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Behind the scenes: Stick Man

South African artists were instrumental in creating BBC1’s 
very English Christmas animation Stick Man

The animated films based on Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s books have quickly become something of a Christmas viewing tradition for British families. Since 2009, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom have all premiered on BBC1 on Christmas Day.

This year, it’s the turn of Stick Man. First published back in 2008, it’s the story of a happy-go-lucky father stick who is separated from his family and struggles to get back to them in time for Christmas.

Stick Man has the same quirky look and rich tone as its predecessors, and is again produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of indie Magic Light Pictures. But the production of Stick Man was very different. For a start it has a new director, London-based Jeroen Jaspaert, whose credits include CBeebies’ Bing Bunny.

The animation team is new too. Animation for the previous films was outsourced to Germany’s Studio Soi. This time, however, Magic Light chose South African animation studio Triggerfish to do all the prep work and production.

Magic Light’s Michael Rose said he tried to make the film in the UK and Europe again, but couldn’t get the £1.6m budget to work – despite the existence of the UK animation tax credit which has revitalised the UK sector. Stick Man, explains Rose, is the largest and most technically complex of the four films – with lots of sets, characters, water and snow. “Our £1.6m didn’t stretch far enough,” he says. “Whereas going to South Africa, not only do they have a 20% tax credit, but the exchange rate is very favourable, so we get a lot more value for our money.”

Rose says the South African animation industry is developing fast. He’d got to know Triggerfish in recent years, and had been impressed, citing projects such as Adventures in Zambezia and Khumba as examples of their “technically superb cgi work on a modest budget.” Rose adds: “We thought if we ally their cgi skills with our storytelling this could be a tremendous partnership.” A crew of about 75 people worked on Stick Man at Cape Town-based Triggerfish, overseen by co-director Daniel Snaddon.

Rose points out that a large proportion of the Stick Man work was done in the UK, including post, direction, sound, storyboard and development – on which Magic Light could claim the UK tax credit too.

Stick Man is also made in a very different way from its predecessors. The first three films were created by compositing cg characters over model sets. This gave the films a very distinctive, tactile feel. But, because Stick Man needed so many different environments – from a park, to woodland, rivers, the sea and homes – the whole project was produced in cg.

Even so, the ambition was to maintain the feel of the earlier films. “We wanted it to be as close as possible to the other films. Computers are always trying to smooth things out and you can get a very floaty effect that you see in some cheap TV animation. So the art was really to push the computers and artists involved, to base everything as closely as possible on real models and their imperfections.”

The team also spent a lot of time working on the snow and water scenes, which feature heavily in Stick Man. Both are difficult to get right in animation. “It’s tremendously complex getting water that looks like water, but that fits in the animated world,” says Rose.

Meanwhile, Magic Light attracted a high profile voice cast to Stick Man, including Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders, Rob Brydon and Sally Hawkins. Their voices were recorded in brief sessions just after the initial storyboard and animatics had been completed; the animators then used their voices to build their characters around. At the end of the process, the voice cast returned to do pick ups.

Post production was all done in the UK, and here Magic Light drew on people that it had worked with on the previous films: including sound designer Adrian Rhodes, editor Robin Sales and colourist Robin Pizzey. Rene Aubry again provides the original score, which emphasises Stick Man’s journey from happy times with his family to getting lost in the forest, and back home again.

In all, the production has taken over 18 months, and Magic Light is now turning its attention to a two-part animation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes for Christmas 2016 for BBC1. Magic Light hopes that Stick Man will have as wide an audience as its predecessors – which have sold to 180 countries.

Looking back, Rose says the big challenge has been to ensure a much loved book works in a new medium. “It has got to be a film which works in its own right. But we wanted the experience that families have of reading the book to translate to the screen.”

A half hour animated film based on the children’s picture book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, Stick Man tells the tale of a happy go lucky father’s epic journey to make it home in time for Christmas

Production Company
Magic Light Pictures
Michael Rose and Martin Pope
Jeroen Jaspaert
Daniel Snaddon
Polly Hill
Line Producer
Mike Buckland
René Aubry
Sound Designer
Adrian Rhodes
Rob Pizzey
Robin Sales
Casting director
Karen Lindsay-Stewart       
Animation Studio
Triggerfish Animation Studios, Cape Town
Goldcrest Post
Martin Freeman, Jennifer Saunders, Rob Brydon, Russell Tovey, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville

Posted 09 December 2015 by Tim Dams

The graphics of Bond

Ever since the early days of 007, the on screen graphics have been an integral part of the Bond movies.  Key locations such as Q’s lab and the villain’s lair are lavishly equipped with monitors, screens, computers and phones – all filled with eye-catching high tech screen graphics.

