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Spooks: from small screen series into big screen event

Spooks: The Greater Good director Bharat Nalluri explains what it takes to turn a long running TV show into a theatrical movie. Jon Creamer reports

Bharat Nalluri was the lead director on Spooks the TV series way back in 2002 and then returned to direct the final episodes of the show in 2011. He then directed the final instalment of the Spooks world, with the theatrical movie out this month.

Why has the movie not happened before?
Every few years we would talk about turning it into a movie. But they wanted it to run as a TV show and no one had the time. Then there was the question of how we would distinguish between the TV show and the movie. I came back to the show right at the end of the final season and shot the last episode. Literally in the car park as we were leaving I said to [Kudos boss] Jane Featherstone ‘there’s always been a movie in this and we should kick start that again.’ We got in a room and started knocking out ideas and it moved fast from there.

Was the development process long?
The world was changing rapidly between 2011 and 2013. The world moved so fast it overtook our scripts. We were keen to capture the zeitgeist that the TV show did at its best.

How do you make it work for both fans of the show and new viewers?
It’s a really fine tightrope to walk: how do you not disenfranchise two sets of people. I genuinely think we’ve cracked it having played it to both audiences. There’s enough stuff in there for the fans to grip into. We also made it in such a way that if you’ve never seen it before it’s not going to ruin your enjoyment.

How do you take a TV series to a movie level?
We always talked in movie terms from the outset on the TV series. I felt the episodes were all little movies – 50 minute thrillers. When I came to Spooks I’d come out of making films and this was my first television, so I’d come with that aesthetic. But on a basic level we went abroad. We always talk about it on the TV show but never quite did it, maybe once. On this we went to Russia and Germany and we told back-stories in a different way. What was great was being able to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. In the TV series you’re leaving threads open across the season.

How does production process change?
The scale is a whole different beast. For an hour of TV we’re shooting 12 days. This was eight weeks – we’re shooting in Berlin and creating Russia. You do an action set piece in half a day on the TV show if you’re lucky. Here you’re spending a week on it. It allows you to spend more time working the drama and working with actors.

London is a big part of the film?
London has always been a huge background to the show and when you’ve suddenly got two months to shoot it and you’ve got movie budgets you can get into places you’ve never been able to get to. As I started this movie my whole family moved to Washington DC so it was a love letter for London and all my favourite places. It was 20 years of locations I’ve wanted to shoot and I managed to splurge them all out in one go.

With so many spy thrillers out there, is it hard to find your own grammar?
In reality we’re a kind of a mutt. When I started doing the show I’d just come back from doing very glossy, sexy studio movies in the US. I came back thinking I’m going to make the show really gritty and dirty and grainy – almost black and white. Then I watched a lot of British television and that’s what it all was, gritty and grainy and real. So I thought let’s make it as cinematic as we can. We shot with three cameras, 5.1 surround sound, we gave it all the texture of a movie. The reason I chose the river as central location is that it was the one place I could find wide landscapes. We upped the editing tempo so there were 650 cuts to the hour instead of the usual 200. We shot 70 pages of script instead of the standard 56 so it felt like it had this forward propulsion. I told the actors never to let up. There was no moment where you sat down and explained it all safely for the audience.

Do you stick to a very solid plan on set?
No, I always find if I plan and make shot lists and storyboards everyone hooks into them and you can’t take advantage of something that’s happening around you. Being super flexible on set usually leads to really interesting stuff. Plus it allows the actors to be flexible. I would never have done that 20 years ago but I haven’t done a shot list for years and years now. The great thing with actors is if you have their confidence, they’ll let you do anything. What you don’t realise as a young director is you can go to them and say ‘this scene’s not working, why is it not working?’ In the early days you’d be terrified they’d see the whites of your eyes and go for your throat but if you do it with confidence it’s a fantastic place to be.

Posted 13 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

Direct Action: Toby Haynes on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Getting the director involved early on, and letting one director take on a whole series, can transform and elevate drama, says director Toby Haynes who helmed all seven episodes of BBC1 series Jonathan Strange & 
Mr Norrell.

