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Staying power: Indie Brit flick Leave to Remain

Director Bruce Goodison wanted to tell the story of parentless young asylum seekers seeking refuge in the UK, and decided drama was the best way to find the truth. Jon Creamer reports

Director Bruce Goodison trained young asylum seekers to star in a fact-based low-budget drama feature that tells the story of parentless teenagers fleeing their home countries and hoping to make a new life in the UK.

Why not make a documentary film on the subject?
There are some subjects you can’t get to via documentary means. I thought it was initially going to be a documentary but that was naïve. It’s a story about child asylum seekers. They’re separated from their families and any legal guardian so you have to be careful not to expose them to any further harm. They may have been trafficked, and who’s to say the trafficker wouldn’t recognise them and come looking for them. It quickly dawned on me I have a huge responsibility not only to tell these stories but also to protect the identities of those telling me their stories.

How was the script developed?
I started doing interviews with around 20 young asylum seekers going back three or four years. From those initial interviews I formed the basis of the script.

Why did you use real teenage asylum seekers in the film rather than professional actors?
It dawned on me that, now I’ve written the script, how am I going to cast it? I’d written it in all the languages spoken by the characters as well as English – Dari, Farsi, Fula – so it was impossible for me to find an established bunch of actors in the UK that can convincingly speak these dialects and look right. And although it’s not these actors’ specific stories, they get it. They know the emotional temperature of every moment. They add colour in the performances with their own experiences.

How did you train them?
I set about creating drama workshops. We did ‘three by threes’ where they would think of a story on day one, we’d shoot it on day two and edit it on day three. Within that I would bring in a whole host of professionals I’d known over the years like sound recordists, DoPs and editors to make these films. Then they’d be shown at places like the BFI and the ICA. You could see these young people, who had not been believed by the Home Office and ignored by most people, grow their self-esteem. That level of confidence helps enormously when trying to cast the film.

How did the non-actors take to filming?
We worked on all of the scenes but we didn’t work off the script. It was a matter of encouraging the cast into these scenes we’d written so they understood the emotion of that scene so when it came to working on that scene they weren’t reduced by the scripts. If you get a person who’s never done acting before to say dialogue it’s the worst thing. Whereas if they use their own words, they can do it perfectly.

You haven’t gone to the usual places for finance…
Trying to raise money for a low budget film from the BBC and Channel 4 is a big ask. And it’s a drama but its roots are in documentary. But the documentary people wanted interviews in there with real people to make it more like a documentary and the drama people wanted great resolutions but that’s not truthful. So it’s made up of three bits of money; one from the Oak Foundation, a philanthropic organisation who saw this subject has value, then The Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the last pot of money came from a Kazakhstan businessman.

What look were you aiming for?
Although it was clearly a real story I think it looks quite beautiful. Myself and DoP Felix Wiedemann were determined we didn’t want to have generators and lots of lights so it’s a naturalistic look. We used the new Alexa as it’s very sensitive to low light situations and it’s a much smaller camera that allowed us to have the quality of a feature film but move like a documentary. I needed as much flexibility in terms of the movement of the actors as we could get, it wasn’t about actors hitting marks and particular lights it was about the right kind of mood. But it hasn’t got a social realistic feel, it has a much more poetic feel. We wanted the beauty of the handheld work you’d find in films like Babel. This is much more in the European traditions of French new wave and the new look of Mexican filmmakers or films like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. It has the veracity of a documentary but it looks more sumptuous. There are fantastical elements in this film.

It’s a low budget feature, was it stressful to shoot?
It was complete insanity. It’s an ensemble piece – a large cast and lots of locations and only 23 days to shoot 90 minutes of drama so you’re moving at a pretty fair rate. We did have the rehearsal time so the actors were on it. I never really got further than four takes and this is with a lot of kids on screen at the same time. The crew were magnificent. We worked at a subsistence rate. There were only two tiers of payment, the heads of department and then their assistants and at a fraction of what they’d normally get paid.

Leave to Remain is the fictional feature debut from Bruce Goodison, director of factual drama My Murder and the BAFTA winning factual series Our War. It tells the story of a group of teenagers fleeing from traumatic pasts in trouble spots around the world trying to form a life without parents in the UK and hoping the Home Office grants them ‘leave to remain’. It stars Toby Jones but uses actual asylum seeking young people, who were trained in a series of drama workshops, for most of the other main roles.
Bruce Goodison
Kate Cook, James Levison
1st AD
Phill Reeves
Felix Wiedemann
Production designer
Chris Richmond
Toby Jones, Masieh Zarrien, Noof Ousellam, Yasmin Mwanza
Production manager
Cheyenne Conway
Costume designer
Emma Fryer
Make up and hair designer
Natasha Nikolic
Script supervisor
Lola Dauda
Art director
Elliot Scott
Arri Alexa
Andrew Hulme
Post house 
Met Film Post

Posted 21 February 2013 by Jon Creamer

The making of BBC1's Africa

For wildlife mega doc, Africa, the BBC NHU filmed across mountain, desert, savanna and jungle. Series producer James Honeyborne tells Jon Creamer about redefining a continent

A David Attenborough fronted BBC blue chip wildlife show focussed on Africa faces certain problems. After all, the continent’s iconic animals are staples of natural history TV. But to leave them out would be impossible.

