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Producers get writer's block

Drama report: The drama boom has had many side effects, and right now one of the most challenging, say producers, is that there’s a shortage of experienced TV writers.

With fewer procedural, story of the week shows on air, there are fewer opportunities for writers to cut their teeth in writers’ rooms.

But broadcasters are nervous about taking a risk on newcomers for primetime dramas. “Because budgets are bigger, a lot of the time we are unable to give a break to a brand new writer,” admits Red Production’s Nicola Shindler.

It means there’s now a small group of highly in-demand, experienced writers who broadcasters want to commission to write their new shows. “Utlimately, there is only a very small pool of writers,” says Bandit Television md Phillippa Giles.

This group includes Paul Abbott (No Offence), Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster), Pete Bowker (Marvellous), Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lies), Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), Andrew Davies (War and Peace), Russell T Davies (Cucumber), Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), Bill Gallagher (Paranoid), Tony Jordan (Dickensian), Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty), Kay Mellor (In the Club), Abi Morgan (River), Peter Morgan (The Crown), Peter Moffat (The Night Of), Steven Moffat (Sherlock), Ashley Pharoah (The Living and the Dead), Jack Thorne (National Treasure), Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing).

Posted 15 December 2016 by Tim Dams

ITV's scripted ambition

Drama report: ITV's drama boss Polly Hill says she wants great range on the channel

“Audience appetites are changing, and I want to reflect that,” says ITV’s new head of drama Polly Hill. The former BBC drama chief joined ITV a few months ago, and explains that she wants to “bring in huge authorship and drama that feels genuinely fresh and original.”

And that’s all about the writing, she says. “For me, it is about finding something that is fresh and finding a writer who has a story to tell.”

A fan of ITV shows Cold Feet and Victoria as well as US hits The Night Of, Stranger Things and The Walking Dead, Hill peppers her conversation with the word “range”.  Asked what she makes of ITV director of TV Kevin Lygo’s call for “more fun and lightness” in TV drama, she says: “Kevin and I are in total agreement that we want a great range of drama on the channel. If you are going after a big audience, you have to be quite entertaining in the way you do it.” Shows can be really dark, but “you have to take audience with you.” Hill stresses: “What we are not going to do is make something deliberately niche.”

At a time when nearly all drama is serialised, she wonders if an episodic, story of the week type show might work.  “We sometimes have to buck the fashion, go a different way.”

ITV commissions about 150 hours of drama a year. Hill says the biggest challenge she faces is cutting through in a crowded market. “I want extreme variety rather than everything in the middle and a bit similar...I am looking for great range and great differences between dramas.”

Posted 15 December 2016 by Tim Dams

Stakes get higher as drama booms

Drama report: The scripted boom has thrown up all sorts of challenges for drama producers, from rising costs to growing competition. Tim Dams on the reality of TV drama’s golden age

The boom in television drama is one of the big stories of 2016, a year in which big budget, British-made shows such as The Crown and The Night Manager have raised the bar in the scripted space. As we approach the end of the year, however, the real implications of the drama boom are becoming ever more apparent to those working in the industry. Many of these are positive but, as with any boom, there are downsides too. 

Talk to any drama producer or commissioner, and they will acknowledge that the market feels buoyant. There has been a well-documented surge in audience appetite for high quality drama, prompting broadcasters around the world to invest more heavily in the genre.

Much of this increased investment comes from the US, where cable firms such as AMC, Showtime and Starz and digital players such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu recognise the power of expensive, high quality dramas to attract subscriptions and audiences.  Netflix, for example, has 30 scripted shows now in production.  In total, US broadcasters are expected to make 500 original dramas in 2017.

There are said to be around 60 drama commissioning broadcasters in the US, of which around a dozen will regularly buy or co-produce from British producers.

The UK market has seen less growth in broadcaster spend on drama. Producers say that the key terrestrials – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 – are ordering about the same volume of drama as they have done historically.  Their drama budgets have, by and large, remained fairly static too.

However, the UK market has been boosted by Sky growing investment in drama. It now commissions 8-10 shows a year.  Virgin is a new commissioner too, announcing it will create four new dramas with All3Media. BBC1 is also spending an extra £30m on drama, following the closure of BBC3.

“There’s no doubt that the market feels incredibly buoyant,” says Frith Triplady, joint md of Tiger Aspect Drama, which has produced 56 hours of drama in the past 18 months, such as Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street and ITV’s upcoming Good Karma Hotel.

Like many other producers, she points out that there are more buyers – particularly from the US – who are either commissioning British indies directly or providing co-production finance for projects. 

That’s partly because international demand for British drama and talent is riding high, buoyed by global hits like Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Happy Valley. The key US buyers all have a presence in London. “The Americans now see the Anglophone world as one market, which they didn’t ten years ago” says Gareth Neame, the md of Downton Abbey and The Last Kingdom producer Carnival Films.

