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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

The talk of Mipcom: from Cowell to millennials

The weather in Cannes alternated between heavy downpours and bright skies, perfectly reflecting the mood among many participants at this year’s Mipcom.

On the one hand, TV executives gathering at the annual programme sales market were in an optimstic mood.

Demand for content is booming around the world, fuelled by an increasing number of channels as well as the growth of OTT players like Netflix and Amazon.

Figures released by producers' alliance Pact during the market showed that UK television exports rose 5% in 2013/14.

Sony Pictures president of television Steve Mosko summed up the mood of confidence: “Because of the digital explosion we have pretty much doubled the buyers we have around the world,” he said.

Sony was talking up its new superhero drama Powers, which it is releasing on its PlayStation platform. Meanwhile, Netflix was pushing its new big budget drama Marco Polo which chief creative officer Ted Sarandos said was of the same scale as Game of Thrones.

The importance of the international market was also underlined by the presence of high profile keynote Mipcom speakers such as of 21st Century Fox co-chief operating officer James Murdoch and The X Factor creator Simon Cowell.

Cowell’s production outfit Syco was one of many companies to throw lavish parties on the Cannes beach front to highlight their success in the TV business – in Cowell’s case the fact that the UK version of The X Factor has swept the world and is now shown in 147 territories worldwide.

Yet below the surface, there was a sense of anxiety about this Mipcom. In particular it centered on the viewing habits of millennials, who represent the future of the industry.

Millennials, those born since the turn of the millennium, are watching less linear television than previous generations as they find an increasing array of other things to do with their time – social media, gaming and watching short form content.

Former Endemol boss Ynon Kreitz, who now runs the Disney-owned online video platform Maker Studios, took to the stage at Mipcom to claim that millennials were watching one third less linear television than adults aged 25-49, and less than half of what adults 50-65 watch. “It’s not that they watch more as they grow older, but that they watch less as they grow younger,” said Kreitz.

“There’s a massive shift from linear to online video – short form in particular,” said Kreitz.

Many, of course, question the ability of the likes Maker to be able to effectively monetise this surge in online viewing by the millenials.

And few think that traditional TV is on its way out. Instead, it’s widely recognised that people are now consuming lots of TV content but in different ways — in particular via OTT networks that can be watched on the web, mobile apps, streaming devices and gaming consoles.

Consultancy group PWC predicts that internet advertising is poised to overtake TV as the largest advertising segment by 2018. But it thinks that TV revenues will still continue to grow, just not as fast as digital.

Marcel Fenez, global leader of PWC’s entertainment & media practice, said: “We are not saying TV is declining – the fact that it is losing its number one spot doesn’t mean that revenues are declining.”

But the new money and real growth is in digital, he said.

Which is perhaps why Simon Cowell revealed at Mipcom that the next project Syco makes will likely be released digitally instead of with a broadcaster.  He said he was developing a High School Musical-style scripted series.

And, it was interesting to hear James Murdoch describe his company in the following terms: “The business at the end of the day is a digital video business.”

It spoke volumes about how he sees the direction of travel for the TV industry in the next few years.

Traditional broadcasters, facing increased competition from digtial disruptors, look set for a difficult period. And the winners are likely to be agile, internationally focused content producers with their eye firmly on the evolving digital landscape.

Posted 16 October 2014 by Tim Dams

C5 owner Viacom to boost UK content spend

Viacom is to invest more money in UK programming and content.

That was the message today from Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman, who is visiting the company’s operations in the UK this week.

Viacom completed its £450m acquisition of Channel 5 last month, and today Dauman announced the launch of new channel Spike, which will roll out on Freeview next Spring.

Dauman said Viacom – whose TV brands include Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, VET, VH1 and Paramount Channel – viewed the UK as its second home and “a hub for international expansion.”

Speaking to the Broadcast Press Guild this morning, Dauman said that 10% of Viacom’s employees now reside and work in the UK - 1,100 in total. “The vast majority are in New York, LA and London. London is in our top three cities.”

Dauman said Viacom’s UK networks spend £300m on programming, with almost half that figure on original UK commissions.

“The topline number will continue to grow, and the UK commissioning part of it will continue to grow faster. We think that is the way to go in today’s world, where our viewers want more original fresh content.

“We believe that the UK is a great creative hub…that content we are producing for the UK will also be an important part of what our viewers watch in the rest of the world, including the US.”

Dauman said that Channel 5 “has a lot of room to grow” and that Viacom would continue to invest in the channel.

Asked if one of his ambitions was to see Channel 5 overtake Channel 4, Dauman commented: “That is the first step. We do not have bounds on our ambitions. But we are also not arrogant about our intentions. We know this is a very competitive business, and we respect our competitors. Competition makes you stronger.”

