very low-key hell scenes and everything in-between.”

Much of the look is also determined by the CGI. It’s necessarily a vfx heavy production with lead vendor Milk providing around 650 cgi shots covering the principal vfx sequences. But, says Mackinnon, the push was to make the vfx a seamless part of the narrative. “When I first did Doctor Who with Russell T Davies and David Tennant, the CGI shots were written into the script by Russell because they were so expensive. You would have five or six shots and that was your lot.” And that meant cgi had to be a showstopper. “What’s lovely now is you can move away from the clichés. You’re not just doing CGI shots for the exterior of a spaceship, CGI is involved throughout.”

For the two main characters, an angel and a demon, performing miracles is run of the mill and the vfx had to reflect that. Adam, the young boy who doesn’t know he is the antichrist, sees his imagination come to life. A cgi spaceship therefore had to be one that an 11-year-old would imagine, not the Death Star.

The vfx were extensive, says Milk’s vfx supervisor Jean-Claude Deguara. “You were pretty much doing a new effect for every vfx scene” which kept him busy on set advising throughout pretty much every shoot day. The vfx run the gamut of hellish creatures, explosions, water effects, a cracken, a speeding Bentley and the creation of one of the main locations, a Soho book shop that was scanned from a location on Berwick Street. But for all that, the thrust of the vfx was that they should fit in to the overall narrative, and not stand out as ‘moments’. “One of the first things that Neil ever said to me was he wants everything to feel like it’s all from the same place. It should all come together so everyone’s working together to harmonise the tone,” says Deguara.

But the vfx didn’t stop with Milk. The grade was with Gareth Spensley at Molinare and, says Mackinnon, much additional vfx occurred there. “There is a development now where a lot of the stuff that the vfx house would have done we now shift into the grade. The tech has caught up with us” allowing directors to sit in with a colourist to create many of the vfx that would have gone to the vfx vendor in the past. With the apocalypse approaching, the weather was a big part of the narrative and “80% of the skies we did with Gareth the colourist rather than Milk. A few years ago, Milk would have done that” but with more Flame plug ins now available in Baselight and other grading systems, the colourist can achieve more. “Neil calls Gareth a warlock because of the magic skills he appears to possess to change things,” says Mackinnon.



And the amount of vfx work achieved in the grade was new to Molinare’s Spensley: “The level we did it on Good Omens, that’s completely new for me. I don’t know of any episodic TV show that’s done it” to the same extent. “It could become visual effects but the reason it creeps into the grade is that if you break each shot down to visual effects then you would have hundreds and hundreds of vfx shots. And it becomes slightly unwieldy,” says Spensley. “Within the grade, we can probably get them faster and more cost effectively than if you break them into individual visual effects shots.” It also allows the director to sit in and make rough decisions in real time. “We can start something together in the Baselight and, if it’s the simpler end of things, they can reject it or proceed with it quite quickly,” says Spensley.

And with the original writer showrunning the production, and a ready-made fan base, that control becomes more important. “Five million people have bought the book already,” says Mackinnon. “Those fans will see a lovingly made version but also a bit more as well.”


DETAILS
Production BBC Studios, Narrativia and The Blank Corporation, in association with BBC Worldwide.
Broadcasters Amazon Prime Video and BBC2
Writer and show runner Neil Gaiman
Director Douglas Mackinnon
DoP Gavin Finney
Vfx Milk
Post Molinare
Music David Arnold
Executive Producers Neil Gaiman, Caroline Skinner, Chris Sussman for BBC Studios; Rob Wilkins and Rod Brown for Narrativia.
Commissioner For Amazon Prime Video by Amazon Studios and for BBC2 by Patrick Holland, Controller, BBC Two; Shane Allen, controller, BBC comedy commissioning and commissioning editor Gregor Sharp
Cast Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Jon Hamm, Frances McDormand, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Jack Whitehall, Adria Arjona, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Derek Jacobi
TX on Amazon Prime Video worldwide  on 31st May and on BBC2 at a later date

Posted 30 May 2019 by Jon Creamer

Survey: The Top Ten Pro Rental Cameras

Televisual’s annual top 10 listing of the UK’s most hired cameras is now in its thirteenth year. Jon Creamer counts down the most rented models of the past year

In this year’s survey of the top ten hire cameras, the perennial favourites still hold strong - Arri’s Alexa Mini and Amira are still going strong and Canon’s C300 and C300 MkII still hold their own.

What comes through loud and clear from the survey is that, outside of high end TV, the Sony FS7 is still the dominant model. Along with the FS7 MkII it has solidified its position as the industry workhorse. Few in the hire market predict that changing soon.

It’s not the only game in town, however, with some, including Run Hire, saying “where budgets are constrained, the Canon C300 still retains its presence in the HD broadcast sector and shows no signs of disappearing yet.” The Kit Room also points out that “the C300 and C300 MkII have had a resurgence over the last year.”