For Spectre, the job of designing these complex graphics fell to Rushes MGFX Studio, led by Barry Corcoran, and John Hill of Vincent who joined the team as creative supervisor.

They worked closely with the Bond production team, including director Sam Mendes and DoP Hoyte van Hoytema, who wanted to capture all of the screen graphics in-camera. It meant all of the screens had to be populated with the graphics on set, rather than being added later in post production.

This would allow the actors to interact with the screens. “If you capture these things in camera, they look much better – with the light spill coming off onto their fingers and faces,” says Corcoran.

But it meant the design work had to start well in advance of initial shooting so it was ready for the start of the shoot.

The brief was to ground the graphics so they appeared realistic and believable, but had a ‘near future’ look which would still look fresh in years to come. For the MI6 technology, Rushes devised a proxy operating system, with an app-based, slightly military feel. “We wanted it to look and feel like an existing product that would be available in a few years time,” says Corcoran. Banks of monitors showed off this work in Q’s lab.

An even greater number of screens were used in villain Oberhauser’s lair, to display complex analytical data infographics and specially adapted news footage.

To lend a realistic feel to the graphics, the work was based on extensive research into areas such as nanorobotics and the latest military and medical thinking.

One scene, for example, sees Bond injected with a ‘smart bullet’ tracking device, with its journey into his arm followed on a computer screen. Rushes animated the hand and arm, and designed the smart bullet and showed its journey into his bloodstream. This five second shot took the Rushes team up to three weeks to create.

The graphics were often called on to showcase Bond’s gadgets. Here the Rushes team was briefed to not just show the graphics – but to help drive the narrative by explaining how they worked. The brief, says Corcoran, was, ‘Don’t show me a picture of a rocket launcher, I want to know the inner workings of it, and how it is going to rotate and where the switch is that Bond is going to flick.”

In all, a core team of four, which scaled up to nine when required, spent 13 months working on the motion graphics for Bond.

Posted 03 December 2015 by Tim Dams

Feature films buoy London's post production scene

Like a bespoke studio lot, Soho is home to an array of post production, vfx and sound facilities. A swathe of features have coursed through London this year, from tentpole features like Spectre and The Martian as well as British films such as Dad’s Army, The Program, The Lady in the Van and Youth.

And most companies say they continue to be busy with feature film work. “It’s buoyant,” says Steve Milne, executive chairman of Molinare, which has provided full post and vfx on Dad’s Army, completed DI on Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein and has just started work on Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie and is about to begin on James Marsh’s Deep Water starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. He predicts a vintage year in film for the post house in 2016.

Visual effects
Framestore head of film Fiona Walkinshaw also says the London post and vfx scene is very busy, pointing to the large numbers of films that are shooting in the UK – and the difficulty that many are having in finding studio space.

Framestore, which has 750 staff working in London, has recently provided vfx on films like Working Title’s Everest and StudioCanal’s Paddington, as well as big US tent pole The Martian directed by Ridley Scott which also shared its vfx work with MPC and The Senate.

Framestore has just started working on Andy Serkis’ take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book for Warner Bros, which Walkinshaw says will “probably be the biggest film that we have ever done – all the main characters are computer generated.” She reckons up to 250 people will work on Jungle Book: Origins at Framestore at its peak. 

London’s status as magnet for international talent and its reputation for quality, as well as the UK’s generous film tax credits, mean that the capital can more than hold its own in the increasingly global battle to win business from US studios.

Marvel, for example, has become a constant presence in London, carrying out vfx here on superhero films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and about to start on Doctor Strange.

Warners has also invested heavily in the UK since embarking on the Harry Potter films. It has developed Leavesden and acquired Soho facility De Lane Lea, while producing big budget features such as Pan, In the Heart of the Sea and The Man from Uncle.