Channel 5 has closed the gap on Channel 4 in terms of ratings in recent years, largely thanks to the acquisition of Big Brother.

“We think Channel 5 has made great progress over the last few years from where it was, it has a long way to go and we will climb up the ranks.”

He said he would leave programming decisions to the commissioning team at C5, but said he would like the average age of the C5 viewer to fall – which would put the broadcaster in closer contention for the 16-34 demographic favoured by C4.

“We do think there is an opportunity to create programming that will bring the average age of the Channel 5 viewer down a bit than it is today. We do think there is an opportunity to target younger audiences on the Channel 5 group.”

Unlike other US studio groups, Dauman ruled out Viacom making a major acquisition of a UK content production company.

Rather, he said Viacom was focused on organic growth through investment in its existing brands and companies.

“We are now a scale player in the UK, we are a major media company in the UK and we want to be bigger. And we are going to be bigger by growing the business.”

Dauman is holding a ‘town hall’ meeting with Viacom’s UK staff this afternoon.

He has also visited Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, who he said welcomed Viacom’s investment into the UK.

Dauman comments follow hard on the heels of Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August, in which he voiced fears about the takeover of the British TV industry by US media firms.

Referring to the speech, Dauman said: “I can understand how some people are afraid of competition, and strong competition, but we are here to compete, we are here to win more viewership and we will be focused on providing great content on every platform that people want to use.”

Posted 08 October 2014 by Tim Dams

British talent takes centre stage at London Film Festival

The London Film Festival (8-19 Oct) is always a strong platform for British films, but it’s more so than ever this year. Some 39 British films are in the festival’s main programme of 245 features, 10 more than last year.

They include this week's festival opener The Imitation Game, which has already established itself as the Oscar front runner after winning top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. The biopic about gay code-breaker Alan Turing who pioneered the Enigma is a UK/US production directed by Norway’s Morten Tyldum with British stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

James Kent’s Testament of Youth (pictured below), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I and starring Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander, world premieres at the LFF with a gala screening. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the legendary artist J.M.W. Turner, also has a gala screening.

Meanwhile, there are two British films in official competition – Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, a dark melodrama which follows the intense relationship between two women, and Carol Morley’s coming of age tale The Falling (pictured below).

And four British films will vie for The Sutherland Award, the LFF’s First Feature competition. They are Yann Demange’s Troubles-set drama ’71 that premiered at Berlin; Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy, which first played in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight; Guy Myhill’s The Goob, a social realist drama set in Norfolk which debuted at Venice; and Second Coming, the feature debut of playwright Debbie Tucker Green (pictured below).

“This year feels very exciting in terms of the volume of new and emerging talent that is breaking through in the programme,” says festival director Clare Stewart. It’s the third year that Stewart, an Australian, has led the LFF.

“One of the things that profoundly stands out is that the UK industry has both a culture and an industrial framework that supports real risk taking which we are seeing across the board in both the bigger, more populist-orientated productions through to independent filmmaking.”

She describes official competition directors Strickland and Morley as “two visionary filmmakers” who are “really being supported by the industry.” The four British films competing for the Sutherland Award are, she adds, risk taking both in terms of their story and the way that have been made.

There are clear threads of British social realist cinematic traditions running through the UK selections, such as in Duane Hopkins’ Bypass and Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy (pictured below). “In both cases, there is no way you would describe them as having a gritty realist approach. They are taking a lot more stylistic risks than that,” says Stewart.

The selection also emphasises the British fondness for adaptations and war focused stories, notably Testament of Youth. But within them, says Stewart, there is “really fresh and inventive storytelling and performances.”

Stewart also points to real festival discoveries like Rebecca Johnson’s Honey Trap and Simon Baker’s Nightbus, which both world premiere at the LFF.

“We’ve been greatly impressed at the volume of truly independent work that is coming through…and they seem to come through very much with the vision of the filmmaker intact. That is a very defining aspect of British production.”

Stewart says the festival has changed its programming process in the past two years, bringing in new deputy head of festivals Tricia Tuttle from Bafta and introducing programme advisors over each of its nine strands. “What that means is more active curatorial research going on…I do feel that the increase in British work represented is in part because we have a confluence of new influences, ideas and voices in the programming team. And of course, it’s reflective of the work itself in that we have more that we wanted to champion.”

