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The Snowman and The Snowdog: Behind the scenes

‘Classic’ is a word often bandied about in TV, but The Snowman surely earns it. So creating a sequel on its 30-year anniversary was both a privilege and a daunting task. Jon Creamer reports 

The screening on Channel 4 of The Snowman, the animated version of Raymond Briggs picture book, is as much a part of British Christmas telly as the Queen’s Speech and the Bond film.

Raymond Briggs’ story of a little boy who flies across the world with his Snowman friend first aired on Channel 4 when the broadcaster was born 30 years ago. And almost ever since, the film’s producer, John Coates had tried to convince Briggs to agree to a sequel. Briggs had always said no, the Snowman melts at the end of the story and that’s that.

But with the 30-year anniversary approaching, Briggs’ opposition also began to melt. Coates [who sadly died earlier this year], along with Lupus Films’ Ruth Fielding and Camilla Deakin, now had Hilary Audus and Joanna Harrison on board as director/writers, two of the original film’s animation team. An initial pitch to the newly ensconced Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt also came back with an immediate ‘yes please’ followed by a swift commission when the script was completed and Briggs’ blessing too.

The commissioning process may have been smooth but, says Fielding, “There’s a lot of expectation and weight on our shoulders.” There’s a ready-made audience, but it’s an audience that’s very protective over the film. “You know when you’re making it it’s got to be so good,” says Deakin. “It’s made with the same care and attention and love and devotion by a lot of the same artists as the first film. I don’t feel any doubt that people will fall in love with it.”

The sequel’s balancing act has been to keep as close to the original as possible while changing it enough for today’s kids brought up on a faster paced animation style. “We wanted to make the film look like the original but mean more to audiences today,” says Fielding. “We wanted the production technique to look like Raymond’s original drawings but to have the vibrancy and depth that audiences expect from a Pixar movie.”

And the need to keep to that Raymond Briggs illustration style also meant keeping the animation techniques as close as possible to those used 30 years ago. “The original was made on cell but you can’t get enough cell to make any thing longer than an advert now,” says Fielding. “So we decided to animate with Caran d’Ache pencils on to paper.”  But hand rendering with pencil is a technique almost never done now, and certainly not for a film as long as The Snowman and the Snowdog. So the production needed to find animators with experience of the process. “We managed to get eight people who’d worked on the original to work on this one,” says Fielding. “Layout artists, storyboard artists, animators.” Some of the animators “literally hadn’t worked in this way in years and were doing book illustration or gardening or window cleaning,” says Deakin. The production also had to train young matte artists and renderers. “People don’t do hand rendering in pencil now,” says Fielding. “People thought we were mad. They said ‘surely you can create that texture in Photoshop and then put it into After Effects?’ But you can’t, you don’t get that beautiful ‘boil’.”

There were initial tests to try to get the Snowman look but with modern methods. But software packages prefer clearly outlined elements and couldn’t cope with the hazier, pencil drawn outline of the Snowman characters. “We tried various plugins. Some software manufacturers even offered to design plugins for us but it just didn’t look the same,” says Fielding. “And we thought ‘we either need five After Effects animators or eight hand drawn renderers, so let’s get them out of retirement.”

The decision was also taken to keep a British classic in British hands. Rendering was entirely completed by a team working out of Lupus’s Islington studio, and that helped the film creatively, says Deakin: “For everyone in the studio, the original film means something. If we’d shipped all the animation off to the Far East, the people animating it wouldn’t know what the characters meant. You feel the love in this film. That does come through.”

But while the sequel strived to retain the warmth of the original, it still had to reflect the fact that 30 years have passed, and kids reared on Pixar and DreamWorks movies expect more pace. Animator Robin Shaw, who directed the Snowman pastiche Irn Bru ad, was brought in as he’d perfected the art of creating moving, spinning, more dynamic backgrounds in pencil rendered animation. There’s also greater emphasis on action, with a downhill race involving the world’s snowmen and plenty of slapstick. There are even a few bits of cg (covered over with pencil of course), used to create vehicles in the film, which also give proceedings more pace. “What you don’t want to do with a sequel is go too far away so it doesn’t feel like the same family,” says Deakin. “Every element has be new and fresh and a surprise. But at the same time it has to reference the original so it feels like two parts of a whole.”

The Snowman and the Snowdog is the sequel to perennial Christmas favourite, The Snowman, produced 30 years ago at the birth of Channel 4 from the Raymond Briggs picture book. The sequel moves the story on thirty years with a new boy in the old house who builds a snowman and a snowdog to replace his pet that’s recently died
TX Christmas 2012
Production A Snowman Enterprises and Lupus Films production for Channel 4
Commissioned byJay Hunt
Written and directed by Hilary Audus
Written and art directed by Joanna Harrison
Assistant director Robin Shaw
Music by Andy Burrows and Ilan Eshkeri
Storyboard, layout and lead animation Richard Fawdry, Roger Mainwood, Paul Stone, Pete Western
Head of Rendering Jill Brooks
Compositing/vfx supervisor Tim Marchant
Producers John Coates, Camilla Deakin, Ruth Fielding

Posted 07 December 2012 by Jon Creamer

Things that go bump in the night

This Halloween, BBC1 will screen three-part haunted house drama The Secret of Crickley Hall. Writer/director Joe Ahearne tells Jon Creamer how he’ll make viewers jump out of their skins

In many ways, James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall is a classically structured haunted house story. A traumatised family decamp to a remote holiday house only to find the house’s horrific history lives on.