Though it’s a much more complex picture than that, says series producer James Honeyborne. “People don’t realise how vast Africa is. It’s 7,000km top to bottom and 7,000km across. You could fit the US, China, most of Europe and South America in it. It means there are new things left to say. We very much made it our mission that we would make a series based on new behaviours, new species, new places. ‘Newness’ was going to be our main currency.”

New species was part of that, but the newness also refers to Africa’s best known wildlife. Because, says Honeyborne, Africa’s wildlife stars – lions, giraffes, rhinos – have almost become stereotypes in viewers’ eyes. “Lions are lazy and lie around all day, rhinos are grumpy, solitary and short sighted, giraffes are gentle giants. So we’ve turned things on their heads a bit.”

And that’s been done by bringing in new filming technology and techniques. “In all we took something like 553 cameras into the field, 21 different types of camera, 42 different file formats and we shot over 2,000 hours of raw rushes. [Bristol camera company TShed] developed a new ultra sensitive system that is able to film just with the light of the stars and with a long lens. It’s been a superb bit of kit that’s let us show in intimate details the lives of these animals in what would otherwise be pitch darkness to us.” Rhinos were seen gathering in numbers at night and shown being “surprisingly sociable and having a gentle side for such a notoriously grumpy animal.”

Similarly giraffes, seen as soft and endearing creatures “will use their heads as weapons. They’ll use them like sledge hammers and hammer each other. When you film those sorts of quite eye opening behaviours you begin to realise that even the more familiar animals can be seen in a new light.” The giraffe fights were caught with “a memory cache ultra slow motion camera. For a fight that lasts less than a minute in real time, in ultra slow motion you can see a level a of detail that you couldn’t otherwise see. You can see the shock waves travelling through the flesh as they pound each other.”

The other ambition of the series, says Honeyborne, was “to get out of the 4x4 and meet these animals on their eye line in their world.” And so Africa made a greater use of embedded remote cameras than any previous blue chip NHU special. “For example, there’s a prehistoric looking bird called the Shoebill and we embedded cameras around its nest to film behaviours never seen before.” Reaching that nest took a team on a two-day hike through the Bangweulu swamp dragging canoes full of kit. “All those cameras require a kilometre of cabling, so the new technology doesn’t necessarily make life any easier, but you are able to get a step change in terms of the intimacy.”

Time lapse was employed too. The shifting seasons’ impact on the landscape caught on time lapse to great effect on Frozen Planet was brought to bear on Africa’s deserts. “In Tunisia we wanted to film the sea of sand and how the dunes moved. When you’re there they seem very stable but they move like waves over time. We’ve never really been able to see that before but we filmed a whole landscape’s movement in one of the biggest time lapses ever attempted.

The time lapse cameras (Nikon D3s, Canon 50D), encased in purpose built dust defying housings were mounted on to metal poles that were themselves mounted in concrete and left in the Tunisian desert for 20 months. Political events also meant the cameras had to be robust and able to keep shooting without much intervention. “We set them all up just before the Arab spring uprisings and there was a period when we couldn’t get into Tunisia but our cameras were still clicking away.”

For Africa, the vast majority of the series was shot on solid state (and because of the diversity of the teams out shooting, 42 different file formats). “The vast majority of this was shot solid state directly onto memory sticks. Our raw footage occupied something like 100 terabytes of storage. It’s always scary having your rushes on something so intangible but we mirror drive everything and it’s a very plausible way of moving things. It used to be pretty scary coming back with exposed film and having to go through some X ray machine. At least now you can split drives and mirror drives between people to make sure we’ve got that level of back up.”

However the tech moves on, “the technology is always in service of the story. Our aim is to demonstrate the breadth of what happens in nature. And that means a wide range of techniques and technologies are required.”

- In total, the raw footage occupied 100 terabytes of storage space.
- Over 2,000 hours of raw rushes filmed
- 553 cameras deployed throughout the series in total
- 42 different file formats
- 21 types of camera including the Panasonic HPX2700, Phantom, Canon XF305, Canon XF105, Cineflex, High Speed Memrecam, Starlight camera, remote Camballs,  Bradley cameras, Canon 5D, Steadicam, Red Epic, Silicon Imaging 2k, GoPro, Sony EX3, Sony name a few
- Eight cameras harmed. One chargrilled, two eaten (by a lion and an elephant), two mini-helicam crashes and three drowned
- Over 1km of remote camera cabling to film nesting shoebills at Bangweulu Swamp
- Four years in production
- 6,526 anti-malarial tablets
- 1,840 hours in hides
- 1,598 days on location
- 601 nights spent in tents
- 79 separate filming expeditions
- 27 countries visited
- Just under 50 tonnes of kit carried by crew
- 111,888 4x4 miles
- 100 days spent on horseback
- 905 hours spent trekking in the jungle

Posted 03 January 2013 by Jon Creamer

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
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