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Colouring Borgen: something other than Nordic Noir

The Danish TV series Borgen, its third series now airing on BBC Four, is distinctly Scandinavian in terms of its production aesthetic. But, given the subject matter of the series, it does not rely on the ‘Nordic Noir’ look that characterises so many other successful exports.

Produced by DR, the Danish public broadcaster, Borgen is made by the same outfit that produced hit series The Killing, which has quite a different mood.

A key theme throughout Borgen is the balance between home and work lives; Birgitte Nyborg must juggle her family life with the demands of leading a coalition government, while a journalist and government press officer struggle to keep their relationship separate from their opposing career paths. This juxtaposition forms the basis for the series’ look and feel.

The overall look of Borgen is set by director Charlotte Sieling and DoP Jørgen Johansson was classically cinematic, with a lot of natural daylight and warm skin tones.

Norman Nisbet has worked as colourist on all three series. He has his own balancing act to manage. “Unusually, the series has a conceptual director and DoP who set the tone for the entire series, but every two episodes are shot by a different director and DoP team,” explains Nisbet. “So I had to balance the overall mood as well as entertain individual styles and interpretations and make sure that the finished product had a coherent grade throughout the entire series.”

“Home scenes are warm and friendly with lots of rich contrast, while the scenes in the parliament buildings are much cooler and slightly harder, but detail in the shadows and highlights were important to extract,” says Nisbet, who uses DaVinci Resolve for the grade.

The third series was shot on the Alexa, and the DoP purposely underexposed the material half a stop, which gave Nisbet additional texture in the shadows, which were enhanced in the grade. “The first episode also includes with scenes in Hong Kong, which were gritty but also very colourful, so I used a desaturation of shadows and also complemented the drama on screen with a greener palette with gold highlights.”

Nisbet uses Resolve’s Power Windows together with the tracker. "I’m able to get clean HSL or RGB colour picking for secondary enhancements with gaussian blur in the isolations, which mean the grading enhancements blend in smoothly, without any disruption to the narrative on screen,” concludes Nisbet. “The success of the series has been because of its strong plot lines and believable, fallible characters. So, it was important for me that the grade was clean and crisp, making the images on screen interesting, but only subliminally noticed by the viewers.”

Posted 09 December 2013 by Pippa Considine

Milk's 3D vfx for Doctor Who 50th gives it the feel of a movie

Vfx house Milk was behind the visual effects for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode, The Day Of The Doctor, which was shot in stereoscopic 3D.

Milk created a series of  large-scale CG environments, action and CG spacecraft in stereoscopic 3D to support the epic storyline in which the Doctors embark on their 75-minute adventure.

 The vfx company created 129 visual effects shots including the dramatic sequences featuring the Gallifreyan city of Arcadia under siege at the hands of the Daleks.

Milk constructed a large scale 3D environment of the falling city, buildings, debris and explosions; and fly-through shots that immerse the audience, taking advantage of the depth that stereoscopic 3D allows, making the sequences more visceral. 

Milk created the dramatic 3D Time Lord paintings at the National Gallery through which the Doctor and Clara witness the  battle and fall of Arcadia and which form the entry point for the viewer to fly into the city.

One of the biggest challenges was creating a framed painting that appears to be a two dimensional object but which, when the camera moves around it, is revealed to be a full 3D environment with depth, whilst still remaining within the picture frame. 

Milk also worked with the BBC’s art department to design the Dalek fighter pods - a new feature of the Dalek fleet - created specially for the 50th anniversary episode to maximize the speed and agility of the Daleks in the attack sequences during the fall of Arcadia.

The team at Milk (previously as The Mill’s TV department prior to Milk’s launch in June 2013) has been creating the visual effects for Doctor Who since its regeneration in 2005. During this time, the team has won awards including a BAFTA, a VES (Visual Effects Society) Award and an RTS Award for their vfx work.

"Having worked on a number of stereoscopic 3D feature films we relished the challenge of working in stereo for television," says Will Cohen, Milk’s ceo. "It was a pleasure to continue our working relationship with Steven Moffat and the BBC team to bring their creative visions to life, creating striking visual images to support the heart-stopping narrative and making the Doctor Who look more like a movie than ever before.” 