The latest James Bond film, meanwhile, spread its work among a host of London post houses. Spectre's vfx work was shared between Cinesite, MPC, Double Negative, ILM, Peerless and Bluebolt, while Framestore worked on the iconic title sequence (pictured above).  Rushes supplied Spectre's impressive UI screen graphics, while Company 3's Greg Fisher was responsible for the grade.

Competition remains fierce, though, against countries such as Canada, the US, India and New Zealand. A number of UK vfx companies are reportedly downsizing in London at the moment, amid fears of a ‘race to the bottom’ between facilities looking to undercut each other on price to attract footloose US features.

However, Walkinshaw believes London will continue to hold its own, citing in particular the talent on offer in areas such as R&D and supervising shows. “London is incredibly innovative – it never ceases to amaze me how good senior London talent is,” she says, adding: “Our prices are competitive and the quality of the work is good and the talent base here is so strong.” It means US studios can feel confident in assigning work to London companies.

Digital advances
And there is ever more vfx work to do. Vfx houses are now completing more and more work on features as advances in computer technology allow effects to become ever more integral to the film-making process.

For example, some 65 of the 90 minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity were fully digital. “Being able to do something like that really wasn’t possible five years ago – you couldn’t have contemplated making that film and rendering it at photo-real quality.”

It means the shot counts handled by the likes of Framestore are rising dramatically. “We could end up doing 1000 shots on The Jungle Book, whereas seven or eight years ago 100 shots would have been a big award on a film,” says Walkinshaw.

A Marvel film might now contain 3000 shots or more, meaning that the work will be shared around multiple vfx houses in London.

This could rise further still. The leading vfx houses see great potential in creating ‘digital humans’ who can double up as actors in certain scenes. For the moment, it’s difficult to do as faces are so intricate and viewers are quick to spot a digital version that isn’t quite natural enough. But, says Walkinshaw, “We are getting very near to a place where we could create a digital human that would be believable in a shot.”

Full service post
By contrast, smaller budgeted British and European independent films work with many medium sized Soho facilities. Lipsync, for example, has recently worked on projects such as Trespass Against Us, Alone in Berlin, The Falling, A Royal Night Out and Mr Turner. The market, acknowledges Lipsync owner Peter Hampden, is very competitive “driven by challenging budgets.”

Lipsync offers all aspects of post, including sound, grade, flame and vfx, arguing that it can “maximise production resources and pass on economies of scale” to producers.

Hampden says its primary business is offering post services to TV and film producers. To help attract this business in a competitive market, Lipsync can also provide finance too, and began investing in features in 2007. This year it struck its 100th post investment deal with The Nice Guys, Joel Silver’s forthcoming film starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe and directed by Shane Black.

Competitor Molinare has also been stepping up its presence in the film post market. With a long TV heritage, it only entered the film picture post market in 2005 and the film audio market in 2013 after a complete rebuild of its studios.

But it believes there are lots of opportunities for UK facilities in film. Milne reckons that the success of projects like Pride have helped Molinare’s audio reputation. “There used to be a clear gap between TV drama and independent film markets but now with talent moving seamlessly between the two, Molinare is well positioned to benefit.”

Tellingly the facility is working on Ken Loach’s next film – and also won picture post on Netflix’s £100m series The Crown, directed by Stephen Daldry – neatly demonstrating the wide range of projects that UK facilities are now working on.

Posted 02 December 2015 by Tim Dams

What the Dickens...?

Twenty-part BBC1 drama Dickensian is the most complex show Red Planet boss Tony Jordan has taken on to date.
“Every decent show I have been involved with has always been difficult for people to get their head around,” says Tony Jordan, the writer and producer of series such as time-travel cop show Life on Mars and ‘long-con’ drama Hustle.

Jordan is sitting in a smart hotel room in Cannes, where he is selling his latest project, Dickensian, to international buyers at the Mipcom programme market. And it’s clear he’s having some trouble explaining the show’s premise to them. “I’ve got a huge wall to break down. Not a bad wall, just a wall...” Buyers assume he has adapted each of Dickens’ books side by side, and this is just another in a long, long line of adaptations of the author’s work. “But it’s not that,” says Jordan, “It is in no way an adaptation.”

