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How we shot Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef

For the 3x60-minute David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef for BBC1, Atlantic Productions wanted to push the tech as far as it could. Series director Mike Davis explains how

What was the driver behind the series?
David [Attenborough] first went to the Great Barrier Reef in 1957 in Zoo Quest. He was using a scuba tank that Cousteau had invented just 15 years before and a wind up Bolex 16mm camera. There was no sound or certainly no synch sound. To go back with the latest technology was one of the USPs of the series.

What were the key pieces of hardware?
We had access to the 56m research and exploration vessel The Alucia, so we were able to get the latest camera equipment into remote parts of the reef. Also we had access to a helicopter with a stabilised nose mount to get amazing aerials. Most importantly we had the Triton 3300/3 submersible. That was the key piece of tech to allow David to get down to 1000 feet and spend time looking at and getting samples of coral.

What about cameras?
Our underwater camera throughout was a RED Dragon 6K as we were keen to film in high resolution. The Triton takes three people - the pilot Buck Taylor, David and the cameraman Paul Williams. He was on board with a Sony F55 filming David’s pieces to camera. We had cameramen outside the sub, cameras mounted on the sub looking out and looking back, GoPros littered all around.

Did the extreme depth cause probems?
When we did our deep dive that became challenging. You have battery life issues and underwater cameramen can only dive to 60 metres or so. When you’re at 1000 feet you’re limited to the cameras on board. They’re controlled by one cameraman and he’s also holding a camera to film David. There are limited points of view. In some ways that informs the grammar of a deep dive; people expect the resolution to drop.

You made a VR version too for the Natural History Museum?
We had a Jaunt rig inside the submarine so you could sit with David and hear him talking to you. Outside we had the Kolor Abyss spherical rig with 6 GoPros in an underwater housing system. We could capture scenes with fish swimming all around you and also see the submarine in the distance. You can hop in and out of the sub and really feel immersed.

What other units did you have shooting?
We used timelapses on beaches to capture the turtles on Rain Island for instance. Things like coral fighting has to be done in controlled conditions in tanks just off the reef. In those we shot timelapse but with focus stacking which allowed us to choose which area we wanted to bring into sharp focus in post. If the coral’s fighting and a tentacle goes off to attack another piece of coral in the background, you can focus in on that. It meant huge amounts of storage was required. The sheer physicality of some of this imagery was a problem. Shooting 6K is great but there are only so many hard drives you can take on board and fly back with.

Posted 15 January 2016 by Jon Creamer

BBC docs boss Patrick Holland in interview

The BBC's head of documentaries, Patrick Holland, speaks about the kinds of shows that have worked well for his department recently, and what he is looking to commission in the year ahead in this interview.

Holland was interviewed at Televisual's Factual Festival late last year where he  picked out BBC2’s recent access doc The Detectives, which centred on the Greater Manchester Police’s specialist sex crimes unit, to illustrate what he wants from indies. 

He argued that the access the production team had gained was important but it was also the team’s ability to “stay with the story and the intensity of their focus,” that made the show. “It isn't just about access, it's about the stories you're going to tell and what questions are you going to ask” when you get it.

He said that on many access docs, “you feel the questions stop when they get to the front door” and that he was tired of “profiling documentaries that just describe process.”

On rig shows, he argued they have a danger of losing a point of view. “Great documentary has the presence of the director catalysing what is happening. We need to empower producers to drive stories with a point of view.”

See the full interview above.


Posted 07 January 2016 by Jon Creamer

The Televisual Drama Report

TV drama goes from strength to strength but with so much on show, standing out from the crowd is becoming a bigger challenge for producers. Jon Creamer reports

Drama is still the headline act in the world of TV genres. Across broadcasters and across borders, television drama is continuing its run of extraordinary success and there’s no sign of that slowing down.

Since the UK tax break for high end drama kicked in, the genre has had a major shot in the arm leading to ever bigger shows and ever higher production values. Internationally, the wealth of possible co production partners coupled with the widening number of broadcasters and platforms crying out for the genre has created a perfect storm. “In all the years I’ve been working in drama I don’t think there been a time where there’s been such an incredible appetite for it,” says the BBC’s controller of drama, Polly Hill.

The sheer weight of drama now accessible to audiences across the platforms has led to a “virtuous circle,” says Nicolas Brown, director of film and TV at Neal Street Productions. “There’s a desire from broadcasters for something that has as big an impact as their last big show.” Success breeds success and as the shows get better, competition increases too.  “Competition is a good thing for us all,” says Polly Hill. “The appetite for drama raises all of our games. Competition makes us want to reach further.”