The producers knew they had this bestselling book and they were struggling to get a greenlight. It was [BBC exec] Matthew Read who said ‘why don’t we bring a director who could have something to offer the authorial voice of the piece?’ They had felt it was a bit too BBC2 and not very accessible. Matthew Read bought into making it more universal and more of an immersive audience experience with a director at the forefront of that, not coming in at the end, so the show could be born out of a cinematic vision.
My involvement early in the writing process with Peter Harness, the writer, meant we could be so much more daring with the way we tell the story. It’s not just aesthetics that make something feel cinematic, it’s the way we tell the story and the time we spend with our characters as they walk through the streets and live their lives. Being with Peter while he’s writing made sure the scripts had a rigour to them and every scene earned its place and had a point. I could inject the sense of pace I could normally inject in the edit process in the writing process. It meant everything had already gone through a stress test or a run through.

Anything that involved more technical stuff I would get in there early with Peter and make sure what was in the script was achievable and we already had a solution worked out. Sometimes in drama you can read a sequence that is unachievable. When I worked on the Reichenbach Fall episode of Sherlock, he was originally written to jump off the Shard. We could have done a version of that that involved a lot of green screen but it just wouldn’t have looked very good.

It became a production imperative to have one director. We were block shooting the sets in a particular location so you couldn’t bring in different directors as one day of shooting could mean shooting in all seven episodes, so I made myself indispensable in that way. It was a perfect storm that I took advantage of. It doesn’t happen very often but I hope it happens again. It has changed the way I work. From the stuff I’ve read since I’m less attracted to scripts that are already fully developed.

I’m really trying to fight the image of directors coming in right at the end and pointing the cameras and buggering off again. It’s sometimes quite hard for people to take in what we do, the scale of the job is so colossal.

There was a time when directing was just about coverage. TVs themselves were smaller so it was a close-up medium. Now we’ve all got big flat screens. Just before I did Doctor Who I’d been visiting my mentor David Yates on the Harry Potter set. Then I went to Doctor Who and realised we had pretty much the same kind of equipment – a similar camera with access to wonderful 35mm lenses. We had a dolly and track. For all the big sets and kit on a film like Harry Potter they were still just shooting with one camera one dolly and one grip. The fundamentals are very similar, all it takes is vision and good lighting and a really focused idea of what you need to achieve.

Television has evolved. You can achieve anything so directing it is important again. People are seeing the difference it makes if you have a director as an authorial voice. It only takes looking at Tom Shankland’s work or Peter Kosminsky and what he did with Wolf Hall to see what directors can do over a longer run when they’re given that canvas.

The Cuba Pictures’ series TXs next week on BBC1

Posted 13 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

Election time for TV and film

The licence fee takes centre stage in the manifestos, but other policies will be just as crucial for the creative industries.

The political party’s proposals for the creative industries have not been a particularly major part of the general election campaign.

After all, plans for the film and TV business aren’t a classic vote winner, or particularly a vote loser when it comes to the public at large.

But there are some important points of difference between the parties for the film and TV industry. And there are dangers, and opportunities, for the creative industries whichever flavour of government eventually takes power.

Licence to kill?
Most of the parties’ manifesto commitments are vague but generally surround the very British political obsession with the BBC, its governance and its funding.

The Conservatives have a philosophical dislike of the licence fee, but that’s always offset by a voting public which, while it doesn’t like paying fee, has warm and fuzzy feelings for the BBC brand.

So the manifesto pledge this time from the Tories is that the licence fee will be frozen, at least until Charter renewal, but not frozen out. The Conservatives also want to top slice the BBC’s income to pay for the roll out of super fast broadband continuing the top slicing they began in 2010 to pay for the World Service and Jeremy Hunt’s Local TV experiment.