What Jordan has done instead is to take some of Dickens most iconic characters, including Scrooge, Fagin and Miss Havisham, and mix them together in the same place, creating backstories and new narratives for them. “I’ve entwined them and meshed them all up to create something unique,” says Jordan.

Like many classic TV dramas, it’s based around a precinct – in this case a few streets in 19th Century London, where the Old Curiosity Shop sits next door to The Three Cripples Pub, and Fagin’s den is hidden down a murky alley.

Given his background as lead writer on EastEnders, Jordan’s 20x30-min project has been described as a soap-like take on Dickens. But it is a description he bridles at. “I hear that soap thing a lot, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.” Soaps, he points out, have to be contemporary because they reflect the way we live now. “A period drama can’t be a soap,” he says.

However, Jordan reckons his background makes him “perfect” for this project. He left school with no qualifications and famously began his career as a market trader, only starting to write in his early 30s. “Charles Dickens had more talent in his little finger than I have in my entire body…but I am perfect for this because I have an irreverence for the material. I’m not an academic…I didn’t study or do English literature…so it means I don’t feel I have to stick to the letter of Dickens in a way that some others might.”

Likewise, viewers, he says, won’t need to have read a single word of Dickens to enjoy the series.

However, Jordan says he sought to engage with Dickens experts early on in the project’s life, in a bid to assuage fears at any liberties being taken – and he clearly believes he has won them over. The reason, he says, is that the characters remain faithful to those that Dickens created: “Scrooge isn’t gay, Mrs Gamp hasn’t got one leg. Why would I change them? The purpose of doing this is because those characters are so great.”

The origins of Dickensian go back several years to an end of series dinner for Hustle, when Jordan first mentioned the project to former BBC head of independent drama Polly Hill. Jordan worried that it would be too expensive for the BBC, but Hill and former BBC1 controller Danny Cohen backed it. The £12m budget was then raised with the help of an advance from BBC Worldwide.

With the budget in place, one of the key first decisions was where and how to film Dickensian. Jordan says that the weather is a crucial element of Dickens’ story telling – he uses mist, snow and dark nights “as another character.” But that’s a problem for drama shoots. “You know what it is like in modern day filming – just trying to get a night shoot is a nightmare…”, says Jordan. “The more I thought about it, the more I knew we’d have to build the world.”

This is exactly what production designer Michael Ralph has done, creating a specially-built indoor set in West London. It comprises 27 two-storey Victorian buildings set around cobbled streets. “It was built so it could have horses and carriages going round it. It’s amazing, like Harry Potter world,” says Jordan.

Jordan’s Red Planet, meanwhile, is busy on other projects such as Sky1 adventure series Hooten & The Lady and BBC1 musical drama Stop! In The Name Of Love. The indie is clearly benefitting from the rising global demand for original drama, which Jordan says helps to define networks at a time when a growing number of platforms like Amazon, Netflix and Sky are trying to stand out.”The thing with drama is that it sticks. Drama can define a network in a way that nothing else can,” he says, citing the impact of House of Cards on Netflix. “So everybody is running around looking for their benchmark drama, and luckily for Red Planet that is what we make.”

Still, he has no plans to sell Red Planet, one of the few remaining drama indies in an ever more consolidated production market. “I love the fact that we are completely independent. I have no boss, nobody can phone me and tell me what we should or shouldn’t do. And I like that.”

- Tony Jordan started his writing career at 32 when he submitted an unsolicited script to the BBC. He became a scriptwriter for EastEnders, writing almost 200 episodes. 

- He went on to create acclaimed dramas such as Hustle, and co-created Life on Mars.

- Jordan set up Red Planet Pictures in 2005 as a writer-led drama production company.
- Red Planet’s first commission was Holby Blue, and it has since gone on to make Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper, The Nativity, The Passing Bells and The Ark.

- Red Planet is now making a fifth series of Death In Paradise, new action adventure series Hooten and the Lady for Sky1, and BBC1 musical drama Stop! In The Name Of Love.

Posted 30 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Getting the look: Sunset Song

Michael McDonough, the DoP of Terence Davies’s upcoming film Sunset Song tells Tim Dams why he opted for the large format - and rarely used - Arri 765 camera to achieve the unique look of the film

Sunset Song is an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel by acclaimed director Terence Davies (House of Mirth, Of Time & The City).