Success has also lead to talent migrating to TV drama, particularly from the movie world because what’s possible on television has also opened up. With so much choice, the audience’s horizons have widened and there’s an appetite “for strong, sophisticated, ambitious storytelling,” says Polly Hill. What’s possible in the mainstream has shifted too. “What we mean by mainstream is really progressing. People want things that are sophisticated and smart. If you give them that they come in great numbers.”

Sophie Gardiner, creative director of Playground Television agrees that the mainstream now accommodates a wide range of shows. “In the past year there’s been Wolf Hall, Dr Foster and This is England, all things that have gone out on terrestrial channels, all brilliant pieces of work but so incredibly different from each other.”

Broadcasters in response are emboldened to widen their drama offering too. “It’s not a revolutionary change but my sense is they’re all broadening out and wanting to be less defined and provide audiences with something they don’t quite expect,” says Neal Street’s Brown.

There are more places for drama to play out too. “There is a greater potential for co-production,” says C4 head of drama, Piers Wenger. “That’s driven by the US, which has increased the number of buyers UK producers can sell to, allowing them to maximise budgets and increase the range of their output.”

Kudos’ Santer says drama now feels like “it’s become an international game. We haven’t yet made a show solely for a foreign broadcaster but that doesn’t feel impossible now. It feels like we’re in a global market now.”

The amount of co production is driven by the need for higher and higher production values as shows compete and audience expectations rise. The nature of co production has changed too. Now there is a “proper conversation in terms of co production,” says Sophie Gardiner. “When it first started it was ‘put in a French character then you can get French money.’ That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening now. With all the really exciting co pros what they want is the author’s voice. That allows writers to be bold and ambitious.”

However, the rise of the big budget co pro does have its downside. “On more domestic shows it’s harder,” says Santer. “On Humans or River we’ve managed to find good international partners because they’re returning series. What’s harder is with a show like Capital, a great but traditionally structured BBC1 three parter so it’s harder to attract that partnership. With the cost of everything going up suddenly those things are hard to make.”

And as broadcasters push for bigger ideas, there’s a danger there may be fewer mid range shows, traditionally the training ground for directors. “Those places where you can learn your craft and get a break and not have the pressure of a £1m-plus budget are harder to find. It feels like TV is more polarised between expensive stuff and soaps,” says Santer.

But there’s an inevitability to that middle ground falling away. It may be a cliché but with so much noise out there, broadcasters do need shows that “cut through” and have a clear central idea. “In the past if there was a new drama launch people knew about it and were probably quite interested. They would give it a go,” says ITV’s drama controller, Steve November. “Now week on week there are so many drama launches internationally that people have access to there’s much less excitement and fanfare. It isn’t an event any more. Getting people to make the choice to try it in the first place is very hard. That does to an extent influence commissioning decisions. What is going to be appealing about the very idea of it? What are we selling to people. Marketing is so important. There’s no point having a beautifully crafted gem that hasn’t got the marketing appeal to create the choice to view in the first place.”

So bold, clear ideas are the order of the day and “the exceptional is becoming the norm,” says Daybreak’s Hal Vogel. “That’s not always about pulling in stars it just needs to be bolder and more engaging. If you look at Dr Foster it was taken a notch beyond what everybody was used to. That’s what excited everyone – taking the familiar and taking a new twist. It’s about fantastic writing and being bold,”

“No one can tread water now,” agrees Sophie Gardiner. “It’s got to shout louder. It has to have a really strong voice and sense of purpose. There are boring things being made but they just get forgotten. There’s more commitment on the commissioner’s part to find things that shout loud and earn their space.”

Roanna Benn, md of Dr Foster producer Drama Republic, says there’s more pressure now to “come up with something distinctive and authored and genuine. You can’t be cynical about it. Back in the day we used to make shows where the ideas were a bit softer at the edges.” But not now. The trick “is to come up with these big, bold ideas but remember it’s ultimately still about the interaction of the characters.”

The trouble is, those big bold authored ideas have to be generated by writers. And good writers are few and far between. More and more production companies that haven’t traditionally made drama have started developing ideas too. And that means competition is high for the top writers. “There is so much demand and not enough writers to meet that,” says Benn. And more writers need to be brought through. “The challenge as an industry is to keep bringing in fresh names and fresh blood so it doesn’t become too narrow and too focussed on a few names with everybody chasing them,” says Neal Street’s Brown. And with so much drama being made, and so much British talent being picked up by America, it seems the industry is prepared to look a bit harder than it might have done in the past. And as the quality of TV drama rises, more will be attracted from the worlds of film and theatre and novels.