And so in many ways the adaptation was an uncomplicated process, says writer/director Joe Ahearne. “It’s fairly straightforward and linear – a family go to a house, the house is haunted and we find out why it’s haunted and scary things happen.” But beyond that, there were more complications, he says. “Horror’s a difficult proposition, particularly on BBC1. You’ve got to be accessible as well as terrifying. That balance is always difficult to judge.”

The adaptation also needed to push the book’s narrative further. The original idea was for a one-off 90-minute film, but during development that was extended to three one-hour episodes. That meant that, unlike the book, which just has occasional flashbacks to the house in question’s horrific past as an orphanage run by a sadistic owner in 1943, “we spent much more time in 1943 than the book does,” says Ahearne. “In the TV version it’s much more like a parallel narrative, like The Godfather 2, where you’re following two stories.”

The house itself took about a year to find. “It’s a house that the father brings his family to to escape the one year anniversary of a traumatic event, so that means it can’t look like some terrifying gothic place” as that would stretch credulity too far. “But at the same time it can’t be boring. It’s also got to be in the middle of nowhere, it’s got to be somewhere that could flood and it’s got to be somewhere that could have existed in 1943.” A house was eventually found in the Peak District and “luckily it was owned by a builder. He’s about the only owner that would have allowed us to do what we did.”

The parallel narrative meant the team would effectively have to make both a period 1940s drama along with a contemporary drama. And “they’re both set in the same house, so you have quite a lot of logistical issues about which you film first,” says Ahearne. “It would have been easier if we’d shot all the contemporary stuff first and then the period stuff later” to give the costume designers and production designers time to create the period reality. Instead, the decision was taken to do the reverse. “We felt that it was better to have the 1943 stuff in our heads when we shot [the contemporary scenes]. It’s nice to know exactly what the people who become ghosts did before you film the contemporary characters – useful for “echo shots” and camera moves as the two ‘films’ have to interact so “you can choreograph it in a certain way.”

Deciding how to shoot the 1943 parts and the contemporary parts was also a key decision. “The most obvious decision would be to treat 1943 differently. To put some smoke or atmosphere in or light it differently.” Instead, the decision was taken to treat 1943 exactly the same as the present day shots.  “They’re not flashbacks,” says Ahearne. “The past is happening in the present. We didn’t want it to be emotionally ‘over there.’ So although we did a lot of work [on the period setting] – we put walls in, we pulled staircases out, we changed the house inside and out and we did a lot of cgi – we didn’t do anything that said that’s over there and this is here.” The transition between the real world and the ghost’s world was done “in the editing rather than with huge stylistic statements that bang the audience over the head.”

The other great test of course was to keep delivering scary moments in such a well-trodden genre where audiences are so primed for shocks. “It’s a really good challenge,” says Ahearne. “If you’re a fan of horror, which I am, you’re going to want to do similar things [that you’ve seen before] but you want to give them a new twist.” One of the hardest things to do now, says Ahearne “is to make an audience jump. But there are half a dozen places in the story where people will really jump. It’s just a question of craft. Unless you’re doing a highly experimental movie you are not going to come up with something that no one could possibly imagine. You are trying to do your best to take the elements and see if you can configure them in a way that’s fresh.”

The Secret of Crickley Hall is a three-part BBC1 drama that will TX around Halloween. It’s made by BBC Drama Production North adapted from the James Herbert novel of the same name. It tells the story of a family grieving for their missing child who head to a country retreat to forget, only to find that the house’s past incarnation as a 1940s orphanage run by a cruel sadist has never really disappeared
Suranne Jones, Tom Ellis, Douglas Henshall, David Warner, Sarah Smart, Iain De Caestecker, Olivia Cooke
Ann Harrison-Baxter
Joe Ahearne
Dan Jones
Editor Graham Walker
Production Designer
David Butterworth
Peter Greenhalgh
Head of production
Susy Liddell
Script editor
Simon Judd
First AD
Claire McCourt
Second AD
Simon Dale
Third AD
Matthew Jennings
Exec producer
Hilary Martin
Arri Alexa
Post house
Deluxe 142
Vfx supervisor
Chris Mortimer

Posted 24 October 2012 by Jon Creamer

How to make it in US television

What’s the best way of doing business with the US networks? At next week's Televisual Factual Festival (Oct 24-25) a group of producers and commissioners will share their experience of working in the US. Here’s a preview of what they’ll be talking about

Simon Andreae, SVP development and production, Discovery US
Above all, the US market is about creating enduring franchises, from Idol and The Voice to Pawn Stars and the Real Housewives. The networks need a critical mass of episodes both to monetise their investment and to get it noticed. The producers similarly need volume since in an unfavorable I.P. environment, volume is often the chief way to turn a profit. Ultimately, the secret to success for both is reasonably simple: big, noisy formats with multiple revenue streams for broadcast, and great characters within great worlds for cable – plus the knowledge and tenacity to strike the best possible deals at the point of purchase or sale.

Stephen Lambert, chief executive, Studio Lambert

If you’re worried about a swelling bottom line and don’t know how to stop making so much profit, then setting up in America is probably just the thing for you. It’s a great place to lose money, lots of it. US buyers are very demanding. Their business affairs people are extremely tough. US productions need twice as many people as UK ones and they are all paid at least twice as much. Those who like to take big risks will probably see a healthy reduction in that swollen bottom line. Wiser Brits who don’t like losing money will want to partner with an established US production company, ideally one that is an Anglo/US company.

