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Behind the scenes: London New Year's Eve fireworks

The 10-minute pyrotechnic performance that is the The Mayor of London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display was the highest rating show on TV last year – with an audience of almost 14m. Not bad for an event that was initiated in 2003 by the Mayor’s office as a marketing exercise to promote London.

Back then, our TV screens used to turn to global cities like Sydney, New York or Paris on New Year’s Eve for their firework displays. London’s offering, by contrast, was simply a bit of knees up in Trafalgar Square, while most TV coverage was focused on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Corporate events producer Jack Morton Worldwide – whose credits include the opening and closing ceremonies for the Athens Olympics and Glasgow Commonwealth Games  – has overseen the show since inception. The brief says project director Jim Donald of Jack Morton, was to put London on the map by creating a “New Year’s Eve media moment” – one that would put it at the front rank of the celebrations by global cities.

As the fireworks have grown in popularity to become one of the world’s leading displays, so too have the organisational demands on the production team. Hundreds of thousands of people now line the banks of the Thames to watch the display. To cope with the numbers, this year will see the introduction of ticketed viewing areas for the first time.

Yet the show is primarily designed for TV audiences, says Donald. The ambition, he adds, is to create a show that is unique to London – one that uses landmarks like Big Ben and the London Eye to showcase the capital to the world.

For such a visual event, it’s surprising to learn that the production process first begins with the music. Around September, the Jack Morton team put together a sound track of the year, referencing key news events and top tunes.

The music then dictates the pace and tempo of the firework display. Pyro designer Darryl Fleming, of Titanium Fireworks – who has worked on the London Olympics – designs the display second by second, thinking about the look and mood of the show, from slow and subtle sequences to bombastic crescendos. As part of the preparation, Titanium produce a pre-viz animated film which maps out the display so everybody involved in the production has a good idea of what to expect.

In total, Fleming will fire off 12,000 fireworks on the night. They are launched from three barges, laden with 30 tonnes of equipment, in front of The London Eye, which itself has 2,000 fireworks on it.

The big challenge, Fleming says, is that the audience is “360 degrees around you… and fireworks and members of the public don’t mix very well.” This becomes a big issue in case of bad weather, specifically high, easterly winds which blow towards most of the audience. “You have to have very detailed curtailment plans,” says Fleming.

Adding to the pressure of producing the event, the team cannot load up the London Eye with fireworks until 5.30pm on New Year’s Eve. They can, however, pre-rig the Eye in the days before, allowing them to slot in the fireworks at the last moment. “It is the most nerve-wracking moment – we are still building the most iconic part of the show with six hours to go with the audience in front of us,” says Fleming.

Everything is usually in place by 10pm. The BBC team charged with broadcasting the show is based out of an OB truck in the Ministry of Defence car park. There are ten camera positions feeding into the live broadcast, as well as a helicopter too.

BBC editor of ceremonial events Claire Popplewell has worked on some of the biggest live events of our time, including the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee, and professes not to get nervous ahead of these. But, she says, “This one makes my stomach flip – you don’t get a chance to rehearse.” The most important thing, she adds, is to capture the moment that Big Ben strikes midnight.

The music, lights and fireworks are then automated to fire. As soon as they do, says Popplewell, the OB truck starts to shake and is drowned out by noise. In the midst of all this, her team are trying to work out the right sound mix and balance for the images that are being broadcast to the nation. There are plenty of challenges to deal with along the way too: smoke from the fireworks can drift and obscure key camera positions, while rain can also make shooting difficult.

She tries to frame shots so that the landmarks of London form essential parts of firework show.  Donald adds: “We’re really trying to create a show that is unique to London architecturally - so when you see it through the cameras, you couldn’t be anywhere else.”

Planning for the Mayor of London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display involves over 85 organisations, including  all the emergency services, transport providers and local councils. 306 crew work on site from the 27th December to ready the show - rising to 2,658 crew on the night, including stewards. The display, with 12,000 fireworks, lasts 10mins and 50 seconds and is synchronised and triggered by GPS to Big Ben’s chimes.

Client Mayor of London

Production company
Jack Morton Worldwide
Broadcaster BBC

Project director Jim Donald

Executive producer Tim Collett

Creative director David Zolkwer

Pyrotechnics designer
Darryl Fleming

Lighting designer Durham Marenghi

BBC executive producer Claire Popplewell

BBC producer Victoria Simpson

BBC production manager Caroline Abbott

BBC engineering manager Jeremy Turner

Posted 19 December 2014 by Tim Dams

Is change really in the air for TV diversity?

Are we at a historic tipping point in the long and often shameful history of diversity in the television industry?

Judging by a slew of initiatives announced in recent months by the BBC, ITV, Sky and the BFI, there is a sense that times might be changing for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers in the creative industries. (see below for full details).