The sheer success of drama is even making its makers a little nervous now. The number of new dramas and the budgets it’s attracting are leading some to fear there is a glut of drama that is no longer sustainable in the long run.
But, says Sophie Gardiner, a drama glut is not the real danger for the genre. “One of the reasons we have such a vibrant industry here is because of the BBC. It’s a wonderful haven for creativity. We’ve got to make sure we defend that and also the terms of trade. One of the reasons this country is so vibrant in drama is because we have a vibrant independent industry.  We punch above our weight. The threat for drama is coming from those larger political movements.”

Bite size drama
The last years in TV drama have been marked by the success of single narrative serials like Broadchurch, The Missing and Dr Foster as well as The Killing, Breaking Bad and The Wire. But all those shows require commitment from an audience and there’s a sense that while those shows are here to stay, there’s a need for bite size drama too. The hunt is now on to find the next tranche of ‘story of the week’ shows. “The commissioners all want to have more episodic shows,” says Roanna Benn of Drama Republic. “ I do think someone will crack that. There’s a definitely a will in this country to do a modern version of an episodic show.”

“Inevitably there’s a pendulum effect,” says Nick Brown of Neal Street. “If you’ve been around long enough you see things swing back into fashion again. It’s been great to have those serials around but it demands a lot of audiences. Audiences want that but there are others that want to dip in and out a bit more.”

“We nailed serials with Broadchurch and The Missing,” says Kudos’ Diederick Santer. “But some people don’t want all their TV to be that intense and demanding.”

“There’s still a hunger for those big immersive multi-layered pieces, but you can only fit so many of those into the schedule,” says ITV’s Steve November. “It would be difficult to watch Broadchurch and The Missing in one week so I’m really looking for slightly easier to digest story of the week shows to mix it up a bit. You still want character driven shows with serial character arcs though.”

Small island
Since tax breaks for movies and high end drama kicked in, a flood of US productions have headed to the UK leading to a drain on space and crew. “It’s a massive issue, says Neal Street’s Nick Brown. “The reason we’re shooting Penny Dreadful in Dublin is because we couldn’t find appropriate space here. Crew rates have been pushed up, they’ve been held for a long time and were due a rise but that’s made dramas much more expensive to make. It’s simple supply and demand. We need more people trained. It’d really important to make the industry feel like it’s a place that people from all sorts of backgrounds can come and work in if they have the desire.”

“The tax credit is fantastic,” says Diederick Santer of Kudos. “But in the time since that’s happened the prices have inflated beyond it so the benefit is swallowed up to a degree. I’m not complaining though, talent inflation is the sign of a vibrant market.”

“On the technical side there is no shortage of opportunities and work,” says Daybreak’s Hal Vogel. “The appetite is huge to take new people on.”

Posted 07 December 2015 by Jon Creamer

The Bad Education Movie: how we made it

Director Elliot Hegarty and producer Ben Cavey tell Jon Creamer how they took BBC3 comedy Bad Education to the big screen

Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education, the BBC3 sitcom about incompetent teacher Alfie Whickers and 
his badly behaved pupils, came to an end on the small screen last year. But this month, the show gets its movie debut. Producer Ben Cavey and director Elliot Hegarty explain how they took it to the big svreen.

How do you transform a TV series into a movie?
EH The greatest fear for a TV show going to the big screen is that it doesn’t feel like a movie but just an extended episode. Our conversations were about expanding this world so it doesn’t feel like we’d forced a small story on to the big screen.
BC There have got to be clear reasons that this is a movie and is offering something that TV doesn’t. There’s a lot of content you wouldn’t be able to do on the BBC – outrageous moments we would have struggled to get past. There’s an edginess to it. And there’s obviously a scale to it that comes from the budget and a bigger narrative than we could do in thirty minutes.

What about in terms of production values?
EH The reality of the shoot is you’ve got the same restrictions on money. You’ve only got a few crane shots so it’s about choosing when they’re going to be most useful. One of the main differences in a movie is you expect to see more extras, it’s a subconscious thing. We had to make sure we had enough people in the streets and beaches and schools. Aside from that it was serve the script as well as possible and have confidence in the script being a more cinematic story.

Do you have to be careful not to lose what was good about the TV show?
EH Yes, so the story does start in the school and in terms of the shooting style we wanted to slowly develop what people loved about the show into a movie. I wanted to shoot it in a way where it starts very much like the TV show – very handheld, very chaotic with lots of frenetic movement and then as the story develops it becomes more of an action piece. We calmed the camera down and the lenses got longer, the camera height got lower. It was equally dynamic but more track and dolly. We had to lure people in to Bad Education the movie rather than Bad Education the TV show.

Was post production very different?
EH The post process was the main difference. Our aspirations with certain effects and music meant we had to upscale the post and we were fortunate to work with people like Double Negative and Goldcrest. We needed crazy effects that had to match up to our Hollywood counterparts. It’s not good enough for it to be done by some bloke on a computer in Enfield, it has to be done to a certain spec otherwise people will be upset they paid 15 quid. We went into Goldcrest and graded with Rob Pizzey. That felt like a film to me, grading it in this wonderful huge suite.