Peter Ho-Sun Chan, DEAREST
Peter Strickland, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (European Premiere)
Carol Morley, THE FALLING (World Premiere)
Céline Sciamma, GIRLHOOD
Daniel Barber, THE KEEPING ROOM (European Premiere)
Andrey Zvyagintsev, LEVIATHAN
Christian Petzold, PHOENIX
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, THE PRESIDENT
Julius Avery, SON OF A GUN (European Premiere)
Abderrahmane Sissako, TIMBUKTU

Yann Demange,‘71
Josephine Decker, BUTTER ON THE LATCH
Daniel Wolfe, Matthew Wolfe, CATCH ME DADDY
Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, DIFRET
Franco Lolli, GENTE DE BIEN
Guy Myhill, THE GOOB
Adityavikram Sengupta, LABOUR OF LOVE
Sudabeh Mortezai, MACONDO
Debbie Tucker Green, SECOND COMING
Ester Martin Bergsmark, SOMETHING MUST BREAK
Naji Abu Nowar, THEEB
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, THE TRIBE

Posted 06 October 2014 by Tim Dams

The Production 100 is now online

Televisual’s 2014 survey of the independent TV production sector – the Production 100 - is now available to read in full in the Reports & Surveys section of

The Production 100, which Televisual has published annually since 1993, ranks and profiles the top 100 indie TV producers in the UK, based on turnover.

And it unpicks the key 10 trends that are driving the fast changing indie sector, from international growth through to consolidation, talent inflation and budget challenges.

There are also sections that list the key superindie groups in the UK, as well as the top true indie companies.

Meanwhile, the Peer Poll showcases the indies that are held in highest regard by their fellow producers.

The survey also reveals producers’ thoughts – good and bad - about their broadcaster clients, and reveals which distributors they rate.

The Production 100 was published in the September issue of Televisual.

You can make sure you are the first to receive Televisual's exclusive reports and surveys - including the Production 100, Facilities 50, Film 40, Commercials 30, Corporate 50, Salary Survey, Production Technology Survey and Top Ten Camera Survey - by subscribing to Televisual.

Posted 02 October 2014 by Tim Dams

The most important doc on C4 this year

Channel 4 is to air The Paedophile Hunter on Wednesday evening, a one off film that head of documentaries Nick Mirsky calls “the most important single documentary we’ve got on the channel this year.”

Directed by Dan Reed (Terror in Mumbai), the observational documentary is a frank, disturbing and eye-opening look at the dangers faced by children in the online world.

It follows controversial online vigilante Stinson Hunter and his associates, who pose as underage children on social networking sites to entrap suspected paedophiles.

They engage men in conversation online and lure them into a meeting, where they are confronted by Hunter. The meeting, and all the evidence leading up to the entrapment is then posted online and handed to the police. The police have secured ten convictions on the basis of Hunter’s work.

To date, Hunter has caught up to 70 people. His exploits in unmasking suspected paedophiles already have a large following online, and his site has over 130,000 followers on Facebook.

However, his work is controversial. One man has committed suicide after being captured and outed online by Hunter.

In the film, which was over a year in the making, Reed captures the ‘catches’, from Hunter’s initial introductions through to the final confrontations.

Mirsky said the documentary was “full of complexities”, both legal and logistic. “At every stage of the process we have had to think very carefully about decisions made.”

He said that the stories of the people featured in the programme are already in the public domain.

Said Mirsky: “It’s clearly a very challenging subject. But I think it is important that you see what is happening, how easy it is for sexual predators to groom children, how it is very, very easy for that to happen on the net.”

Reed said he had been personally shocked by how widespread the problem is.

He said the one of the hopes in making the film was that the police would be better resourced to tackle the problem. Lack of police funding to tackle on online grooming and exploitation is cited as one of the reasons that vigilantes like Hunter have stepped in. “You’d hope there would be injection of funding so they can expand their activities in this area,” said Reed.

The Paedophile Hunter was filmed, produced and directed by Dan Reed through Amos Pictures. The head of production was Rachel Naughton, and it was commissioned by Anna Miralis at Channel 4.

Posted 30 September 2014 by Tim Dams

Production Technology Survey 2014 is now online

Televisual’s annual Production Technology Survey 2014 is now available to read in full in the Reports and Surveys section of our website.

The survey reveals the production and post production kit the industry is using and what producers think of it.

Amidst a sea of competing new products, we’ve sought to establish which are the most popular technology brands and models in production today, as well as highlighting the key technology trends that are driving the market.

We’ve done this by asking 100 senior production execs for their views about the technology they use in production.

We have focused on a number of key areas. We take the temperature of the rapidly evolving camera market, revealing the most popular manufacturers and models.

Next, we focus on post production, specifically editing, compositing and grading.

We also look at the use of cloud technology and digital workflows in production. Finally, there’s also a whole section of findings on the take up and future of 4K.

Posted 15 August 2014 by Tim Dams
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