Of course, things could hardly get any worse. BAMEs make up 14% of the total UK population, but just 5.4% of the creative industries, according to Creative Skillset’s most recent census.  That’s down from 6.7% in 2009.

The dire figures published by Creative Skillset, as well as passionate interventions by Lenny Henry and government support from Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey, have sparked a round of industry activity on diversity.

Veteran diversity campaigners are confident that real change is the air. “I’m telling you, from my experience, this is the most exciting time we have had dealing with this issue…things are changing,” said Baroness Floella Benjamin, who has worked in TV as a presenter, producer and regulator, speaking at an RTS debate on diversity at the House of Commons last month.

Others are more cautious, though. Speaking at a session devoted to diversity at Televisual’s Factual Festival last month Simon Albury, chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, said there had never been more progress. He added, “Now the new initiatives are great, but they have been overspun and they are far from adequate. There’s much more that needs to be done, but a start has been made.”

Others fear the diversity issue will take a generation to sort, because the TV industry is so deeply nepotistic and continually hires from within a narrow talent pool. It’s self perpetuating too, with an intern culture that favours white middle class kids who can afford to work for free in London.

Albury says that without sustained, external political pressure the broadcasting, film and creative industries cannot be trusted to advance diversity.

Industry execs say that this political pressure has been applied effectively by Vaizey. The Culture Secretary noted, at last month’s RTS event, that Sky’s diversity targets are the most ambitious in the UK industry. Other broadcasters, he added, “could do better”.

Vaizey described ITV’s proposals as “slightly more opaque” and said some regard the BBC proposals as “very unambitious” and that there was “absolutely no doubt at all that diversity will be at the heart of” discussions when Charter renewal kicks off after May 2015’s election. He said he awaited C4’s proposals, due to be published in January “with eager anticipation.”

Vaizey has steered clear of backing quotas and legislation to tackle the issue, as called for by Lenny Henry. But he has pledged not to let the issue fall of the political agenda. If nothing happens, he warned that broadcasters should be “wary of what policiticans might come back with.”

Certainly, it appears that broadcasters genuinely want change – but some are moving faster than others.

Sky has been lauded by many for setting aggressive targets both onscreen and offscreen (see below).

Sky director of entertainment Stuart Murphy says the decision is as much a business opportunity as an ethical issue.  “We want to reflect the world we’re in,” he says, adding: “If we don’t get viewers and subscribers, we go out of business. The fact that 14% of Britain is non-white is a total commercial opportunity for us firstly to make sure 20% of people on screen are non-white by the end of the next calendar year.”

Murphy believes indies should have no trouble hitting the target. “If an indie comes to me and says that out of 60m people (in the UK) and an enormous media industry that's not just on TV, but in film and on the internet, that one of their six senior people can't be non-white, I would not think they're telling the truth, or they have not worked hard enough.”

The BBC, meanwhile, is accused by Albury of “placing its own BAME targets in the long grass, beyond licence renewal, in 2017.”

“The BBC has provided us with a torrent of warm words and some interesting initiatives, but the truth is, that the BBC has failed to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to BAME employment,” says Albury. He argues that the £2.1m set aside for the Diversity Creative Talent Fund is not enough. “When the BBC wanted to drive regional production, it ring fenced money, where it matters. The result was an increase in regional production by 400%.

The BBC’s commissioning editor for religion Aaquil Ahmed defends the corporation’s diversity initiatives, pointing out that its workforce has more than the double BAME staff than the industry average of 5%.

He says progress is happening, but that “it can often take time and there are often other people or things that have priority as well.”

Channel 4’s deputy creative director Ralph Lee says the whole industry has really come together to tackle the issue as never before.  “In the next two or three years, if we get it right, we could bring about lasting change in the industry.”

He adds that sorting diversity is not a quick fix though, and says C4 will publish its guidelines in January after consultation with its indie suppliers. “We have to consult them, and we also have to put in place training and guidance that will help them bring about the change, not just say there’s the problem, there’s the target, over to you.”

In particular, C4 and others are concerned about the legality of implementing targets to boost diversity. The Equalities Act is seen, ironically, as a barrier to positive change because it prohibits employers from making hiring decisions based on ethnicity.

Broadcasters are now asking politicians to provide guidance for how they can navigate the Equalities Act to lawfully implement positive action.

In the meantime others want money, not just targets, to sort out the problem. Simone Pennant of the TV Collective says: “We’ve been having this conversation for years and years and years…we’ve had various different schemes and initiatives. What we need is some money to jump start an industry.” She backs a significant ring fenced fund for BAME production companies, as outlined in the Lenny Henry plan.

Pennant worries that the momentum of recent months could peter out, as it has done in the past. “There’s a real concern that we’re going to continually have this conversation,” she says. And that could be disastrous for the industry too. “What’s happened is [BAME] people are no longer looking at the broadcasters to get their content away. They’re recognising that there's digital, there’s online, there’s various different places. The world is getting smaller.”