And it’s the Tory’s antipathy to the licence fee that could be the biggest challenge for the TV sector. Whether a BBC staffer or an independent producer, it’s the BBC’s spending power for new programmes that stimulates the unique commissioning ecology of the UK and is a big part of what has allowed the growth of independent TV businesses and their success internationally.

Indie trade body Pact, while often at odds with the BBC when it comes to issues of in-house versus indie production guarantees and rights retention, sees the preservation of the licence fee as a big concern. “The licence fee tied to inflation at the next settlement with no top-slicing for non-TV use,” will be crucial, says chief exec John McVay.

The Labour Party’s manifesto is somewhat vague on the issue, stating that the BBC “makes a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life, and we will ensure that it continues to do so while delivering value for money.” A comment that suggests support for the funding model, but says little about what level the licence fee should be set at. The Liberal Democrats state that they want a licence fee that “does not rise faster than inflation,” leaving a glimmer of hope that the fee could at least rise with inflation if they have any say in it.

The SNP has plenty to say about the BBC, pushing for responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland to move from Westminster to Edinburgh. It’s also after a greater share of the licence fee to be transferred to BBC Scotland and it wants a bigger say in Charter Renewal and BBC governance for the Scottish government.

And it’s the BBC’s governance that concerns the other parties too, and its rivals. Commercial broadcaster trade body Coba’s executive director Adam Minns says: “it’s in the long term interests of the BBC that there is robust and transparent oversight that is independent and beyond reproach. If that is a dedicated body, then it needs greater independence, greater powers and possibly greater resources than the current model.” That will be up for grabs when the next government comes in.

Four sale?
Channel 4 crops up in the manifestos too with pledges from both Labour and the Lib Dems to halt any sell off of the publicly owned broadcaster. There’s nothing on the issue from the Conservatives in their manifesto, but plans for a sale were drawn up by the Conservatives in 2014 (but blocked by Business Secretary Vince Cable). A Conservative government without a Liberal Democrat partner to block it would mean a sell off could be tempting as the broadcaster could be expected to bag an estimated £1bn plus for the Treasury.

What a relief
But while the Conservative led coalition has posed threats to television with its licence fee antipathy, many of its moves in the creative industries have been undoubtedly helpful.

Firstly, the coalition government listened to the tax credit campaign from the animation industry and responded admirably. Tax credits for animation production have transformed the UK industry, turning it from a business that seemed to be slowly dying away as production and rights drifted to territories with more favourable tax regimes, into an industry with a bright future. Animation production spend rose from £46m in 2011 to £51.7m in the first year of the tax credit, 2013-14 – a rise of 11%.

High-end drama, a genre that was similarly losing out to foreign competitors as productions headed abroad to take advantage of financial incentives, was given a similar boost, as was film tax relief. Televisual’s Film 40 report in this issue gives some indication of the transformation of the industry as US and international productions increasingly bring their big budget shoots to a newly enlivened UK.

Specifically, tax incentives for film, high-end TV shows and children’s TV have all been given a boost in the pre election budget. Film tax relief has been increased to 25% on all qualifying expenditure. Previously the 25% rate applied for the first £20m of qualifying expenditure and then 20% afterwards. Now the 25% rate applies across the board.

The same budget also brought in changes to high-end television tax relief. The minimum UK expenditure requirement changed from 25% to 10% and the cultural test for television will be revised to reflect previous changes to Film tax relief. The changes have been brought in to allow projects shooting outside the UK to bring just their VFX, post and secondary shoot work to the UK.

The tax relief on live action children’s television production has begun too and will mirror that for animation with the relief available at a rate of 25% on qualifying production expenditure. Live action kids TV has other challenges to face, but the new rules will give some welcome respite.

What the manifestos say

Promise to freeze the licence fee at least until Charter Renewal and have plans for more ’top slicing’ to pay for super fast broadband.

Will ensure the BBC “continues to make a vital contribution to the richness of UK cultural life while delivering value for money.” Also pledges not to privatise C4.

Liberal Democrats
Will not let licence fee rise higher than inflation, and pledge to keep C4 in public ownership. Will maintain funding to BBC World Service and Welsh language broadcasters.