Milk is currently working on the BBC’s Doctor Who 60-minute special Christmas episode featuring Peter Capaldi as the new Doctor. The episode will be broadcast on BBC One on Christmas Day.

Milk’s current TV projects also include Sherlock: Series Three (Hartswood Films/BBC); new pirate drama series Black Sails for Starz; Sky’s New Year’s Day TV special - David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive (Sky Atlantic); and the new TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven part mini-series (7 x 60’) due to be broadcast on BBC One in the UK in 2015.

On the feature film side, Milk is working on MGM’s upcoming Hercules and has recently completed work on 47 Ronin for Universal.

Posted 26 November 2013 by Pippa Considine

Bake Off inspires BBC me-too formats

The success of BBC Documentary's Great British Bake Off, followed by the Great British Sewing Bee, both from Love Productions, have set the BBC's commissioning green lights flashing across a raft of subjects.

There are three more competition formats announced so far: The Great Allotment Challenge from Silver River and Studio Lambert's The Great Interior Design Challenge for BBC Two, plus Hair, an in-house production for BBC Three.
The Great British Bake Off - where The Apprentice meets the Women's Institute - has undoubtedly ticked many boxes for the viewing public and for the BBC.

The highest rated show on BBC Two since the current ratings system began in 2002, Bake Off is a heart warming, relatively inexpensive production, which has inspired people across the UK to don their aprons and get baking Bath buns and Bakewell puddings.

It's also been remade in several territories, (although the US version didn't take off), and has spawned Junior Bake Off, a hit for the younger generation. And it's led to BBC Two's Great British Sewing Bee, another success story, seeing 2.7 million viewers tune in to watch 81 year-old Ann crowned Britain's best amateur sewing queen.

"It has proved that an ill-fitting zip or badly placed dart can make for compelling television in much the same way as a soggy bottom on Great British Bake Off," said BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow, as she announced a second, six part series of Sewing Bee for 2014.

The final of the last Great British Bake Off series clocked up nine million ratings, with bigger audiences than most dramas and shiny floor shows.

What's not to like?

With The Bake Off heading to BBC One to give the channel's documentary store cupboard a special ingredient, BBC Two will still have the eight part Sewing Bee, to be joined by six, hour-long episodes of Grow, Make, Eat: The Great Allotment Challenge in the new year and The Great Interior Design Challenge, a 12-parter commissioned through the factual features team.

The Great Interior Design Challenge marks a departure, as the other four commissions have been developed by the BBC documentary team, now led by Emma Willis, who is not alone in thinking that the the documentary maker's approach to film-making is one of the secrets of these format successes. “It’s riddled with actuality,” she says about Bake Off. “Instead of pointing a camera at the anatomy of a crime it’s the anatomy of a sponge cake, it’s a level of forensic done with a real seriousness of intent, but about cakes.”

The less than showy presenters and judges on Bake Off are surely also something to do with the ratings. Presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins with judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry eschew the heels and four-hours-spent-in-make-up of The X Factor in favour of tidy M&S outfits or ill-fitting jeans. There's acres of modesty, underpinned by genuine talent and quiet, homely humour. All very much in tune with the times.

Claudia Winkleman's easy, intelligent wit has also clearly hit a spot on the Sewing Bee, together with judges May Martin from the Women's Institute and Savile Row's Patrick Grant.

It remains to be seen if Fern Britton and her pair of judges, Royal Horticultural Society judge Jim Buttress and floral designer Jonathan Moseley will woo the nation with their Allotment Challenge.

Next up will be Tom Dyckhoff, architecture and design critic for The Times and judges Daniel Hopwood, architect and interior designer, and Sophie Robinson, ex-editor of BBC Good Homes.

Followed by Steve Jones mediating on the talents of crimpers and cutters, with judges Denise McAdam, session stylist and royal hairdresser, and Alain Pichon, international session stylist, who has styled Madonna, Scarlett Johansson and Claudia Schiffer.

It will be interesting to see if these (and any other similar formats waiting in the wings) will cut it with their ultimate judges, the viewing public.

Posted 22 November 2013 by Pippa Considine

World's smallest 4K OB van

This three wheeler moped van is a natty ob unit from Danish production services company Nimb TV.

