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Our War 2: behind the scenes

Bafta winner Our War told the story of the British troops in Afghanistan through the soldiers’ own footage. Exec producer Colin Barr tells Jon Creamer about returning to the frontline for series two

How do you begin the process?
We go out and meet lots of different regiments and soldiers and we gather footage from those soldiers on hard drives and memory sticks. You're looking for blocks of material you think can be constructed into stories and once you hit those blocks, then that's the platform on which we"ll build the story. Then you go into your research and do the interviews that hold the whole thing together.

What's the production model for the series?
The production model is quite different to a conventional doc because the emphasis is so heavily on the editing side of things and much lighter on the filming side. And it's front loaded at the research end when we’re trying to find the footage that will inspire the films. In the first series we learned just how long you have to allow in the edit to weave together material that was never intended for broadcast with the interviews to make it feel coherent and solid and dramatic.

Is there any way to plan the stories beforehand?
We tried in the first series to do assemblies and to get ahead of ourselves before the edits but the reality is, until you've got the director and the editor in a room together trying to shape the thing a lot of that work is wasted.

Is it difficult to understand what you're watching when you first see the footage?
A lot of the time you've no idea what the context is. Soldiers aren't marking up their files as such so you have to go back and challenge them a bit and say "are you sure this is filmed this day and in this place because it doesn't look like it?" You then go through two or three different sources to find out when something was filmed and there's no shortcut to that. You just have to go through the laborious process of asking and asking again.

Does the technical quality of some of the footage preclude its use?
If the story is right and the characters are good then the technical quality of the material doesn’t affect us at all. Sometimes, with the way cameras are now, it can almost look too good and it doesn't look like helmet-cam footage any more. It's almost too pristine, the colours are almost too vivid. Sometimes that's good but sometimes it's distracting. With the GoPros they're using now, the sound isn't great but the picture quality is incredible.

What's the clearance process with the MOD?
We inform the regiment and the MOD about who we're filming etc, so there's a relationship there. At rough-cut stage they can view it but only to comment on issues of operational or personal security. There's a red flag system so if there's something they feel is going to jeopardise operations or put soldiers lives at risk, they can red flag it and we discuss it and they then have to prove their case. If it's proved we'll take that out but editorially they don't have any say at all.

And what about with the soldiers and their families?
We have viewings throughout with families and individual soldiers. Consent is such a rolling process. Everybody at every stage has to consent and if that breaks down then we can't broadcast so we need to make sure.

Have you learned lessons from making the last series?
We're more focussed because we've got a better sense of what we're looking for. What we need is a core cast of characters and a single narrative if we can get it.

What else did you do differently this time?
Part of what you do differently is the storytelling techniques you use but also the voices you find and the framing devices you use. You learn so much in a first series so we know now what works best. The last series had films with two or three different strands in them and it worked but it's never as good as having a single narrative.

Is this found-footage technique very different from traditional documentary?
As more and more people use UGC, people are always asking does this change the way we tell stories or does it mean old-fashioned doc makers have had their day? Actually, the opposite is true. When you start working with material like this you realise how much you resort to classic doc techniques and storytelling devices. You have to work harder at making the elements work because they don't naturally work. You have to grind them into a powder just keep cutting and cutting until they work together. It's almost as if it makes those traditional skills even more important.

BBC3's Our War used a combination of frontline troops' own amateur footage along with interviews with those same soldiers to take viewers right into the heart of battle. The second three parter hones more new stories from a vast mountain of amateur footage.
TX 13 August
Production company BBC inhouse
Length 3x60-minutes
Executive producer Colin Barr
John Douglas
Tom Herington
Katharine English
Editor Reva  Childs
Dan Reed
Editor Peter Haddon
Commissioned by
BBC3 controller 
Zai Bennett
Associate producer 
Roger Courtiour
Production manager
Michelle Galvin
Assistant producers
Hayley Reynolds, Anna Stephens
Media manager
Nathan Carr
Compost Creative
Chad Hodson
Narrated by
Shaun Dooley

Posted 21 August 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes on Sienna Miller Hitchcock drama The Girl

Director Julian Jarrold tells Jon Creamer about shooting upcoming BBC drama, The Girl, which details legendary director Alfred Hitchcock's destructive obsession with his star Tippi Hedren

It's a tough call for a director, shooting a film about one of the most lauded and influential filmmakers of all time.