Diversity Timeline

July 2013: Creative Skillset releases industry workforce survey, showing that the participation of black, Asian and minority ethnic workers in the creative media is down from 6.7% to 5.4%.

November 2013: Oona King chairs Diversify event at Bafta, a one day forum on diversity launched in response to Creative Skillset figures. Speakers include Lenny Henry, Gurinder Chadha, Amma Asante, Pat Young, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Danny Cohen.

January 2014: Culture minister Ed Vaizey hosts diversity summit for UK creative industries. 30 senior execs attend the two hour meeting, where Lenny Henry calls on broadcasters to ringfence money to increase BAME people on screen and behind the scenes. His proposals are dubbed ‘the Henry plan’

March 2014: Lenny Henry delivers the prestigious annual Bafta television lecture, calling for new legislation to boost diversity.

June 2014: BBC director general Tony Hall announces package of measures to boost diversity, including a £2.1m Diversity Creative Talent Fund, a senior leadership training programme for six execs from BAME backgrounds, and a new Independent Diversity Action Group to be chaired by the DG. Existing targets are for on-air BAME portrayal to increase from 10.4% to 15% by 2017 and off air from 8.3% to 10% in 2017 and 15% by 2020.

July 2014:
BFI says UK film productions that receive money from its Film Fund must adhere to new diversity quotas. The BFI’s ‘three ticks’ assessment requires films to demonstrate commitment across three areas: screen diversity, off screen diversity and employment opportunities.

August 2014: Sky announces targets to improve BAME representation. By the end of 2015, all brand new, non-returning shows on Sky entertainment channels will have people from BAME backgrounds in at least 20% of significant on-screen roles. All original programmes will have someone with BAME background in at lest one senior production role. 20% of writers on all shows will be from BAME backgrounds.

November 2014: ITV director of television Peter Fincham writes to producers to launch its Social Partnership programming, asking them to make sure programmes visually reflect the diverse make up of Britain and to think about broadening the diversity of their workforce.

November 2014: C4 reveals that it is on the brink of revealing its diversity initiative to be launched in January. Commissioners will be expected to meet clear diversity objectives, with their bonuses linked to performance on the issue.

Posted 08 December 2014 by Tim Dams

David Frank turns up the Dial

Ex-RDF founder David Frank has big ambitions for his new company Dial Square 86. It’s going to be like ‘the Vice of content’, he tells Tim Dams

David Frank’s fledgling company Dial Square 86 is just a few months old, but one can quickly sense his drive to build something bigger. In fact, the business plan of the former RDF founder and Zodia Media boss sounds rather like that of RDF in the 2000s, which set the template for the consolidation trend in the indie sector.

Similarly, the aim for Dial Square is to grow a content business via deals with indie producers, digital outfits and rights specialists. Frank says he was “slightly pining for the more entrepreneurial experience” after Zodiak, which he admits he struggled to unify into a cohesive whole. “The most exciting days of the RDF period were when we were building the group – bringing new companies in, hiring new people. It genuinely felt like jumping onto a train that was on the move.”

Frank briefly mulled leaving the industry after Zodiak to become a writer, harking back to his early life as a journalist. It didn’t last long. “I thought it would be a bit lonely, that was the main deterrent. Working in this industry you have some crazy times, meet some weird people and it is fun. I love the interaction.”

And he started thinking of new ideas for a business. “The thing that struck me when I paused for thought was how dramatically the market had changed, certainly since I started RDF 20 years ago, but even in the last five years.” Most notably, programme prices have tumbled as audiences migrate to an increasing number of digital channels or online. Broadcasters, of course, still want the same quality – but at a far lower price. Says Frank: “The world does divide between those who have a response and those who don’t.”

He says many of the companies he looked after in Zodiak struggled to adapt to this new world.  “They would typically be companies whose margins were eroding and they were having to lay people off at HQ and/or cut their overhead. But there was no strategy for growth.” Other companies, however, would embrace the challenge – cutting the cost of their programmes, but also finding new ways to finance and produce shows. “It’s not that there is less stuff being made, it is just being made in a different way by different people.”

And it is these kind of people that Frank wants to work with. “I didn’t want to start a production company again. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. But I do like engaging with entrepreneurial individuals.” To date, Frank has assembled a team that includes Goldcrest Media founder Adam Kulik; Nigel Pickard, the former ITV programmes chief; his brother Matthew Frank, former CEO of Zodiak Rights; and Charlie Caminada, the former COO of HIT. They will offer operational and strategic support as well as financial backing to companies that join the group.

Dial Square has raised “a couple of million quid” of seed capital. The team has also been building a list of target prospects, and is now fundraising to bring in major investors. Frank stresses that Dial Square is not, as some have said, an investment vehicle. Rather, he says, the business is a trading company that will expand through the acquisition of established businesses and early stage start ups – with a plan to seek an exit via a stock market listing or sale in a “reasonable horizon.”