“The number of buyers is the most fundamental change in the last couple of years”, says Sid Gentle Films’ founder Sally Woodward Gentle (The Durrells). “A project doesn’t need to start in the UK anymore.”  Sid Gentle, for example, is producing thriller Killing Eve from Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge – which has been greenlit directly by BBC America.

However, direct US commissions – such as Netflix’s The Crown from Left Bank – are for now the exception rather than the rule. “There are more outlets that want drama…but it’s not like we are making 100s of things for Netflix and Amazon. Our core business is still UK network programmes,” says Red Production’s Nicola Shindler, the producer of Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.

Much of the activity from US broadcasters comes in the form of co-production finance, rather than direct commissioners. Netflix, for example, has boarded Red’s ITV thriller Paranoid as a co-producer, taking worldwide streaming rights.

Netflix is also co-producing the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Watership Down, made by indies 42 and Biscuit Films. AMC, meanwhile, is co-producing Cuba Pictures’ upcoming BBC thriller McMafia, while National Geographic has teamed with Channel 4 to co-produce Peter Kosminsky’s as yet untitled Isis drama, made by Archery Pictures. Amazon US is co-producing Sky’s 43AD-set Britannia, which is produced by Neal St and Archery Pictures.

“Pretty much everything on our slate is co-produced,” says Kudos CEO Diederick Santer, citing The Tunnel (Sky Atlantic/Canal Plus), Humans (C4/AMC) and Grantchester (ITV/PBS).

UK commissions remain the lifeblood of most British drama indies. However, to achieve the look and scale in drama that audiences have come to expect, producers are topping up their UK broadcaster budgets – which have flatlined for several years at around £700-800k an hour – with US co-production money.

Or they are deficit financing with investment from international distributors. The amount that distributors are putting into drama has risen significantly, from £25-50k to around £200k-500k. Kudos’s upcoming Sky thriller Tin Star, starring Tim Roth, is deficit financed by Sky Vision and Endemol. Its budget, says Santer, is  ‘way more’ than the Sky tariff, and its distributor backers are confident it can recoup from international sales.

Combined with the UK tax relief at around 20%, it means budgets have risen up to a minimum of £1.1m-£1.2m for many primetime shows. BBC hit The Night Manager, a co-production with AMC, cost a reported £3m an hour.

This rise in budget means that talent – both on and off screen – is keener than ever to work in television. So too are a host of new production companies.

A swathe of experienced TV producers and commissioners have launched their own drama indies in the past year, such as former Kudos bosses Jane Featherstone (Sister Pictures) and Stephen Garrett (Character Seven), ex-Film4 chief Tessa Ross and Working Title’s Juliette Howell (House Productions) and former BBC drama execs Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner (Bad Wolf). 

Film producers have also pushed into TV, such as David Heyman (Harry Potter) who launched Heyday Television with backing from NBC Universal. Several of Sky’s new dramas are made by indies with a film background, including Riviera (Archery Pictures) and The Last Dragonslayer (Blueprint).

“The challenge is that everyone has cottoned on to the drama boom,” says Kudos’s Santer. Phillipa Giles, md of Rillington Place producer Bandit Television, says it is now a ‘very, very crowded marketplace’, and she predicts that some indies will have to ‘go to the wall’ in the next few years.

Meanwhile, Jill Green, md of Foyle’s War and New Blood producer Eleventh Hour Films, predicts: “At some point the bubble has to burst. All these companies can’t survive.”

The increasingly competitive nature of the UK drama sector has been made worse by a commissioning merry go round that kicked off in the Spring at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. Polly Hill has just arrived at ITV as its new head of drama, while Piers Wenger has recently taken over at the BBC and Beth Willis has stepped up at Channel 4. “The market has completely slowed down,” says one indie, who rues waiting much of the year for greenlight decisions. Another adds: “It’s been a really, really difficult year.”

Meanwhile, there are well-documented fears that the international drama market is overheating, particularly in the US. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf warned this summer that the drama market is ballooning into oversupply, and that ‘the balloon will eventually deflate.’ Sky Vision boss Jane Millichip recently warned about the increasing amounts that distributors were investing upfront in drama in the hope of recouping from international sales. “We could be heading for a subprime mortgage moment,” she said.

Closer to home, indies are struggling with issues that characterise a booming market. Prime among them, says Nicola Shindler, is “a real shortage of high end writers who [broadcasters] want to commission a whole series from.” “Everybody wants significant writers,” confirms Eleventh Hour Films’ Jill Green. The problem has been made worse, says Shindler, because broadcasters rarely commission story-of-the-week procedural shows which have multiple writers on them and where writers learn their craft. It’s a Catch 22: as drama budgets have got higher, so commissioners want experienced writers – but there are fewer shows for them to cut their teeth on.

Kudos’ Diederick Santer says the relationship between top writers and producers has also changed, with agents having much more leverage as their clients have become more in demand. It’s no longer the case of simply meeting up for a friendly chat with a writer to discuss ideas.

