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Blue Planet II: How we made it

The producers of Blue Planet II tell Tim Dams how tech advances and military planning helped them capture the secrets of the deep

If any show can comfortably be predicted to become a blockbuster factual hit in the UK and around the world, it is Blue Planet II, made by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.

The original David Attenborough-narrated series about the world’s oceans aired back in 2001, winning two BAFTAs, two Emmys and nearly 10m viewers in the UK. It also sold to 240 territories around the world.

The NHU argues that there have been so many scientific discoveries in the oceans since then, as well as huge advances in camera and diving technology, that a sequel is justified. 

“A generation on from the Blue Planet stories, it is an opportunity to tell a bunch of new stories,” says executive producer James Honeyborne. He won’t reveal the budget for the seven part series, but some of the stats about the making of the show hint at its size. Blue Planet II has been four years in production and involved 125 expeditions to 39 countries. 

Initially, Honeyborne worked with series producer Mark Brownlow and a small team of researchers and producers to find the stories and to script Blue Planet II. This was done by plugging into a network of contacts among marine scientists for information about the latest discoveries about the oceans. “The basis of all these big, new stories are the relationships we have with our scientists,” stresses Honeyborne. “For something that ends up as entertainment telly, it does have an absolute scientific core to it.”

Over the course of a year, the team worked up and planned seven specific episodes: a big opening film, One Ocean, to introduce the audience to the central premise of the series, which is, according to Brownlow, that “you’re going to see things you’ve never seen before.” This includes footage of animal behaviour that has never been filmed, such as a fish that leaps out of the water to snatch birds on the wing through to a tuskfish that uses a tool to open clams.

Then come five habitat based programmes, each overseen by a specific producer: The Deep, shot from a manned sub in the hidden depths of the ocean; Coral Reefs, about the home of a quarter of all marine species; Big Blue, about life out in the middle of the vast open ocean; Green Seas, focusing on underwater forests of kelp and seaweed; and Coasts, where two worlds collide. The final episode, Our Blue Planet, has an environmental focus.

As these stories were refined over the course of the first year’s planning, the BBC pitched the project to co-production partners who stumped up a significant part of the budget. The show is co-produced with BBC America, China’s Tencent and CCTV9, France Televisions and Germany’s WDR. “They are part of the journey,” says Honeyborne.

Once the narrative arc of each episode had been planned, production began in earnest. “We had a core team of 25 people when we were really going full throttle with the filming,” reflects Brownlow. 

Almost immediately, though, came a stark reality check – and a demonstration that a natural history show can never simply follow a script like a Hollywood shoot, no matter how detailed the planning. The very first shoot ended in “abject failure, scuttled by El Nino”, says Brownlow. “You think OK, there’s a hole in the narrative, we have got less money now, we’re five minutes short, we’ve got to find another story that makes a similar point.”

The logistics of filming were akin to a military operation, with kit and crew being dispatched around the world – from the Antarctic peninsular to the Galapagos Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Each episode comprises 10 or 11 stories of about five minutes length, all shot in a different location. “We spent the best part of three years filming,” says Honeyborne. The final nine months were spent in post production, whittling down a shooting ratio of about 100 minutes of filming to one minute of final film. 

As so many of the marine stories took place in specific seasons, the production schedule allowed for crew to return to sites the following year. “You want to give yourself a chance to hit the story twice,” says Brownlow. Occasionally stories were filmed over three years, such as one sequence about orcas and humpback whales feeding on herring off Norway. 

Technological advances have contributed hugely to the stories in Blue Planet II. Rebreather diving kits, for example, meant that its underwater teams could dive up to four hours at a time, far longer than traditional scuba dives. Rebreather diving also produces no bubbles – which means fish aren’t scared off. “Rebreather diving gives our teams time to sit silently and watch, with no bubbles or disturbance underwater, and really get to know new creatures and their behaviours,” says Honeyborne.

Meanwhile, in The Deep episode, a crew led by producer Orla Doherty, filmed for over 1000 hours from a high-tech submersible at depths of up to 1km. Carrying UHD and extreme low light cameras, they captured previously unseen events such as hunting packs of Humbolt squid through to bubbling brine lakes at the bottom of the ocean.

The “bread and butter” camera for the series was the Red Epic Dragon, but this was supplemented by over a dozen others. For example, the Sony A7S and Canon ME20 were picked for their low light properties to film Noctiluca ‘sea sparkles’ glowing at night, around the wing beats of shoaling mobula rays, as they gather off the Mexican coast. “Lowlight technology is moving on so fast that we have scenes we have only just filmed because the technology didn’t exist just the year before,” says Brownlow.

The team also built an underwater probe lens that could squeeze through tiny cracks to give a wide angle, immersive view of life right inside coral reef. “We wanted to immerse the audience into the subject, so they could see what it was like to live as a clown-fish,” says Brownlow. “It has never been done before underwater. They are so light hungry. We have used them above water on projects like Hidden Kingdoms. But the camera sensors had never been sensitive enough to work with these light hungry lenses – until now.”