Is there more pressure when making a movie?
BC It’s a big weight you carry – wanting people to feel that they’ve got their money’s worth. You work very hard to make sure everything’s on screen in every way. Tiger Aspect and Cave Bear have invested everything themselves in the movie. We’re not taking fees, everything been rolled into go on screen and make it as big as possible. We are as deep into this gamble as everyone else is.

Was it hard to find the budget?
BC The tricky thing is because the brand already exists and there’s a star attached, people think it’s a dead cert. So you can go to institutions that you would expect to be supporting a low budget British movie and you can really struggle. Nigel Green [from Entertainment Film Distributors] really supported it. Between them and Tiger they picked up the deficit I expected to be covered by others.

How big was the budget?
BC The budget wasn’t huge. We had to focus and work long hours and lots of days a week. We went to war in the same way we got to war in the TV show. The Inbetweeners was famously the fastest shot film of its type and we did it two weeks faster.
EH The shoot was just as stressful if not more so. We had very little prep time. We got greenlit very shortly before the start of the shoot and we had a five week window because of Jack’s availability. If we didn’t shoot it then, it would never happen. With only a few weeks to go we had no locations, few crew, half the cast and half the money. We thought ‘fuck it, let’s go for it.’ That seems to be how the British film industry works.

In the movie adaptation of Bad Education, teacher Alfie Whickers takes his class on a post GCSE school trip to Cornwall where they end up getting involved in a bid to make the county an independent state
Production Cave Bear Productions, Tiger Aspect, Entertainment Film Distributors
Director Elliot Hegarty
Writers Freddy Syborn, Jack Whitehall
Producers Ben Cavey, 
Pippa Brown
Executive producerNigel Green
Co-producerSarada McDermott
DoP Pete Rowe
Editor Peter Oliver
Colourist Rob Pizzey
Vfx DNeg TV
Casting Sarah Crowe
Production designer Simon Rogers
Music Vince Pope
Post-production supervisor Mike Morrison
Production manager Brett Wilson
Cast Jack Whitehall, Iain Glen, Harry Enfield, Matthew Horne, Joanna Scanlan, Sarah Solemani, Marc Wooton
Camera Arri Alexa

Posted 27 August 2015 by Jon Creamer

Interview: director Brian Hill

Director Brian Hill is celebrating 21 years of his indie Century Films with a new movie and a retrospective of his work. Jon Creamer reports

Documentary director Brian Hill has clocked up a CV stuffed with award winners by tackling serious subjects in surprising ways.

He’s now celebrating the 21st birthday of his indie Century Films with a retrospective of his work at the Bertha DocHouse and the release of his film The Confessions of Thomas Quick, a feature documentary about a Swedish prisoner who confessed to a series of chilling murders.

Hill made his name in TV but, he says, he knew “right away” that Thomas Quick was a theatrical piece. “The stakes are so high, the story is so dramatic,” he says adding that there’s an easier route to cinema for documentary now. “There is an acceptance that there are different ways to get docs out there than just TV. In other countries that’s always been the case. We’ve been spoiled in this country with several broadcasters who really believe in documentary and promoted and funded it.” But that landscape may be changing, he reckons. “People who want to make certain films aren’t finding that possible for TV so are turning to cinema.” And there are advantages to cinema. “People have paid their money, they’re not going to walk out after a minute, so you can allow the story to build. A lot of TV is about underestimating the audience. With this you can let people figure it out themselves.” Not that cinema is a route to riches. “Making feature docs is not the way to make money.”

To make the film, Hill secured access to both Thomas Quick and those who treated him and investigated his claims. No easy feat as those involved had experienced years of ridicule in their home country. But then Hill has always managed to persuade people to tell their stories on screen – prisoners and porn stars among others, while often persuading them to do it in song. Gaining trust is the key. “Often it’s about how you approach people. You let them know you won’t take the piss or belittle them. People ask ‘Will you make me look stupid? My response is ‘I won’t but you might make yourself look stupid if you say or do stupid things so you should really think about whether you want to be in the film.’”

People are more wary now, he says. And that’s down to a “regrettable tendency to take people’s stories and use them as entertainment.” And there needs to be a better reason than that. “If you’re making docs you have a certain obligation to explore issues that are socially relevant and important. I couldn’t make stuff that has no meaning or importance.” Over the years he’s made films about “family break up, prostitution, alcoholism, drugs, murder, rape, domestic violence. I did make a film about Robbie Williams that came at a time when I needed a bit of light relief from all the other stuff.”