Frank says Dial Square is looking to invest in companies in three specific areas. Firstly, in what he calls pure creative businesses, which includes TV production companies. Frank points out that Dial Square is not – as has been reported – simply a digital play. Secondly, he wants to invest in content enhancement businesses, ones that broaden the viewer experience via social media or interaction. The third area is around content exploitation – distribution, licensing and merchandising areas.

Dial Square’s first deal last month was with Red Hare Digital, which manages a network of about 30 YouTube talents in the beauty and fashion area and strikes deals for them with brands including L’Oreal, Maybelline, Rimmel, Max Factor and Topshop. Frank says the talent could migrate onto standard platforms. “It’s a very interesting area for me – the creation of brands out of individual names,” he says, citing names like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

Frank also says he admires Vice, which has carved out an impressive business in news, an area previously dominated by a few global TV news providers. He says he wants Dial Square to be “like the Vice of content.” He adds: “I think we will have succeeded in three years time if people ask, ‘What is Dial Square?’ And they’ll say, ‘They do quite a lot of telly, but masses online – they dominate the YouTube market for talent, they make low cost content for international broadcast that they pre-sell, nobody ever commissions them they just make it and sell it…They are pretty cool and everybody wants to work with them.’ That is the dream. I want it to feel a very sexy brand – because that’s a brilliant way to attract talent. “ He concludes: “What I’m trying to do here is to constantly think of ways to disrupt what is happening today – and if you do that you create a meaningful brand.”

- Frank began his career in investment banking in the early 80s.

- After five years in the City he swapped banking for financial journalism. In 1989 he joined the BBC, becoming an on-air reporter.

- Frank founded RDF Media in 1993 having raised financing from business angels.

- On the back of hits such as Wife Swap and Secret Millionaire, and a series of indie acquisitions RDF became a superindie valued at £150m when sold in 2010 to DeAgostini.

- In 2010, Frank became CEO of De Agostini’s Zodiak Media which has operations in 20 countries.

- In 2013, Frank stepped down from Zodiak to set up Dial Square 86.

This interview was taken from the November issue of Televisual

Posted 18 November 2014 by Tim Dams

The great indie start-up craze

A swathe of new TV indies has launched in recent months, with more set to come. What’s driving the start-up trend?

The big story of 2014 in indie production has been the takeover of a large part of the UK industry by US studio groups. Discovery, Liberty, 21st Century Fox, Warners, Sony and NBC are now key players in a UK indie sector that is 65% owned by foreign investors.

The spate of deal making this year sparked fears, aired by C4 boss David Abraham in his MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh, that the creative culture of UK production would be snuffed out by foreign owners who put profits ahead of risk taking.

Abraham’s fears about the changing TV landscape seemed to be justified by comments last month from 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch last month, who said the need for scale in a globalised world was a key driver behind the merger of Endemol, Shine and Core. Murdoch’s words suggested that the world of TV production had changed for good, and that only the biggest producers with true global reach could thrive and survive.

Yet, in the past few months, there’s been a curious counter trend to all the indie super consolidation. A raft of execs, producers and directors have chosen to go independent, starting up their own fledgling production companies.
New companies to have launched include Little Gem, founded by former Maverick exec Ben Gale and ex-Princess exec Natasha Bondy; Hungry Bear (ex-Talkback producer Dan Baldwin); Curve Media (ex-Cineflix execs Rob Carey and Camilla Lewis); 7 Wonder (ex-Maverick CEO Alex Fraser, see box opposite). Producers alliance Pact says 77 new members have joined so far this year, up from 59 for the whole of 2013.

There are several reasons for the spate of start-ups. Many are director-driven production outfits set up to make their own projects and hold on to rights. Others are companies focused on branded content and AFP, taking advantage of the growing demand for video content and falling technology prices.

There’s also a swathe of start-ups launched by well-known TV execs who have worked for some of the biggest production companies and broadcasters.

“What we are seeing this year is a disproportionate number of new indies emerging,” says RDF founder and former Zodiak boss David Frank – who set up his own new company, Dial Square 86, earlier this year.

He argues that recent consolidation is a key factor in the new launches, and predicts that – based on conversations he has had – we will see some surprisingly big names soon choosing to go independent.  “It is amazing how hard the tree is being shaken by what is happening.”

Many of them, one suspects, do not enjoy being part of large conglomerates where the emphasis is primarily on hitting financial targets and where the pressure will be to make shows for the broadcasters’ parent companies. Others believe they can earn more money outside the superindies.

Many indie founders who sold their companies to superindie groups are choosing to leave after the deals have expired – following the example of execs like Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple who sold their indie Dragonfly to Shine in 2007 and left in 2009. They then launched new indie The Garden in 2010 and sold it to ITV last year.