Infrared underwater cameras were also used to film the hunting technique of the bobbit worm. “If we’d shone a white light on this nocturnal ambush predator, it would have just stayed in its hole. But it can’t detect infrared light,” says Brownlow. “Even though we’re filming in complete darkness and can only see what is going on through the viewfinder, we can capture behaviour that’s never been seen before.”

A CATS Cam suction cup camera was also placed on the back of an orca, gripping on to the killer whale so the crew got a ‘fish-eyed’ view during a hunt. Between 12-48 hours later, the camera gently detaches to be picked up at sea later with its footage.

The Blue Planet team also worked with California firm Gates to build a brand new, underwater split screen lens, dubbed the megadome, which allows camera crew to film above and below water at the same time. It lets viewers see, for example, a walrus sitting on an iceberg above water as well as what is going on underneath. “It’s all down to sensor technology,” says Honeyborne. “You can expose above and below the water so everything is in focus. It looks and feels totally fresh.”

Drones also allowed the filmmakers to capture animal behaviour that had never been filmed before, including chains of plankton-feeding manta rays looping round and round to form a cyclone effect.

“The original series would have shot aerials on 16mm film, from helicopters,” says Honeyborne. “Now we have ultra HD drones that can be deployed anywhere they are permitted, and they have revolutionised the way we can immediately witness oceanic events from above.”

All this technology has helped the Blue Planet team get up extremely close to marine life, revealing previously unseen behaviour and allowing the viewer to empathise more easily with the challenges they face. Traditionally, this has been a big problem when filming marine life underwater – all too often things can feel very big and very blue. 

“It’s not our job to humanise them, and we are certainly not anthropomorphising them. But what we are showing you is that they have characters,” says Honeyborne.

One iconic sequence in Blue Planet II – of a bird-eating fish - neatly sums up how each individual story was put together.

A rumour came to the NHU in Bristol from some South African fishermen that they’d seen Giant Trevally – a big, aggressive fish – jumping out of the water and catching sea-birds in mid-air. But there was no scientific confirmation, or a single picture of this happening. “I was sceptical, to say the least,” says producer Miles Barton. But further research convinced the team it was worth trying to film. So they chartered a plane to an island close to the Seychelles. A team of four was on board, including cameraman Ted Giffords with a Cineflex gyro-stabilised camera and 800kg of equipment.

Barton continues: “We arrived and got very excited because yes, the fish were leaping out of the water and they did seem to be grabbing birds. But it happened very randomly and very fast.” The crew started out using the stabilised camera fixed to a boat, but the attacks happened so quickly and randomly it was difficult for Giffords to frame up on.

After a frustrating week with just a few shots filmed, the boatman suggested going to a remote beach where the Giant Trevallies gathered near the shore. It was a vantage point from which they could see the fish stalking the birds, and even predict the ones most likely to attack. “So we ended up going from a very high tech approach to the simple use of a camera on a tripod with the best local advice.”

The footage was amazing. Exec producer Mark Brownlow picks up the story: “They came back with the rushes, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible’. But we knew it could be even better and said we have to go back and film it with a super high speed [Phantom] camera.” The crew returned a year later (to catch the right season for the action) to shoot the sequence. The results are astounding, and are sure to become iconic images from the series.

Executive producer 
James Honeyborne
Series producer 
Mark Brownlow
Miles Barton, Orla Doherty, Kathryn Jeffs, Will Ridgeon, John Ruthven, Jonathan Smith
Associate producer 
Joe Stevens
Rachel Butler, John Chambers, Sarah Conner
Series researcher 
Yoland Bosiger
Sophie Morgan, Katrina Steele, Joe Treddenick, Georgina Ward
Production co-ordinators 
Jodie Allt, Nicole Kruysse, Sandra Forbes, Jennifer Foulkes, Sylvia Mukasa, Karmen Summers, Joanna Verity
Production team
Amirah Daley, Jack Delf, Alexandra Fennell, Joseph Fenton, Jack Johnston, Abbey Kaye, Francesca Maxwell, Chiara Minchin, Mohan Sandhu, Zeenat Shah
Production manager 
Katie Hall
Principal camera team 
Dan Beecham, Barrie Britton, Rod Clarke, Ted Giffords, Rafa Herrero, Rene Heuzey, Roger Horrocks, Hugh Miller, Roger Munns, Espen Rekdal, Gavin Thurston, Alexander Vail, Richard Wollocombe, David Reichert, Didier Noirot, Rod Clarke

Posted 20 October 2017 by Tim Dams

The rise of the streamers

Digital players were out in force at this month’s Mipcom TV programme market.

There were keynotes speeches from Facebook and Snapchat, while Mipcom execs revealed that 1,700 VOD and SVOD buyers from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu through to China’s Youku and Africa’s Showmax were at the market.

The growing presence of streaming players on the international stage comes as they invest ever more aggressively in new content.

Facebook and Apple have each pledged to invest $1bn in content. Facebook announced a number of new shows for its Watch platform at Mipcom, including an English-language remake of Norwegian teen drama hit Skam.

Both Amazon and Facebook have been touted as likely bidders in the next round of Premier League rights sales, which is expected to open by the end of this year. Last month, YouTube’s fledgling SVoD service Red greenlit its first drama from a UK indie, 10-part sci-fi thriller Origin, which is being made by The Crown producer Left Bank.