But despite a lot of the subject matter being serious, his approach has often been playful. He’s perhaps best known for inventing the documentary musical alongside poet Simon Armitage. He’s just editing his latest set in a school within a Mumbai slum. “For the final song we’ve got a thousand kids all singing and dancing. It’s the world’s first ever Bollywood style musical documentary.” The form sprang from the fact that “people have been telling stories though song for thousands of years, we still are with musicals so why can’t documentary use that? Who says that all documentary has to be ob doc?” And it also makes the subjects of the documentary less like ‘subjects’. “You can feel uncomfortable about making documentaries of people’s lives and them being subjects of yours. If you put them in a musical they become part of the project. They’re creative collaborators.”

He’s not so keen to leap into other new forms of documentary like rig shows though. “I can’t imagine it’s something I’d want to do though some of them can be really good. But I don’t think it’s necessarily more intimate. All sorts of intimate scenes have been shot by people with crews.” Though he would love Century to make series with a rig shows’ returnability. “We thought we had that with The Secret History of Our Streets” which ran for two series on BBC2. “I thought that was going to be our Who Do You Think You Are? But nobody wants it any more. It’s extraordinary really. It was critically well received, it won awards, people watched it.” A returner “gives you security,” he says.

And that’s important for an indie that’s still resolutely independent. “There’s probably not many indies that have been around as long as we have that are independent still. I like that. I know lots of people who’ve sold. They like the money but they’re unhappy about becoming just an employee of shareholders. I don’t think I could do that. I’ve been my own boss for 21 years.” And free to not make the programmes he doesn’t want to make. “I’d rather do something else for a living than make rubbish.”

Brian Hill launched his production company Century Films 21 years ago this autumn. He has been a documentary innovator throughout that time directing the ‘first docusoap’ Sylvania Waters and pioneering the documentary musical with films like Drinking for England and the BAFTA-winning Feltham Sings. Other films from the Century stable include The Not Dead, which tells the legacy of war through three generations of soldiers, and the recent The Secret History of our Streets series. His film The Confessions of Thomas Quick opened in August

Don't forget to book your tickets to the Televisual Factual Festival - more details at

Posted 27 August 2015 by Jon Creamer

Making Big Blue Live

Big Blue Live exec producer James Honeyborne explains how his team is making the live natural history special for BBC1 charting the annual gathering of wildlife in California’s Monterey Bay

What’s the programme about? 
It’s the story of a gathering that happens at a very special place that’s peaking in the next couple of weeks. It’s a unique moment in history as well. 60 years ago Monterey Bay was pretty much devastated by pollution and overfishing. All the animals had been hunted to near extinction. The revival of this coast line is an amazing good news story as well.

Why make it a live show?
I think live brings you something very different. We can take the audience whale watching live in real time and that’s something on most people’s bucket lists. There’s an experiential element to it. This will be the closest you can get to going on a scientific expedition in real time. And this gathering of animals is an event. We have a long tradition of covering events live. We don’t know quite what’s going to happen but that’s part of the frisson of excitement for the audience.

Does the experience of Springwatch help 
with something so different?
There’s a wealth of experience both in production but also on the technical end of things too. We need to take all our learning from that but this is different, everything’s different when you get into the ocean. The weather and the sea state will affect where we can be but just like Springwatch there’s a lot of great content to cover. We have to be flexible. We have a depth of content, which I think is reassuring.

Are you confident you’ll see enough sea life?
Some animals are more guarantee-able than others. We have three sea otter mothers that have given birth in recent weeks right in front of the aquarium. We’ve got sealions on the harbour breakwater just across the bay, there are Pelicans and Shearwaters. Some things we see every single day.
This year the fish shoals are coming very close to shore. We literally had them under the windows of our offices yesterday so a lot of the action is close to shore. We filmed a whale coming right into the harbour to feed the other day and it actually got stuck under a boat. There are opportunities we will seek that are more challenging. It would be amazing if we could see some of the big whales live, we stand a reasonable chance with that.
Is there infrastructure there already you can use?
There’s a lot of good science happening out here that is based on new technology. They have the bay covered in terms of hydrophones and cameras. There are people who have remote cameras on the sea bed picking up sharks as they swim past. There are scientists here who are even putting cameras on to some of the larger whales. Drones have been used to study some of these animals from the air which is great because with whales, when you’re looking down into the water you can see the length of the whole animal which is so impressive.

What will you attempt to show live?
We will always prioritise live and try to have live encounters with the wildlife but as with all live shows we will have elements of pre-recording. You want that to set up back stories and give context. We’re hoping to see animals live from the air, the surface of the water and under the water. We are planning to have live aerials scouting for things in the bay. Who knows what we might see? We might see giant sunfish, great white sharks, all sorts of creatures coming to this gathering. In addition to that we’ve got a boat that will be whale watching live and we are even doing some live dives in the kelp forest. We are absolutely trying to cover this place and I think that between us and the science that’s going on here it gives us a good degree of confidence were going to see some amazing animals.