Nimb has joined forces with producer/director Troels Lund to create the world's smallest 4K OB-van.

Built with the help of AV specialist Stjernholm & Co, the OB van will be used for high quality, multi camera Ultra HD 4K production in the Danish broadcast industry, big screen events and live concerts. It has already been booked for the ‘boot camp’ section of the next season of Denmark’s version of The X Factor, which will use various locations across Copenhagen.

Nimb TV’s live production workflow includes Blackmagic's ATEM Production Studio 4K, which can handle SD, HD or Ultra HD 4K video sources from up to eight of the team’s own cameras, or their broadcast clients. The ATEM Production Studio 4K will be used with an ATEM 1 M/E Production Panel for hardware control.

The ATEM Production Studio 4K’s 6G-SDI and HDMI 4K video connections mean Nimb TV can handle Ultra HD 4K video sources via a single cable and each input includes a frame synchronizer allowing the use of non genlocked sources. There is also an HD down converted HD-SDI program output for when the switcher is operating in Ultra HD formats, but a regular HD program feed is required.

The workflow also features a HyperDeck Studio Pro SSD recorder, while capture and playback is handled by Blackmagic’s UltraStudio 4K. The team has also installed a Blackmagic Audio Monitor, a rack mount monitoring solution with advanced 6G-SDI video for Ultra HD video sources.

The  power supply is a single 230V connector, which allows it to power a production from a standard household power plug.

Niels Borup, co founder, Nimb TV, says, “We now have the ability to work with a huge range of customers, from independent filmmakers to national broadcasters, and can offer flexible, reliable Ultra HD 4K production, wherever they want to film.”

“Niels and Toke are a hugely proactive, passionate production team that has spotted a fantastic opportunity in the market,” says Morten Stjernholm, ceo, Stjernholm & Co. “Blackmagic’s ATEM Production Studio 4K enables the team to produce content to the same high standard as you find in huge OB trucks, but the size and agility of the moped van gives Nimb a huge competitive edge. The Ultra HD 4K workflow enables the team to offer the highest quality streaming for major live events, as well as a flexible system that broadcasters can quickly plug into with their own camera choices.”

Posted 13 November 2013 by Pippa Considine

Panasonic remote cameras used in filming of C4's Murder Trial

Windfall Films' Channel 4 documentary, The Murder Trial, filmed with access to a Scottish High Court, used five Panasonic AW-HE120 remote cameras to film the case of Nat Fraser, a man accused of murdering his wife.

Panasonic AW-HE120 PTZ cameras were chosen to film the pioneering documentary because of their compact design and discreet colour, which allowed silent operation and would not disrupt the proceedings of the courtroom. The wide range of angles and focal distances achievable with the cameras pan-tilt flexibility and 20x zoom lens contributed to the recording.

"When filming The Murder Trial it was vital to use equipment that would not intimidate or inhibit those involved in the case. We needed equipment that was discreet and operated remotely from outside the courtroom. The quiet and compact design of the Panasonic AW-HE120’s allowed us to capture compelling footage whilst remaining unobtrusive” said Gillian Goodlet, production manager at Windfall Films West.

Also used during the production of the documentary were the AW-HS400 video switcher, AW-RP50 camera control unit and AW-HCK10 camera head coupled with the AW-HMR10 portable memory card recorder.

Posted 12 July 2013 by Pippa Considine

Some highlights from Sheffield Doc/Fest

The UK premier of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opened Sheffield Doc/Fest in style, complete with a Skype session with one of the Pussy Riot protestors.

The industry sessions, while not featuring acid coloured balaclavas a la Pussy Riot, were a colourful mix.

Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt, BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow and BBC creative director Alan Yentob, were all interviewees in the Crucible theatre venue, while speakers from across the world and across the digital spectrum took to stages nearby across three days of presentation and debate.

Lucy Cooke's sloths took centre stage at a session hosted by BBC commissioner Cassian Harrison. Cooke's impassioned story about bringing not frogs (her first love), but sloths, from Costa Rica to Discovery (not the BBC), was a masterclass in how the internet can work for a producer. Posting a film online, seeing it turn viral, getting a commission, turning it into a series.