The sudden appearance of new start ups is “the flip side of uber-consolidation”, says Claire Evans, a former BBC exec who set up new indie Babygrand Productions last year. “The unspoken thing about our industry is the sustainability of some of the bigger companies and whether they actually have an implicit lifespan – because it is very, very hard to retain talent.”

It is not just the big inhouse departments at the BBC and ITV that struggle to retain talent, it is also the bigger indies. Evans points out that once an indie or superindie has been sold, it is no longer able to offer equity stakes to execs. “So if you are an emerging creative and want to develop great formats, why wouldn’t you go and start up on your own.”

Those who have set up on their own say that broadcasters are keen to work with them – if you have a good track record in the industry.

Natalka Znak (Hell’s Kitchen, I’m A Celebrity) and Simon Jones (American Idol) set up their Znak&Jones indie earlier this year.  “The doors are completely open. We are pitching every day,” says Jones. “A good idea is a good idea. If they know you can produce it, I actually think a lot of broadcasters prefer working with boutique outfits. We’re not going to spend six months doing the deal, we aim to please and we want to get good shows on air quickly.”

Babygrand’s Evans confirms this: “Commissioners are hungry for new ideas. The competition between channels is so ferocious for hot new formats. Frankly, as long as you are someone they know, they will take a meeting.” Simon Jones adds that broadcasters can only benefit by encouraging new start-ups. “If I was a buyer I wouldn’t want to be only able to buy from Endemol/Shine, All3Media and Fremantle. Do I want to hear three ideas or 30 ideas?”

Indeed, C4 is encouraging relationships with new and smaller indies in a bid to work with a wider number of producers, launching initiatives like the £20m Growth Fund to back smaller indies.

Many new indies also say that it is a good time to start-up because of the sheer number of options open to them. There are far more commissioning broadcasters now in the UK, beyond the traditional terrestrials. The market is more global too with international broadcasters like Discovery and Nat Geo commissioning heavily out of the UK. British indies have also had great success pitching directly into the US market. 

Indies are also producing for digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon right through to low cost shows for YouTube. Funding for content is available from brands too, with the likes of GroupM active in the market. There’s also a surge in drama and animation production thanks to new tax breaks. And distributors who are not aligned to the superindie groups are eager to work with credible new producers to secure a pipeline of new content to sell.

Carl Hall set up Warehouse 51 Productions to house and fund production talent in the UK after selling his indie Parthenon Entertainment to Sky in 2012. He says it’s a “sellers market” for producers who have the skills to negotiate the new international marketplace and put deals together.

“If you have a good idea that people want, there are lots of places to go to…You are not as exposed as you were even a year ago.” And that’s because the range of options open to people who want to build a business in ‘content’ is much, much greater than it ever has been.

Recent indie TV production company launches

7 Wonder Launched by former Maverick CEO Alexandra Fraser and colleagues

Archery Pictures Drama and film indie run by producers Liza Marshall and Kris Thykier

Babygrand Launched by former BBC execs Claire Evans and Sonia Beldom

Curve Media Run by former Cineflix creative director Camilla Lewis and md Rob Carey

Dial Square 86 New company set up by RDF founder and Zodiak Media CEO David Frank

Hello Halo Scottish indie launched by former STV creative director Wendy Rattray

Hungry Bear Media Set up by Celebrity Juice co-creator, Dan Baldwin

Little Gem Launched by former Maverick execs Ben Gale and Natasha Bondy

The Forge New drama indie launched by ex-Company Pictures founder George Faber

Merman Films Founded by Sharon Horgan and producer Clelia Mountford

Monumental Drama and film indie from Alison Owen (Saving Mr Banks) and Debra Hayward (Les Miserables)

New Pictures Drama indie launched by ex- Company Pictures boss Charlie Pattinson

Playground All3Media International md Louise Pedersen will set up UK arm of the US producer run by Colin Callendar

Plimsoll Productions Set up by former Zodiak USA boss Grant Mansfield (behind ITV's Prom Crazy, pictured above)

Riverdog Productions Factual indie launched by Come Dine With Me creator Nell Butler and ITV Studios exec Tim Mille

Sid Gentle Films Launched by Sally Woodward Gentle (Downton Abbey), ex-Carnival

Warehouse 51 Productions Founded by the former MD of Sky Vision Carl Hall

Znak&Jones launched by ex Zodiak Media USA CEO Natalka Znak and ex Talpa Media USA CEO Simon Jones

Posted 12 November 2014 by Tim Dams

Griersons throws a spotlight on lack of doc diversity

Bake Off star Sue Perkins called on UK broadcasters to do more to support female documentary talent at last night’s Grierson British Documentary Awards.

The Griersons are regarded as the leading documentary awards in the UK, but female winners were noticeably absent from the podium at this year’s Griersons.

Not a single one of the 13 Grierson awards was won by a female director.

The documentary presenter of the year category was also dominated by men, with four male presenters nominated.