But that's what Julian Jarrold was faced with as he approached The Girl, a new one-off BBC drama that tells the true story of Alfred Hitchcock's obsessive desire for the star of both The Birds and Marnie, Tippi Hedren.

It's a tough call because there's an ever-present danger of ending up with a crass imitation rather than a period take on Hitchcock's world. "A lot of films have tried to be Hitchcockian in style and plotting and haven't really worked," says Jarrold. "I was aware of that and the huge danger of copying from the master. It's not in any way trying to imitate."

But it was also important to take the viewer into Hitchcock's world. "I didn't try a completely Hitchcockian style but we did give it a look that’s more in common with that world and shooting style as an overall feel."
But at times, a straight copy of Hitchcock was required. The film takes in Sienna Miller (as Tippi) shooting scenes from The Birds, and then those scenes being played out in Hitchcock's screening room later.  For those "we are trying to recreate very accurately the scene whether through filters, lighting, camera work and the rest of it. We shot those on 35mm film, with lots of filters and we graded it to give it that Technicolor look."

So by contrast, the rest of the film had to take a step back from the Hitchcock style. "The rest of the film we shot on the Arri Alexa and although we did use certain filtration to give it that 60s period feel, we wanted a subtle difference. Hitchcock's style is highly artificial. It's a unique style that nobody does now and that's partly due to the film stocks of the time but also Hitchcock's famous control. He constructed everything very carefully."

This film, of course, is not a fiction, it's based on documented fact. But its subject is still Hollywood, which demands a little more than a straight documentary take. "It's an interesting one," says Jarrold. "It's real and based on research but it's also about the dream factory and people filming scenes about characters playing different characters. It's also about how he's manipulating her. So you are playing on different levels."

The result was "quite a rich, contrasty look which felt sympathetic to the period." The Birds and Marnie, the Hitchcock films that Hedren starred in, were obvious stylistic starting points. But also Vertigo "had a parallel with the strange, highly romantic obsession that James Stewart has. We were trying to create the world of Hollywood and the studio system and to some extent the glamour of it but also the darkness as well."

The film was shot in South Africa "which proved a brilliant solution because of the climate and the blue skies. And we found locations that match almost exactly Bodega Bay" where The Birds was shot.

A piece of luck was also had for the studio shots. The crew found the 3Arts Centre, an old studio that's now used infrequently "and hasn't been updated for many years. So it was virtually perfect with its corridors and cable system and curtains. Nothing had been touched for years. It was a huge space so we managed to shoot a lot of stuff there" including using other rooms for Hitchcock's office and Tippi's dressing room.

The shoot itself lasted four weeks, squeezed over Christmas due to the filming commitments of the two headliners. Shooting time was also squeezed by applying Toby Jones' extensive prosthetics each day and costume changes for Sienna Miller.

The other challenge was for Toby Jones not to end up doing an impression of Hitchcock. And his performance, says Jarrold "is very much not that. Toby just captures a certain spirit of the man which is everything from the humour to the cruelty of him." But, says Jarrold, the accuracy of the portrayal was often confusing on set. "When Toby was on set he did feel like the director. When he said cut the clapper loader from my crew would walk into shot thinking the shot had ended." The best tribute an actor could have.

A 1x90 film which tells the story of Hitchcock’s obsessive relationship with The Birds star, Tippi Hedren played by Sienna Miller. Hitchcock was at the height of his powers when, in 1962, he chose an unknown fashion model to star in The Birds. But as he sculpted Tippi Hedren into the perfect Hitchcock blonde, he became obsessed with winning her love.
Toby Jones (Alfred Hitchcock); Sienna Miller (Tippi Hedren); Imelda Staunton (Alma Hitchcock); Penelope Wilton (Peggy Robertson)
Production company
Wall to Wall
Gwyneth Hughes
Executive producers
Leanne Klein for Wall 
to Wall and Lucy Richer at the BBC
Commissioned by
Janice Hadlow, 
Ben Stephenson
Amanda Jenks
Julian Jarrold
John Pardue
Production designer
Darryl Hammer
Andrew Hulme
Tim Waller
Philip Miller
Arri Alexa

Posted 25 July 2012 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Sebastian Scott

Princess Productions’ co-founder Sebastian Scott tells Jon Creamer why, after a career break and a trip to Harvard, he’s now in the business of backing indies, not running them.