Over at the high end, “full frame is making more waves” says Electra. Hotcam also says that “full frame cinematography will undoubtedly make a lot more noise.”



Shift 4 too predicts “more people looking to shoot full frame on large budget productions.” And it seems that Sony could be the beneficiary of that. Pro Vision says the Sony Venice “will have a significant impact on the drama market for 2019,” with Procam saying “the Sony F55 will be superseded by the Venice.” Video Europe is another that says the Venice is “really beginning to gather momentum now.” The Kit Room argues that “this year will tell if it is able to knock the Arri of its perch,” with VMI saying that “the Arri LF has failed to excite the market, so we expect that the Venice will become a really important camera.” But then there’s the new Alexa Mini LF on the horizon. That could make things interesting.


HOW IT WORKS
At the beginning of the year, Televisual sent survey forms to a wide range of camera hire companies, both large and small. Each was asked to list their five most rented cameras of 2018, along with the percentage of hires each model received. An overall ranking of the UK’s most rented models was then created by multiplying the average percentage usage of each model by how many hire companies listed it in their top five. Many thanks to the hire companies who took part.

1 Sony PMW FS7



Average Day Rate £144

LAST YEAR - 01

HIRED FROM
Alias, Anna Valley, Bluefin, 247kit.tv, Hotcam, The Kit Room, Progressive Broadcast, ProVision, Run Hire, Soho Broadcast, Video Europe, VMI

HIRED FOR
Prison Life, Raw and Real, World’s Wildest Holidays, Danger in the Line of Duty (wt) (Alias Hire), The Voice, Hunted, Renovate Don’t Relocate (Anna Valley), BBC Hardtalk, Travel Channel, ITN, ITV (Bluefin), Blind Date, Eating with My Ex (Hotcam), The Great NHS Experiment, Rich Kids Go Skint, 999 What’s Your Emergency, Life and Debt (The Kit Room), Red Arrows, Dancing on ICE, Paddington, Blind Date (ProVision), Dementia Choir (Run Hire)

It’s now the third year in a row that Sony’s FS7 camera has made it to the top spot in our survey of the production industry’s most popular hire cameras having first supplanted the Canon C300 back in 2017.

Sony has updated the camera since its birth, bringing out the second generation of the camera, the FS7 MkII back in 2016. That model has risen up the rankings too but it’s still the MkI that goes out on the bulk of broadcast TV productions.

Anna Valley, formerly Shooting Partners, says that the FS7 has become the “workhorse camcorder of the broadcast industry, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s a professional camera for a reasonable price and produces images of a great quality. It’s the staple kit and there are hundreds of them out on shoots at any one time for broadcast television.” Bluefin says the camera’s success simply comes down to the down to the fact that it’s “less expensive and almost as good as an F55.”

And its success also partly comes from a lack of anything new in its class that has managed to contest its dominance in the sector. As 247kit.tv argues: “With no new cameras challenging in this market space I anticipate the Sony FS7 will go from strength to strength.” The Kit Room, too, says that the FS7 keeps its place “because there haven’t been any breakthrough Run and Gun cameras entering the market.”

But its ability to hold its position as the most hired camera also derives from the simple fact that many operators don’t have to spend a lot of time getting to know it on every production they work on. “It is also increasingly popular because of its familiarity to shooters, making it ideal for productions with heavy time restrictions,” says The Kit Room.

The release of the FS7 MkII hasn’t made too much of an impact on the popularity of the MkI either says Run Hire: “It’s our most hired camera and hasn’t been affected by the MkII coming on to the market, so I think that the MKI will still hold its own in every type of production for many years to come yet.”

Alias Hire too says the MkII has little impact on its popularity. “Our client base has still been very happy taking the earlier version. It shows that the advancements between the 1st and 2nd generation FS7 cameras are minimal. It’s not like the jump the C300 did from MkI to MkII. That jump was significant with the inclusion of 4K and the build quality. ”


2 Arri Alexa Mini



Average Day Rate
£407

LAST YEAR - 03

HIRED FROM
 247kit.tv, Electra, New Day, The Kit Room, Progressive Broadcast, ProVision, Shift 4, Video Europe, VMI

HIRED FOR
Women on the Verge, Zapped, There She Goes, Locked Up Abroad (Electra); commercials (The Kit Room); Milan Fashion, Ballantines Whisky, Norvia (New Day), Still Game (Progressive Broadcast); Victoria, Vera, Truth of Murder, Ackley Bridge, Emmerdale (ProVision); The Athena, Agatha Raisin, Bad Move, Good Karma Hospital (VMI)

It’s another year in second position of the most hired cameras for Arri’s Alexa Mini as the camera remains a mainstay for high end productions.

As Progressive Broadcast says: “the Alexa Mini continues to dominate the hire kit lists from drama and commercials in our market.” Pro Vision too says that the Mini “has again reigned supreme in the drama market which we predominantly service. That said we have seen a significant increase in the request for the Sony Venice both 4K S35 and Anamorphic.  However, the Alexa Mini still has a strong hold on the current market and is a proven camera choice.” Shift 4 also says that “the most popular at the high end for us are still the Alexa Mini and Amira. The Mini because it’s so versatile and being used mainly for dramas and commercials.” And then there are the very strong rumours of an LF version of the Mini soon to be launched.