Netflix, meanwhile, says it plans to spend a staggering $8bn (£6bn) on content in 2018, up from $6bn this year.

A significant portion is being spent in the UK, on factual and drama commissions. Last month, for example,  Pulse Films was commissioned to investigate the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in an eight parter for Netflix, while Fifty Fathoms is making The Eddy, directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, billed as the biggest scripted SVoD commission for a UK producer since The Crown.

The steady increase in spend on UK content by streaming players is proving a boon for indies. Pact’s recent indie Census, for example, reported that producers are seeing strong growth from the international commissions, worth £486m in 2016, thanks in part to orders such as The Crown and Black Mirror from streaming services.

Producers, it seems, not only like the pay cheques that the streaming giants offer. They also say the likes of Amazon and Netflix are good to work with.

The Crown producer, Andy Harries, warned at last month’s RTS Cambridge Convention that UK broadcasters are in danger of losing more top talent to streaming services because they are too interfering during the making of shows.

Speaking ahead of the launch of the second series of The Crown in December, Harries noted that Netflix has signed up talent such as Shonda Rhimes, David Letterman and the Coen brothers to make shows.  “They are attracting all this talent because this is what they are saying to them: ‘Come and make stuff for us. You can do it the way you want to do it. We are going to finance it, you make it.’ And that is what talent wants.” His point was backed up by fellow speaker Andy Wilman, the exec producer of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, which airs its second season next month. Wilman said: “We have no notes – none.”

The streaming services’ increasing investment in the UK market is paying off too, with recent Ofcom figures suggesting they will soon be taking an increasing share of the broadcasting industry’s £13.8bn revenues.

In its 2017 Communications Market Report, Ofcom charted the growth of streaming services, and noted that for many viewers, the days of being tied to a TV schedule are fading. It found that the BBC iPlayer and the ITV Hub were the most popular on demand services, used by 63% and 40% of respondents respectively – followed by YouTube (35%), Netflix (31%) and Amazon (20%).

A recent report by OC&C Strategy Consultants argued that broadcasting could soon be controlled by one or two “super-aggregators” who would act as viewing gateways for consumers looking for a simple way to access a plethora of content.

Traditional broadcasters are starting to feel the pressure. 21st Century Fox chief executive James Murdoch last month acknowledged that Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix are “raising the bar” in terms of the amount that companies spend on content. In a sign that Sky is worried about the rise of streamers, he hit out at them for their lack of investment in jobs in the UK creative industries.

Murdoch said SVoD players make a lot of noise about how much they are investing – but don’t do so over the long term. “They show up, they do a big splashy deal with something and everyone fawns over them and says this is a great thing. There are very few companies that...really invest in thousands and thousands of people on the ground in TV and creative markets like the UK.”

Sky execs also complain that online companies face none of the scrutiny or regulation that affect UK broadcasters. Calling for a level playing field, Sky’s group chief operating officer Andrew Griffiths said at the RTS Cambridge Convention: “Not so many years ago, these companies were small and probably lacked influence. Today, they are some of the largest companies on the planet, with a reach and scale of financial resources far larger than anyone in this room combined. It is a lop sided contest and left unchecked represents a real challenge.”

Indeed, Sky’s proposed takeover by 21st Century Fox deal arguably no longer worries senior broadcasting execs as it once would have. Their focus of concern has shifted over to the digital giants instead.

C4’s outgoing chief executive David Abraham commented: “When I see the scale of the digital giants, my strategic question is: “Is any type of agglomeration of existing legacy media companies ever going to match the scale of what we are confronting?’ I very much doubt that is the case.

“If you are running a media company in this country, you spend more time thinking about how internet TV is going to change the shape of what we are doing.” Abraham added that the “huge global changes” arising from the growth of Amazon and Netflix “have perhaps not been as widely considered by politicians – maybe because they feel they can’t do much.”

It certainly feels like traditional broadcasters are on the backfoot right now. Some commercial channels are cutting programme spend because of falling ad revenues, a point noted by many indies in Televisual’s 2017 Production 100 survey. However, any big drop in broadcaster content spend at this crucial moment may prove a serious mistake, encouraging even more indies to look for business with the deep pocketed SVoD players.

This article is taken from the October issue of Televisual. To subscribe, click here. The article has been updated since first publication to account for deals announced at Mipcom.

Posted 12 October 2017 by Tim Dams

Production 100: indies face up to a changing TV market

The indie sector is being reshaped by the rise of streaming, a fall in budgets and the muddle of Brexit. Tim Dams on the findings of Production 100

, Televisual's annual survey of the indie TV market

The turnover of the top 100 indies in the Production 100 has risen 11.8% to £2.17bn this year, proving there is still plenty of life in a TV market that is being fundamentally reshaped by changing viewing habits.

 Indeed, the prizes are bigger than ever for many producers thanks to the rise of global SVoD commissioners like Netflix and Amazon.

Left Bank, for example, climbs to second place in the Production 100, growing its turnover from £101m to £148m thanks to mega-budget Netflix commission The Crown.