There is also a scramble for book rights to adapt for TV. “Everyone is optioning books, and even rubbish books are going for a fortune,” says Santer. Beauty parades are now typical for hot books, with up to 10 indies at a time invited to pitch. Now more than ever it’s vital “to make sure you are not caught up in the feeding frenzy,” says Santer.

Meanwhile, the cost of making drama has risen. Demand for experienced crew and top talent is at an all time high, pushing up rates. Big shoots, such as Game of Thrones, will pay higher rates for their crew. “If you are still making something for a BBC budget, you can’t afford those rates,” says Red’s Nicola Shindler. “That has become really problematic for our production department.”

On the plus side, many producers say they are starting to take risks on new production, writing and onscreen talent, such is the demand in the market. Triplady says there is increasing room for new voices and talent in drama.

All the while, however, producers are wrestling with the impact of big budget co-pros like The Crown and The Night Manager. “The bar has gone on to another level,” says Eleventh Hour’s Jill Green. So producers are increasingly trying to find projects that will attract additional finance, most likely from America, and that can attract a big cast. But because a lot of the big name talent is being lured to America, “we have to up our game to deliver those ideas that will get them back,” says Green.

The production values of The Crown have also set a challenge for producers. Sally Woodward Gentle says: “I’ve just come out of a meeting where we were taking about a Coronation scene, thinking we are never going to have the money that The Crown has got – so should we bother?”

However, Woodward Gentle says that while The Crown’s reported £100m budget across two series has raised the bar for audiences, it “feels like a slight anomaly in terms of production budgets.”
Over at ITV, head of drama Polly Hill recognises the challenges and opportunities stemming from the “huge investment bubble” in drama. But she says not every drama needs huge production budgets. “It is important there is variety, a mixed ecology in drama….some fantastic shows have cut through internationally that haven’t had huge budgets.”

Indeed, ask producers and commissioners to name their top dramas of the past year, and a whole range of shows stand out beyond the likes of The Crown and The Night Manager. Several indies cite comedy dramas like Fleabag (‘timeless and completely contemporary’) and Chewing Gum (emotionally supersized, but not production supersized’) for showing, according to Triplady, that it’s misleading to think all drama needs to come with ‘the bells and whistles’ of a big budget.  Others pick out the ‘humanity’ and ‘warmth’ of The Durrells, and the ‘addictive’ nature of Doctor Foster. National Treasure, meanwhile, ‘had something to say’, while the return of Cold Feet was an attempt to revive the relationship drama, a holy grail of the TV industry. Victoria (and The Crown) ‘spoke to us as a nation when we are questioning our place in the world,’ says Santer.

More than ever, producers and commissioners say that distinctiveness, range and diversity are vital for standing out in today’s crowded marketplace.  “My main focus is on creating content our customers think is worth paying for,” says Sky head of drama Anne Mensah. More specifically, she describes this as “distinctive content that they would talk about with their friends.” ITV’s Polly Hill adds: “We want a great range of drama on the channel…it is about finding the things that are fresh and distinctive that sets them apart from anything else.”

Posted 15 December 2016 by Tim Dams

Factual TV mulls impact of Trump and Brexit

The implications of Brexit and the US election were two of the big talking points at this year’s Televisual Factual Festival

Leading commissioners, producers, directors, financiers and distributors gathered at BAFTA for two days last month to discuss and debate the state of factual television at the Televisual Factual Festival.

The festival took place on the same day as the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Both his election and Brexit, admitted many of the speakers, had caught broadcasters and the media completely off guard.

As a result, many said that the TV industry had to do more to successfully represent – at least in the UK – the 52% who voted for Brexit and to look more closely at the reality of life in 2016.

BBC2 channel editor Patrick Holland asked: “The challenge on BBC2, but also the challenge for you as programme makers, is how do we respond to this changing world?” The answer, he suggested, was “not to shy away from complexity” in storytelling. “We need to engage with what the world is that we’re living in and what the world is that we’re travelling towards.” As an example of a series that tackled the complexity of the world head on, he cited BBC2’s acclaimed documentary Exodus.

BBC2 editor Patrick Holland interviewed by Wall to Wall CEO Leanne Klein

Channel 4’s factual entertainment boss Kelly Webb-Lamb said she wouldn’t want to directly commission a show about Brexit or Trump. “But we need to think about what those things say about us as a world and Britain.” That might mean making shows that celebrate Britain, “looking at what we do well, who we are and feeling good about ourselves.”

Webb-Lamb also suggested that programmes need to be rawer and more honest.  “We need to answer the “everything feels a bit scary” question.” She called on programme makers to “go another step further” to really get what people’s lives are like and how they feel about them. “Even on Channel 4 there’s a sense of wanting to mitigate against that a little bit and make things a comfortable watch.”

Similarly, the BBC’s acting head of formats and features Donna Clark asked the audience of producers and development execs to think about how they could incorporate Brexit and the Trump election, if not directly, then tonally into their format ideas.