Starring Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan and Kevin Guthrie, it’s set at the dawn of the First World War and is the story of a young woman’s endurance against the hardships of rural Scottish life and the changes wrought by the War.

The film beautifully captures the turning of the seasons, in the years leading up to the War, and shot in Scotland, Luxembourg and New Zealand – the latter so it could capture the harvest cycle.

Critics have noted the cinematography of DoP Michael McDonough. (“He lets the camera glide through magic-hour-magicked corn fields, before a genuinely spine-tingling shift to wintry whites, and fills the frame grandiloquently with brooding expanses of sky,” said The Telegraph’s Tim Robey).

McDonough used both film and digital cameras for Sunset Song, specifically two Arri 765 – 65mm film cameras with Kodak 500T negative and 65mm lenses, as well as Arri Alexa XT cameras shooting 
in 2.8k ArriRaw with the latest Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses.

The choice of the large format, and now rarely used, Arri 765 was “a masterstroke by the production,” says McDonough. “It gave a scope and grandeur to the landscape work that went hand in hand with the idea that the landscape was an equally important character within the story. In many ways, it’s what the film is about – the land will endure.” He adds that the Alexa XT was perfect for studio work – light, agile and considerably smaller and faster than the film camera.

Plenty of pre-shoot testing proved that the combination of digital and 65mm would work well together, says McDonough. “The size of the negative and the lack of substantial grain in the 65mm matched very well with the subtle noise floor of the Alexa XT and they cut back and forth seamlessly.”

The 765 came with its own set of 65mm lenses – rehoused Hasselblad medium format glass. They came pristine, straight off the shelf from Arri in Munich because the large format camera has been such a specialist tool, limited to films such as Little Buddha, Shutter Island and Gravity. 

Similarly the Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses for the Alexa XT were brand new. “So new in fact they only had three focal lengths for us to use – 35mm, 50mm and 75mm. This worked perfectly well in the studio and gave the film a great sense of consistency, backed up by Terence’s preference for beautifully controlled movement and framing.” McDonough adds that the lenses were sharp and clean and true all the way to the corners, “but still have that cinematic quality, akin to the peripheral vision of the human eye – the areas of fall off – that I am so drawn too.”

The “stellar” grade was carried out by colourist John Claude at Dirty Looks in Soho. “I came into the grade a few days late because of work commitments in LA and he had already given it an overall pass and it looked just as we’d designed,” says McDonough, who adds that this was built on the on-location DIT work of Matthieu Straub. “Together we built LUTs for the Alexa which were rich and heavy, meaning I had plenty of negative range underneath, and these were translated to the dailies each day so Terence had a very strong sense in the edit of the finished film. The consistency of Matthieu’s oversight and the rigour of the stage lighting made for an easy translation to the DI suites the majority of the time.”

Looking back, McDonough says shooting on 65mm “was a personal joy for me” and a unique career moment. “It gave such a concrete reality to the landscape.”

Sunset Song is released on December 4th.

Posted 23 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Teletubbies

The new series of Teletubbies, out this month, is produced in 
a radically different way from the original.

Why? It’s the question many people ask when they learn that another 60 episodes of pre-school classic Teletubbies have been made. Over 360 episodes were originally produced by indie Ragdoll, enough surely to continue to satisfy the demand of most pre-schoolers.

But much has changed in the 18 years since since Teletubbies launched in March 1997 – not least in terms of broadcast quality. Filmed on tape in DigiBeta, the original episodes pre-date HD let alone 4K. Teletubbies went on to play in 120 territories, but also came out before YouTube, the iPad and mobiles revolutionised the way kids now watch TV.

The brand’s new Canadian owners, DHX Media, which bought Ragdoll in 2013 for £17m, believe there is a ready market for an updated version. They were encouraged no doubt by Teletubbies postings on YouTube garnering almost 76m views – per month.

DHX briefed the show’s new producers, Darrall Macqueen (Topsy and Tim, Baby Jake) to stay true to the original series’ characters and styling. So Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po all return with only subtle updates. For example, their Tummy Screens now reflect the 16:9 dimensions of flat screens TV and also feature touch button technology. The episodes are also shorter, at 14 minutes, to make them more digestible for short form mobile viewing.