Many other indies have registered decent growth. Sports producer IMG retains its number one spot for the fifth year in a row, with revenues climbing from £175.3 to £197.1m. IMG diversified into non-sports production this year with the launch of a new entertainment, factual and formats division – which has already picked up a handful of volume commissions.

Third-placed Avalon became one of a handful of UK indies to cross the £100m turnover mark; the entertainment producer and talent manager’s revenues are up from £93.2m to £114.6m. It now supplies all channels in the UK, as well as a wide range of networks in the US.

Indies working in multiple genres have done well, such as Studio Lambert and Raw. Both have built on their strong reputations in factual to push into drama, earning themselves places in the top 10.

Dramatic moves 
The drama boom was the big trend of last year’s Production 100, and it’s an important factor once again. Indies such as The Ink Factory and House of Tomorrow posted strong results, buoyed by big budget shows with global backers like The Night Manager and Black Mirror. But it has not been plain sailing for all scripted producers. The market has been flooded with new drama indies, and there has been a hiatus in scripted orders because of drama commissioner changes at the BBC, ITV and C4.

Factual perks up

The factual genre has been eclipsed in recent years by the drama gold rush. But many established factual  producers have done surprisingly well, such as Boundless, Blast! Films, ITN Productions, Keo and Nutopia.

Blast!, for example, has grown turnover from £15.5m to £25.5m, on the back some strong returning series such as The Supervet; the Sky Vision-owned producer also topped our Peer Poll as the most respected indie.

ITN Productions is growing at a clip too; its turnover is up by almost £20m to £42.8m.

Nutopia has nearly doubled turnover to £21.7m following a slew of big commissions from international broadcasters. Newer factual indies like Plimsoll, Knickerbockerglory, Label1, Primal Media and Naked Entertainment have also put in robust performances, many on the back of long-running series wins.

The core UK market

The average indie earns 64.5% of its revenues from UK broadcasters. ClearStory is typical of many when it says that “UK broadcaster commissions are still our core business.”

So too is Plimsoll: “Our relationships with UK commissioners are paramount to the growth of our business.” Indeed, the majority of indies (46%) say the UK is where they are seeing most growth in their business. However, this is down significantly on last year’s figure (72%).

Rise of the streamers
Instead, many indies cite the international market – in particular from SVoD players like Amazon and Netflix – as a key growth area. Eleven Film says: “SVoD buyers are proving transformative – buying programming that typically UK broadcasters would shy away from.” Bandit Television adds: “The opportunities for scripted production are obviously increased with SVoD commissioning.” Neal Street points to growth in secondary drama sales, particularly to Netflix.

It’s not just dramas they are after. Pulse says SVoD companies are “aggressively buying in the factual space.” Specialist factual indie Icon Films says “its greatest potential for growth” comes from streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Curiosity Stream and Blue Ant.”

A global focus

The international market has become a key source of revenue for many producers. Eleven indies – Wag, Neal Street, Nutopia, Icon, DSP, House of Tomorrow, Double Act, Arrow Media, Pacific, Raw TV and Leopard – generated more than 75% of their business from international commissions.

The US remains an important focus. Nutopia, for example, plans to expand its client base in America, and to open an East Coast office this year to produce local content. 

ITN is also aggressively targeting the US market. In the last year, ITN took on eight full time roles in the US; it is aiming for 10% of all revenue from the US by 2020.

DSP, notes there is a ‘resurgence’ in demand for premium factual in the US, particularly in light of Nat Geo’s new commissioning strategy.

Eleven Film, meanwhile, has three projects in development with US cable networks being developed out of the UK.

The flip side of working for international broadcasters is that indies mostly do so on a work for hire basis, rather than retaining rights as in the UK. It means many indies are worried about the long term. Knickerbockerglory says: “The rights position does make me think it’s the last days of Rome”.

The road ahead 

Looking ahead, indies seem sanguine about their prospects. Most, 58%, say they expect business to remain the same, while 29% think it will improve. 13% believe business will get worse.

 That said, many are vocal about the challenges ahead – from Brexit through to increased competition, rising costs and to an advertising downturn which looks set to reduce the budgets of commercial broadcasters.

Budget crunch
Falling budgets are a particular concern this year, more so than usual. Indies say that budgets have fallen an average of 2.4% over the past year, following years of decline. Several indies say they have noticed commercial broadcasters battening down the hatches ahead of what they perceive to be a challenging year for ad revenues. CPL, for example, is expecting production budgets to be “much tighter.”

7 Wonder says budgets have “never been more squeezed” yet “editorial expectations are sky high”.  Keo speaks of “a constant battle against falling real terms commissioning budgets while costs rise thus making margins harder and harder to maintain. It’s definitely very difficult to rest on one’s laurels.”

Rising costs

With costs and on-screen expectations rising, many indies are having to be more inventive about how they produce and how they raise money for shows. There is “more emphasis on producers finding finance,” says Thumbs Up. Dragonfly, meanwhile, says it is having to deficit fund shows more often because of “diminishing budgets and higher production costs/ambitions.”