Want responsibility for Scottish broadcasting to devolve to Holyrood. Want more of the licence fee for BBC Scotland

Want to reduce the licence fee substantially and stop it being a criminal offence not to pay.

Will get rid of the licence fee and fund the BBC through direct taxation.

Posted 06 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Paul Abbott on No Offence and writing as a team

Writer Paul Abbott tells Jon Creamer about finding the tone for No Offence and the right way to make writers work together

With credits under his belt like Shameless, State of Play, Clocking Off and Touching Evil, you wouldn’t expect Paul Abbott to get ‘stuck’.

But his latest drama series, the dark and funny No Offence that centres on a group of CID officers in Manchester, proved to be a tough one to birth.

The idea was solid, says Abbott. “I wanted to write a jet black comedy cop show” but the trouble was getting the tone right: “That’s taken ten years,” he says. The difficulty was finding a way between comedy and drama that wasn’t “comedy drama.”

His initial drafts “came out like garbage. It was too fat and it was too vulgar. It was like fly trap paper. You just got stuck in policing stuff or stuck in a comedy riff.” And even when he started working on it with a team of writers “the comedy thing got in the way. We were getting cop lines then gags, cop lines then gags. Even up to draft three or four. These things have to come together.”

It wasn’t that the comedy wasn’t working in itself, he says. “They’d be brilliant gags that we all laughed at and said we can’t wait to make this. Then a week later we’re all saying ‘it doesn’t actually say anything. The gags are just there to inform the audience that it’s a comedy.’”

Getting it right “took ages, we cut it to absolute ribbons” and, he says, the team found that as they played the characters straighter and straighter “the funnier it got.”

The trick of it was also to keep the best of a police procedural too. “I thought we need to abduct the crime addicted audience and give them a really good time somewhere else” but while doing that ensure “you’re not disappointing them on the procedural.” And that became an imperative. “If we’d done a really good sophisticated piece of funny stuff that we were all really satisfied with but then the scripts were just hanging like broken arms, there’s nothing for those people. You’ve lied to them.”

Peppered throughout his description of the creative process is the word “we.” Abbott is a big proponent of team writing and it’s a process he’s been honing since his days on Children’s Hospital and Coronation Street at the beginning of his career. His indie Abbottvision, which he set up in 2008, is formed around a writers’ studio. “About eight years ago I bought a house next door to the house I lived in. When I got divorced I moved in.” He turned the place into a writing studio where a team can spend a few days working together. “The writers get treated like kings when they’re there,” he says. But the physical proximity forces them to collaborate too. “It’s creative Stalinism. You have to drag these people in. They don’t want to leave their little boxes. You have to purposefully engineer the communitarianism of it.”

And he does that both at the Manchester studio and his house in France. “That is ace. It’s like a little psychiatric unit, all fenced off.” But to make the team writing system really work, it needs a few days for the barriers to break down. “All writers meet around tables. They go to hotels for a night but half of that is getting there and feeling uncomfortable about having to talk to people about your work intensively. Then you only get five hours of legitimate traction out of it.”

The real magic comes after a few days when the team doesn’t even realise they’re working, he says. “Everybody thinks they’ve finished work when they leave the table. But all they’ve done at the table is colour in the vowels of their own name on a pad. The minute you move them in to a big room where they can flop back on a sofa and you bring in coffee and cakes they all start singing like canaries. It’s fantastic to watch. They start to work because 
they’re relaxed,”

The process is about breaking down the writerly ego. “Writers don’t share. But it’s the wrong job for competitiveness.” Ideas are one thing but “nobody can take your voice away from you and you can’t nick somebody else’s voice.”

It’s also about forcing people to be “smart” rather than “smart arse”. “Using your intelligence as a weapon is a bad habit in this industry. You’ve got to knock it out of people,” he says. “A lot of people in the industry are so foul, so horrible to each other. They’re so busy trying to look intelligent that their emotional intelligence is void. They’re writing smart in a way that’s not convincing.” And in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of the audience.