But the really big changes have happened behind the scenes. The original show was famous for its vibrant green, undulating set created – at huge expense – in a field in Stratford. The new Teletubbies is shot inside a studio in Twickenham, using a blue screen and a miniature 3D model set.

DoP Simon Reay, who was also camera operator on the original show, says the new set up gave the cast and crew a much greater degree of control. “On the original show, we would shoot outside if it was sunny, and inside the dome if it was raining. We always strove for clear blue skies, but you rarely had that in an English summer.”

The model set was designed in CAD, and 3d printed by The Prop Shop at a scale of 20:1. It measures around 3m x 3m; the hillocks are just 5cm high. 20,000 laser cut flowers – daisies, buttercups, cornflowers and poppies – decorate the model. The grass, made in Germany by a company called Noch, is 6mm high, and was trimmed with scissors to give the feel of a meadow. “The scale was quite extreme,” says Reay. “We would have made it bigger but it would have been astronomically expensive.”

The 8ft high live action Teletubbies were filmed against the blue screen at one end of the studio. It had full scale blue domes that matched, at a ratio of 20:1, the hillocks on the 3d model set up across the room. Footage from the live action camera was then lined up exactly with footage taken from the miniature camera, and mixed together by Lola Post Production to create the illusion that the Teletubbies are walking in a real world. Lola also added CGI flourishes such as the horizon, flowers blooming 
and the turning of the Windmill (a 25cm high prop 
on the model).

Reay shot with the Red Epic, in 5k for the blue screen and 4k on the model. “The Red Epic seemed the right way to go. We shot 4k for the model because I wanted the smallest sensor with the greatest resolution. The smaller the sensor the smaller your depth of field – and I needed a depth of field somewhere between one and two centimetres from the front element to two metres back. Everything had to be in focus.” He also used an 18mm Arri Master Prime lens. “It’s the sharpest lens you can get. I wanted the blue screen to be as crisp as possible."

The studio shoot was technically far more challenging than the original outdoor shoot. But it gave the crew far more flexibility, not only in terms of the weather. The original Teletubbies, for example, used speeded up sequences to add energy and dynamism. The new version can be more precise, speeding up only one of the characters at a time while the others move at a normal pace. “With little things like that we can play with and enhance the story,” says director Jack Jameson. “Hopefully we are using the technology in a good way.”

Jameson was aware of the expectations when taking on the project: “There is a challenge as a director when it has been done so brilliantly in the first place – are you trying to make it better or keep it the same?” He focused on the core appeal of the show – the Teletubbies themselves – trying to work out what was so magical and appealing about them. “For me that magic is in their movement,” says Jameson. The old costumes, he says, were heavy and cumbersome. “I guess that’s why the Teletubbies have that child-like, toddler movement with little trips – you don’t know if they are intentional or not. We wanted to retain that, even with more comfortable costumes – so lots of time was spent with the performers exploring that playful spring in their step.”

The new series of Teletubbies ditched its famous outdoor set in favour of an indoor studio in Twickenham that replicated Teletubbyland using blue screen production techniques and a 3d printed miniature model of the set. The voice cast for the 60x14-min series includes Jim Broadbent, Jane Horrocks, Daniel Rigby, Fearne Cotton and Antonia Thomas.

Production company
Darrall Macqueen, Machame & TPL for DHX Media
Executive producers
Maddy Darrall, Billy Macqueen, Kate Bennetts, Michael Towner, Steven DeNure
Series producer
Fiona Robinson
Jack Jameson, 
Richard Bradley
Catherine Williams
Simon Reay
Production designer
Ant Howells
Steve Dix
Red Epic
Lola Post Production
Post production
The Farm Group

Posted 17 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: The Last Panthers

The rise of complex, multi-layered European drama has been one of the big TV trends in recent years, thanks to standout series like The Killing, The Returned and The Tunnel.  

The Last Panthers is likely to appeal to a similar kind of audience, but the six-part series ranges far more widely than most. The story of diamond raid gone wrong, it zigzags from London to Marseille and across Europe to Belgrade and the Balkans over a 20-year time frame.

According to its writer Jack Thorne (Skins, This is England ‘86), it’s about far more than a robbery: it’s a complicated tale about state of the European Union, organised crime and shadowy international finance.