Clark suggested that lack of diversity in the TV industry had been one of the reasons for its surprise at the events of 2016.  “I think we’re a bit posh, we’re a bit white and we’re not particularly representative of everyone. When we think about today, we don’t represent that 52% either. I think that that often comes from the fact that, if you did a little poll of the commissioning teams, our politics and the sort of people that we are, we’re of a sort, of a strata and we need to try to represent everyone a bit more.”

Some recent commissions, she said, had tapped into the wider experiences of the UK. 
She cited Eat Well For Less on BBC1. “That feels just a bit more universal somehow and not quite so posh.”

Echoing the call for TV to more fully reflect the world we live in, Channel 4’s head of documentaries Nick Mirsky called on producers to “think about spaces and places we’re not supposed to be. Think about places where you can’t ring up the press officer of a hospital or an airline and ask for access.”

Mirsky continued: “If I were a Martian and I landed in Britain today and I had to form a view of British society based particularly on Channel 4 documentaries but on docs generally, I’d probably think that we had entered this golden world of public services where you are ushered into life by the One Born midwives and where you were educated by the great teachers of Educating Yorkshire and, if anything went wrong,
the staff of A&E or the coppers on 999 made the world safe for you.”

While praising those shows, Mirsky said they create the slight illusion of a more orderly, safer, controlled world than the one we actually live in.

“Therefore, those projects such as The Paedophile Hunter, Skint, Benefit Street or BBC2’s Exodus, where you
feel quite how unstable, chaotic and unsafe the world is, are particularly precious...I would like more programmes that reflect that.”

By contrast, Channel 5’s factual commissioning editor Emma Westcott said that viewers were after certain kinds of shows given the “incredibly uncertain world that we live in.” She cited programmes which have “personal endeavour and incredible industry” like The Great British Bake Off. She added: “I’ve got a lot of life change things coming through where you’re watching real people just taking control of their lives: whether you’re moving to Australia or you’re giving up the day job.”

Meanwhile, commissioners insisted that documentary TV remains vibrant and in good health, despite heavy competition from drama.

Mirsky admitted that on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon are starting to put pressure on factual departments in traditional broadcasters. “Somebody told me that there were 2m less people watching [terrestrial] TV last weekend than last year because The Crown was released.”

Platforms like Netflix are winning more subscribers, he admitted, many of whom are watching their dramas. “In some way that is scary, but it means we have to move the bar…We have had a golden period where documentaries are foregrounded on most channels, but competition is coming and we need to look out for it.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said ITV controller of factual Jo Clinton-Davis. “And there is a hunger for the truth.” She said the best docs at ITV have to be as big in scale and as compelling and full of twists and turns as drama. She cited ITV hit Long Lost Family. “Some of those episodes could be a single drama – you couldn’t make them up.”

Channel 5 factual commissioning editor Guy Davies admitted that no factual show could compete with The Crown’s £100m budget. “In terms of factual output, we have to innovate and be fleet of foot. We can’t rest on our laurels.”
BBC acting head of documentaries commissioning Clare Sillery noted that docs can successfully borrow certain things from drama – such as scoring, storytelling devices and camera and lens technology.  She also underlined the need for documentary to reveal the complexities of modern life.

ITV head of factual entertainment Sue Murphy interviewed by Betty joint md Neil Smith

ITV’s head of factual entertainment Sue Murphy said that the broadcaster is a factual leader in subjects such as the royals, animals, crimes and prisons. “But we have too many one offs, too many short series that aren’t going anywhere. There are not enough returning formats, and there is not enough factual entertainment.”

She admitted that from the outside, ITV’s factual could seem ‘slightly timid, a bit too conservative and a bit too middling – and that doesn’t get you viewers.”

She said big factual entertainment returnable formats were a key priority at ITV, citing shows on rival channels such as The Apprentice, Gogglebox and Bake Off.

Murphy noted that ITV doesn’t have many competitive formats and that many of the big current competitive shows on rival channels are past their heyday or have peaked. A food competition format is a priority. “With Bake Off going [to C4], it feels like game on.”

Posted 07 December 2016 by Tim Dams

Lupus Films: a top draw indie

Animation outfit Lupus Films has had its busiest year yet, creating  adaptations of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Ethel & Ernest. But, its founders tell Tim Dams, Brexit means there could be clouds on the horizon.

There’s a red front door on Islington’s Upper Street, sandwiched between a betting shop and a dry cleaners. Walk through it and up some narrow stairs and you suddenly find yourself in one of the UK’s premiere animation studios, Lupus Films.

Spread over the three floors, it’s packed full of animators, nearly 50 in all. They are putting the final touches to C4’s 2D Christmas special, We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. In the past year, Lupus has also delivered a film version of Raymond Brigg’s Ethel & Ernest, and TV series such as Disney’s The Hive.

Lupus was set up in 2002 by Ruth Fielding and Camilla Deakin, who first began working together in C4’s animation department in 1999. (The pair also went to the same school, Pimlico School...on Lupus Street.) Initially, Lupus outsourced its commissions to outside production houses but decided to bring the work inhouse for their 2012 sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog.