It's been over two years since Sebastian Scott left Princess Productions, the largely entertainment based indie he founded in 1996 with Henrietta Conrad. And it's a period in which he's mostly stayed away from the TV business.

But he's now begun a return to the indie world, although this time helping others to start up and run their own companies through his 'production hub' Predictable Media.

So far, he's backed ex-Princess producer Lucas Green's entertainment indie Superhero TV (that sees its primetime series Let's Get Gold, a co-pro with Thames, launch on ITV1 this month) as well as DJ/presenter Richard Bacon's new factual entertainment indie, Mox and Richard Ackerman's comedy indie, Room 414. He's also soon to announce a new gameshow indie that will also come under the Predictable Media umbrella.

His involvement in these start-ups is firstly financial but, he says, he'll also invest his "time and experience in helping them formulate shows and in deciding where they should be pitched, how they should be pitched and who they should be pitched to," although his involvement will vary "from company to company and from show to show because obviously I have much greater knowledge of some kinds of shows than others."

And he's keen to stress that the start-ups he backs will be well and truly run by the mds of those companies. "Really it's about those mds and the decisions they make and what they want to do, not what I want to do. What I will be doing is finding other companies to back and helping support their growth. It is about them and not me. I'd hate for them to read this and think I was taking the credit for what they're doing."

It's a light touch idea and a relatively small and organic set up compared to the one he left at Princess. That company, of course, was bought out by Liz Murdoch's Shine Group in 2007 for roughly £20m. So did he discover that a super indie wasn't where he wanted to be? He says not, "Shine is a fantastic group and Liz Murdoch is inspirational." He left because "I was in a privileged enough position to be able to say, 'I want to take some time off and go and learn some other skills.'" That time away from TV involved, along with a Kilimanjaro climb, taking positions on other company boards and a stint at the Telegraph Media Group. But most importantly it involved a "transformational" stint on the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard. "There are lots of wonderful things about running your own company but you're not really learning about how other people manage their companies. You end up running a company with 300 staff and you've had no management training at all. You've got there because you're good at having ideas and making things and then you've got to change from the person who's very good at making things to someone very good at managing people and I recognised that I would like some more help in making that transformation."

And it was while at Harvard he decided that he "really loved TV and ideas and I was quite good at it, so why didn't I find a way to go back which I would find energising and exciting?" Hence Predictable, and eventually a shared office in Shoreditch and a "world of Oyster cards, not drivers. It's fun getting right back into the beginning of something again. It gives you an energy and excitement. You realise there are loads of things you've forgotten and it's quite fun relearning those things."

He says that while the Predictable indies will have autonomy, the idea is for them to be greater than the sum of their parts. All the indies will share central services, production management, financial services, legal services "and at the moment we share a photocopier and a fax machine." But, more importantly, "we share knowledge and ideas. We come and see each others' pilots, everybody contributes to each others' pitches and we get together regularly to discuss where we feel the channels are."

That mutual support will come from the structure of the ownership, he says. "All the companies have some ownership of Predictable and Predictable has some ownership of all the companies. You need to make compensation match behaviour." And this will ensure each indie stays "on brand" too "so you don't confuse the market."

When asked about the ultimate ambition for the company, he says it's simply to "make all these little companies successful companies in their own right. It's only really been going properly for three months so it's a bit early to say." But, he says, it would be great in years to come "if we're all still sharing an office and we all had a floor each and returning series and all wanted to continue working together."

Posted 11 July 2012 by Jon Creamer

Sky One's Sinbad: Behind the scenes

Impossible Pictures’ creative director Tim Haines tells Jon Creamer about creating and producing Sinbad, a new 12-part Sky One adventure series of almost mythical proportions

A glossy, action packed update on the Sinbad legend was never going to be an easy quest.

As Impossible's creative director Tim Haines explains, the 12x60-minute Sky One show is a TV drama that requires "period costume, action, vfx - all these things. There was no part of this that we didn't have to worry about. If you're doing a contemporary show you don't have to worry about costume, if you're doing a purely romantic show you don't have to worry about action. There was nowhere to hide."