Nick Powell, MD, Ricochet Television
One of the key things about making factual shows in the US is that they have to be produced as high octane entertainment shows with heart and drama. If they don’t deliver strongly on both levels they tend not to stay on air for long, so translating a UK hit into a US hit often means not being too precious about your original creative vision. Hitting the sweet spot of the network’s needs can be a highly exacting process but when you get it right the audience sticks, and there is nothing better than seeing repeat orders of high volume series.

Dimitri Doganis, founder/MD, Raw TV

Going to the US and trying to get our heads around the differences between here and there was a brutal process of re-education. There are superficial similarities with the UK that mask significant cultural differences – in terms of what works for American networks and viewers, and also in the whole production process from initial presentation, to successful pitch and all the way through to delivery. But there are also great opportunities there and, if you are able to make a few simple changes to how you operate, there are even significant advantages to being a British producer in the US market place.

For more details about the festival, see

Posted 17 October 2012 by Jon Creamer

The Natural History TV report

With Bristol's Wildscreen Festival in full swing, Jon Creamer finds that natural history TV is reaching new audiences with fresh storytelling techniques while staying at the forefront of production technology

For a long time, back in the ‘golden age’, natural history television was synonymous with the blue chip and the behavioural. ‘No people’ natural history was the form that most viewers would think of when they thought about wildlife telly.

Fast-forward to the present day and natural history TV covers a lot more ground. The blue chip still exists, and has pushed its production values further and further into the stratosphere with every new landmark show, making sure it’s at the forefront of each advance in production technology from HD, to 3D to 4K and from time lapse to slo-mo to low light.

But natural history TV means many more things now as viewers and channels demand a greater variety of formats and producers borrow from different genres to come up with new forms of wildlife shows.

The move of natural history into new storylines and structures has sprung, in part, from a criticism of blue chip natural history that while it always pushed itself to produce breathtaking imagery, it was less inventive when it came to narrative structure. BBC commissioning editor for science and natural history, Kim Shillinglaw, says that her latest commissions like Hidden Kingdoms and The Great Bear Stakeout address this. “In natural history, you’re blessed with natural narrative – birth, struggle and death is inherent to the content” which can mean that the narrative structure can get “less attention than other aspects of the production. New kit is vital. It’s the lifeblood of natural history but it can sometimes allow you to neglect other areas. If we can pull our storytelling up to the same heights as our visual capture that will lead to all sorts of interesting things for natural history.”

And it’s audiences that are demanding different forms of storytelling, says Wendy Darke, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit. “As the audience has become more sophisticated, so the tone and style needs to be more bespoke to hit the different demographics. That’s challenged us editorially to think about combining natural history with other genres like adventure travel with Deadly Sixty or [with the upcoming] Hidden Kingdoms, which will be like animal dramas.”

Because the worry among broadcasters is that traditional natural history forms, although still popular and lucrative internationally, do often skew old. The BBC’s recent Planet Earth Live, an attempt to use the Springwatch format on a grander scale, was also an attempt to reach out to a different audience. “Frozen Planet showed there’s a great deal of life in the mega landmark yet,” says Shillinglaw. “But Planet Earth Live was aimed at a different segment of the audience. I’m very conscious that natural history can sometimes skew a little bit older and a little bit AB, so it was a deliberate attempt to see if we could reach a different audience. [Planet Earth Live] was significantly younger and more C to D than a lot of natural history output.”

It was also, crucially, more interactive. “Some of our audience welcome the opportunity to sit quite passively and be blown away by a classic natural history piece,” says The NHU’s Darke. “But we’re also recognising that people are watching telly in so many different ways, particularly the young audience who expect to be engaging during and after.”

Different iterations of natural history also mean it can be more lucrative on the international stage. Adventure/natural history or natural history with a comedic twist or fact ent/natural history means that wildlife programming can work in different slots on different channels and reach different audiences that wouldn’t generally consider themselves fans of animal programming.

Effectively, natural history’s horizons have widened. “Audiences have a wider filter in terms of what they see as natural history content to begin with,” says executive VP and general manager of Nat Geo Wild, Geoff Daniels. “So many people see the wild as wherever 
you find it whether it’s in your backyard or in Antarctica. That’s what’s driving such a wide range of shows doing well.” He cites shows on his network that range from Fishtank Kings, about ornate fishtank builders in Miami, to Wild Mississippi, a blue chip special about the impact of floods on wildlife.

But it’s not just audiences that have been driving innovation in the genre, producers have been doing that independently too. UK indies operating in natural history face the monolith that is the BBC Natural History Unit whose idea of blue chip means huge investment, long development periods and three years in production – a business plan that’s unsustainable for an independent.

As a consequence, “we slightly survive in the margins,” says Tigress md, Dick Colthurst. “The big stuff, the obvious stuff is getting done by the Natural History Unit so we do things like Hippo: Natures Wild Feast [a show that filmed the animals that feast on a hippo carcass]. We’re not going to do the obvious so what’s the interesting way in?”

In many ways the extraordinary heights of production excellence at the top end of the blue chip that the NHU produces, have made it pointless for other indies to play the same game. “The quality of production and kit and the extraordinary nature of what you’re able to achieve at the high end is on a par with cinema. There is an expectation that natural history at one end of the spectrum will be a perfect art form,” says Icon Films md, Laura Marshall. “If you haven’t got that budget you have to tell stories differently. So it’s a time of great creativity. When you’re presented with a challenge as filmmakers you have to get out there and deal with that challenge. You do that by finding different ways of telling stories or different techniques.”