Like it’s subject matter, the story of the £15m production is complex too. It shot entirely on location, in multiple languages (English, French and Serbian), with a Swedish director, English writer, French heads of department, and a crew from across Europe. The cast includes UK stars Samantha Morton and John Hurt as well as France’s Tahar Rahim and Croatia’s Goran Bogdan. Meawhile, the budget was boosted by the French tax credit, and the title track is by none other than David Bowie.

The show originated in France, the brainchild of crime journalist Jerome Pierrat. He pitched the idea to the producers of The Returned, Haut et Court TV, who secured the backing of Canal Plus. Realising that the story and budget required European co-production support, Haut et Court’s producer Caroline Benjo took it to Warp Films’ Peter Carlton – a friend from the European arthouse film circuit.

Warp, which produced This is England, then brought Jack Thorne on board to write the script, and won the backing of Sky – which will roll the drama out simultaneously this month to its subscribers in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Austria.

Thorne says the script, which was developed over three years, grew out of conversations and research trips across Europe with Pierrat to meet shadowy figures in the mafia as well as insurance chasers, and with input from the European cast. “They all played a huge role in how the scripts turned out – there was a lot of talking and working things out together.”

Given the complexity of the story and the shoot, director Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), says that early on the team decided to “make this series as one big ass movie” rather than individual units in a series.

Thorne completed all six scripts before the show started shooting (although he often tweaked it on location). Unusually for a TV drama, Renck signed on to direct the entire series, which was planned so scenes from different episodes could be shot in a single location before the cast and crew moved on to the next location to shoot more. This helped make more efficient use of the budget.

“It is a restless show,” says Peter Carlton. “Most crime shows are based around some sort of precinct. But on this, we shot for nearly 130 days (with the second unit too) – and the longest we were ever in one location was four days.” The schedule, admits Carlton, “brought everyone to their knees.”

The series was shot using Arri Alexa, while flashbacks scenes to the Bosnian war were shot in Super 16. Certainly, The Last Panthers looks cinematic and authentic – halfway between a movie and a TV drama. Carlton says: “We almost had to invent a genre for it – we called it “operatic realism”…people think authentic as meaning gritty – but it isn’t gritty, it is real. It is very stylised and has a very particular look – the colour palette is controlled but is driven from real places.”

Thorne sought to present his characters as three dimensional and believable, not simply as ciphers for good and evil. This particularly applied to the jewellery gang from Serbia, a country that’s home to more than its fair share of TV and film villains. 
“We all feel passionately about Serbia, a country that is in a mess and has massive problems with corruption. But there is nobility to the country. We wanted to make sure that we were not just going Serb bashing…the complexity of the country is really important to us.”

Samantha Morton says it is her first TV series in 20 years. “This is the best part I have ever played. For women, parts like these are just not written.”

Carlton doesn’t play down the challenge of making the show, amid tales of difficult shoots on storm-swept Montenegrin mountainsides and being bottled in Marseille. But, he says: ”I’m immensely proud of the show. At a time when massive questions are being asked about the EU, it is a gesture of genuine European solidarity.” For all the differences amongst the cast and crew, he says they had far more in common. “Europe is so broken up nationalistically and that is reflected in our film – but we do have massive common references.”

The Last Panthers opens with a daring diamond heist by a Serbian gang that goes badly wrong. Samantha Morton plays a British loss adjustor charged by her boss (played by John Hurt) with recovering the diamonds whatever the cost. Also in pursuit is a French-Algerian policeman, played by Tahar Rahim. The chase  quickly takes them through a Europe where a shadowy alliance of gangsters and ‘banksters’ now rule.

Sky Atlantic and Canal+
Production companies
Warp Films and Haut 
et Court TV
Peter Carlton (Warp), Caronline Benjo, 
Jimmy Desmarais 
(Haut et Court)
Johan Renck
Original idea by
Jerome Pierrat
Jack Thorne
Luke Dunkley
Arri Alexa, Super 16
International sales
Tandem, Sky Vison
Samantha Morton, Tahar Rahim, John Hurt, Goran Bogdan

Posted 10 November 2015 by Tim Dams

Hitting the right note: composing music for TV

An original score provides a distinctive edge to a TV show, whether factual hits like The Apprentice or dramas like Sherlock or Poldark. Despite many shows opting for cheaper library music, composers argue that an original score need be neither expensive nor complicated to create – and can add huge value to a show.