The first episode TXs early this month but its genesis occurred back in the mists of time, when Stuart Murphy first took over at Sky and went on the lookout for big, bold dramas for the channel. "Stuart Murphy wanted a family, 12A show for Sky," says Haines. He also wanted a 'branded' idea "but the problem is that any big brand in that 12A area is going to be a Hollywood movie. You just can't get hold of a Harry Potter."

But there are other 'big brand' stories and legendary characters and the BBC had shown the way with Robin Hood and Merlin. "But we were looking for something that gives you a bit of licence to be exotic and ambitious and Sinbad fitted the bill very well," says Haines. And although in recent decades the Sinbad legend was dominated by the Harryhausen films of the 70s "and also a comedic, curly shoe feel," this Sinbad had to feel real and visceral and the character one the audience could understand. "We all agreed the character is modern although he lives in eighth century Basra - he's a young man that the audience can identify with, not one constantly worried about his faith. That would have been a very difficult thing to get across."

The tone that was asked of lead writer Jack Lothian was a "blend of action, emotion and wit which is really tricky." But something a bit more visceral than Pirates of the Caribbean. "I adore it but it's a little bit slapstick. I mean wit like Disney's Avengers - witty lines but there's got to be true jeopardy and people do die."

It also had to feel big. And a funding model that consisted of Sky along with BBC Worldwide and tax breaks meant that on the plus side there was just "one editorial lead," but on the downside there was "no slack in the system at all." So building Sinbad's world from scratch wasn't an option.

Which is where Malta came in. "The beauty of Malta other than it having a very useful coastline is that it has an endless supply of slightly crumbling buildings," says Haines. "And in digital terms it's very easy to change the distance stuff and put in digital extensions. It's the mid ground stuff that's difficult." And the mid ground was in plentiful supply. The top half of a boat was also built next to a water tank (after all, Sinbad has to travel) and a semi permanent set was created inside an old fort "which gave us lots of corridors, and stone rooms."

The other essential element of Sinbad is, of course, the magical. Although the action had to be visceral and real, Sinbad does encounter sorcerers and monsters along the way. But says Haines, the 'magical' elements had to be kept under strict control. Villains with magical powers had to have limits to their powers or it's impossible for Sinbad to take them on. The beasts and monsters, created by The Mill, also had to be tied to certain rules. "The logic is that it's real but occasionally magic happens. The monsters are quite elemental. They are connected to the emotions of the characters and the elements of the place - salt, water, shadows etc. They feel a bit more organic. For instance, in the land of the dead the creatures are of rock, very much of the place. We always asked 'what is the reason for the beast?'"

And despite the show's long initial run, there was very little economy of scale when it came to the vfx. "I'd love to say yes but being honest, not much. As you move on you get more ambitious. You'd love it if everything was used or reconfigured each time but pretty soon people will spot that and then you're not delivering on your promise. Everyone on the team wants it to be new and different each episode so we have found it very difficult to do bottle episodes." Maybe in Sinbad's next adventure.

Primeval producer Impossible Pictures' Sinbad is a 12x60-minute Sunday teatime adventure series for Sky One. It's billed as a 21st century take on the classic eighth century hero and stars newcomer Elliot Knight alongside Naveen Andrews, Sophie Okonedo and Timothy Spall.

Producers Tim Haines, Sophie Gardiner and Andrew Woodhead for Impossible Pictures and Elwen Rowlands for Sky
Directors Andy Wilson, Brian Grant, Colin Teague , Marisol Torres , Michael Offer
DoPs Gavin Finney, Peter Sinclair, Fabian Wagner, Jean Philippe Gossart
Writers Jack Lothian, James Dormer, Harriet Warner, Steve Thompson, Jack Thorne, Richard Kurti , Bev Doyle
Production designer Martyn John
Costume designer Phoebe de Gaye
Make-up/hair Jacqueline Fowler
Editors Andrew MacRitchie, John Richards, Kate Evans, Mike Jones
Post producer Tim Bradley
VFX The Mill
Cameras Arri Alexa

Posted 04 July 2012 by Jon Creamer

True Love: behind the scenes

Writer/director Dominic Savage tells Jon Creamer how he used improvised dialogue and a big name cast to create five luxuriously spare and heartfelt love stories for BBC1

The cast is, of course, stunning. David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jane Horrocks, Ashley Walters and David Morrissey all take lead roles.