The key, he says, is to interrogate the writing again and again. “It’s rude to get it right first time. You’ve got to test it left right and centre” and not go down route one. Too many people make telly in a way that they think telly looks rather than how life looks, he says. And too much is written “right on the nose. It’s so literal and there’s no mischief to the storytelling. It doesn’t have to come out like sausages. The minute it works people leave it alone but the minute it works is the moment you should start creatively writing it.”

Paul Abbott set up his own drama indie Abbott Vision in 2008. He has created, written and produced a huge run of successful dramas since his beginnings as a script editor and writer on Coronation Street. He created Children’s Ward with Kay Mellor and went on to write Linda Green, Clocking Off, thriller State of Play (subsequently remade as a movie), Touching Evil, Exile, Hit and Miss, Shameless and latterly No Offence. He has won three Baftas alongside a straining mantelpiece full of RTS, Emmy, British Comedy and Writers’ Guild awards.

Posted 05 May 2015 by Jon Creamer

The Enfield Haunting: Keeping it real

Eleven Film’s three part drama for Sky Living stars Timothy Spall, Juliet Stevenson and Matthew Macfadyen and details the events that supposedly happened to an Enfield family in the early 70s when a poltergeist came to stay. Vfx outfit Munky and special effects house The Machine Shop teamed up to provide the spookiness and did their best to keep as much in camera as possible

Unusually, the collaboration between the two effects companies worked right from the start of the production process. “The production had storyboards for the key sequences so we started chatting with The Machine Shop to discuss how much they should do and what we should do and what would be the most efficient way of doing it” says Munky’s vfx super, Gary Brown.

As The Machine Shop began its test shots, they would send them straight to Munky for input on how vfx might improve them. “We could work closely with Munky – they could tell us ‘don’t worry we can paint you out there or take your line out there,” says The Machine Shop’s Mats Rivenes.

Right from the start though, the motivation was to “push as much in camera as possible,” says Brown. And much that came from the historical setting and style of the drama itself. Key references were classic films like The Excorcist: “The most important thing was that it was meant to have a 70s horror film vibe which was a lovely idea to work towards,” says Rivenes. “It meant that for a lot of the physical effects we used a practical approach that’s on its way out now. You tend to do most effects these days using more mechanical or scientific approaches but in this we were allowed to do a lot of puppeteering – getting inside furniture that needed to move and in that way give it character. It is set in the 70s so it made sense to do the effects in that sort of retro way – not letting them look funny or comedic but we did have that 70s approach. It was a lovely way to work as we got to get back to how effects were once made.”

And as the objects are supposed to be moving around at the behest of some evil entity, physically moving them adds that extra personality. “It’s about giving something soul,” says Rivenes. “You can move a chest of drawers across the room in a hundred different ways but when you get involved in it physically that helps.” And to aid that, Munky stayed on set during physical effects shots to explain where they could help. “Quite often our role was advising on stuff. On set we were still supervising when there were no vfx that day but lots of sfx,” says Brown. “For a lot of effects we would say ‘why not just do this in camera?’ We were using lots of old fashioned techniques too. We’d get the little girl to move backwards and then reverse it and it’s really spooky.”

Although for some sequences, pure vfx did turn out to be the best solution. “There was one sequence where the tiles come off the wall in a bathroom,” says Brown. “That was originally proposed as a puppeteered sequence but we wanted the tiles to have a bit more control and to make them feel like they have an intelligence. But that was pretty much the only area where we built cg assets and animated them.”

The speed of production also meant the two companies had to work together efficiently to solve problems as they arose. “You work towards a storyboard and you have an idea of what it’s going to look like and then you get on to set,” says Rivenes. A scene with a bathroom mirror shattering around a young girl had been planned as a purely physical effect but “we realised as we were talking through the shot that it wouldn’t be safe enough for the girl involved,” so the mirror was broken off set and animated and comped in by Munky later.