There was a strong digital showing. The Business of VOD revealed some of the first real opportunities to make some money selling through an online catalogue. The key message, which was echoed across multiplatform sessions, was to get your marketing right, planning the whole digital life cycle of your production, amassing as much interest as possible, including getting personally involved in forum-chat with your audience.

An Autopsy of Easter Eggs Live demonstrated how much care went into planning the marketing alongside Windfall Films' production, starting with a take-over of the Foxes Live twitterfeed. While Al Brown from Vice said that putting some of Vice channel's hard-hitting docs onto YouTube had exploded the number of views they were getting.

In a session featuring a fictional multiplatform pitch, Jordan McGarry of Vimeo revealed that she was working on a very similar idea to the one being pitched, featuring bands and linking into the music industry. One of the joys of the idea being that the bands bring their fans with them as an audience.

Back in the land of terrestrial commissioners, some of the UK's leading documentary commissioners revealed their favourite productions. Celia Taylor, the head of factual and features at Sky, picked A&E. "Just when you think there's nothing new in blue light territory, this comes along," she said. "I wish we had one of these. It's beautifully brought together, it makes me cry, it's the holy grail - bringing all the storytelling and intelligence of documentary making and making it returnable."

A&E also featured in a discussion on Documenting Institutions: Critical Revelation or Embedded PR?, where Channel 4 deputy head of Factual, kicked off the session by underlining that King's hospital, where A&E is filmed, felt that it was taking "a huge, huge risk".  Access was also in the spotlight in The Art of Access, from Palaces to Prisons, with Paul Hamann (Strangeways), Trevor McDonald (Inside Death Row) and Michael Waldman (Our Queen).

In a discussion of trends in European programming, there was a consensus that  broadcasters were moving away from more exploitative content. In France, according to Patricia Boutinard Rouelle from Nilaya Productions, there was increased demand for science, natural history, biographical content and programmes dealing with big, landmark issues. In Germany, there was always demand for history and  journalism, current affairs and human interest, said Elina Kewitz from German-based New Docs. Sahar Baghery, international TV research manager from Eurodata TV Worldwide, thought that European audiences would want more real life observation and stories with personal relevance going forward.

But what programming for an audience of mainly under 30 year olds? Speaking at a session addressing this demographic, we heard that Denmark's DR3 had found success with Generation Plastic, giving the camera to young people about to have cosmetic surgery. While Al Brown from Vice UK showed a film about Japanese suicide victims which was a hit for the channel. There was some disagreement about the slower pace and presentation of the film, but different treatments, such as BBC Three's Alex: A Life Backwards had been strong. Irene Stroyer from DR 3 added a touch of schadenfreude with the comment, "death is going very well in Denmark at the moment."

At the Director's UK session, there was a plea for directors to get a commercial share of IP and to be given more time, in the face of shrinking time for pre-production. There was agreement on the panel that the standard rate of £1500 a week was felt to be too much to charge for a director on his or her first or second job. Several audience members volunteered to take a lower rate of £1400 or £1450 for a week's work.

Posted 17 June 2013 by Pippa Considine

Upgrading the infrastructure as BBC S&PP relocates to Elstree

The relocation and renewal project for BBC Studios and Post Production to Elstree  included commissioning Custom Consoles to move and upgrade the infrastructure.

While the White City Television Centre site is being redeveloped, BBC Studios and Post Production has relocated its London studios business to Elstree and is providing HD TV studios at BBC Elstree and Elstree Film Studios in Borehamwood. The commission included moving the existing main production desk, production monitor wall and the lighting and vision monitor wall from Television Centre Studio 6 in London to the Elstree studio complex. Three additional desks have been provided, two from Custom Consoles' Module-R series plus a specifically designed lighting control desk.

The new facility is structured as two separate rooms and becomes the main technical control resource for the 11,800 square foot Elstree Studio D. A Custom Consoles monitor wall at the front of the production control room accommodates 26 video display panels of various sizes plus a studio clock and monitor loudspeaker. Facing this is the main vision control desk which is designed for use by a five-person production team. Technical facilities embedded in the desk include a production mixer, slow-motion effects controller and director-to-camera communication.