But Dominic Savage’s new BBC1 drama series is striking for more than just its star names.

The five love stories set amongst Margate’s faded beauty seem a world apart from most TV drama – stripping away extraneous characters, subplots, whodunnits and car chases to focus entirely on one very small group of characters and their relationships.

The half hour films are, as the title suggests, about true love, and how its course never does run smooth. “The whole thing is bitter sweet,” says Savage. “We know there’s a complexity to all these situations and there are no easy answers. With a series about love, to make it really interesting there had to be consequences so I wanted to find situations where there was a flashpoint or a transgression. Where it becomes interesting is when there’s a dilemma and when lots of other feelings come in like guilt and responsibility and forgiveness. They present moral dilemmas to the characters and to the audience. All of us can put ourselves in the shoes of the characters.”

And the actors’ performances are key to that. As with all of Savage’s work, the actors improvise their dialogue, and that means a very different writing process. The script is “broken down into scene form like you have in a normal drama. The only thing that’s different is the absence of dialogue.” As the actors are cast, the characters shift to suit them too. “The writing goes on in the cutting room as well as on the set. It happens at all stages – at the initial meetings with the actors, the workshops where we discuss character. It’s just a different way of writing. It’s still writing but it’s collaborative.”

The key to making the performances work, says Savage, is trust. “If they trust you and you trust them you can go anywhere when it comes to the shoot. Often some of the scenes are emotionally difficult and they’re opening themselves to us so they need to feel they’re in safe hands and that I wouldn’t do something that was unfair to them.” So it’s important to get to “know the actor quite well quite quickly for the process to work. If they’re closed and don’t give themselves away it’s a difficult process.”

And that’s all part of the preparation which starts with “long discussions with the actors about the themes and who they are, what they are and where they’ve come from – all the back story.” But the preparation doesn’t involve anything that could come too close to rehearsal. “It’s just talking it through but not doing the scenes. Otherwise what’s the point? The spontaneity goes and it loses its rawness.” And although that’s nerve wracking for an actor “because there’s nothing to cling to, they like the fact that they have to jump into it. It’s refreshing for them. Most of the work they do is controlled.”

But the freedom given to the actors means the director can’t know exactly what will come out either. “I quite like that,” says Savage. “It’s always interesting. When we’re going to do that first take no one knows which way it’s going to go.” And besides, the story builds as the actors do each take. “The things we don’t use are useful too. The actors gain a sense of themselves as it progresses. They’re building their character on camera.”

But that slightly looser way of working doesn’t push the shooting schedule as much as it seems. “Each of the films was shot in six days which is tight but that’s an energy that I enjoy. There’s a whirlwind, intense process we go through. Time is a great luxury to have but it doesn’t exist in TV drama any more.” And spending too much time could be damaging. “You can be over indulgent if you’re not careful. If you draw it out the actors might wane and get bored.”

Keeping the crew to a minimum on set also adds to the realism and energy. “If you can be in a situation where the camera and crew are as surreptitious as possible it helps. I don’t want it to feel like a big film shoot event.”

Working Title’s five half hour dramas for BBC1 explore very different, and often very difficult, stories of love and relationships. The dramas, all set in Margate, were directed by Dominic Savage with the cast imporovising their dialogue. 
Cast David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jane Horrocks, Ashley Walters, David Morrissey, Vicky McClure, Jaime Winstone, Lacey Turner
Exec (Working Title) Juliette Howell
Exec (BBC) Lucy Richer
Writer/director Dominic Savage
Producer Guy Heeley
Line producer Jane Robertson
Production designer Cristina Casali
Art director Rebecca Milton
Set decorator Marshall Aver
1st AD Charlie Reed
2nd AD Zoe Liang
3rd AD Andy Young
DoP Ben Smithard
Casting Shaheen Baig
Costumes Liza Bracey
Editor David Charap
Hair and make-up designer Vickie Lang
Location manager Charlie Somers
Props Steve Parnell

This article first appeared in the April issue of Televisual

Posted 13 June 2012 by Jon Creamer

Planet Earth Live: Behind the scenes

A three-week wildlife special broadcasting live from the four corners of the globe is no easy feat. Exec producer Tim Scoones tells Jon Creamer how the BBC's Natural History Unit will survive it

Ambitious hardly covers it.