And while the costs of making the very high end of natural history have risen beyond most producers grasp, the costs of kit in general have plummeted. It’s democratised the genre, allowing new entrants in and made different types of programmes more possible. “Now you can go out with a 5D for three days and make yourself a natural history film,” says Icon’s creative director, Harry Marshall. “The technology has democratised the field and the proliferation of channels has spread the butter more thinly. You don’t have dollops of very highly funded natural history in just a couple of places as was the case. There’s more competition and different people coming in from different genres and bringing a different perspective to natural history. Natural history for ages sat in its own little bubble and didn’t feel like it had to tell a story, that it was enough you saw this magnificent beast. For a long time it was lazy.”

And for Tigress’ Colthurst it’s cheap kit that’s revolutionized the genre far more than advances at the high end. “In the more adventure side we’re using self shooting by the people involved because the cameras are so brilliant and easy to use. We tape over all the buttons and say ‘just turn it on’. That to me is one of the big breakthroughs. You can say to Freddie Flintoff ‘
take this camera and go off into the bush for three days’ and he comes back with great material.’ You don’t want to be writing off £2k cameras but you can and that allows you to be a bit more brave in how you use them.”

John Downer Productions, makers of the Spy franchise, does survive at the technological high end, but is again forced to be creative to keep up. “We do high end but there’s no point doing what the natural history unit do, we wouldn’t be commissioned if we did,” says JDP’s John Downer. “We have to offer something different. We try to be ahead of the curve on methods of filming and I think our viewpoint’s always different.”

And even the NHU is under pressure, says Wendy Darke. “The marketplace is changing pretty aggressively now and we have some pretty serious competitors in Disney and Discovery who have all woken up to the fact that these [blue chip films] are lucrative. And they will always have more money than I will have in a public service broadcaster.”

Fundamentally, natural history producers have been drawing in all the influences from around them. “They are absolutely aware of all the trends that are happening in commercials and in scripted and all those areas,” says Nat Geo Wild’s Geoff Daniels. “The best filmmakers out there are very aware of what audiences are connecting to in terms of production styles, storytelling and innovative techniques. That’s been a really big part of driving a renaissance of interest in the genre.”

It’s also been driven by major changes that have happened to the big US specialist factual channels. Throughout the US factual networks, huge success has been had by long running shows focused on groups of colourful American characters with Deadliest Catch and Pawn Stars obvious examples. The influence of those shows has been felt through natural history too with most networks now looking for shows about interesting people who interact with animals in some way. “Those really interesting, driven personalities who interact with animals in a fairly unique way are the kinds of stories we’re after,” says Discovery head of programming, Western Europe, Dan Korn. “People who are very passionate that’s what we’re gunning for rather then straight pictorial or behavioural studies. It’s that interaction between humans and animals that’s so interesting.”

And those “authentic characters” have the added advantage of drawing in new viewers to wildlife shows too. “We’re looking for real people that the audience connects with in a very visceral way, and it’s also very entertaining,” says Nat Geo Wild’s Daniels. “They also help widen the audience and bring in new people to the genre for us who might not ordinarily come to us.”

“They’re just trying to do it [natural history] in a way that appeals to the audience that enjoy the Gold Rushes,” says Tigress’ Colthurst. “It is different compared to five ten years ago. If you’ve got a channel that everyone turns on to watch Deadliest Catch and then you put Frozen Planet on… The majority of people who turn on to Discovery are not necessarily Frozen Planet viewers.”

There are financial reasons too. Natural history TV with people in is easier, quicker, and therefore cheaper to make. “If you do blue chip, which perhaps means ‘no people’ natural history, it’s probably twice or three times as expensive because animals will not do what people will do on cue,” says Icon’s Harry Marshall. “People will be on location at a certain time and go where you want them.” Whereas animals are naturally less co-operative.

And networks want the films they order quickly, not after three years of filming in the field, hence the popularity of the ob doc on many networks. “We need these shows to pay off almost in the year they’re produced, i.e. we want to get on air so getting that access is all important,” says Discovery’s Korn. “Once you’ve got that access we want to have people in there getting that film. We don’t want to have to wait for two years to get the film delivered.”

Straight behavioural filming has also risen in cost over time, says Marshall. “So many of the places where you can film natural history are charging a lot of money. If you want to go to a park in Sri Lanka and film leopards they’ll charge 5000 dollars a day.” Marshall, whose current project is a film about leopards surviving on scraps in a shanty town in India also reckons that films that show human interaction with the animal world are perhaps more honest. “If you watched the last ten years of filmmaking you would think that everything was fine and dandy on planet earth and there weren’t any people there. It’s not the Disney, rose tinted view of nature that was the fare being peddled. People are part of the story and audiences are interested in that.”

But whether it’s natural history focused on human characters or animal behaviour, UK producers will still have to keep pushing the boundaries of inventiveness to make a living in the genre. After all, every producer in the US is trying to make those character driven shows too. “There are production companies in the States with teams of talent finders going out and finding these crazy characters so we’re not in the best position to do that,” says Oxford Scientific Films’ creative director Caroline Hawkins. “So we’re trying original ideas and things they haven’t really thought of by mixing up the genres and trying to think about what the next big thing will be rather than trying beat everyone else at their own game. If you want to build a business you’ve got to be looking at other areas and expanding the genre a bit.”