Grierson insiders said that only one female presenter – Stacey Dooley – was put forward by broadcasters for best presenter category.

“It is 2014 for goodness sake. Less than five per cent of the total entry was female presenters," said Perkins.

"This isn’t the fault of the Griersons, but of the broadcasters. It’s time that broadcasters put their money where their mouth is and nominated more female talent,” she added, to loud applause from the audience of documentary makers in the auditorium at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, which also included stars such as Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, Bettany Hughes, Davina McCall and Jamie Theakston.

The issue has been swiftly picked up on Twitter too. “Is it true that not a single female went on stage to get a gong at the #griersonawards last night? Seriously?”, said MediaParents.

Meanwhile, Wall to Wall founder Alex Graham – who won the prestigious Trustees Awards at the Griersons – used his acceptance speech to call for more broadcaster funding for documentary.

He pointed out that the BBC spends less on a whole season of Storyville than it does on a single hour of prime-time period drama.

“You should spend more on documentary not because documentary needs you, but because you need documentary.  Otherwise, the genre – together with the young, smart, sassy audience that increasingly follows it around – will slip through your fingers.  They’ll be watching YouTube. The Guardian. Vice.  And you – rather than documentary – will be the losers.”

For full list of Grierson winners, click here

Posted 04 November 2014 by Tim Dams

Mapping movies around the UK

Locations around the country are benefiting from the high levels of film production in the UK, as filmmaking ripples out from studios around London.

Film is now a major economic driver for the UK. Recent BFI figures show that £1.1bn was spent on film production in the UK in 2013, up 7.5% on 2012. The picture is of a thriving film production sector, one that is increasingly geared to large scale inward investment films. Indeed, 37 inward investment films last year accounted for 81% of the total UK production spend, including Guardians of the Galaxy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Imitation Game and The Monuments Men.

This spend is largely concentrated on London and the studio bases around the capital that house the films. But it is also rippling out across the UK, with films shooting on location throughout England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Listed below are many of the films that have recently shot or are shooting outside the capital.

Creative England, which helps productions arrange location shoots around England, says its Production Services team supported a record £80.5m of location filming in the 2013/14 financial year, including 95 feature films (29 inward investment) and 89 TV dramas (11 inward investment).

As has been well documented, the big budget inward investment films are attracted here for various reasons, including the skilled production talent base and infrastructure in the UK as well as the competitive tax reliefs on offer.

Location managers confirm that it is a busy time. “We are enjoying a bit of a boom time at the moment, says Jonah Coombes, whose credits include Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, Rush, The Social Network and Paddington. “I’m getting lots of calls about projects and enquiries about my availability.”

In fact, he says it is so busy that it is becoming difficult to crew up. “There seems to be so many high pedigree projects running at the moment that it is really quite difficult to find the right people. It is frustrating – but obviously great at the same time.”

Location manager James Grant, whose credits include 
Alice Through the Looking Glass, World War Z and Skyfall, also says it is busy time for film production in the UK. “It’s very often feast or famine. But, for the time being, location managers find themselves in the position of being in demand.”

However, he adds: “It will be interesting whether it continues to be busy.” Grant says he worries that some departments might be taking advantage of current demand, becoming increasingly work to rule in terms of overtime and hours on the clock.” He warns that the industry musn’t “bite the hand that feeds it,” pointing out that the US studios could quickly shift production to rival territories if the UK is perceived to be too difficult and expensive to work in.

That said, location managers say that the UK remains a pretty good place to shoot, with local authorities increasingly recognising the value of attracting film productions. London, however, is now very expensive to shoot in. “If you want to film in central London on a large feature film, you would have to budget £50k-£60k a day,” says Grant.

Coombes says that the likes of Film London and Creative England regional film offices have helped put measures in place to make shooting on location a more accountable, predictable and generally smoother process. Coombes recalls working on 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and having to make London look like it had been abandoned for six months. “What we achieved on that project let me to believe that, given the right approach, anything really is possible.”

Coombes says that once productions get out of London, there is a “tangible difference in terms of how you are received when you propose to bring the circus to town.” Perhaps because large-scale shoots are much rarer, they are more likely to be received with more interest and enthusiasm, he says.

He stresses that films can – and should - make themselves more welcome on location by opening up to the local community, where appropriate offering employment and work experience on the production. Says Coombes: “It’s not always viable or required, but if it’s an ambitious proposal and you are moving into a small community, it is important for the production to recognise that and offer something back over and above a donation to their residents association.”