They wanted to make it in the same way as The Snowman, hand drawn in the UK. Fielding describes the decision as a turning point for Lupus: “We worked with a lot of talented people on The Snowman and the Snowdog. And we wanted to work with them again.” They’ve done so on Bear Hunt and Ethel & Ernest, as well as training up a host of young graduates. Lupus has adopted the same hand drawn look for the films, but a big change is that much of the work is drawn on animation platform TV Paint. It’s quicker to use, but only got the go-ahead because the artists were comfortable using it. “The artist is driving the technology, not the other way around,” says Deakin.

2016 has been Lupus’ busiest year. Business has been boosted by the 2013 animation tax credit, worth 20% of budget. A £100k BFI Vision Award in 2014 also enabled Lupus to develop a feature slate.

But there is a big question mark over how Brexit will affect the animation industry, which relies on international co-production. Says Deakin: “You are never fully financed by your UK broadcaster. You have to do pre-sales to European broadcasters who pay at a certain level because the pre-sale is to another European territory.”

(Ruth Fielding, left, and Camilla Deakin, right)

Key European broadcasters have quotas for the amount of European content they show. Until now, UK animation has fallen within these EU quotas. This made the UK a popular English-language bridgehead for US outfits like Disney and Nickelodeon to access the EU market. But this is at risk post-Brexit. There is also uncertainty whether the UK can access Creative Europe funding.

“We are going to need bigger pulls to retain the work here,” says Fielding. “So bigger tax credits, better corporation tax... At the moment, the pound means it is quite good to work in the UK. But we need to be on a level playing field with Ireland who are offering 32% tax credits for animation.”

And there is concern whether Lupus can employ the European crew of animators it uses for its programmes. On the day of this interview, the news bulletins lead with the story that British firms will have to name and shame foreign workers. Fielding and Deakin are both clearly shocked: “Say we have 25% of our animation crew from mainland Europe, we are going to be named and shamed for that. Why? They are talented, highly qualified individuals who are here paying tax.”

For now, the biggest problem is the uncertainty. “Animation takes a long time to produce. With a 24 month schedule, you don’t know going in to it where you’ll be coming out. It might mean broadcasters not committing to projects,” says Deakin.

Posted 17 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Interview: Steven Garrett, Character Seven

Like the spies and detectives whose stories he has brought to the small screen, Stephen Garrett has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

The Kudos co-founder sold his company to Shine for £35m in December 2006 – shortly before the financial crisis of 2007/8 – on the back of hits like Spooks and Life on Mars. Since leaving in 2014, Garrett has executive produced the most talked about UK drama of the year, The Night Manager, with The Ink Factory.

In February he also launched his new production company, Character Seven. He’s now readying another John le Carre TV adaptation with The Ink Factory, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which will be scripted by Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy.

Garrett was approached by Simon Cornwell, one of Le Carre’s sons and co-founder of The Ink Factory, about working on The Night Manager on the day he announced his departure from Kudos. The Ink Factory was then in the early stages of developing the series. Primarily focused on film, it wanted a lead executive with a strong TV drama background to steer the project.

“It was a thrilling conversation in so many different ways,” says Garrett over the phone from Los Angeles, where he now has a home with his Californian wife. “Le Carre had been my inspiration for Spooks.”

Under Garrett’s watch, the script departed significantly from the novel, particularly in the final two episodes. He also brought in director Susanne Bier. “Le Carre’s stories are very British and very male. So it just seemed interesting if one was going to refresh and update a novel written over 20 years ago to have a director who was both not British and not male.”

Bier shot The Night Manager like ‘a six hour movie’, working out of sequence across all six episodes and stitching it together in the edit suite. “When it works it looks effortless, but it requires huge, huge effort, concentration and clarity of vision,” says Garrett.

Garrett says it is too early to announce on and off screen talent for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. After all, Beaufoy hasn’t yet started writing it. But the same filmic principles employed on The Night Manager will apply: Beaufoy will adapt all of it, and there will be one director across the series.

He also stresses that its setting in Cold War-era East Germany means that it is far removed from the aspirational glamour of its predecessor. “The Night Manager was international travel you wanted to go on yourself, whereas this one will be international travel you will be happy that others have gone on on your behalf.” But, like all Le Carre’s work, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is more than just a spy story or thriller. “It really is a Trojan horse for an exploration of character, human frailty and moral ambiguity,” explains Garrett.

And it is also incredibly difficult to adapt for television. “Spies tend to be loners. When they do talk to people they are not telling the truth to their loved ones or the people they are working with. So it is really challenging storytelling to communicate what someone is really saying or what they intend to do.”

The Cold War setting does make it easier though. Technical advances like smart phones and the internet make modern storytelling difficult, says Garrett. “Think of how many movies or TV shows you’ve seen where someone’s cell battery has gone or they have lost their phone. You need to recreate a world where there is no technology to generate suspense and isolation.”