BBC1's Planet Earth Live will broadcast across three weeks this month as five different teams of natural history producers, directors, camera operators and OB specialists attempt to film a host of different animals from across the globe during the crucial month of May when many of those animals' young are taking their first breaths.

The stars of the show include lions, elephants, black bears, grey whales, sea otters, toque macaques, meerkats and polar bears that will be filmed in various locations in Africa, America, Asia, South America and the Arctic.
So with such a wide-ranging live production, there’s rather a large margin for error. After all, wild animals don't necessarily perform on cue. And then there's the small matter of five separate OBs transmitting from often quite inhospitable locations.

But, says exec producer Tim Scoones, he's confident it will all come together. Because despite the project having been about a year and a half in the planning, it's been "10 years in the dreaming." And the stars have now aligned in a way that makes such an idea possible. "The NHU is well known for its landmark stuff and that kind of innovation in technology and techniques has been rolling for 50 years. But in the last 10 years we"ve also been experimenting with live event broadcasting with Springwatch and the like so we've learned a lot."

He says the "digital revolution has happened at exactly the right time" for a show like Planet Earth Live with kit getting smaller and more portable and also "audiences have become vastly more empowered" through interactivity and social media so that this show is "able to really capitalise on these brand new opportunities not only in technology but in production and consumption culture." Broadcast technology has "caught up with our idea and has empowered us much quicker than anyone would have expected," he says, but it's "still taken 10 years to gather the people, the skills, the technology and the courage to stick our necks out."

But despite that, such a complex live event is still one that carries inherent risks, and to counter that as much as possible, the team has played as safe as it possibly can in other areas. The series focuses on "animals that the NHU already knows well. This is about individual animals and we've chosen very specific populations and families. That choice was largely down to how much we already knew about them. They're not exactly old friends but these are animals that are well known to us either because we've filmed them before or, more importantly, they're well known to scientists who have studied them intensively." Which means that hopefully the teams can be at the right place at the right time. "The more intelligence we have on where things are likely to be and what might happen next, the better we are able to pre-empt and predict that, jump ahead of the game and make sure our kit and caboodle is pointing in the right direction for when the next part of the story happens."

And the complexity of the project, with so many locations and animals is in itself a safety net, he says, as "frankly we could be pretty unlucky if we got a bad news day. We're rolling a lot of dice. It's the same if an OB falls over, we've got more than one engine to fly on."

He's also not taking any chances with production staff. Each group of animals is being covered by teams with experience of that species and a decade of Springwatch and Big Cat Diary has given him a contact list of OB professionals that he trusts. "Myself and the main live director James Morgan spent a long, long time sweating over the right chemistry for each of these five teams."

Because it's the people, rather than the technology or the wildlife that he’s worried about most. "It's people working too hard and burning out because there's not time to rest. There's no alternative to fly people out if someone falls over."

And the focus is on story, not complex camera technology, he says. "There are things like thermal imaging cameras, mini cameras and there'll be quite a few cineflexes but our house style is real." And the "really tricksy" camera techniques used in the blue chip landmarks like Planet Earth “probably wouldn't sit well with this and would take too long to process." This show more than any other for the NHU is "driven by the need to tell powerful real-time stories as opposed to creating an awesome glossy experience."

Planet Earth Live is the story of a month in the life of the planet following some of the world’s most iconic animals including lions, elephants, black bears, grey whales, sea otters, toque macaques, meerkats and polar bears with teams filming in Africa, America, Asia, South America and the Arctic. The live shows combine the real-time filming techniques of Springwatch and Big Cat Live with the cinematography of NHU landmarks like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet. The series is filmed across thousands of miles and covers six different time zones.