Library music can, of course, be very useful – particularly if a production needs music in a hurry or tracks that are expensive to record, like a big band or jazz score. Factual shows, in particular, can get away with library tracks because the music is often an underscore, providing background under narrative.

Original vs library music

But, says The Apprentice composer Dru Masters, an original score recorded with live musicians makes a show “more unique”, contributing to a distinct identity and style.

There can be a bland uniformity about library music, even though libraries offer a huge range of tracks for low fees. Says Masters: “What happens in an edit situation is you just don’t have time to go through 1,000s of CDs, so everyone ends up using the same stuff. They know it works, which is why you end up hearing the same cues over and over again.”

In factual, original music can provide a unifying and unique tone while emphasising what is on screen. In The Apprentice, for example, key points such as the boardroom scenes are all scored with composed music. The tasks alternate between original cues, commercial and library tracks. If the editors want more original tracks, they contact Masters. “It makes it a much more unique piece,” says Masters.

In drama, meanwhile, the role of music is different. “Often it is telling you something you can’t see,” says Masters. “You rarely use music in factual that way.” He says viewers would never dream of watching a drama like Sherlock and hearing library music in the middle. “You would expect it to be composed, to have a theme and variations, and then cut back and interweave into other things.”

Composing costs

The costs of original music aren’t prohibitive either, insist composers. Indeed production companies often make back the money they invest in an original score from the royalties they share with the composer.

Original music for a factual series for a terrestrial broadcaster might cost £1000 an hour to score. Masters says he would write about 50 tracks for a series, working on and off over a period of three months.

Drama, of course, is more expensive. Sherlock composer Michael Price says a budget of £15-20,000 an hour will pay for an original score, plus real players recording the tracks in a studio.

He argues that TV music budgets have fallen behind film, despite TV drama becoming more filmic and the lines blurring between the two genres. “People talk about something like 3% of a film production budget for the music. Somewhere, somehow as TV drama has got more expensive, the music budgets have been left behind. “

Price says it’s best to pay for live musicians to record a drama score, with 10-20 performers the norm. “Sherlock would absolutely not sound like Sherlock if you didn’t record those things for real. It would be a different show without the performers.” Cutting the performance element is a “short term saving, but long term loss”. Citing shows like Inspector Morse, Price says: “The scores that are recorded for real with orchestras age really beautifully – they still sound wonderful.”

Commissioning a composer

Many producers and director, however, feel awkward or nervous about commissioning original music for a show, and struggle to find the right vocabulary to describe what they want.

Price says: “Most filmmakers feel very comfortable on set, talking to the DoP about lenses and light or the picture editor in the cutting room…but when it comes to music, it is either the most magical or terrifying department to deal with.”

He adds: “The best way to be briefed is however the producer or filmmaker feels most comfortable to do it. Often a successful way is to talk about emotions rather than musical specifics.”

However, composers tend to have different ways of working. Poldark composer Anne Dudley says she ‘almost always’ works with a finished edit and starts with a detailed briefing session with a producer and / or director. “At that stage, it’s likely that they have put in some temp music and you have to persuade them to get that out of their heads and try and look at it as a whole – and spot where the pieces of music should go, and find good in points and out points rather than it being a continuous mush.”

Dudley tends to sit at her piano with the drama on screen, working through ideas, writing them down and recording them. “It has to be an emotional response really. What I am trying to do is add something extra. It’s no good just trying to score the sync points and what is there. You are trying to say a bit more than what is there – to illustrate the inner emotional life of it.”

Price, meanwhile, says his preferred way of working is to write a ten-minute sweep of ideas that aren’t specific to the picture. He will compose on his computer with Logic Pro software and a keyboard. Often, a show will be presented with temp music attached. He says temp music can both help and hinder. “Sometimes it can tell you what not to do. Usually there’s something to be learnt from every piece of music up against a picture. It’s often a very useful shorthand.”

Masters says he is “really inspired by the picture”. But factual shows he works on are often being cut right up till TX, so the process is more fragmented. “I will write to picture, and by the time I have sent it back to them in two or three hours, they will have cut it again. They will cut again what I have sent to them to fit pictures, and I will rework – it can happen half a dozen times. “

Posted 09 November 2015 by Tim Dams
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