Four series directors of fixed rig docs tell Jon Creamer how running a rig is more akin to being the conductor of an orchestra than just a talented soloist
Series director 24 Hours in Police Custody
Currently documentaries commissioning editor at Channel 4
On 24 Hours, we did a time and motion study. We had 15 people in the different rooms logging everything that was happening across the 24 hour period. That helped us to map out the stories geographically across the police station. By having people there with clipboards it helped us to work out where our cameras should be in order to capture all the different parts of the story because that’s quiet complex. We mapped the story through the station and then out of the station. Obviously we couldn’t do that with the rig. We did that with single cameras and we had to think how that material would look with the rig material. Would it work? Would it jar? Before we did 24 Hours the perceived wisdom was that it didn’t work to mix rigged footage with single camera footage but we did make it work. The reason it worked was if there’s a good narrative reason then the audience goes with it and accepts that it looks different.
When directing a rig the traditional producer/director documentary role is very fragmented. That role is taken up by lots and lots of different people doing different jobs and the series director sits above that with the general creative vision working alongside the executive producers. It’s very much a team effort. The floor producers are with the contributors negotiating access, explaining how the film is working and dealing with contributor issues, the director isn’t choosing the shots, the gallery and hothead operator do that. It’s a really different way of directing. It’s much more like conducting an orchestra rather than playing a solo.
But directing is the same role even though the role is very fragmented. You’re still looking how to tell a story visually and compellingly. All the really basic things are the same.
Your need to trust your team and be happy to devolve responsibility to other members of your team which is hard, not all directors want to do that.
The big limitation of the rig is you feel a bit distant from people. It all feels a bit fly on the wall and observed. That’s why there is now this convention that when you have rig films you have Interrotron interviews too. You feel quite distant from people in the actualite so you need to create that intimacy by looking straight into someone’s eyes.
With a rig your cameras are omnipresent. You can see everything in a scene, everybody’s minutest reactions to the unfolding story. Normally the really interesting dramatic story is on people’s faces and in their twitches. On the first episode of 24 Hours, the suspect said ‘no comment’ for an hour. If that had been done on single camera that would have been very hard to sustain but we broadcast about 30 minutes of it. The reason we could do that was the real story was in his twitches and the beads of sweat on his forehead and his grimaces. You can capture those with a rig and play them out really slowly in a scene, that is where the drama is. But we wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise. It would have been boring on a single camera with not such tight shots
I’ve just commissioned a couple of single films that are rigged. That is becoming more and more affordable. It’s still expensive but more conceivable. What’s exciting is the mini rigs now operated by the director out a suitcase set up, so it’s more nimble. There’s also talk about a wireless rig. That’s amazing as it means you can move your cameras around, you don’t have to wire up the whole building and the costs come down.
Series director The Secret Life of Four, Five, Six Year Olds, series PD Educating Cardiff , PD 24 Hours in A&E
The biggest challenge on The Secret Life Four Year Olds was that the contributors couldn’t sit still. It was tricky in terms of getting the gallery ops to work in a different way. It’s not a controlled environment, the kids are running around. You might have a camera op who’s in control of ten cameras. We had to work at a much faster pace. On a conventional rig you might have decided who you’re going to mic up so actually you’ve only got four contributors in a group. For Secret Life we had ten kids all mic’d and, at that age, their conversations don’t really make any sense. The interactions are really subtle so you’ve really got to listen carefully. All conventional programme making narrative and logic went out of the window
Rigs are a big machine and everybody needs to be marching to the same tune. You have to have great people that you can trust in their role. The rig is quite a frantic environment so you need to have people you’re comfortable working with and that you can have a shorthand with. The team plays a hugely important role. You have producers on the floor a lot of the time in rigs who have often done the casting and who know the characters and have a really good sense of where things might go. But you need everybody in the gallery to be really on it and across it too. You need gallery directors who are not just thinking visually but thinking editorially too – what’s the motivation? What’s the story? There’s a real skill in trying to tune into people and their personalities and their motivations and getting a sense when the story’s bubbling or when you’re about to have a breakthrough or when an important moment’s about to come up. You’ve got to put yourself in the contributor’s shoes the whole time and predict what’s going to happen.
The rig allows you to take a step back. It’s amazing how quickly people forget the cameras. It’s so unobtrusive and it takes off the pressure of having to put someone in that room, having to match up personalities, having to manage issues that perhaps arise because someone is physically there with a camera. Things happen in a very natural way and it’s all very genuine. There’s a charm to those interactions that feel truly observed which you wouldn’t get if it wasn’t the rig.
The rig gives a real intimacy. There’s never an off camera and on camera moment so contributors are much more relaxed. You get those quiet moments, at the end of a school day on Educating when teachers were alone in their offices. Someone might pop in for a quiet word. If you’d been filming in a conventional way you might have left already. It’s these little details I don’t think you’d necessarily always get if you were filming in a traditional way. But things happen in a very natural way and it’s all very genuine. There’s a charm to those interactions that feel truly observed which you wouldn’t get if it wasn’t the rig.
On the other hand, it is much more difficult to produce any content with the rig because you can’t intervene, you can’t throw in questions. You can’t produce in the moment which all of us are ordinarily able to do.