TX 6 May
Sunday and Thursdays - 6x60-minutes at 8pm
Wednesdays – 2x30-minutes at 7.30pm
Julia Bradbury in the US and Richard Hammond in Kenya
Executive producer
Tim Scoones
Series producer
Roger Webb

Posted 04 May 2012 by Jon Creamer

Interview: Ralph Lee, C4's head of factual

As the dust settles after a few months of hiring, firing and resigning at Channel 4, new factual boss Ralph Lee tells Jon Creamer about his plans for docs and specialist factual

The last few months have seen a headspinning round of arrivals and departures within C4’s commissioning team.

Among those through the revolving doors at Horseferry Road following Jay Hunt's restructure have been head of factual and features Sue Murphy who left for Optomen, head of daytime Helen Warner who went off to be a writer and CBBC's Damian Kavanagh who took over both their responsibilities. Both Camilla Campbell and Robert Wulff-Cochrane exited the drama department and Darren Smith and Dominique Walker left the entertainment department.

There have been entries and exits within the specialist factual and documentary teams too. The merger of the two departments saw docs head Hamish Mykura leave for Nat Geo and Ralph Lee ensconced as the head of a new factual department, looking after both specialist factual and documentaries.

One of the drivers of those changes is to break down barriers between departments and genres, says Lee. And it's bringing creative benefits. "It used to be the case that there was quite a lot of delineation between departments and now we're trying to work together in creating more cross genre programming." He points to a "specialist factual/entertainment/adventure hybrid" he's working on with entertainment head, Justin Gorman. He's also recently ordered an historical clip show/comedy panel show from Twofour.

To this end, former specialist factual commissioner David Glover has been given a new remit "to look for events and specials, invent new hybrids and go on adventures right across the factual department," says Lee. "That could be Werner Herzog's new documentary about death row inmates, it could be an experimental documentary format which he's just commissioned, and it could be Drugs Live - all different forms of telly."

The race is on to find genre busting shows of real scale, he says. "What we get too little of are ideas that are game changing for a broadcaster. That's The Apprentice and Big Brother but also The 1900 House. What indies find hardest to do is to generate ideas that are broadcaster size rather than indie size and they're the most exciting things for us."

For much of the last decade, Lee has been a specialist factual commissioner (apart from a brief sojourn at Channel 5 as head of factual), so will looking after the C4's docs output be a stretch? "There's obviously a big crossover between specialist factual and documentaries. It's a creative challenge to try to understand the slightly different culture that exists in the documentary world but there’s still a lot of suppliers, directors and talent in common so it's not like a complete switch of genre."

He says he's happy with the direction Channel 4's docs are taking. "Documentaries is going through a really exciting boom at the moment," he says. And that's largely been driven by technology on rig shows like One Born Every Minute and Educating Essex. "There's a unifying tone of voice that those documentaries find - it's contemporary, accessible, entertaining." He's keen to stress though that he's not just about rig shows. "They've been a great technological innovation and allowed us to tell different stories in familiar places but we're not asking 'where do we put the rig next?' We're asking what do we want to say next and what's the best way of capturing it."

He'll be assisted in that by Wonderland series editor Nick Mirsky who joins as deputy head of factual this month and who'll have an overall view of the docs output. The documentary strands remain but may shift subtly. "When Nick joins he'll bring a new thinking to all the strands and will work with the strand commissioners to keep them fighting fit." A minimum of 10 True Stories a year will run on Channel 4 and new director strand First Cut stays. "Cutting Edge remains a key part of our plan and I'm working with Emma [Cooper] and Nick on how more clearly to define what Cutting Edge is, but people pitching documentaries shouldn't preoccupy themselves too much with that. We'll brand them as Cutting Edge if we think they live up to the brand."

The other big push, as always, is for talent. "In specialist factual that's progressing really well this year," he says. Jimmy Docherty, Guy Martin, Hugh Hunt and Mark Evans are, or will soon be, faces of the channel. "Jill Fullerton Smith has commissioned three talent driven science things in the last month. There's real momentum."

And he wants that momentum to continue in docs. Katie Piper and Sharon Horgan are two documentary faces that have emerged recently and "it would be interesting to see more. One of the misconceptions people have about the documentary team is all they want is a rig show or a Cutting Edge. But we've commissioned three new formats already this year. Let's not forget this is the place where Wife Swap, Supernanny and Faking It emerged. People don't often think of it as a space where you can book around talent but if you do find a doc talent, that's of huge value to the channel."