KIm Shillinglaw 
BBC Commissioning Editor, Science, Natural History
What’s worked well recently? Frozen Planet showed there’s a great deal of life in the mega landmark yet. But Planet Earth Live was aimed at a different segment of the audience. I’m very conscious that natural history can sometimes skew a little bit older and a little bit AB, so it was a deliberate attempt to see if we could reach a different audience. It was significantly younger and more C to D than a lot of natural history output.
What’s important to your future commissions? What excites me about both [the upcoming] Hidden Kingdoms and The Great Bear Stakeout is that as well as harnessing new technology, both will take storytelling to a new height. Storytelling has always been important to natural history programming but it’s no secret I feel it’s beholden on us to keep pushing the boundaries of storytelling to get better at it. Audiences have become incredibly sophisticated in their understanding of plotlines and narrative development across all genres and we need to keep pace with that in natural history.
How does it break down between channels?
On BBC1 there is the landmark, the blue chip 
the really big pieces. The second is more popular, more cheeky but still rooted in all the integrity of the BBC’s natural history output but popularising it and looking at the science of natural history. On BBC2 it’s depth and specialism. Like Secrets of a Living Planet. On BBC4 there’s a layer of intelligence and ideas and also a slightly quirkier approach.

Geoff Daniels, Executive VP and General Manager, Nat Geo Wild
What do you want from producers?
The first thing I want is for the producers in this genre to make us the first port of call for anything new, unusual and fresh. What I really want to see are shows that bring us into the secrets of animals’ lives and deliver characters in entertaining and unexpected ways. We’re going to continue to push the genre forward and wider into other audiences with some of these great characters, these authentic personalities and stars who connect to the wild in fun, new, inspiring ways. With natural history sometimes people want to say that it’s niche programming, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. There is something universal and intrinsic with our relationship with animals and the wild. Our mission is to deliver all those stories and great ways of doing these shows as broadly as possible.
Are you after shows about big characters that interact with animals?
It’s more than big characters, it’s authentic characters. We’re not looking for cartoon characters, were looking for real people that the audience connects with in a very visceral way.
Do you also need blue chip natural history?
That is a real strong interest and desire, because of our brand and reputation for doing the best blue chip innovative programming. For us that’s always got to be a really critical part of what we do so we’ll continue to look for those kinds of stories. It’s all about balance.

Dan Korn, SVP programming, UK and Western Europe, Discovery
What are you looking for now? Character led observational documentaries. A very successful show by Icon was Animal Airport, based at The Arc at Heathrow Airport. It’s the combination of really unusual animal rescue and animal treatment. One of the shows I very much admire is Bionic Vet. That’s a terrific example of somebody doing something pioneering in the animal world. Then we are looking at some big conservation stories. [The recent Rhino Wars] was hugely dramatic. The people who have grown up with these animals and feel they have a special relationship are so engaged and passionate in protecting these animals there’s something hugely admirable about that. I think they’re inspirational stories.
What other elements do your shows have to have?
It has to have more stories and characters - people who are very passionate, that’s what we’re gunning for rather then straight pictorial or behavioural studies. It’s that interaction between humans and animals that’s so interesting.
Are specials still on the shopping list?
We’re very up for specials as well. An authored piece fits well for us. There’s a real appetite to see one off beautiful crafted films on natural history.
Do you have a big push for content now?
I’m wary. It’s not like there’s a massive fund devoted to Animal Planet and natural history. We will commission but there’s no bonanza. But for the right series, characters and scenario we’re up for that.

Wildlife in the third dimension
Natural history filmmakers have always been on the cutting edge of acquisition technology and so 3D filming has certainly captured their imagination
3D has moved on massively in natural history in the last couple of years. Atlantic/Collosus’ Anthony Geffen, in the midst of filming Galapagos 3D with David Attenborough, says what can be filmed in 3D has moved to a whole new level, from relatively stationary animals shot close up to the point where “we’re now shooting animals that move. We capture bird flight and so we have to bring in a lot of infrastructure and helicopters. It’s a whole different way of doing it and you’re pushing the cameras to a new level. But the results already look extraordinary.” John Downer too is in the middle of making a 3D version of his recent Earthflight show that involves close up filming of birds in flight. “We’re approaching it from the view that there should be no compromise in 3D” so the shots are “what we would do in 2d in 3d.” It’s about “not believing there are barriers technically.”
But at the same time as natural history producers find new ways to film in 3D, they’re also discovering new business models to make it work. Sky remains the major buyer in the UK with 3Net the main partner in the US. The show also has to sell in 2D but producers have to be inventive to fund beyond these customers. OSF’s Caroline Hawkins, who’s currently making a 3D panda film for Sky, Nat Geo and Nat Geo Cinema Ventures also looks to “special venues, museums, theme parks” to make up any shortfall. Anthony Geffen looks to “the cinema and beyond” to fund 3D projects. “Yes, you show it on Sky, that’s very important but Flying Monsters has taken $8m at the box office. The next one will probably take $30m. There are only a couple of channels around the world that have 3D so you’ve got to skin in lots of ways. Kingdom of Plants was a 3D series; a 2D series for HD; it then became an app we did with Kew and we’ve done a deal with Nintendo so kids will get some of the content with every Nintendo that’s bought. The 3d tablet hasn’t arrived yet but it’s not far away.” Geffen says that 3D is a year or so from really hitting its stride. “There are now prototype televisions which are about a year away from being cheap and glasses free, that’s a massive game changer.”

The Big Screen
At this week’s Wildscreen Festival in Bristol, a group of natural history producers showcased their upcoming theatrical features and talked through the learning curve they went on when making the jump from the small screen to the cinema.