Posted 27 August 2015 by Jon Creamer

The Art of VFX

Creativity, tech know-how and a cool head. Four of the UK's leading visual effects supervisors – among them two Oscar winners – explain the art of their craft

On Terminator Genisys, two weeks after winning the work I was on a plane to New Orleans where they were filming. You’re present on set in order to advise the client side super as to what we need and to acquire stills, bits of information, video, a whole host of different things. We had a good two thirds of the film so I was out there for the duration.

It’s a creative process, we’re not building a car. If something doesn’t work or the story changes you have to adapt to that and vfx is usually the one that is leant on. It’s a very instant answer whereas building a new bit of set is not so accommodating.

Yes, there is a better understanding of vfx but there’s the general notion that vfx can do anything. To a degree it can but I’m a very firm believer that it doesn’t necessarily mean we should. In most cases you should get as much as you can in the can then we’ll do the rest in vfx when you physically can’t do it. I still believe in using miniatures for certain things, sometimes they look great and real. I also believe in building fantastic sets. It gives the actors something to work with. Cg does look photo real but if you really get into the spot the ball competition you can’t beat the real deal.

You’ve got to be honest and say to a director, yes you can do this in vfx but if you can I’d advise you to build a bit of set or get something that’s practical because then you get something in the can and we can always enhance it if need be. To create from scratch, vfx is not cheap. It takes a huge amount of time. Also there’s a misnomer on set that vfx takes no time at all but it’s a crew of 500 for a year.

Back in the day vfx was just about ‘copy this board, copy that shot, job done.’ These days because huge sequences are pure vfx we have a lot of creative control. The director is not there at that stage to direct us so we have to do that ourselves along with the client side super and then suggest things to the editor. You are doing filming to a degree. You’re directing, designing and editing, which is great. Now we have a live art department throughout the entire film. When the production art department finishes we carry or right to the very end. There’s a lot more vfx and you’re creating characters and environments and this stuff all needs to be designed.

People skills is a big thing, you have to keep positive in this industry. These projects go through some very tough times and it’s quite stressful so you’ve got to keep upbeat. You have to be accommodating of everyone’s opinion. It’s a group led creative process but I’m aware also of being that one voice when dealing with the client.


It feels like we’re there very early in the whole process and practically the last ones at the end. You need to have an overview of the whole movie experience.

On set, you need to make sure the shots in the vfx sequences will have the right impact or you’ll end up creating an entirely vfx shot that does have that impact instead. We can replace a lot of shots these days, more pressure will come to do that if the initial photography wasn’t what was wanted. But that pushes up the vfx budget. That’s budget that isn’t magically there, it has to come from somewhere else.

Rarely is there a time when it’s OK to leave the crew to it. Crews are becoming extremely savvy about vfx and they will correctly guess the right process a lot of the time. The danger is they will go ahead without you if you’re not on set. Seven out of ten times they’ll get it right.

There’s an assumption that the more vfx that get shot the more money there will be to do them, but actually the budget is set and we’re trying to minimise the number of vfx to make sure we get money on the screen where it really counts.

You try to make an agreement about what will be vfx and what will not. It can become very difficult to say ‘no, you can’t shoot it that way because we didn’t plan to do that’. Some shoots by their very nature get changed. That’s the nature of the way filmmakers work. You don’t want to limit their creativity so it is a fine balance.

In post the involvement the director has enjoyed by standing behind the camera talking to his actors starts to dissolve a little bit because the digital work he’s commissioned has a much slower turnaround. They’re busy doing directors cuts, ADR, sound mixing, scoring a lot of other stuff. The slow process of vfx is not often something they want to be too involved in so the vfx super starts to inhabit the role of proxy director. It is like a second unit so the supervisor has to consider what the director would shoot in the same way the second AD does. There is an directorial aspect to it, especially if you’re creating characters. Then you have to get into the head of the director and think about what they’re after. Scheduling time with the director and encouraging them to get involved is important.

The key thing is to establish a good relationship with the director, the 1st AD, and the DoP. Be clear up front about what you require, but be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. Feed your requirements into the 1st AD as soon as possible but also look to save them time if there is an opportunity. If there is an element that is key to achieving the desired result, you have to make sure you get it. However, if it merely saves you time in post, be willing to let it go if needs be. Understand the demands that the 1st AD is under and you’ll get on fine.
I’m usually sat next to or within earshot of the director and DoP for most of the shoot. You need the DoP on your side, as they can suggest solutions on the day, which can make the post work easier.