Beyond Le Carre, Character Seven has a small slate of projects which Garrett says he is about to start pitching. He has already gone public with one of them: a London set supernatural series called The Rook which he is making with Lionsgate and Twilight author Stephenie Mayer’s indie Fickle Fish for Hulu.

“Essentially, the idea is to try to tell stories that organically have transatlantic appeal,” says Garrett of Character Seven’s slate. “So inevitably those are bigger scale stories.”

Like many recently launched drama indies, Character Seven is hoping to tap into the huge demand for scripted content from broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic as well as global digital players like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu.
Garrett reckons there are now 450 scripted shows broadcast in the US alone. “What that means is everyone is looking for ideas that are distinctive.” He picks out Amazon hit Transparent. “It is now lauded as one of the great pieces of scripted drama and explores a subject that was considered untouchable within very recent memory.”

For now, Character Seven comprises Garrett and one head of development in LA. “We will expand according to what happens and when it happens. But for the moment, it is liberating to be working in a very nimble fashion.”

Education Westminster School; Merton College, Oxford
1978 Granada trainee
1987 Channel 4 commissioning editor for youth programmes
1992 Co-founds Kudos, overseeing programmes such as Spooks, Life on Mars and Law & Order: UK
2006 Kudos is acquired by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group for £35m
2014 Leaves Kudos
2016 Launches new indie Character Seven. Executive producer on The Night Manager, in collaboration with The Ink Factory

Posted 16 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Ross Kemp on extreme doc making

Televisual Factual Festival: “Iraq, Syria and Libya in one year was a bit of bridge too far for me – I’m getting old!” says Ross Kemp, as he lists some of the eight countries he has travelled to for his latest Sky1 series Ross Kemp: Extreme World.

But it looks like the former EastEnders star is going to be travelling just as much in the next 12 months, as Sky has just greenlit Extreme World for a sixth series.

It’s over ten years since Kemp swapped Albert Square for life as a documentary maker, winning a Bafta along the way for Ross Kemp on Gangs and a nomination for Ross Kemp in Afghanistan. He’s since made 75 films, which have won widespread acclaim for bringing current affairs to a much wider audience.

This is partly because of the proximity to extreme danger that Kemp often puts himself in. His latest series, for example, sees Kemp and his crew pinned down by sniper fire on the front line in Syria, with bullets visibly ricocheting off a wall above him.

He also manages to earn the trust of and ask challenging questions of interviewees who are rarely seen on camera, including a Columbian assassin who calmly explains how he tortures and kills his victims (it begins by scratching their eyeballs out with a needle). 

Kemp makes his documentaries through his indie Freshwater Films. Each film is usually shot over a two-week period by a six strong crew on the ground – Kemp, plus a cameraman, soundman, a producer, fixer and director. Back home, two or three researchers will research each programme for roughly five weeks, with two further weeks of research on the ground to secure access. Post production, which takes place at The Farm, usually lasts six weeks.

“It says Ross Kemp on it, but it is very much a team effort,” says Kemp, getting out his mobile to show pictures of him and his crew on the ground in Libya. “I own the company but I feel like I work for it and they tell me what to do...I get bossed around!”

As the years have gone on, he says it has become easier to gain access to stories. “It is because we are trustworthy,” he explains. “Always leave the country that you are in – the fixers, the people on the ground and the ones you have interviewed – in as good a state as you can. Then you will get asked back.”

He says his research team starts with a big pool of possible locations and stories, narrowing them down to the ones where they know they can gain access. “Access is the most important thing,” he says.

But why do many of the people on camera want to talk to him at all, particularly the likes of a Columbian assassin? “It happens a lot. We spend a lot of time convincing people that their message is important. He thinks he is going to die at any second. So it becomes a cathartic moment for him.”

Kemp’s trademark style is to take the audience with him on a journey into danger zones. And that is very deliberate, he says. “Audiences don’t want to be talked down to. They want to be informed but in a way that is inclusive and they feel they are part of the journey.” He describes himself as “the conduit to the story.”

It means asking direct questions the audience would ask. But once the interviews start, he says, the most important thing to do is to listen and not to judge. “My mum was a hairdresser, so I grew up in a hairdressing salon. I spent my time listening to the ladies and their stories – and I loved it. You’ve got to have an honest interest in human beings.” The series, he adds, is “about understanding human beings.”

It’s also, of course, about venturing to hostile environments. So what about security? Again, he pulls out his mobile, to show a video of him and his crew crossing the Libyan desert in a 4x4. Under his feet, in the passenger seat, is a machine gun. “This is our security,” he says. The crew also had an ex-army security advisor with them in Syria, Libya and Iraq “just in case we get in to trouble.” It is the first time he has had any advisors, he says.

Kemp spends more time on the road making films than he does at home with his young family. So how does he decompress? “White wine is a good one,” he laughs. “I like going to restaurants and chilling out with my friends and family. There is no deep psychosis.”