The BBC’s Mike Gunton, who’s converting the BBC Natural History Unit’s 2009 series Life into a theatrical feature called One Life, said it was felt the series could become a cinematic doc because of the sheer size of the story. He said the most important part of the entire process of making a feature is the writing and that, unlike a TV series, where narration explains more, the narrators task was more about guiding and signalling the emotion in each scene. Daniel Craig supplied the voice over for the film and during his reading, Gunton thought that Craig was underplaying the narration but realised when seeing the finished product on the big screen it’s important to “turn the dial right down.”

He said the music also becomes much more important and the pacing of the film can be slower than TV with less necessity to spoon-feed the audience.
Ex BBC NHU producer, Keith Scholey who made African Cats for Disney Nature said that the big challenge for him when making a theatrical film was understanding cinematic storytelling and the “hugely complex” task of scriptwriting for the medium.

He worked with script doctor John Truby who explained that plot is secondary and that character is the most important aspect. Scholey said that there must be more than a strong central character but a strong group of characters and that the opponent has to be as big as the hero.

The Televisual Factual Festival takes place on 24th and 25th October. To book your place, click here

Posted 17 October 2012 by Jon Creamer

C4's Plane Crash: A tale of ups and downs

Dragonfly and Channel 4’s Plane Crash is the ultimate piece of event TV. But, as Jon Creamer finds, it was such a complex and costly project it almost never got off the ground in the first place

It is a fantastic headline idea for a jaw-dropping piece of event factual TV – take a 170-seat Boeing 727, load it with cameras, crash test dummies and scientific measuring equipment and deliberately crash it into the Mexican desert while filming the action from every angle.

The idea came from producer Geoff Deehan following a challenge from C4 science commissioner David Glover to come up with a big idea or two back in 2009. The show itself was then put out to tender with Dragonfly winning the chance to make the film. “And that’s where the problems began because winning the right to make the film didn’t make making it any easier,” says Dragonfly’s creative director, Simon Dickson, who’d heard of the almost “mythical” project during his years as a C4 documentaries commissioner and so was eager to find out about it when he joined Dragonfly last year. “One of the first things I did was ask the team ‘what is this project, why is it still on the books and why can’t we crash this bloomin plane?’”

And he soon found out the complexity of the situation. Conversations with the myriad agencies and contacts that would need to be involved had been running for years, and were getting to be circular. “There were conversations with the Civil Aviation Authority in the States and the main scientists in Britain and the US who deal with air crashes.” There were conversations with aircraft manufacturers and possible test pilots along with “multiple health and safety organisations.” There were also long running conversations with the Mexican government on what sort of police and army presence would be involved at the crash site as well as discussions about the project’s environmental impact. “All these conversations were becoming more circular,” says Dickson. And there were difficulties in hiring crew “when there are so many imponderables and you can’t give people a recognisable start and end date.” It got to the stage where “so many questions were piled up and unresolved, by the time I arrived in 2011, the programme was beginning to look like an albatross around Dragonfly’s neck.” And serious discussions were being had about everyone cutting their losses and walking away. “There’s no denying if we’d bailed out a year ago there would have been no disgrace. But no film either.”

But C4 and parent company Shine kept backing the project. And for Dragonfly there was also a reputational pot of gold– if you can pull this project off…

But the project was continually leaking money. As Dickson found when joining Dragonfly, the indie already owned the plane, which had been bought at a time when there was greater optimism about the project coming to fruition quickly. It’s “not like owning a Ford Mondeo. You don’t stick it in the garage and forget about it,” as storage and upkeep costs kept piling on.

But much had already been achieved and things then started to come together. Geoff Deehan had found two US Navy test pilots, Dave Kennedy and Chip Shanley, near the beginning of the process who founded a separate company called Broken Wing, which would be responsible for the flight and the scientific tests. Broken Wing naturally saw their job as running a good test flight, though that wasn’t necessarily the same as making a compelling TV show. “They were terrific and great to work with,” says Dickson. “But as we got to Mexico we had some interesting conversations about how they could fly the plane the way they wanted and needed and also how we could cover it for the benefit of our audience.”

Tne most interesting conversation turned out to be 24 hours before the actual flight when Chip and Dave told the Dragonfly team that they would ‘hopefully’ hit the proposed mark in the desert, but it was touch and go as to whether they would. “And we had positioned the best part of 70 or 80 thousand pounds worth of slow motion cameras along an artificial runway in the Mexican desert, so it was quite a sobering moment the night before the crash when Sanjay [Singhal, Dragonfly md] and I learned that all the investment that had gone in was potentially going to come to nothing. We needed a stroke of luck.”

As it turned out, they got it. A freak storm the following morning delayed the crash just long enough to get a helicopter down from San Diego to provide extra camera cover. But the whole project was cutting it fine. The next day the permits from the Mexican government were due to run out and the plane’s engines would officially reach the end of their life and would not be able to be used legally. And there were worries that stretched beyond the thought of missing the money shot. The plane’s final descent would be flown by remote control from an operator in a light aircraft that had to stay within 50 metres of the Boeing. The nightmare of a runaway airliner caused many a sleepless night. The process has been, says Dickson “a strange mixture of trauma and elation. For several months we were thinking ‘is this project going to be worth it?’ But I think it’s got a chance of being one of the stand out factual programmes of this year.”

