Wall to Wall won one of the first big factual orders from Apple TV+ with Becoming You, Pippa Considine asks those who produced, directed, shot and posted the series how they created the hugely ambitious global doc on childhood development.
Becoming You is one of the first original factual commissions for Apple TV and from Jay Hunt as creative director, Europe, Worldwide Video, Apple.
“The thing about Apple is that it’s truly global,” says executive producer and md of Wall to Wall, Leanne Klein. “They wanted to make shows that would really speak to a global audience, things that everyone can relate to from all over the world.”
It was two years from the time of Hunt’s arrival in late 2017 to the Apple TV + launch in late 2019. “All the obvious candidates were talking about what she wanted,” says Klein. “We pitched children: truly global, filmed all over the world and telling the same story – from helpless new born to tiny human, walking and talking in five years. But to do it in a way that’s truly observational natural history.
Klein had a track record in this area. She had developed and then directed Emmy award-winning Baby It’s You for Discovery and Channel 4, a six-parter produced by Wall to Wall in 1994, tracking the first three years of a child’s life. This was a chance to make a show on a different scale.
“It was really simple, we cut a sizzle and took it to her and she really loved it.” There was a bit of toing and froing to find the right treatment, “eventually we got it to a place where she was genuinely excited and greenlit it.”
Doc on a global scale
Scale was everything. Told across six parts, with each episode around half an hour, the series charts the development of children for the first 2000 days of their lives, from birth until aged five. The series was shot across two years – 2019 and 2020 – and featured over 100 children from ten countries and six US States. Narrated by Oscar winning actress Olivia Colman, it launched globally on Apple TV + on 13th November. The launch was billed alongside wildlife series Tiny World and Earth at Night in Color, all three productions made by UK-based indies.
Hunt was in touch with the team regularly and worked on the project closely, from the test phase, through scripting and through the edit, offering ideas and support. “It was exciting for us, that synergy of Apple as a brand and the production values,” says Klein. It meant that it was the perfect fit: a series which celebrates growing up all over the world and show all the ways we are united, rather than divided and looks incredible. It feels very Apple.”
Natural history with drama
The production team called their approach to Becoming You, ‘Natural History Plus’. The mantra was, show, don’t tell. Let stunning, beautiful visuals tell stories that were guided by the tenets of drama.
The story arc for each episode needed to have a dramatic narrative. “We very quickly rejected a chronological telling,” says Klein. “New born babies, although cute, are not that interesting…The bigger point of the series was to show how we as humans acquire different crucial skills.” They decided to start each episode with a dramatic scene that sets out the stall of what children can achieve and then explore those six areas: thinking, talking, feeling, making friends, moving and who am I?
“We knew what behaviours we wanted, that had been worked out within the rubric of the whole series,” says Klein. “Each scene needed to feel like a small drama, with the child overcoming a struggle.”
Showrunner for the series was Hamo Forsyth. He explains how each scene was storyboarded, “to find the potential drama in the scene. So you really think about what might happen in real life and make sure you put your cameras in the right place, or the child – of course – in the best possible position, to display the behaviour and deliver the drama you want.”
Getting the look
Apple wanted the highest level of quality. “The currency on the visuals dictated that we would need to go down a cinematographic and not a traditional documentary route,” says Forsyth. He met with natural history producers in Bristol to get a better understanding of their craft. He was struck by the reliance on visuals where there could be layers of science. “Simplify, simplify, simplify, was the advice.”
They needed a crew with experience of other genres, “a team that didn’t all have the same muscle memory.” Series director Tom Barbor-Might had worked on commercials as well as TV. He was brought in at an early stage, to work on the series bible and to help set the look.
Casting was one of the biggest challenges. “If you’re being that demanding of people and their time, the casting team needs to be brilliant,” says Forsyth. The brief was tight: “Find us a kid who is telegenic, not funny and cute, not scared of the camera.” Looking in multiple locations to find children at a certain phase in their development was a tough task.
Both the children and the locations, which included Tokyo, Nepal, Jordan and Borneo, had to look stunning on screen. “Everything had to have an immediate visual impact,” says Forsyth. “We wanted to give the viewer the sense of travelling around the world …..The point we were making is that this happens to children everywhere, whether you’re in Chiswick, or in a refugee camp in Jordan.”
Selecting the right cameras to deliver the highest quality took time and testing. The Apple team in the US were keen to join in the discussion around the technology. “You needed to put together a very special camera package for this series. It had to be cinematic, to give us the look without having a lot of people on the shoot,” says Forsyth. They worked with Panavision DXL2 8K cameras, using large format Red Monstro sensors.
A child’s eye view
To tell the story from the children’s point of view, there were several ground rules on the shoot, says Barbor-Might. Firstly, “never to get the camera above the kid’s eyeline, to see the world from the kid’s perspective. We spent enormous amounts of time on our hands and knees. We were constantly building rigs to make the camera as low as possible.”
Next ground rule: “to have the camera stable and static, not handheld, it would float and move,” says Barbor-Might. Everything was shot on a gimbal.