Immediately to the rear of the relocated front desk is a new Custom Consoles Module R desk with three computer-based workstations used in supporting production roles. Each workstation is equipped with a monitor display screen mounted on an Ergotron adjustable support arm.

Lighting and vision control are performed in a separate room. Here the monitor wall has been relocated from Television Centre Studio 6. The control desk here is designed for use by a team of three people with support from an additional colleague seated at a rear Module-R desk.

The first show to be shot at the Studios since the upgrade was ITV's The British Animal Honours, made by Whizz Kid Productions.  

Posted 11 June 2013 by Pippa Considine

Filming magic: the making of Card Shark for Nat Geo

The three-card Monte is believed to be the oldest card trick in the world.  It is still played on streets across-the-globe today and uses misdirection and sleight-of-hand to fleece thousands of innocent passers-by every year.  Although its origins lie in magic, the Monte is a con, pure and simple.

Card Shark – a co-production between Windfall Films and So Shoot Me TV – airs tonight at 9pm on National Geographic Channel. The programme takes an in-depth look at the history of cards, card magic and card cheating. But when magic is your topic how exactly do you film it?

So Shoot Me TV’s Kate Leonard-Morgan and Mark Leslie, together with Windfall Films’ Carlo Massarella, explain how they captured the secrets behind card magic through a mixture of stunts, street demonstrations and clever camera work.

The specialist
Drummond Money-Coutts is the perfect exponent of the card shark’s dark art. As magician to the world’s elite, he has honed his craft on the party circuit, eschewing the expected path working for his family’s bank. His undeniable talent, telegenic looks and good old-fashioned charm could, in another life, have made him a fortune duping a succession of hapless punters. Fortunate for us then that Drummond is one of the good guys!

The Game
The Three-card Monte is the basis for all the tricks in the programme.  Three playing cards are placed face down on the table – a queen and two ‘twos’.  Drummond then reveals the target card, before rearranging the cards quickly. The player is given an opportunity to select which one is the queen. Regardless of how many times he is challenged, as Drummond demonstrates the dealer always wins.
Drummond explains that he has used a simple switch manoeuvre, revealing where and how it was done. But it is imperceptible.

Capturing the action
It is commonly believed that sleight-of-hand works because, as the saying goes, ‘the hand is quicker than the eye’ – but this is usually not the case. In addition to manual dexterity (the result of thousands of hours’ worth of practice), sleight-of-hand depends on the use of psychology, timing, misdirection and natural choreography to achieve its magical effects – all of which was captured on camera.
We used a mix of visual styles, both on location (choreographed at a card table) and on the streets.
At the card table, we wanted to capture the action without exposing the magic.  We shot the series using a Red One and a Sony PDW800 as main cameras, as well as C300s and go-pros. Using multiple angles, we were able to challenge the viewer to keep up with Drummond’s moves.  Where we do explain the method, we used high-speed cameras to reveal the manoeuvres. 

In contrast, when we took to the streets we used multiple hand-held cameras to capture the action and to create a more immediate feel.

Shooting on location
Card Shark was filmed in London, Paris and Bangkok. Each location had its own challenges, but nothing could have prepared Drummond and the team for the extremes of weather we faced.  In London and Paris, we filmed on the coldest days of the year so far (-4 in London and -12 in Paris!), where the myriad challenges included keeping the kit functioning, the batteries charged and the magician’s hands from seizing up!  In Bangkok, we had to deal with the other end of the climatic spectrum: the heat and humidity posed just as many problems – to the equipment and the tricks.  Most of all we had to expect the unexpected.

The final stunt, involving Drummond, a Muay Thai boxer and shot glasses of sulphuric acid stretched us all to the limit.  We covered the scene with six cameras, on a jib, legs, hand-held and fixed to the table.  The trick had to be filmed live, as it couldn’t be interrupted and we had to guarantee complete coverage.  We wanted the live audience and the viewers to have a clear, comprehensive view of all the action and to be in no doubt of the very real danger Drummond was in… and to feel the stress levels as they rose.

What we’ve ended up with is a programme that poses just as many questions as it provides answers. Chief among which remains, for us, and for the viewers:
“How on earth did he do that?”

Posted 03 June 2013 by Pippa Considine
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