He and his team also practice a support technique called TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), which is used by the British Army to help soldiers cope with traumatising events.  “We just sit round a table at the end of the day. No matter whether it has been a harrowing interview or you have been shot at or witnessed someone being killed, we all talk about it individually – camera, sound, myself and the director. And that is a very good way of escaping Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other kinds of trauma related things. You have got to talk about it as soon as you have witnessed it and share it with other people. Otherwise you trap it at the back of your head.”

Ross Kemp was speaking at The Televisual Factual Festival this week

Age 52
Education  Shenfield High School, Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art
1990 Makes first appearance in EastEnders
1999 Leaves EastEnders. Signs two year deal with ITV, appearing in various dramas
2006 Sky’s Ross Kemp on Gangs wins Bafta best factual series award
2009 Ross Kemp in Afghanistan and Ross Kemp: A Kenya Special both nominated for Bafta awards
2016 Commissioned to make sixth series of Ross Kemp: Extreme World

Posted 11 November 2016 by Tim Dams

Lenses in focus

As cameras become more powerful, a far greater range of lenses are being used to give shows a distinct look. Tim Dams talks to leading DoPs about the lenses that make their kit list

The changes that have swept through the camera market in recent years have made the choice of lens ever more important to a production. In particular, the surge in popularity of large sensor digital cameras means that lenses are now one of the most important factors for giving shows a distinct look.

Many opt for lenses that can counter the clinical sharpness of digital cameras.

The effect of quality lenses can also be more easily appreciated on digital cameras, given their advances in resolution, high dynamic range and wider colour spaces.

“Lenses are the last item a DoP has left these days to give a show a certain look and feel,” says DoP Micheal Snyman, whose credits include BBC hit The Night Manager.

It means a much wider range of lenses are now being used, from Primes (lenses with a fixed focal length), zooms as well as specialist lenses such as anamorphic or vintage.

They are being used on a much wider range of productions too, with high end lenses often being used on lower end productions. Indeed the lenses themselves often cost a lot more than the cameras they are put on.

The choices available also mean that a DoP will spend more time experimenting with lenses before a production to establish the perfect look.

DoP Gavin Finney, who won Baftas for his work on Wolf Hall and The Fear, says: “Lenses have a very powerful effect on the overall look and are always a starting point. Everything follows from the lens choice.”

In drama, many DoPs will use a combination of lenses – Primes from manufacturers such as Cooke, Arri and Zeiss, Leica and Panavision – as well as zoom lenses from the likes of Angenieux, Arri and Fujinon.

DoPs prefer to use Primes where they can. “I feel a prime lens will always give you better backgrounds and you stay true to your look,” says Snyman.

However, zooms bring the advantage of flexibility and speed during a shoot. DoP Brendan McGinty, who works across drama, commercials and factual and won an RTS Award for his photography on ITV's The Secret Life of Twins, says Angenieux zooms have been the mainstay of Hollywood film-making for the past 30 years. “They are incredibly good zooms.”

Finney says he will use Primes where he can, but with very tight schedules being able to change focal length quickly is a great help. He cites new zooms like the Arri Alura. “They are even sharper and have better resolution than some Primes. They are also very neutral, so they match a wide range of other lenses.”

Zooms, of course, are most popular in sport, documentary and factual production where the action is often fast moving. Here lenses such as Canon’s 17-120 mm CN7 Cine-Servo zoom and Fujinon’s Cabrio 19-90mm T2.9 zooms are regarded as good quality lenses at the more expensive end.

The increasing dominance of the precise, often clinical look of digital cameras has also boosted the popularity of anamorphic and vintage glass.

Anamorphic lenses impart a shallower depth of field, oval bokeh (the photographic term for the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light) and vignettting (a reduction of an image’s brightness or saturation at the periphery compared to the centre).

McGinty prefers modern, spherical glass but says anamorphic lenses bring a painterly quality to production, imbuing it with romance, nostalgia and sentimentality. In commercials, this can prove a big hit for a DoP. “The client will look at the monitor and think, ‘Wow – that is magical – you have transformed my world,’” says McGinty.

Finney says the decision to go with anamorphic or spherical is dependant on the story. “Like most DoPs, I love the anamorphic aspect ratio and would shoot practically everything this way if I could. Framing in 2.40 is beautiful, and dynamic, and the shallow depth of field of anamorphics gives you great separation between foreground and background.”

Finney notes that anamorphic lens choice is more limited and they are heavier and slower, so it depends on how a DoP is going to photograph the film. “We couldn’t have gone anamorphic on Wolf Hall because the lenses are too heavy and too slow. I tested a wide range of anamorphic lenses for a feature film coming up and it was amazing the range of different looks available within the anamorphic family. Iespecially liked the new Cooke anamorphic range.”

Most anamorphic lenses are expensive, but there are cheaper solutions available from manufactuers such as Holdan.