On and off-screen talent costs are widely acknowledged to have risen because of the boom in drama, film and animation production. “The availability of off-screen production talent is scarce and on-screen talent expect greater participation” says Voltage. Sixteen South adds that 
it is harder than ever to staff up because so many animated shows are being made. “All of the great people are already working. It has been a challenge to crew up to 130 people.”

Commission challenges

Securing a commission seems to be more difficult too. Changes among broadcaster commissioning teams have long been a problem for indies, creating periods of hiatus when it is difficult to win orders. It has been no different this year. Adding to the problem, however, is the increased complexity of commissioning now that multiple funders, rights and deliverables need to be juggled.

Nutopia says securing commissions with big budgets can take “very many months” to finally agree on all editorial, budget and contractual terms.

Furthermore, “eleventh hour signatures on contracts mean it’s very difficult to locate, attract and secure the very best high-end talent in a timely manner.” Says Remedy: “With every commission taking longer to achieve and every contract renewal requiring more work to secure, operating costs have continued to increase, which has affected the rate at which turnover becomes profit.”

Sugar Films likens broadcaster-funded development to a parking lot. “Projects that would previously have gone into pre-production with an agreement to resolve minor outstanding issues are now parked in further rounds of development.”
Commissioners and broadcasters “seem to have little understanding of cash-flow and the true cost of delay for a small business.”

Competition issues

At the same time, there’s a perception that the market is becoming ever more competitive following a spate of indie launches by senior execs. The momentum has continued this year, with launches including Expectation (Peter Fincham and Tim Hincks), House Productions (Tessa Ross and Juliette Howell) and 72 Films (David Glover and Mark Raphael).

Chrysalis Vision says there “seems to be one new TV drama indie announced every week.” 

Firecracker notes there are “more and more new factual companies continuing to open all the time and not enough work to go round for them all to succeed.”

Established players like Talkback speak of “increased competition from the wave of new indies”. Adds Chalkboard: “It sometimes feels like there is more money for start-ups than there is for commissioning itself.

Still, smaller producers say that the dominance of the super indies continues to squeeze small producers out. Popkorn, for example, speaks of “a lack of ambition” by broadcasters to commission outside the small pool of larger companies.

Others note that ITV and C5 have boosted their commissioning from inhouse producers, while the launch of BBC Studios means more competition (but also the potential to win more BBC business).

The Brexit effect

The realisation that Brexit is likely to have a significant impact on business really comes to the fore in this year’s Production 100. Last year, the exact impact of the vote to leave the EU was still being worked out by indies.

Currency fluctuations have already affected the cost of overseas filming for many producers (but made UK shows cheaper for foreign buyers). 

Many fear that the government’s protracted Brexit negotiations are affecting business confidence, depressing ad revenues at commercial broadcasters.

Like many indies, Blue Zoo is worried about the implications for the 35% of its workforce who are non-UK residents. Neal Street says Brexit is “already causing some problems with the weak pound and talent concerns.”

Indies also worry that Brexit will affect the ability of UK companies to strike co-pro deals and international sales, particularly for companies looking to sell into European markets which have quotas for European content. Says Woodcut: “If we no longer count as European that will have a massive impact on us and other production companies working in the international market.”

Some fear an exodus of production out of the UK, particularly in sectors like animation. Lupus Films says: “European financing is likely to be reduced and US studios are likely to take more commissions to Ireland rather than the UK."

Sixteen South comments: “Brexit has been a scary proposition.  Since we fund most of our shows through pre-sales, we need to make sure that our content remains EU produced to meet the EU quotas from broadcasters. We have set up an Irish company to be sure that we continue as a European producer.”

To read the full Production 100 survey, visit the Reports and Surveys section of

Posted 25 September 2017 by Tim Dams

Production Technology Survey, 2017 - the full results

It can sometimes be very difficult to keep up. New cameras, editing kit and supporting technology are launched into the market each year, promising to enhance creative possibilities, bring down costs or boost productivity.

Televisual’s Production Technology Survey attempts to cut through this hype, asking our readers to tell us what they are using to make their shows – and which kit they rate.

We have focused on a number of key areas. First, we take the temperature of the rapidly evolving camera market. The big change this year is that Sony’s FS7 has eclipsed Canon’s C300 as the most popular model, with a now dominant position in factual production.

Next we focus on the take up of 4K and HDR. For the first time, more than half of our respondents said they have shot in 4K over the past year. HDR, meanwhile, looks set for a slow pick up; only 8% have been asked to deliver content in HDR, up slightly from 7% last year. It’s a similar story for virtual reality; very few of our respondents producing VR content.

We also look at the editing market. Here Avid Media Composer remains the leading software platform, but Adobe Premiere is gaining in popularity. Finally, we profile new and specialist kit that programme makers are using to enhance their productions, such as handheld stabilisers and drones.

To read the full Production Technology Survey, visit the Reports and Surveys section of

Posted 17 August 2017 by Tim Dams

Lessons from MAMA

Diversity – or the lack of it – has become the big talking point in TV. Amid all the debate, one organisation, MAMA Youth Project, has been actively doing something about it – for the past ten years.

Set up as a charity in 2007, MAMA Youth takes a hands-on approach to boosting the numbers of disadvantaged people in television – not only people of colour, but all disadvantaged groups, black or white.