C4 Factual department structure

Head of factual Ralph Lee
Deputy head of factual Nick Mirsky
Arts Tabitha Jackson
History Julia Harrington
Science Jill Fullerton Smith
Talent, adventure, 8pm spec fact Sara Ramsden
Factual events David Glover
Doc series Mark Raphael
First Cut, doc series tbc
Cutting Edge Emma Cooper
True Stories Anna Miralis
Seasons, 4thought Lina Prestwood
Cross platform Kate Quilton
Docs editor Madonna Benjamin

- this article first appeared in Televisual's April issue

Posted 19 April 2012 by Jon Creamer

Behind the scenes of Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy

The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and animator Nigel Coan have turned the weirdometer up to 11 on their new show with the liberal use of poster paint, cardboard and green screen animation

Taking a break from filming The Mighty Boosh, Noel Fielding and animation director/Boosh collaborator/old college friend Nigel Coan took some time out to mess about with some comedy and animation ideas in their front rooms. The result is the upcoming E4 sketch show, Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, a home made series featuring stunt riding lychees and talkative stingrays all held together by cling film, bacofoil, poster paints and felt tips. Nigel Coan tells Jon Creamer about the show’s DIY surrealism.

How did the series come about?
Two or three years ago we had a couple of months spare to make something ourselves but we didn’t know we were going to make a show at the time. We literally filmed it in our flats and there were just two of us doing it but we managed to get 23 minutes of stuff and thought ‘there’s a show in this.’

Was that starting point where the homemade aesthetic of the show comes from?
Yes, the limitations we had when there were only two of us led to how we made the series. When we made the series we tried to keep to that way of making things rather than expand outwards.

What was the inspiration for the show’s look?
There are a lot of painted elements. The main thread of the show is that Noel’s in a psychedelic jungle tree house and all that is painted. It’s inspired by Henri Rousseau and painters like that. That’s because Noel paints as well as doing comedy, and we thought it’s a nice texture and it reflects him. It’s also an extension of the animations we do on Boosh. It was a conscious decision to keep the painted elements in and a deliberate reaction against slick cg stuff.

What was the writing process?

The way Noel writes is by performing it so he’ll rattle it off word for word and then we’ll talk about it and I’ll tell him if it’s possible or not [in terms of the animation]. So we made decisions quite quickly about what we were going to do. Anything I wasn’t sure about I’d go away and do a quick test and come back and say ‘Yes, we can do that.’

Did the finished show change a lot from the 
initial scripts?
Often if you’re doing a character for the first time you sometimes discover what’s really funny about it after the performance because Noel improvises so much. Obviously we’d start with the script but it’s often that improvised stuff that we used because it’s just fresh. When it happens in that moment, you know it’s funny straight away so it often supersedes scripted stuff.

The animation’s mostly based on green screen performances, why?
We shot some stuff against painted sets but in the end we preferred working on green screen because you concentrate on the performance and it gives you options afterwards. You can then decide what the world is going to look like after – if it’s going to be collagey or if it’s going to be painted. We’d always start with an idea in our heads but it gives you options. When you shoot on a set it is what it is on the day and it’s not going to change.

Why did you form your own production company, Secret Peter, to make Luxury Comedy?
Because we made what we made on our own just in our kitchens and with green screen, it gives you the power to do that because you can create all these worlds without big sets. We thought if we can do that why not have our own production company, get a producer and expand outwards. It’s quite stressful because it’s all on us but I’m glad we did it that way.

There’s an enormous amount of animation overall, did you know it would be possible to make in the time you had?
When we started it we didn’t know. It was a big learning curve because we weren’t sure what we were trying to do was possible within the budget. But now we know what’s doable and what’s not.

Noel Fielding’s 
Luxury Comedy
“A psychedelic character based comedy show half filmed and half animated. The show is like biting into an aurora borealis Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger recreating The Jungle Book using toast... Warm and strange and packed 
with jokes.”
Broadcaster E4
TX January 2012
Production company Secret Peter
Exec producer Derrin Schlesinger
Producer Isibeal Ballance
Director and lead animator Nigel Coan
Music Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno
Editor Mark Everson

Posted 10 January 2012 by Jon Creamer
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