A third rule: “shoot details and wides, never mid shots.” The large format paid dividends. “Suddenly you’ve got a larger field. It means that longer lenses are actually wider angles and the outcome is beautiful, with compressed depth of field, whilst still being in a slightly wider shot. …There’s no lens distortion on human faces and our show was all about kids faces – epic landscapes and beautiful faces. The kids’ faces looked dynamite, with wonderful unfettered emotions.”
To capture the first moments of movement and speech, there were time-lapse sequences with fixed cameras in houses, operated by parents, capturing inch-by-inch child development over months.
The most up-date technology, however, wasn’t the most practical for shooting in remote locations. “It was insanely ambitious” says Barbor-Might. On one shoot, in Northern Mongolia, where the kit had to be taken on a three-day trek to location, the camera broke on day one and another had to be flown out. After that, a spare camera went on every shot. And with the latest technology came the job of handling huge amounts of data. “Woe betide the cameraman who left it running for 20 minutes,” says Forsyth.
Sound was another challenge. “We found early on that the boom mike is your enemy. The child looks up and thinks what is that furry thing?” says Barbor-Might. The solution was to use a radio mic the size of a ten pence piece. “We had to borrow a technique from drama and sew them into the clothes. We were sitting in hotels until midnight, sewing mics into onesies.”
After the epic international shoot, as the production entered post, lockdown arrived.
There was still the matter of recording Olivia Colman’s narration. Colman was provided with a mini-recording studio set-up at home, with user-friendly labelling. She recorded from the quietest spot in her house, which turned out to be from inside a wardrobe, where clothes muffled sound.
A fine finish
Colourist Aidan Farrell at The Farm worked on the grade. He was able to go into the Farm’s Soho facility, operating within Covid protocols. In order for Barbor-Might to have a live stream, Farrell graded initially in SDR. Once they’d locked off the look for the sections, he went into HDR. “The collaboration was very strong and Tom had a lot to say so we found it was more beneficial to have him online with me, even if it meant working in SDR,” says Farrell. With lockdown easing, Tom was then able to come into the building to view the HDR. The production executives all had access to HDR monitors.
The grade used native media, working off RAW files, allowing Farrell to have “the full potential of each camera, to explore every pixel.”
“We wanted every frame of every sequence in every episode to have a classical feel, a real look, aspirational, but also three dimensional. Almost to feel as if you’re in the mind of that child,” says Farrell. “My main vision from the outset was not to overcook the elements given by beautiful photography.”
“We wanted this massive look, with the theme of inspiration through it. But we were also very sensitive to the fact that it should stand the test of time and not look dated.” They were after a look for each location, but at the same time to stand by the rules of the overall aesthetic. “What we did was to keep a reality to it. We embraced every location as it was.”
The faces of the children were all-important. “We were constantly drawing around each face, making sure the viewer could see into their eyes. There was a lot of contrast, sharpening of eyes in every scene. We wanted to make the faces leap out of the screen to give a perception of 3D.” He used beauty filters and shapes to bring faces and bodies up. He also used grading flares and glares and plug-ins to create suns, glows or glints.
Vfx weren’t prominent, but included some of the series’ most ambitious scenes. One shot incorporates a cgi character as an imaginary friend, using character based vfx with no actors. “We worked out with the matte vfx supervisor what behaviour we’d actually seen and shot plates to put that together and match the eyeline,” says Barbor-Might. “We were reverse engineering the whole process, blending character cgi with documentary.”
The sound on the series was crafted by a team from Bristol-based Wounded Buffalo Sound Studio, with a pedigree for working on natural history and features. Sound editor Jonny Crew describes how the production borrowed from scripted. “There was a whole classroom of about 16 kids with little mics, but we got clear dialogue on every single child.” He could use snippets of interaction and interesting stories, even background elements.
Co-sound editor Tim Owens had “an abundance of material” to work with to create the series’ soundscapes. The generous budget on location allowed for a sound recordist and another member of the crew recording wild tracks. “We ended up with a soundtrack that you’d expect with a drama,” says Owens. “We knew it was going to look fantastic, so we approached it another notch up, quite enhanced.
“With the look and feel of a natural history documentary – with observed creatures – the way we normally use material is in a precise way: the lens observes and the sound follows……I’d look at a sequence and figure out how to build up a sound scape, it might be a baby sleeping, with their brain growing and I’d figure out how to make a chemical impulse-y, sound to feel like something is happening.”
Ben Peace worked on the Dolby Atmos mix. “When the camera cuts off at the mother’s waistline and her answer comes out of the sky, it uses the height of the Atmos.” One scene shows a small boy overwhelmed by sound at his first baseball game, another is a child walking through a Tokyo with sound bouncing off buildings. “It gave me the chance to make everything bigger and more exaggerated, as if you were a little child experiencing things for the first time.”
Production Wall to Wall
Broadcaster Apple TV +
Series narrator Olivia Colman
Executive producers Leanne Klein Hamo Forsyth Tim Lambert
Series Producer Martin Conway
Series director Tom Barbor-Might
Series Editor Helen Sage
Production Executive Charlotte Howard – van Gool
Line Producer Pamela Sealy
Picture Post The Farm
Colourist Aidan Farrell
Sound Post Wounded Buffalo Sound Studios
Sound editor Tim Owens, Jonny Crew
Dubbing mixer Ben Peace
Series Music Duncan Thum