The reliance on physical effects helps a production in other ways too, says Rivenes. “When you give away too much to vfx or post production, the DoP and the director tend to lose a lot of their input. With physical effects they can look through a camera, which is the medium they’re trained in, and they can change it as and when on set.”

Posted 20 April 2015 by Jon Creamer

Storyboard: The best of the month in animation, graphics and vfx

In this month’s Storyboard, Blinkink celebrates with tequila, Beakus heads to the library and Fieldtrip plays a game with gnomes

Jose Cuervo films
Blinkink directors Elliot Dear and Stephen McNally created three films with different animation techniques as part of Jose Cuervo Tequila’s 250th anniversary. Dear made two films: The Battle For Tequila in which he built a miniature set of the town of Tequila with live action performers shot in slow motion and The Margarita made up of 2D animation with dramatically lit CG backgrounds. McNally’s The Alchemist blends CG worlds and 2D painted textures. The executive producer was James Stevenson Bretton.

Magna Carta films
Beakus’ designer/director Gergely Wootsch made these two illustrated animations for the British Library to coincide with a major new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, celebrating the 800th anniversary of the document’s creation. The films were voiced by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.

Magna Carta: Legacy from Beakus on Vimeo.

Magna Carta: Medieval from Beakus on Vimeo.

My Dear Gnome
This is directing duo Emmanuelle & Julien’s short film produced through Fieldtrip and Hornet partners ChezEddy. My Dear Gnome tells the story of two friends and an unsuccessful attempt to play draughts. “We created an entire universe for this film. Even the flamingo (Eugene) in the background has a story,” said Emmanuelle.

My Dear Gnome from Hornet on Vimeo.

The Edge/Peepshow
Saving Joule
The Edge hired Peepshow Collective to bring to life their story which follows a robot’s quest to power his ship and re-join his lost fleet. The 12 minute animation will be shown at the Mishkat Centre for Renewable Energy in Riyadh. Peepshow designed and directed the film from concept art to final render in three months.

Saving Joule / Trailer 1 from Peepshow Collective on Vimeo.

Guardian films
Sherbet's Tom Senior animated these online films featuring The Guardian's  psychotherapist Philippa Perry dispensing advice.

Art & Graft
Ministry spot
Art & Graft created this 3D crystal TVC and album artwork for Ministry of Sound’s Drum & Bass Anthems compilation.

Ministry of Sound from Art&Graft on Vimeo.

Posted 15 April 2015 by Jon Creamer

Armando Iannucci in interview

The Thick of It and Alan Partridge producer Armando Iannucci talks about his experiences of making comedy in the US and how he gets the best out of his actors. He's currently in the midst of editing the fourth season of HBO/Sky Atlantic series, Veep.

Was producing comedy in the US an easy transition for you?
There was a lot that was new to take in but the more I got into it, the more similar I realised it was. Working with HBO reminded me a lot of working with the BBC 10 or 15 years ago. For such a huge name with a huge reputation they’re quite a small outfit. I only really had to deal with two people there - Mike Lombardo the programme guy and then Casey Bloys the comedy guy.

But isn’t the cliché of US TV that there are 50 execs on your back?
That's what I’d experienced working with ABC ages ago [Ianucci made an ill-fated Thick of It pilot for the network in 2006], so I’d gone into HBO thinking “well, it’s all going to happen again” and then just being astounded on every level when you meet these very nice, intelligent, enthusiastic and supportive people who just want to make good television. It took me about a year and half to realise that was the case.

Will that culture become more prevalent now?
The heartening thing is that is the way television is going. HBO lives and dies by the quality of its programmes. They don't do advertising so they’re not that concerned with overnights. It’s about how many people watch the shows over the weeks and months. They want people to be talking about the shows so more people subscribe.
For that to work they give the creatives a lot of responsibility and autonomy. Now Netflix are doing it, Amazon are doing it. In one sense it’s heartening because the producers and writers are the ones in demand. On the other hand, these shows are very expensive to make so they don't give everyone the chance. There’s more competition and the fight to get a slot is going to be a little trickier.