Series director, The Tribe; director/producer Fast & Fearless: Britain’s Banger Racers; director/camera, Bedlam; director Keeping Britain Alive: The NHS In A Day
On The Tribe, there were four adjacent huts so it was ideal for a rig. It felt like walking into a film set with these exotic extras wondering around so I knew immediately it would work. We had this very charismatic family that fitted the template of a sitcom. I already I knew I had something reliable. It felt familiar but also really exotic at the same time. You want to promise the audience something they haven’t seen before but also a riff on something familiar. It had that essential buzz of excitement you get when you know you’ve stumbled into a really good idea. That was there from the off.
It was the first time I’d done a rig show. It wasn’t terribly difficult as I had a brilliant company called Complete Camera Company and Ben Hoffman who knows the rig inside out. He could advise on where to put the cameras. The trouble is it’s so expensive to do we could only afford two cameras per hut. We had quite a small scale rig compared to the hospital shows. But the form’s developed a bit more now. You rig certain spaces and then use observational handheld cameras too so you get the best of both worlds. When the family left the homestead we could follow them outside with crews. Some days you’re having a really slow day on the rig, sitting in 40-degree heat and watching absolutely nothing happen and you’re reassured by the fact there were camera crews following people outside of the rig space getting stories.
You become a team leader. Normally it’s me and another person on a film and suddenly there’s an enormous cast of people. It’s fun. Sometimes it’s such a solitary experience making documentaries. There’s something about the collective team that gives it a drive, energy and excitement. You’ve got to trust that people are good at their jobs. It works as long as you’re all working to the same brief and you think as one.
Once you’ve got beyond the fear of the apparatus, storytelling remains the same. You’re after compelling characters doing interesting things that are telling you something you don’t already know about the world. That’s a constant whether on single camera or a rig.
The rig gives you such versatility and allows you to explore moments in way you can’t with single camera. You can look at a single moment from three or four different angles and explore it and make it longer. It’s the grammar of eavesdropping that gives it a different quality. Filmically moments work differently on rig. You can’t ask questions when the actualite is being played out because it would break the spell. You are tied to a certain way of telling a story but once you’ve made your peace with that it’s actually quite freeing.
In future there’ll be much more smaller scale rigs and it’ll become cheaper to do. Up to now it’s kind of expensive so you have to make the most of a limited amount of time. You have to get all your action to play out in the space of a few weeks whereas when it’s cheaper it’ll mean you’ll be able to play stories out over a longer period. You might only get a small percentage of the programme from the rigged space with the rest of it playing out elsewhere. It’ll become more malleable and the rig will be just another tool at your disposal.
Series director, The Catch; series director The Supervet
I wanted to do the first fixed rig show on a boat. I’d spent a lot of time filming on boats and personal time too. I used to sail quite a lot, it’s a love of mine.
We did a test with a rig camera to prove it was going to work. Minicams made me a single rig unit – a single camera and controller and monitor and I went down and met (the captain of one of The Catch’s ships) Drew and he welded some plates on to the boat and we went out and moved the camera to different positions. We came back with these rig shots and it got commissioned.
We were worried. These outdoor dome cameras had never been tested at sea before. There’s constant salt water spray, things clanging around the boat and then the vibration of the engine and the winch to take into consideration. When we installed the big rig there were a lot of hurdles, vibration being the worst. The cameras we got for The Catch were the latest Panasonic heads. They had anti vibration and they were much higher quality, more responsive and faster. It was all about being able to achieve close ups that made it work. The vibration was the biggest challenge because the minute you zoomed in you could see the vibration and overcoming that with those new cameras was a game changer. Without those reactions and close ups I don’t think it would have worked as well.
There’s also the problem of getting to these cameras in rough seas. If there are any technical issues, some of them were mounted high up the mast. We had to clean all the domes every day. When you weren’t in the gallery you’d be harnessed up, climbing a mast or swinging out over the sea trying to clean a dome.
It was so much better with the rig. When I went on trips in the casting process, because it’s such a closed off environment, you walk into the galley area or the wheelhouse with a camera and everyone just shuts up and all this amazing Cornish humour disappears.
A ship is very much an upstairs downstairs world. The skipper is upstairs running the ship and downstairs are the crew. You often have these cross conversations where they’re doubting the skipper’s decision and then upstairs the skipper’s mouthing off on the radio about the crew. There are beautiful scenes playing out at the same time constantly that you couldn’t cover as a single shooter.
It was all about achieving the maximum coverage on the budget we had. We figured out that 20 cameras was our maximum, not just financially but also because of the size of the gallery we could fit in one of the cabins. It was about covering the boat. But it was definitely worth going on the recces and seeing where people spend their time. You had to do a proper time and motion study and understand where things were going to happen.
Cameras always flatten the sea. It’s difficult to get an impression of a big sea as the camera has to be really low to sea level to get an impression of how big the waves are. With rig cameras being so high and not being able to zoom a massive amount we had a GoPro on a pole and covered it that way but you’re constantly making a decision about whether you should be in the gallery or out trying to cover the sea.