3 Sony FS7 MkII



Average Day Rate £151

LAST YEAR - 07

HIRED FROM
Electra, Hotcam, New Day, Run Hire, Shift 4, VMI

HIRED FOR
 A League of Their Own, Revolutions: Ideas that Changed the World (Electra); Coach Trip, Couple Goals, Eating with My Ex, Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor, Greatest Dancer (Hotcam); Football Channel, BT Sport, Cheryl (New Day); Inside the Bombsquad (Run Hire),

Sony’s original FS7 model still reigns supreme in the rental market but its younger sibling, the FS7 MkII, released in 2016, is slowly making its way up the rental charts, this year to third position.

VMI says that the FS7 MkII has taken over from the original FS7, “aided by Netflix quality acceptance” (it got a crucial Netflix Post Technology Alliance tick last year).

Alias Hire says that it expects to see “a climb in requests for the FS7 MkII version, but that’s just natural as the FS7 MkI models start to show their age visually. We’ll look to bolster our stock with a few FS7 MkII models while we wait to see if Sony come up with something groundbreaking enough to make an FS7 MkIII a huge hit.” The FS7 MkII, like its stablemate is considered a good “all-rounder,” says Shift 4. “DoPs on a budget will use them with nice lenses as well as self-shooters using Canon L series glass.”


4 Sony PMW F55



Average Day Rate £230

LAST YEAR - 06

HIRED FROM
Bluefin, Electra, Hotcam. Progressive Broadcast, Shift 4

HIRED FOR
Commercials and corporate (Bluefin); Top Gear, A League of Their Own, FIFA World Cup Official Film (Electra); Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor (Hotcam); River City (Progressive Broadcast)

The Sony F55 is now a seven year old camera but still holds its place in the rental market. Alongside cameras like the Alexa, it’s testament to the fact that well built, well liked cameras can have a very long shelf life, especially if the manufacturers keep delivering firmware updates.

It’s also got a broad range of uses all the way from live production to high end dramas and it’s still being used on some of the highest end dramas around, DP Adriano Goldman uses the camera for The Crown, for instance, due to its relatively small form factor and its acceptability to the Netflix gate keepers and he professes to have no plans to change that despite the Venice and Alexa LF’s emergence.

It’s also found new uses too. Shift 4 says the F55 “has had a bit of a resurgence with the release of the R7 RAW recorder, as combining them allows you to shoot 4K RAW at 120fps. No other camera other than specialist ones such as a Phantom can do this so it has made it a popular choice for any high frame rate projects being done for Netflix for example.”




5 Canon C300 MkII




Average Day Rate £178

LAST YEAR - 04

HIRED FROM
Alias Hire, Anna Valley, Bluefin, 247kit.tv, The Kit Room, New Day, Soho Broadcast, VMI

HIRED FOR
Prison, Family Project (Anna Valley); Corporate (Bluefin); The Great NHS Experiment, Claimed and Shamed, The Homeless Filmmaker, Brexit Doc, The Last Witness (The Kit Room); Pottermore / DSTV Promo (New Day), docs (VMI)





6 Arri Amira




Average Day Rate £250

LAST YEAR - 03

HIRED FROM
Electra, 247kit.tv, Video Europe, VMI, Shift 4

HIRED FOR
The Grand Tour, Keith and Paddy Picture Show, This Time with Alan Partridge, Zapped (Electra); Danny & Mick Series II, Josh Series II, Man Down Series III, Raised by Wolves Series II VMI


7 Panasonic AW UE 70



Average Day Rate £135

LAST YEAR - n/a

HIRED FROM
Anna Valley, Hotcam

HIRED FOR
Life Behind Bars: Visiting Hour, Celebrity Call Centre (Anna Valley); Coach Trip, Couple Goals (Hotcam)





8 Canon C300




Average Day Rate £125

LAST YEAR - 05

HIRED FROM
Progressive Broadcast, Run Hire

HIRED FOR
Fantasy Homes By the Sea  (Run Hire)








9 Sony A7S MkII




Average Day Rate £99

LAST YEAR - 08

HIRED FROM
Alias Hire, 247kit.tv, ProVision, Soho Broadcast










=10 Canon XF305 and Red Epic Helium




















=10 Canon XF 305


Average Day Rate
£90

HIRED FROM
The Kit Room, Run Hire

HIRED FOR
Sex Tapes, The Fraud Squad (The Kit Room); Oxford Street (Run Hire)



=10 Red Epic Helium

Average Day Rate £475

HIRED FROM
New Day, VMI

HIRED FOR
Great British Architects - Lutyens (New Day); Turn Up Charlie (VMI)


Posted 01 May 2019 by Jon Creamer
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