Is there less of a gulf now between US and UK comedy?
What’s changed now is you can access other people’s comedy a lot easier. The US has a great admiration for British comedy but it’s usually British fringe comedy - Monty Python, Peep Show – these shows have huge followings in America. In the UK we have an enthusiasm for very mainstream but smart American comedy. I am hoping in this cross-pollination it becomes clearer to commissioners that you can put smart comedy on a mainstream channel. It’s difficult to think of something like Seinfeld being on BBC1 at 9pm on a Monday. It’s a bit of a bugbear for me that we’ve lost that sense of smart mainstream. Porridge, Steptoe and son, Reggie Perrin and Yes, Minister were classic comedies from the 70s and early 80s and were all on mainstream television. Now everything’s got to make its journey through BBC3 or BBC4.

Is it difficult for your British writing team to get American dialogue just right on Veep?
We write it in great detail but the directing process involves the cast loosening it up a bit. I say ‘if you don't think the character would say it like that, then let me know how they would say it.’ That’s not a general rule of comedy it’s just how we make Veep. You want to feel like you’re watching the reality so you want the artifice of the dialogue to not feel artificial - we ask the cast to overlap each other’s dialogue, throw things in, react spontaneously. I’m very strict on what we need to get out of the scene and if I don't feel we’ve got it yet we’ll go back and do it again. We put a lot of work into the scripts prior to shooting it but then the shoot itself is all about making it feel real and believable and organic to the characters.

So you plan everything very tightly and then let the actors play with it?
We have an extremely strong safety net for them to then start taking risks on camera.
It was the same with The Thick of It. On the first episode all the actors were saying “but we like the script.’ I had to say ‘I’m not asking you to throw the script out, I just want to be able to switch it on at any point and think this is genuinely what these people are saying. I want to believe it. Sometimes they would improvise in a way that all the words came out from the page, they just came out in a slightly different order because the cast have found a slightly more organic order to say them in.

Are actors comfortable with that?
For key actors you want people who are very comfortable with it. But for those with a guest part I say ‘don't worry. You don't have to be the world’s greatest improviser. I’m not asking you to spontaneously come up with loads of funny lines.’ We've got writers for that. I’m just asking that if something unexpected happens, just act in character, even if it’s just looking startled or absolutely dumbstruck. Sometimes that is the funniest thing from the scene. The genuine reaction shot from a character can be just as funny as the page of dialogue that preceded it.

How do you create the conditions for people to improvise?
I try to encourage us to shoot it in the easiest way possible without too many marks to hit so we can shoot the whole scene without any interruptions. That allows the actors to get two or three goes at the scene. Then once it’s under the skin, they’re more familiar with the scene. Also then I’m more familiar with the scene and, looking on the monitors, I’m beginning to see exactly where the scene is and I’m looking to see characters who may not have said something but are in the back of the shot and whether they can say or do something funny. So we’re still adjusting the scene and layering it even more with every fresh take. Then once that's done I can then just come in and pick off the odd line here and there that I don't feel I’ve got.

Are comedy directors more interested in performance than the ‘look’ that drama directors might be after?
It’s got to look good. But I envy drama directors and how they can get away with a shot of someone just coming out of a car and up some stairs, going along a corridor and handing a letter to someone and it all looks great. I think ‘God, if that was in one of my shows I’d have to think of 40 seconds of funny stuff. I don't want to demean drama direction because a lot of thought has gone into how those 40 seconds look. But I do envy that.

Are there people you always work with on every show?
On Veep, it’s an all American crew but the writing team is people I’ve worked with on The Thick of It and other shows  - it’s a UK post production team too, all the post is done in London. It's a sort of transatlantic production in that really the writing room and the prep is done in the UK, then we go to Baltimore we shoot it with American cast and crew, then come back and edit it and get it ready back in the UK. What’s heartening is the American crews love the show and love the method. Also the Brits got an editing award from ACE and the writers got a Writers’ Guild Award so it’s nice the UK talent is being recognised in America.