So far, 392 people have been trained by MAMA Youth, most through a 13-week course which sees them learn on the job while making Sky One youth magazine show What’s Up TV. The course runs twice a year. 24 entrants go through an intensive initial bout of training. They apply to train in one specific role such as production, camera, sound or editing. The training is provided by execs from companies such as the BBC, Sky, Endemol Shine and Procam. The group then work as a team under an experienced exec, producer and two APs to create 6x30-mins of What’s Up.

What’s Up is produced out of MAMA Youth’s offices, provided by Sky at its Osterley HQ. When Televisual visited, some of the trainees were working up ideas for the next show, from current affairs investigations to entertainment interviews. Others were cutting footage in the MAMA Youth edit suites.

98% of its participants, says founder Bob Clarke, get an immediate short-term contract in TV. And 82% are still in TV after 12 months. “For a freelance industry, that is good,” he points out.

Bella Lambourne, HR director at Endemol Shine UK, says MAMA Youth is ‘hugely valuable’ for the role it plays in attracting people from different backgrounds to the industry. The superindie offered 16 paid work placements to MAMA Youth students last year. She describes the people who come out of MAMA Youth as “much more work ready, capable and keen” than those who come in via other routes. 

MAMA Youth alumni Laura Rouxel, took the course in 2011. The course, she says, was ‘brilliant’, because students learn on the job. She’s now an AP on shows like Mock The Week.

An experienced TV editor, Clarke was inspired to launch MAMA Youth when a colleague commented to him that there were not enough black people in the industry. “The same person had said that to me about 20 years before. I thought, ‘I’ve been here for twenty years and what have I done about it?’”

One of the most important parts of the course, explains director of operations Cristina Ciobanu (who herself went through the MAMA Youth training programme) comes at the start – recruitment. MAMA Youth has on average 240 applicants for 24 places. Of these, 80 are interviewed. It is vital to understand what support they might need during the course, she says. Some might be homeless and living in a hostal, or be coping with depression, or may have recently come from prison. But the ones that make it through to the programme, she says, have one thing in common – the motivation to change their life and put in 100% effort.

Clarke began MAMA Youth very much on the fly, while working as a freelance editor and funding it out of his own pocket. He recruited his first group of talent back in 2005. Together, they produced the What’s Up show to broadcast standards for DVD. They met in hotel meeting rooms, and even restaurants. 10,000 copes of the DVD were given away free. “I thought we could get advertisers for the second show. But it didn’t work,” admits Clarke.

But he learned from the experience, and MAMA Youth re-emerged as an official charity in 2007, producing What’s Up for DVD. Slowly but surely, TV companies came knocking on MAMA Youth’s door. In 2010, the Community Channel asked to run What’s Up on its service. Then came a crucial meeting with former Sky md Sophie Turner Laing. It led, ultimately, to Sky acquiring the show in 2011 for Sky3. In 2015, it was commissioned by Sky 1.

MAMA Youth, stresses Clarke, doesn’t exist for the show. “We exist to get young people in to TV,” he explains. “The show is a by product of this.” The charity has also expanded its training, launching digital media workshops. Still, it’s a challenge for MAMA Youth to make ends meet. Sky and the BBC are its principal funders (it costs £600k to run the charity). Clarke would like to spread that financial burden more evenly through the industry, which he notes benefits from the work MAMA Youth is doing.

Meanwhile, MAMA Youth says it is putting in more effort to help alumni get on in the industry. Clarke says a big concern is the ‘exodus’ of BAME talent. “So many are leaving. Their credits and credentials are all good. But they see others bypass them for jobs. Something has to be done to stop the loss of talent.” While not a fan of quotas, Clarke thinks they might be needed to help BAME talent move into senior roles.

To date, he thinks diversity debates and schemes have had limited impact. And that, says Clarke, is what MAMA Youth is interested in. “In ten years time, we want to have made an impact on the industry.”

Profile: Bob Clarke
MAMA Youth founder Bob Clarke didn’t have a conventional route into TV. He joined the army at 17 – partly, he says, to avoid getting caught up in trouble. He stayed 14 years. “It taught me so much – that being hard was about more than fighting. It meant facing up to everyday challenges.”

After the army, Clarke got a job in a video duplication warehouse. Then came ‘a life changing moment,’ when he was offered the chance to train as a VT operator. “I knew what it meant – that I was on a career path and could earn a decent salary.”

That moment, says Clarke, is the essence of MAMA Youth and what motivates it to help others find a job in TV.

Clarke went on to work as an editor on light ent, news and docs, eventually setting up his own facility – MAMA Productions, which led to the formation of MAMA Youth.

Clarke’s spell in the army, meanwhile, underpins the training at MAMA Youth (which he describes as a ‘boot camp’). “The British army are the best trainers in the world.”

Posted 17 August 2017 by Tim Dams

Boom or bust for the UK studio sector?

For a business that is based on bricks and mortar, it’s notable how dynamic the studio sector is.

New studios are being developed in all corners of the UK – in Scotland (Pentland Studios), Wales (Wolf Studios Wales), Northern Ireland (Belfast Harbour) and England (Dagenham, Liverpool).