Films that have shot outside London
Producer Crab Apple Films
Lancashire, Merseyside, Yorkshire

Alice in Wonderland: 
Through the Looking Glass
Producer Walt Disney Studio Elstree
Locations Gloucestershire

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Producer Marvel Studios
Locations Hampshire, Surrey, Kent, Norwich

Dracula Untold
Producer Universal
Locations County Down, Antrim, Omagh, Beflast
Edge of Tomorrow
Producer 3 Arts Entertainment
Studio Leavesden
Producer Davis Ent/Twentieth Century Fox
Aberdeenshire, Manchester, Greenwich

Producer Le Grisbi/Columbia Pictures
Locations Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire

Girls Night Out
Producer Ecosse Films

Guardians of the Galaxy
Producer Marvel Studios
Studio Longcross
Location Essex, Hertfordshire

How I Live Now
Producer Cowboy Films
Locations  Carmarthenshire

Producer See-Saw Films
Locations  Isle of Skye, Cambridgeshire

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Producer Warner Bros
Studio Leavesden
Locations  Kent, Surrey, Sussex

The Monuments Men

Producer Columbia Pictures
Locations  Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, Kent & Oxfordshire

Mr Turner
Producer Thin Man
Locations Cornwall, South Yorkshire

Muppets Most Wanted
Producer Walt Disney Pictures
Studio Pinewood
Locations Kent, Oxfordshire
Producer Heyday/Warner Bros Studio Elstree
Locations Hertfordshire

Producer  Warner Bros
Studio Leavesden Studios
Locations Buckinghamshire

Producer Calamity Films
Locations Neath Port Talbot, Berkshire

Robot Overlords
Producer Tempo
County Down, 
County Antrim, Belfast

Spooks: The Greater Good
Producer Kudos Film and TV Studio Shepperton
Locations Warwickshire, Isle of Man

Star Wars Episode VII
Producer Lucasfilm Studio Pinewood Studios
Locations Gloucestershire

Producer Ruby Films Studio Elstree
Locations Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Kent

Producer Warner Bros Studio Leavesden
Locations Derbyshire, Gwynedd, Berkshire

Testament of Youth
Producer Heyday Films
Vampire Academy
Producer Angry Films Studio Pinewood
Locations Buckinghamshire, Surrey

Posted 22 October 2014 by Tim Dams

Interview: Ken Burns on documentary making

For almost his entire working life, documentary maker Ken Burns has been told that viewers no longer have the attention span to focus on the kind of long form, complex films he makes.

His legendary 11-hour series on the Civil War came out in 1990, during the prime of MTV and fast cut music videos. More recently, in the era of YouTube, he has produced lengthy films on American subjects such as baseball and prohibition.

Yet his films remain startlingly popular, like his latest The Roosevelts, which chronicles the lives of US Presidents Theodore and Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The 14-hour series launched last month with over 9m viewers on PBS in the US. “The relationships you care most about benefit from your sustained attention,” says Burns, who reckons there is a hunger for complexity and depth among viewers, most evident in the trend for binge viewing box sets of long series.

The Roosevelts features the now trademark Ken Burns effect, immortalised by Apple, of the camera energetically panning and zooming across still images from the archives. At a time when factual TV favours hyperactive onscreen presenters and fast cuts, The Roosevelts is also reassuringly measured: there’s a traditional ‘voice of God’ narration and interviews with historians, while the voices of the Roosevelts are read by a stellar cast including Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrman.

Critics have called it “Tolstoyan” in its sweep, and it’s a fitting epithet for a meticulously researched series that has a great story to tell and is surprisingly moving.

Burns says the series was made over seven years and cost a generous $15m. Despite being the most famous documentary maker in the US, he still has to fundraise extensively. His method, he says, is to plan ten years ahead, building a ‘skein of films’ so he can sell more than one idea at a time to potential backers. He currently has five series in various stages of production, including an 18 hour history of the Vietnam War.

All of his films are part funded by US public service broadcaster PBS. He then raises the remaining 70-75% of the budget himself – from corporations, foundations and private individuals.

Burns works from the same rural town in New Hampshire he moved to 35 years ago to keep overheads low. The location seems to symbolise his independence as a filmmaker. “I don’t work for anyone, I work for myself,” he says. Fortunately, too, he works in a very different way from most people in TV, who rush to turnaround projects on ever-tightening budgets and timescales.

By way of example, consider the production process of The Roosevelts. Burns says the series thanks a “couple of hundred people in the credits” but was essentially “handmade” by a dozen key people. “It is like a detective piece, and doesn’t take six or seven years for naught – we are not idly waiting there. We collect 25,000 photographs even though we only use 2,250. We collect hundreds of hours of footage, even though we might use five hours. We go to all the locations to film for days, often in different seasons…”

“It is about marshalling and collecting the material, and not limiting research – too often research is for a fixed primary period,” says Burns, who adds.  “We are educating ourselves during the course of it. I am not telling you what I already know...The biggest thing is that process means everything to us. We are not wedded to the superimposition of preconception. If you never stop researching, then you are corrigible to the end.”

The result, admits Burns, is “very dense, written films.” But he doesn’t think audiences have a problem with this, despite many documentary makers feeling that narration is a no-no and the enemy of the picture. “Who makes these rules? Did this come down from Mount Sinai?” he asks.