How do you cope with the longer US runs?
They’re longer than I’m used and they’re annual as well. The Thick of It was every two or three years and Partridge was every three or four years. It is a non-stop process. We’re now editing season four and that's about to go out in America and already the thoughts are turning to scripts for season five. It’s a non-stop cycle which takes a bit of getting used to.

Is there a danger of getting burned out?
With each season I’ve been careful to graduate people on the show - Chris Addison directed an episode in season two and he’s become an exec producer for season four. It allows me a little more time to step away so I can turn my head to other things but also, once you get locked into a weekly cycle, it’s difficult to stand back and think ‘where is this heading?’ It’s allowed me time to step back and see the big picture.

Is the annual cycle of the show helpful?
It means you can be two thirds of the way through shooting a season and you suddenly have an idea. Great, fingers crossed that you get this recommissioned and that's what we'll do, and its not that far away. So you can start to have a grander plan. It’s nice to see a character who you may have seen only for a fleeting moment in one episode, suddenly have a whole major plotline in season three. I like that element.

Armando Iannucci will be taking part in the Royal Television Society event In conversation with Armando Iannucci on Wednesday 25 March at 6.45pm at Telford Theatre.

During the event he will discuss his critically-acclaimed career.

To book your place visit:    

Armando Ianucci picture credit: Linda Nylind

Posted 24 March 2015 by Jon Creamer

Storyboard: Best of the month in animation, graphics and vfx

In this month’s Storyboard, Blinkink takes a tea break, A+C takes an ad break and Trunk takes a break from adulthood

A+C Studios

Brick Bowl
A+C Studios recreated nine of the best commercials shown during last month’s Superbowl in stop frame Lego in just 36 hours. The Superbowl ads are top secret until the big game airs so the team had to react in real time – storyboarding, set building and model making and creating stop frame and digital animation against the clock.

Twinings commercial
Blinkink directing duo Parabella (Mikey Please and Dan Ojari) used 100,000 tea tags and 50 different paper folding styles to create this handcrafted and complex spot for Twinings. The ad was inspired by “the Golden Era of musicals, a dash of theatre and its unrestrained sense of goodwill was mixed with a pinch of pointillism and a nod to David Hockney, creating the feel-good world of Twinings in animation.” Parabella shot 3D models on layered planes, creating a sense of depth and perspective. The pair also took pixilation to another level, using the technique to animate the female character frame by frame, all in-camera.

Twinings - Drink It All In from Blink on Vimeo.

Guild Wars 2 trailer
Axis and director Stephen Donnelly created the trailer for the next installment of the video game franchise Guild Wars 2, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns. Donnelly worked with the creative team at ArenaNet to explore how to bring the concept art to life in a way that felt like the audience was moving through a three dimensional world filled with bold brush strokes. Executive producer is Debbie Ross.

Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns from axisanimation on Vimeo.

We Were Young
Trunk director Junior delivered this promo for Sasha Kloeber’s remix of SRTW’s We Were Young. It was ordered by Hanan Cher at Universal. The video “compares the drudgery and monotony of adult life against those fragmentary and misremembered moments of a younger carefree self.” Animation was by Layla Atkinson, William Smith, Lesley Dart and Juan Buscarons.

SRTW | We Were Young from Trunk Animation on Vimeo.

Unum Films
Partizan director James Curran made these two films for income protection company Unum through agency Albion.

The World of 2030: Episode I - The Rise of The Ageless Workforce from James Curran on Vimeo.

Colonel Blimp
Out of the Black
Colonel Blimp’s David Wilson and animator Christy Karacas made this violent cartoon/live-action promo for Royal Blood’s Out of the Black. Finish Flame Artists Judy Roberts and Andy Copping with colourist Julien Biard helped integrate the animated scenes with the live-action in what proved to be a highly complex post job which made heavy use of remote grading workflows.

Posted 16 March 2015 by Jon Creamer
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