Meanwhile, existing studios are busy expanding. Pinewood recently applied for planning permission to build another three sound stages. This comes on top of the five it opened last July. Elstree has finance and approval for a 21,000 sq ft stage on its backlot area. It also intends to build a smaller stage of approximately 11,000 sq ft. Space Studios Manchester (formerly The Space Project) is in the midst of building a sixth stage, measuring 30,000 sq. ft.,  part of a £14m expansion plan. The BBC’s redevelopment of Television Centre will finish in September, with three TV studios returning to market.

However, this building boom is predominantly focused on sound stages for drama and film. Studio bosses are looking to make the most of record levels of film and drama production in the UK (which hit £2.1bn in 2016). “Business has continued to be buoyant”, says Fiona Francombe, site director of Bristol’s The Bottle Yard Studios, citing bookings such as Poldark, Trollied and Broadchurch. Twickenham Studios COO Maria Walker says: “We have hugely benefitted from the rise of high end television drama.”

By comparison, fully equipped TV studios – with galleries and shiny floors – are finding business more challenging. They may be busy, but many TV studio execs say that budgets for TV shows remain under pressure (although production aspirations are higher than ever) with studios taking a hit.

At the same time, running a TV studio is expensive; the cost of upgrading them to ever higher technical standards continues to rise.  It’s a very seasonal business too, with January and August notoriously quiet months; demand reaches a peak in June and July, then October and November.

Television studios say they are having to squeeze in ever more shows and to work harder to make a decent return.

Many well known TV studios, like Fountain and Teddington, have closed after being sold to property developers – an indication that its owners think they can make more money elsewhere.The London Studios also closes next year when ITV redevelops the space. 

“The closure of those studios proves how challenging it is,” says Pinewood’s head of TV Sarah McGettigan.

Pinewood’s three dedicated TV studios are consistently busy, making shows such as Would I Lie To You. But Pinewood hasn’t gained a huge amount of work as a result of the London studio closures, McGettingan adds. That’s partly due to scheduling issues – with so many shows wanting to shoot at the same, peak times of the year, it’s very difficult to fit in any more into a finite space.

Over at Elstree Studios, managing director Roger Morris agrees that the studio hasn’t seen a huge uplift as a result of the closures, adding that the studios have been busy for the past five years. Elstree partners with BBC Studioworks, which provides technical facilities and expertise for shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Let It Shine which are made at the studio. “We provide the stages, and the BBC provides the kit and technical infrastructure,” says Morris. “It works very well.”

Elstree is also home to dramas like The Crown. Morris says the drama boom has been welcome, particularly as it has made up for a collapse in lower budget film production. But, he notes, not all TV dramas are heavy users of studios – many will be based at a studio, but will shoot on location.

BBC Studioworks plans to maintain a strong presence at its own Elstree base when Television Centre reopens in September. It has already confirmed its first booking: The Jonathan Ross Show.

Head of studios John O’Callaghan says TVC will be a turnaround facility, aiming to record as many days a week as possible by re-setting overnight. “The key is having a good balance of long-term shows which can be in the studios for many weeks and also fast turnaround topical shows.”

What’s clear, though, is that much of the growth in studios comes from drama and film. Many would concur with Adrian Bleasdale, chief executive of Space Studios Manchester: “It’s incredibly busy,” he says.

The primary competition for Space Studios Manchester is warehouses on industrial estates which have been adapted for filming. For example, a former council depot in Hartlepool is set to be converted into a film studio. Screen Yorkshire has converted a former aircraft hangar at Church Fenton into a studio, home to ITV hit Victoria. Bleasdale stresses that producers have to think ‘beyond just the box of the studio’ when selecting a studio space. He says that Space Studios Manchester offers its own ‘ecosystem’ for film and TV – from art departments to medics and camera and lighting hire.  As a purpose built studio, he points out that its sound stages are “super silent air-conditioned and acoustically treated for reverberation and noise ingress.”

Over at Pinewood, corporate affairs director Andrew Smith says the company is seeing “sustained growth in film and high end TV”. He worries about new studios being built in all corners of the UK, saying that the industry should “build on existing centres of excellence” and is in danger of “spreading the jam too thin.” Looking ahead, Smith identifies skills shortages as a risk for the industry. “This needs to be addressed immediately.”

But like many of his counterparts, Smith is quietly optimistic about the year ahead. “The level of productions that are being made and coming down the line is encouraging.”

This article is taken from Televisual's 2017 Studio Report. To see the full report, which has profiles of the UK's top studios, visit the reports and surveys section of

Posted 10 August 2017 by Tim Dams

Film 40 now available to read online

Want to know who are the top 40 film producers in the UK? Or the leading directors of photography?

Then have a look at The Film 40 2017, Televisual’s comprehensive report on the UK film industry which is now available to read in full – and for free – in our reports and surveys section.

First published in the magazine in May, the Film 40 lists and profiles the UK’s most influential film producers.

From Aardman through to Working Title, they are producers with a track record of creative and financial success in the film industry.

The report also showcases the leading film studios, such as Pinewood and Warner Bros Leavesden, which are hosting increasing numbers of big budget Hollywood shoots. 