Vintage lenses can also help to counteract the over-sharpness of some modern cameras, as well as helping to evoke a period feel in drama. Their popularity is such that Cooke recently announced it is bringing back its Speed Panchro lenses from the 1920s-1960s, but with PL mounts for modern cameras.

Q&A: Gavin Finney
DoP credits Wolf Hall, The Secret Agent, Unforgotten, The Fear, Mr Selfridge

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list for most dramas? I always have a full set of primes from 14mm to 180mm and then two or three zooms. If we have two cameras, we usually share the same set.

What lenses did you use on Wolf Hall? We used Leica Summilux primes. They are very fast at a true T1.3 with no visible vignetting, loss of contrast or sharpness. This was crucial in being able to shoot just by candlelight. They also have virtually no chromatic aberration, but do have a slight pleasing bloom around highlights, which meant I didn’t have to use any filtration at night. Another selling point is they are around 1kg lighter than Master Primes, which counts for a lot when you are shooting hand-held 10 hours a day!

Which lenses did you use on the Secret Agent? We used Panavision Primos. They just had the right look for the way we were representing that period. It’s quite a gritty story and I liked the transparency of the Primos without looking too modern.

How long do you test with lenses before a shoot? A lot, I’m always going into test rooms, even before the main test period to try out different looks. Lenses have a very powerful effect on the overall look and are always a starting point. Everything follows from the lens choice.

Do you prefer one particular brand of lens? No preference, they are all good and all have their particular merits. We are very fortunate to have such a wide choice. Cookes are great for flattering faces, Ultra Primes are cooler and more clinical, Leicas are slightly warmer but very sharp, and amazing wide open. I’m always searching for a new look that is appropriate to the story we are trying to tell, so I wouldn’t want to be constrained by owning my own lenses or always using the same set.

Q&A: Michael Snyman
DoP credits The Night Manager, The British, 
Of Kings and Prophets, The Red Tent

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list for most dramas? I like to use the Panavision Primo series for most of my drama work at the moment. I really enjoy the look of these lenses. I feel out of everything on the shelf these days they compliment HD incredibly well. If I’m shooting with multiple cameras on any given day I find HD cameras vary in colour greatly. The Primo’s have no or very little colour difference from lens to lens which is a really good starting point to try balance things up between cameras. They also flare beautifully and do incredibly well in the highlights and lowlights.

What lenses did you use on The Night Manager? I used the Primo’s on The Night Manager. They really do cover a great range of lens sizes. I liked them for their speed, colour and I they feel gave the show a certain quality, a kind of buttery feel.

Anamorphic or spherical? I don’t think you can say anamorphic vs spherical. There is no comparison to be made. Some shows beg for anamorphic and some don’t. They are so very different and they accomplish two very different looks. I feel like a lot of TV is missing anamorphic. It is such an amazing format and with the newer generation cameras it has become so much more cost effective to shoot with anamorphic. The only ones preventing us from shooting anamorphic are the format requirements from the broadcasters. I feel like they are missing a trick for sure.

Are you a fan of vintage lenses? I love to use vintage lenses. I feel they bring something to the party that HD could do with; they are softer, more cinematic and they break down the sharpness of everything. You have just got to know what you are dealing with in terms of look, colour and the actual mechanics of the lens.

Q&A: Brendan McGinty
DoP credits The Secret Life of Twins, The Six Queens of Henry VIII, River Monsters: Lair of Giants

Which are the primary lenses in your kit list? For zooms, I only ever call on Angenieux. Tonally, they hit exactly what I would like from a zoom lens and integrate perfectly with the primes I favour. Its all about the relationship between the sharp area of the picture and the defocused area, and theirs’ is gorgeous. Master Primes are my favourite primes, not least because of their speed. They can hit T 1.3 and be sharp and linear. I also use Ultra Primes, particularly if I am looking for more lens flare in a project.

What lenses did you use on Secret Life of Twins? (McGinty won the RTS best photography award for Secret Life of Twins) I went for more exotic glass – the Russian Luma Tech Illumina Mk.II lenses. They are fast aperture lenses. We shot lot of that film wide open on these very fast lens at T1.3 – the same T stop as Master Primes. But what they uniquely had was tons of flare. Their bokeh is also very ‘painterly’. They are not lenses for something like a car commercial where you want any degree of precision. But they were perfect for the film. We wanted our foreground twins to sort of pop against a more painterly defocused background.

Anamorphic or spherical? I am definitely more in the world of spherical glass. I think that in my heart I am a ‘realist’ and I like to relish in the beautiful reality of the world. For certain projects, where I’m shooting something very romantic and I want the world to look photographically artificial, then I will employ anamorphic glass. I shoot a fair bit of ‘beauty’ work in the commercial world, and anamorphics can be great for that.

Do you prefer to invest in lenses or cameras?
The investment in lenses is probably a safer bet. Camera formats come and go, but people are still shooting on lenses 100 years olds.

Posted 27 October 2016 by Tim Dams
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