Plane Crash was made by Dragonfly for Channel 4, Pro Sieben and Discovery and was in development for nearly four years suffering many technical, financial and bureaucratic knock backs on its long journey to the screen
How they filmed it

Line producer, 
Amanda Hibbitts
“We had two DoPs that we took out from the UK. Then we got a guy from LA that our show runner knew and another team from LA. So we had four different crews following various people on the ground. Two were using Arri Alexas and one was using the Panasonic HPX 3100 and the fourth was shooting on XDCAM. In addition, we had two or three 5d and 7d cameras that we did time lapses on and various other shots we wanted using various lenses. On board the plane itself, the majority of the cameras were GoPro2s and then we had micro HD Phantoms. They’re used in ballistic testing so they’re pretty strong in terms of what they can withstand. Our minicam specialists rigged them all in aluminium boxes surrounded by shock proof foam. Within the chase planes we had more GoPros and the pilot who ejected from the plane was wearing a GoPro too.”

Posted 10 October 2012 by Jon Creamer

Sony goes shopping

Sony Pictures Television's president of international production, Andrea Wong tells Jon Creamer why the UK is crucial to the US studio's search for ideas and production partners

Mergers and acquisitions are not a new phenomenon in the UK's indie scene. The rise of the superindie is a story at least a decade old.

But the latest chapter in this tale has been the emergence of international buyers, particularly US studios, who have begun to take a greater interest in UK production companies of all stripes - NBC Universal bought Carnival, Warner Bros bought Shed, Newscorp bought Shine and Sony Pictures Television (SPT) got into the game too.

And at the tail end of last year, SPT made a big statement of intent by announcing that Andrea Wong, the US exec behind the development and commissioning of hit formats like Dancing With the Stars, The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover during her tenure at ABC, would be moving to London to run SPT's international production operations and hunt for new indie acquisitions and joint ventures.

SPT had already made a start on that with a stake in fact ent indie Gogglebox Entertainment and the launch of Victory Television, a joint venture with ex-Sony Pictures exec Victoria Ashbourne. But Wong has recently stepped things up a gear, buying Daisy Goodwin's Silver River earlier this year in a deal rumoured to be worth £12m. There are also ongoing talks to buy Andy Harries' drama indie Left Bank in a deal worth something north of £40m although all Wong will say about that deal is that she "can't comment on that, so there's nothing really to say right now."

She's more forthcoming on SPT's continued ambitions to buy, and help start up, UK indies. "Our goal is to build in the UK because Sony has not had as strong a presence as it would have liked to in the past," she says. "So you'll see us acquire companies and initiate start ups in all areas of television."

SPT already has a group of 17 production companies in 15 different countries but the focus is now to build up the UK side. "The UK market is the most important market in terms of content creation," she says. And that's down to the UK's unique television ecosystem. "The independent sector's thriving here. You've got commissioners who would rather commission a paper format than a hit show from another country. You get a lot more new ideas tried here and the runs of shows are shorter so there's more time for new ideas."

And that means "creativity abounds here" across the genres and all genres are in her sights. All kinds of deals are on the table too. "We're very flexible on our deal making. It could be start ups with established people or already established companies. It varies depending on the opportunity and it’s really about the people.” And the right fit is a hard thing to define. "It's chemistry, it's culture. We have to see eye to eye on what we want out of our partnership."

She says part of what she can do for those indies is firstly "taking all the operational burdens off of them that they want. Whether it’s IT or finance or HR, all those things that distract from being creative, we can do for them."

But there are creative benefits too, she says. "Wayne Garvie is here as the chief creative officer. His role is to help them be even stronger creatively whether its through cross collaboration among the group, taking our central development fund and infusing some of those resources into what they're doing or just connecting people and helping them with their ideas." The other offer from a big US studio is of course sheer scale and “leverage. Everything from a strong distribution system to helping these companies enter the US through our US studio."

What Sony wants from the deals it makes is simple: content, and content that travels, whether it's factual shows, entertainment shows or scripted shows. As to what defines what shows travel well, Wong says at the core it is something that "touches people emotionally. The human experience is very relatable no matter where you are in the world. So with The Bachelor, everybody knows what it feels like to be in love, everybody’s been dumped, everybody's dated, so it's a very relevant and resonant emotion." And the same is true of scripted shows that get remade elsewhere. "With Everybody Loves Raymond, the essence of that show has worked in other countries because it's about the family and the stories are relevant no matter where you are in the world."

But, in the end, it's not an exact science. "I'm not usually surprised by what is a hit but I'm sometimes surprised by a show you think's really good that doesn't work. You need a great idea, great execution. It has to be scheduled properly, marketed properly, be on the right network. In order to have a hit show all the stars have to align."

This interview was first published before Sony Pictures Television's acquisition of Left Bank was finalised

Posted 12 September 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes: BBC3's Be Your Own Boss

Exec producer of Be Your Own Boss Tamara Abood tells Jon Creamer about creating a new business show while leaving the spectre of The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den behind

Every commissioner in TV land spends restless nights dreaming of bringing the next Apprentice or Dragons' Den to the screen. A long-running business format with big entertainment values has long been the pot of gold at the end of the telly rainbow.

But there's also a danger inherent in the quest for the next big business show. The shows that have come before cast a long shadow. They are formats that have created their own grammar and any series that doesn't break out of that can end up looking like just a pale imitation.

So Tamara Abood, exec producer of BBC3's new entrepreneur show, Be Your Own Boss knew the series had to walk a fine line. “This is BBC3’s response to the glut of business shows that are out there,” says Abood. And the drive was "what do we do to mark it out as different and that also reflects the BBC3 demographic?"