Lighting is the one thing that can’t be changed afterwards so get a good dialogue with the DoP – if the scene has been lit in a way that doesn’t seem right for post, you need to listen to why the DoP has lit it that way and then make a call as to whether you ask for it to be changed. It’s easy to obsess about what looks real, whereas the DoP is making it look beautiful – you need to get the balance right and here the relationship with the director is key.
I often advise people going on shoots to sit and look at the monitor and imagine that what they are seeing has just been loaded into the post-production suite. You then look at it with a more critical eye – it’s easy to be seduced by what you see when looking through the lens.

Being a vfx supervisor requires being able to think on your feet, an ability to adapt to fast changing circumstances, patience, knowing when to kick up a fuss and when to take a step back. And having more than one alarm clock!

Once the job is awarded we work closely with production and client to make sure we are as organised as possible before the shoot. We will be involved in the PPM process if required and will be briefed usually by the director. We will often have our team working on concept drawings, CGI builds, pre visualisation and concept testing long before the shoot.

On a more technical production we will often build a pre visualisation of either a whole commercial or selected shots. This will be done in CG, and will be based on real world information from locations and set builds. This is invaluable in conceptualising each shot. It gives everybody a clear idea of what we will be capturing and also how to capture it. We will quite often be able to export all this data from our CGI package straight to a Motion Control team. With some tweaking this gives them a running start in recreating this shot on set.

The moment I walk on set I go straight to the 1st AD and introduce myself. He or she will be your most important colleague on set. They will be the one to get you everything you need. This could be the infamous ‘Clean Plate’ at the end of a lengthy set up when the producer is stressing to move on. Or an alternate exposure plate, element pass or a rushed HDR image set (which if I don’t get my CG guys will kill me!) Inversely, I really do try to help them keep the fluidity of the shoot. Only asking for post essentials, and judging when I can miss something unessential.

A detailed understanding of all things 2D and CGI is imperative. It really helps to dissect the shot in your head and think how you would reconstruct it once you get into the suite. Then you know you have got everything covered.

It is a plus if you have good communication skills and can give a definitive answer when someone asks you, yes or no? There is no room for...’um, let me think about that’. It can be stressful on shoots when things take a left turn. Production and agency side look to us to give a confident, measured response and to keep calm when people are stressed out around you. There is a delicate balance in spreading your time and attention director and client side. I like to keep everyone in the loop 100% of the time and I make sure everyone knows I am thinking about what both sides require.

Posted 07 August 2015 by Jon Creamer

Will post production stay in Soho?

Soho has long been the indisputable centre of the post production world in London – whether for films, commercials or television.

But now more than a few companies have started to trickle outwards from that centre to form new pockets of post. Some have gone east and now nuzzle up to the new media start ups that have sprung up around Old Street’s digital roundabout. Because of Soho’s powerful gravitational pull, outfits like Splice and Time Based Arts seemed like brave pioneers for setting up shop in what is, after all, just another bit of London a little bit up the road.

And while those pioneers don’t represent a flood, it’s a trend that has some serious pressure behind it.

Scrubbing up
Soho, like much of central London, and like many of the central and very fashionable parts any big UK city right now, is changing.

Property prices, and commercial rents are rising at an astonishing rate. No grimy backstreet is immune from the unstoppable force of gentrification and for Soho’s grimy back streets, that goes double.

For businesses beyond the post world, the broom has already swept through. The Save Our Soho campaign is a desperate rearguard attempt by a coalition of performers and long term residents to try to keep at least some of the area’s iconic performing arts venues alive. Many of the basement bars, strip clubs and ‘models upstairs’ that made Soho such a grubby but always interesting place have already been swept away under a tidal wave of design led restaurants and duplex apartments. Jeffrey Bernard is dead.

Those same pressures exist on the post world too – because residential flats and restaurants make more money for landlords than businesses do.

Eastern promise
Raised by Wolves, the company formed by Tareq Kubaisi and Jon Hollis, has a Soho address but is one company seriously thinking about a move out east to join the Shoreditch gang. “30 years ago, Soho felt like it was a big video and film industry now it feels like a bunch of restaurants and tourists,” says Hollis. “It doesn’t feel like the industry’s here any more. It’s boutique hotels, restaurants, everything will get paved soon. The Mill’s old building is a Wagamama now.”

Colourist Kubaisi agrees: “Small companies like ours have to make a big commitment to stay here. Out east it’s a bit more interesting. There are great agencies out there too. It’s a different social atmosphere. In the last ten years Soho has become a bit bridge and tunnel. You need a stimulating environment. Maybe I’m just getting old but Soho is becoming less stimulating, a bit generic. It’s a lot tidier but the spark is going.”

