I’ve been thinking about this film for the past four years. Ever since the British & Irish Lions won the last tour in Australia back in 2013 it’s been in my mind. Whether it’s considering some of the shots we want to take, asking what can we do better or making a film different to the obvious, it has been a process that has required significant planning and preparation. After all, this is the behind-the-scenes feature documentary of the most challenging rugby tour in the world; the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
Planning is absolutely critical with any fly-on-the-wall documentary. The format presents a very unique set of challenges. For example we’re currently traveling around New Zealand across seven cities and 10 fixtures. It’s a hectic schedule where we are continuously filming and editing on the go. On top of this we’re trying to build trust with the team to ensure they open up and provide honest and engaging comments. All whilst being sensitive to the impact we could have on the playing squad and making a film which fairly reflects what actually happened.
Building the narrative
With a team like the Lions, there’s a large number of potential characters – over 40 players, plus backroom staff and not to mention the fans – all playing a role in a story which is continually unfolding. Unpicking and re-stitching these narratives together is a huge task, but critical if you are to be able to trace how the characters develop and create an accurate representation.
With so many potential characters to capture and only two people filming, it all comes down to working fast and intelligently in the scene preparation. The pace at which events unfold mean that sometimes we only have five minutes to prepare and set up our kit ahead of the team. As we rush ahead, we’ll place microphones in key locations and carry only a certain amount of equipment so we can move and adapt quickly.
You should never underplay the importance of experience in reducing the stress of this! This is our third time filming the tour, so we’ve learnt plenty about what works and what doesn’t. Spending time with the squad over several tours has helped us develop some intuition and a nose for where a story might unveil itself. This intuition means we can set up to cover the key areas where we think people might speak. Still, you can never know for sure in large rooms of 50 people or more!
Dealing with the history
The British & Irish Lions tour has a history going back to 1888. Being involved with a sporting event with such a legacy is an honour, but also means you have a responsibility to get it right. Striking the right tone on a sporting event as epic as this requires balancing the grand with the intimate. It means shooting those deeply personal and quiet moments where one person is talking to another, through to capturing the incredible stadium atmospheres where people are shouting at each other from 50 metres away. We have to be ready and capable to record any of these moments as they happen. Creating a documentary such as this is an art form. Combining technical expertise, experience and instincts, allows us to perform and create that art under pressure.
A film like this only works if it is authentic. You don’t want the players to modify their behaviour because you’re there with a camera. We keep a low profile by moving quietly around the players and only having a small team. I don’t buy into the idea of using robotic cameras to achieve this – you don’t get ability to zoom in and move position elegantly. Being there means we can get a sense of the space and therefore produce a more accurate picture of the unfolding events. We’re not “Big Brother” – we want the audience to feel they’re there in the room.
We need to be trusted members of the team. From early on we help out as part of the squad – everything we do here is to help the team and be a part of the team. It’s the hard work put in here which bears fruit later on. This trust has been built upon over three tours. Players have seen the previous films and enjoyed them, so they know what we’re ‘about’. There are now only a handful of people in the current group I haven’t met and I’ve graduated to a senior member.
As a production unit we have to be open to learning new lessons all the time, for documentary makers we need to continuously innovate and adapt to keep the genre exciting and fresh. Every day we try and catch up as a group to discuss what are we are missing and what we can do better. In a world where people are filming things on their phones all the time, as producers we must always be looking for a fresh take on things and film things in a way people haven’t seen before. It comes down to the detail and can be something as small as shooting the guys getting off the bus from a different angle. It’s this level of attention that can separate a good film from a great one.
With a challenging environment like this, the equipment we use makes all the difference. For example, this year we chose Sony cameras and wireless audio equipment coupled with Sennheiser NTG-3 Shotgun mics and zoom sound equipment, which allowed us to capture an immersive depth of sound not achieved on previous tours.
However, equipment is always determined by situation. When filming in a room of up to 40 people, conversations will range in location and can happen between two people or an individual speaking to the whole room. For this reason, we chose to shoot Principal Photography for these scenes with Sony FS7s with added sound to allow 4 channels per camera, supplementing this with up to 4 Zoom H2N units in the changing rooms to help cover all possibilities.
With sporting content, the tone of the occasion may also call for a change in equipment. We adopted a fairly different approach to the Lions’ training sessions using a Zeiss 70-200 mm lens, and gained further zoom capability by utilising the 2k centre crop on the FS7, which has proved to be very effective and efficient on kit space when capturing players running from a long distance away. To help cover the player huddles where up to 45 players or coaches could potentially speak, we quite often revert to one camera and the NTG-3 Rode mic with wireless plug, on a boom. It’s all about balancing those panorama shots with the close ups, and adapting accordingly.
The trust we’ve managed to establish among players has also allowed us to put mics on the players, bringing greater intimacy to our story, something that has never been seen, or heard, before on a Lions tour.
In our industry we’re all storytellers. So we always need to be trying to find new ways of telling the story. It’s about asking how can we do this in a way that isn’t obvious? How can we excite and surprise the viewer?
Ben Uttley is managing director of Stamp Productions. The upcoming documentary is slated to air on Sky Sports in late autumn, with a DVD including bonus, previously un-seen footage, scheduled for later release.