This, of course, goes back to his earlier point about audiences having a hunger for complex subjects. And it makes you wonder why, in a country like the UK that is well served by public service TV, there are not more filmmakers like Burns who can – in his words – “deep dive into a subject.”

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History airs from 19 Oct on PBS America (Sky 534 and Virgin 243)

Posted 17 October 2014 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: The Great Fire

It’s one of the most well known events in British history. Yet, the story of the Great Fire of London has never been the focus of a British TV drama before. You quickly realise why this is when you find out more about the making of ITV’s new four part series, The Great Fire.

“It is an incredible undertaking to take on something as epic as this,” says executive producer Douglas Rae of Ecosse Films. “There have been documentaries on the fire before but never a drama because people thought, ‘This is far too difficult to do.’”

Written by ITV political editor Tom Bradby, The Great Fire focuses on the circumstances that led to the catastrophic fire, how it took hold and Londoners’ attempts to overcome the flames.

Bradby bills The Great Fire as a hybrid – a thriller, relationship drama and disaster movie. It weaves together the stories of characters including Thomas Farriner (Broadchurch star Andrew Buchan), who owned the bakery where the fire started, through to King Charles II (Jack Huston) and Samuel Pepys (Daniel Mays).

But the real star of the show is the set, which authentically replicates the streets of London from 1666. Designed by Dominic Hyman (Rome), the set took four months to build and included the infamous Pudding Lane where the fire started as well as streets along the Thames and a refugee camp in Moorfields. Rae says: “One of the biggest challenges was recreating the scale of London in a way that was convincing. We initially looked at filming in places like York, which has streets of this period. But it’s one little part of the city and you would have had to close it down for a month.”

Rae wont reveal the exact cost of the set, which was built on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Henley, but says it cost about the same as an episode of drama (putting it in the possible realm of £700k-£900k).The show’s budget was boosted by the new drama tax break, as well as a significant advance from distributor ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

The set construction was carried out by Totem Construction, which prefabbed it in their workshop before assembling on site. Producer Gina Cronk says it took about nine weeks to build the set and then three weeks to plaster and finish.

To create an authentic look for the drama, the production team also decided to work with real fire rather than CGI.  “We were looking for veracity – we wanted to be able to put the cast in the flames,” says executive producer Lucy Bedford.

By the end of the series, the production crew had burnt down the entire set. “It’s an amazing thing,” says ITV director of television Peter Fincham, “to be given an enormous amount of money by a broadcaster to build a set – and then to burn it down.” Some of the sets were built with fire bars and gas pipes running through them, linked to large gas canisters. It meant the crew could control the fire from a big control panel, and were able to choose exactly where would go up on flames. These complex fire sequences were overseen by SFX supervisor Colin Gorry.

Producer Gina Cronk says The Great Fire could only go ahead with a “massive health and safety assessment.” There were two fully crewed fire engines on ‘big burn nights’, as well as medics. Cast and crew were given safety briefings at the start of each day.

The director Jon Jones was particularly keen to get the actors right up to the fire. This, of course, was a real challenge for the actors, acknowledges Cronk, who recalls one scene where Andrew Buchan has to run up a flight of stairs that is being lapped by flames to rescue his children from the floor above. “He really wasn’t very sure about it,” she says, adding that the final result was much stronger because it looked so much more authentic. “The best decision we took was to build the set and not rely on CGI,” adds Rae.

That said, the producers and Bradby are quick to stress that the fire itself is a backdrop and catalyst for the story. “My main aim was to write a damn good story,” says Bradby, acknowledging that “too much fire is tedious.”

Bradby previously adapted his own novel Shadow Dancer as a feature for director James Marsh and was approached by Lucy Bedford to write The Great Fire script. He says he drew heavily on his journalistic experience of civil disorder that has left him “with a lifelong fear of crowds, particuarly in circumstances when the green light of anarchy is flashing hard.”

The Great Fire begins on Thursday (October 16) at 9pm on ITV.

The Great Fire is a 4x60-minute ITV drama that unfolds over four days as the historic fire takes hold of London and the people attempt to overcome the flames

Broadcaster ITV
Production company Ecosse Films

Cast Andrew Buchan, Jack Huston, Rose Leslie, Daniel Mays, Charles Dance
Exec producers Douglas Rae, Lucy Bedford
Producer Gina Cronk
Line producer Michael Robins
Director Jon Jones
Writer Tom Bradby
DoP Kieran McGuigan
Production designer Dominic Hyman
Art director Will Newton
Costume designer Sheena Napier
Make up designer Kirstin Chalmers
Location manager Chris White
Sound recordist Billy Quinn
Stunt co-ordinator Paul Kennington
SFX supervisor Colin Gorry
Editor Alex Mackie
Casting director Sarah Crowe

Posted 16 October 2014 by Tim Dams
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