There’s also a ranking of the UK’s top ten directors of photography, as well as an overview of Soho’s busy film vfx sector.

Posted 05 July 2017 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Riviera

Expensive, starry, glamorous and international, Riviera is a perfect example of how British drama has scaled up in the past five years. Looking to tap in to the global demand for big budget, cinematic shows, Sky has pushed the boat out with Riviera – set in the world of the super rich in the south of France.

Part family drama and part thriller, it stars Julia Stiles as an art dealer and wife of a billionaire banker who dies in a yacht explosion – which sets of a chain of events that exposes the darker flipside to the Riviera’s glitz and glamour.

Executive producer Liza Marshall politely declines to reveal the budget for the show but, she admits, it was “always going to be expensive.”

That’s because, early on, Sky and the producers agreed that the French Riviera itself is a key character in the show – meaning that it had to be shot on location rather than created out of a composite of, say, Croatia and England. The Riviera is, of course, famously beautiful – and also famously pricey.

The scale of the ten-part drama is underlined by series producer Foz Allen, who spent the best part of a year in the south of France overseeing the production. “It was a big old beast of a show,” says Allen, rattling off a few stats to make his point: 9,726 extras, 16,814 meals served, 132 days shooting and 3380 scenes completed.

The production was based at Studios Riviera in Nice, and shot in locations including Cannes, Monaco, Nice and Grasse, making use of super-yachts, helicopters, luxury hotels, mansions and fast cars along the way. It was funded by Sky, distributor Sky Vision and France’s generous Tax Rebate for International Production (TRIP), which rose from 20% to 30% of budget in 2016.

The idea for the show came from Paul McGuinness, the former manager of U2, who has a house in the South of France and thought the Riviera would be a great place to set a drama. Oscar winning writer Neil Jordan then came on board and created the world of Georgina and the Clios family, in a script that was co-written by John Banville.

Marshall took the project to Sky’s head of drama Anne Mensah who was immediately enthusiastic. Says Marshall: “It sits brilliantly in their mix of programming. It’s sunny, lavish, has an international cast, is set abroad and is about the extremely wealthy – most other broadcasters would have been nervous about it.”

Riviera was greenlit very quickly in early 2016, and then started shooting in August. (One difficult and unexpected challenge was that principal photography began a few weeks after the terrorist attack in Nice).

Philipp Kadelbach, who made his name with German hit drama Generation War, was the lead director, and set the tone with DoP Laurie Rose (Fleabag, Peaky Blinders, London Spy).

They played up the strong colours and shades of the South of France, watching Jean-Luc Goddard’s classic Mediterranean set Le Mepris for inspiration. “We wanted it to be bright, colourful and filmic,” says Marshall.  Riviera was shot on the Arri Alexa, as well as the Alexa Mini.

Meanwhile, the production had to adhere to strict French employment rules, which meant Riviera could only shoot for five days a week and overtime was not allowed. “It’s very strict, but we just accepted it and built it into the budget and made it work,” says Marshall.

As a story about the super rich set in the art world, both the costumes and the sets had to look just right. The painting at the heart of the mystery is by Claude Lorrain. “We clearly couldn’t have a real Lorrain on set – the insurance would be prohibitive – so we had these extraordinary copies made,” says Marshall.

McGuiness, meanwhile, called up artist Jeff Koons, who allowed the production to use one of his La Cicciolina pictures, shown in the first scene at auction. The show also worked with Bond Street gallery The Halcyon who became its art curators. Says executive producer Kris Thykier: “The central character is a curator – it’s about her eye and her taste – and so we needed to put together a collection that was a testament to her skill. It’s a combination of great masterworks and also some extremely interesting newer artists, which I think will certainly pop in the show.

The costumes, meanwhile, were overseen by costume designer Emma Fryer, who “shopped a lot in high end fashion boutiques in London and the Riviera.” Thykier explains: “Wherever possible it’s great couture – fantastic clothing from huge designers. The detail of the show is in the shoes and the watches and the bags. The fact is that trying to create the world of the super-rich is about fine attention to detail.”

Riviera is available from June 15 on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.

Georgina (Julia Stiles) is newly married to billionaire Constantine Clios when he is killed in a yacht explosion. She is shocked to discover the fortune that maintained his lifestyle is tainted with dishonesty, crime, and ultimately murder. Helped by Constantine’s first wife, Georgina undergoes an education in lying, theft and criminality to maintain the Clios mansion and save the family from its enemies and itself.

Broadcaster Sky Atlantic
Production companies Archery Pictures, Primo Productions
Executive producers Neil Jordan, Liza Marshall, Kris Thykier, Paul McGuiness
Commissioners Zai Bennett, Anne Mensah, Cameron Roach
Lead director Philip Kadelbach
Writers Neil Jordan, John Banville
Producer Foz Allen
DoP Laurie Rose
Cast Julia Stiles, Lena Olin, Anthony LaPaglia, Iwan Rheon, Adrian Lester, Phil Davis
Worldwide distribution Sky Vision
Camera Arri Alexa

Posted 15 June 2017 by Tim Dams
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