But the spectre of business shows past was always there. "What I was really worried about was it could be a show where it's reduced to a series of sequences of people going to branding experts and marketing experts and all the grammar of what's needed to produce content," says Abood. So instead, the push was to do "something a bit more nerve wracking" by having "a very light hand on the producer tiller. We actually said 'let's see how this plays out a bit'. And the truth is [the budding business people] were so motivated they pulled us along. They brought their own momentum to it."

The action on the show starts with an 'expo' that was shot over a bank holiday weekend at the Truman Brewery where 500 budding entrepreneurs were invited to pitch their ideas to Innocent Smoothies co founder, Richard Reed. Each episode then starts with Reed picking three groups or individuals and handing them a few grand in seed capital before sending them off to prove to him that the idea works. The end of each episode then has those entrepreneurs finding out if any or all of them will be winning a much larger investment from Reed.

The format itself was very much guided by the central talent, says Abood. And the difference between a Reed and a Sugar or a dragon provided much of the difference between this show and those that have come before. "In the course of our conversations with him the idea evolved," says Abood. "It reflects who he is and his ethos. That runs through it so it marks itself out." And the lack of the "nasty" edge that typifies most shows is evident. "That's a massive part of it, it goes back to that thing of who he is. Richard's blunt at times when he needs to be but it has a very different feel," says Abood. "He even hugs people."

Another break from The Apprentice is the series' closed episodes, helpful for repeatability on a digital channel, but also a helpful way of following more participants and providing a point of difference. "We're not going to follow a few people across the series. He wanted to be able to give an opportunity to as many people as he could and we didn't want to be constrained by only following X number over the series. It makes it a potentially more interesting show because we're used to the grammar of seeing people eliminated in many of these business shows."

It's also a show more rooted in reality than others. "It's very much rooted in the real world. It is an entertainment commission that has all of the fun of the fair, but we are watching young people in their back bedrooms trying to make their business idea work. There's no house they share, they're not competing against each other so he can invest in all the businesses or none at all."

In terms of production, avoiding accusations of borrowing from The Apprentice were also important. "There are no helicopter shots in this and skylines we don't do," says Abood. And the reality parts of the show look "lightly produced so it feels real. Not gritty and hopefully not ugly but real." But the show is an entertainment commission. "For the big set up stuff - the expo and the ending, those things have a look and feel that's a bit more luxuriant. It still has the high-end gloss factor of a big entertainment show. At the expo we had Steadicams, jibs, Sony PDW 800s and Canon C300s. It was camera-tastic. The overall impression is of a glossy show with some scale. There's a lot of fun in it."

Be Your Own Boss is a new Twofour/BBC3 business format that has the co-founder of Innocent Smoothies, Richard Reed, picking groups of entrepreneurs to hand a small amount of seed capital to who are then filmed as they go out and prove their business idea can work. Those that make the grade are then in line to pick up major funding from the businessman.
Production company
Commissioned by
BBC3 controller Zai Bennett and executive editor, entertainment comissioning, Alan Tyler
Exec producers
Tamara Abood, Dan Adamson and Andrew Mackenzie for Twofour
Series producer
Juliette Murray-Topham
Kim Wechter
Canon C300s and Sony PDW800s for the set pieces and Canon 305s for the director shot stories

Posted 12 September 2012 by Jon Creamer

Making factual TV multiplatform

At the upcoming Televisual Factual Festival, a panel of digital practitioners will give their take on how to form multiplatform strategies for factual productions. Here is a preview of what they'll be talking about

Dan Jones,
head of multiplatform,
Maverick Television

Multiplatform has been on broadcaster's agendas for a good ten years now, so every indie has a thriving multiplatform arm and a solid new revenue steam, right? Well not quite - limited budgets, squeezed margins and a difficult rights environment make business very tough - but new models and approaches are beginning to bear fruit. Creatively, the space is thriving, from tracking foxes and spying on hippos to fighting for fish's rights and monitoring worrying moles (your own). Apps and social media activity are starting to usefully drive editorial, accessible technology is allowing new forms of interaction, and successful new factual formats are finally being generated from original multiplatform ideas.

Adam Gee,
multiplatform commissioning editor, features
and factual entertainment, C4

The focus of my attention is on creating factual multiplatform television with two key characteristics - (i) highly integrated (ii) with ambition and impact. The commission which best captures what I'm trying to achieve is probably Embarrassing Bodies Live from the Clinic. If you remove the interactive, digital dimension from the show it barely exists; and if you had the Skype stuff with no peaktime TV presence that too would be a far lesser being. Here's a tweet from Dr Christian during this last series: "Radiologist made contact to say 5 women came in after watching @EmbBodies breast check. 3 turned out to have cancer, thankfully caught early" It captures the impact and ambition aspect perfectly.

Simon Meek,
creative head,
The Story Mechanics

For a while now, you could be forgiven for thinking the TV industry has been chasing its tail with its multiplatform ambitions... it has! Thankfully, there are now a few clear markers as to where the industry is heading and what commissioners actually want, with an array of new acronyms for good measure. IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) are the letters on most people's lips, where new forms of interactive entertainment are only a finger press away; and the potential for dual-screening is huge, particularly in the factual market. The big question is whether it's the TV indies that should be producing the next wave of digital content?

Nick Underhill,
Keo Films Digital

At KEO films we place digital media at the heart of the multiplatform production process to avoid it becoming an inconvenient afterthought. This approach has been central to our recent successes, enabling the engagement of large and loyal audiences despite the chalk and cheese approach to production. For it to work well, both sides need to be open and pragmatic around content and trust in their shared goals despite different perceptions of value.

Posted 05 September 2012 by Jon Creamer
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