The Mill moved last year from its Great Marlborough Street location in Soho after 24 years to Windmill Street in Fitzrovia. London md Darren O’Kelly reckons the move out of Soho has “re-energized The Mill London to a certain extent” due to “being in a part of London that has a relaxed, local community neighbourhood. It’s cool without being hipster. It’s an area that has start-up businesses and not been totally overrun by chains. Our next door neighbor is a guy that makes bespoke leather products, and that’s inspiring. Much like when you sell your first flat or house you think you’re going to miss it, but once you’re in your new pad you can’t believe you didn’t do it sooner. So I’m loving it and I’m pretty sure our staff and clients are loving it too.”

MPC’s senior EP, Jonathan Davies agrees that Soho is undoubtedly changing “Soho is going more residential so a lot of business is being pushed out by landlords. It was nice that it used to be a little bit seedier. It’s becoming a lot more foodie and touristy. It is losing a bit of its character but it’ll be fine.”

Because, he says, the essential creative buzz of Soho still exists. “There’s a creative vibe here as well. Clients not based in Soho like to come in to Soho.” And there’s still that post community feel. “On this street [Wardour Street] there’s Nice Biscuits, Finish and a few others. There’s us this side of Oxford Street and  Framestore, The Mill and  D Neg the other.”

Soho or bust
But a major pull is simply that for clients “it’s just assumed that you’re here in the middle of town,” says Davies. “We’re an established brand and though there are companies in Shoreditch and a few film vfx houses out west, generally everyone’s in Soho or just across in Noho. It kind of doesn’t make sense to be here in terms of cost but everyone expects you to be here and the workforce expects to work here.”

Though a smaller player than MPC, Coffee and TV also reckons Soho is still essential despite the high rents on its Kingly Street studio. “I don’t think you can afford to be anywhere else,” says md Derek Moore. Because although agencies tend to be spread a little wider than central Soho “by being central you open it up to everyone who’s coming through. As long as you’re near restaurants or sound houses and editing companies, however expensive it is we need to be here.”

And besides, says Moore, it’s not always cost effective to move somewhere cheaper. “If you look at the cost per year of your rent and what you would save by being in Shoreditch, that probably adds up to two or three large-ish jobs. Your opportunities are substantially better by being here rather than there overall. I think moving is shortsighted.”

And there’s also the fear that the big talent might not come with you either. “In Shoreditch or Farringdon, you could be a lot more cost effective , but would you attract the top guys?” says Moore. “Unless they happen to live east already they’re not going to schlep past The Mill, Framestore and Electric Theatre to get further out.”

And for big players, moving anywhere is prohibitive. “Technically we could do it but in terms of shifting everything further away the costs of that would just make it not worthwhile,” says MPC’s Davies. “The infrastructure’s been here so long and relocating that’s not simple.”

I need some space
But there is another big pull away from Soho, and that’s architecture. The Mill’s move was at least partly fuelled by the desire to  “embrace a new, more open-space way of working” as O’Kelly puts it. Soho is defined by its close streets and Victorian town houses. And so most commercial property is made up of small rooms linked by stairways. That was fine in a different age, but post houses and their clients are now embracing a more open plan studio approach. MPC’s modern building in Wardour Street allows that but not much of Soho does (hence The Mill’s move across Oxford Street.) “Traditionally you’d have lots and lots of suites but we’re breaking that up into more open plan areas.,” says MPC’s Davies. “The technology and the client needs shape your building. There’s less machine room, you don’t make many tapes now there’s more open plan project areas. Years ago everyone was really obsessed with confidentiality. Any discussion of a job and you’d be in a little room. Clients are more chilled out about coming in and having an informal chat about projects and they’ll see other clients in which they like. It’s more relaxed in that sense.”

And that fuels much of the desire to move east too. “There’s not much price difference out east but it’s the kind of space you can have,” says Raised by Wolves’ Hollis. “Most of the buildings here are Victorian with small floors and tons of stairs. It’s not ideal. I’d rather we were all on one big floor. Out east you’ve got warehouse floors - all the old rag trade stuff.”

But in the end, it may be more contemporary ways of working that could mean more companies choose to stay in Soho. The increasing possibility of having artists working remotely means a Soho base needed be that large, or that expensive. “Lots of artists live all over and they come in when they need to, often at the start when we brief a job, and then they go back and work remotely,” says Coffee & TV’s Moore. “So we can afford to keep the Soho space small.” 

“That’s one of the reasons we’re holding off a little bit,” says Kubaisi. Because if remote working really takes off “this place works beautifully.”

P.S. for a look at Soho back in 1956, check out this fabulous footage on the BFI Player

Posted 09 July 2015 by Jon Creamer
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