Behind The Scenes with… Peaky Blinders

Epic, cinematic and set in the criminal underworld of 1920s Birmingham, Peaky Blinders has taken the British period drama to a whole new place, as Will Strauss discovers

It may have early 20th-century costumes, but this is not your run-of-the-mill twee period piece. For starters, it’s set in Birmingham, a city that, despite its industrial heritage, is rarely the subject of period TV fiction. More importantly, no one is trussed up in a corset.

Once upon a time, writer Steven Knight co-created Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and bounced ideas around with Jasper Carrott. But after his screenwriting break on Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, he’s more at home on gritty dramas.

His latest, Peaky Blinders, BBC2’s six-part gangster drama set on the cusp of the 1920s, takes it stylistic lead from epic sci-fi and spaghetti western movies: a sort of Brummie Sopranos or Once Upon A Blade Runner In The West (Midlands).

It tells the story of Thomas Shelby (right) and his family, who run the powerful titular gang. Named after their practice of sewing razor blades into the peaks of their caps, they make their money from illegal betting,protection and the black market.

Set during an uncertain period in British history, when the country was still reeling from the impact of World War I, it couldn’t be further from the contemporaneous Downton Abbey.

Knight says it is based partly on real events and partly on family legend. “It’s fiction woven into a factual landscape,” he says. “My dad had tantalising memories of these people from when he was nine or 10. They were incredibly well-dressed and powerful and had a lot of money in an area where no one had money. They were gangsters.”

Intriguing Period Myth

Although semi-historical, the design, shooting style, soundtrack, scale and pace is a beautifully imagined pseudo-modern backdrop to an intriguing period myth.

“When this came along, I saw an opportunity to do something very different,” explains director Otto Bathurst, who is no fan of “standard” period dramas. “Just because a story was written 200 years ago, do we have to film it as if it was filmed 200 years ago? No. These writers are writing in contemporary times. I wanted to create a sort of big, epic, cinematic piece, helped by the fact that nobody had a clue who the Peaky Blinders are.”

The drama, then, is more ‘cool’ than many period pieces, with a mythology Bathurst hopes will create a viscous connection with its audience.

“It’s historically accurate but isn’t meticulously researched,” he adds. “With the clothes, I want people to think, ‘that’s a beautiful suit, I want that suit’. And the haircuts – I’m seeing Peaky Blinder haircuts on the streets now, because that’s the point, they were the kings of the street. Yes, they did shocking things and yes, they were brutes, but they were the best dressed, they had the best women, the best horses, the best haircuts and they had £50 in their pockets. Who doesn’t want to be in that gang?”

This vision permeates everything in the series including the cinematography.

“It’s shot to look like 1919 via 1974, when all the best movies were made,” says DoP George Steel who took his lead from The Godfather films. “It’s glossy and glamorous but also dirty. Like Gordon Willis [DoP on The Godfather] we used 40mm lenses a lot in order to get the camera close in, particularly to Thomas, to penetrate his mind and create a connection [with the audience].”

To read more, visit Broadcastnow.co.uk

The Making Of… Toby’s Travelling Circus

Toby's Travelling CircusIn the midst of tax-break celebrations, Will Strauss visits the set of a stop-frame animation production to see how it’s made and find out what impact the government’s decision will have.

At just eight inches tall, Toby is lucky to be alive. Born of plastic, rubber and silicone, he moves freely – but not completely so, because he is held down by magnets. His friends fare little better. One has iron filings for eyebrows and a magnetic forehead and his every limb is connected by a ball and socket joint.

Despite all this, Toby is a happy boy. Toby, as you’ve probably guessed, is a stop-frame animation puppet. He’s the star of a new Komixx Entertainment- produced series for Channel 5 called Toby’s Travelling Circus, built and animated by Mackinnon and Saunders. Given the roster of his predecessors from that studio (Fifi , Roary, Bob, Raa Raa et al), Toby is about to become a household name for anyone aged three to five (and their parents).

The reason he is lucky to be alive is nothing to do with his synthetic appearance, of course. We should be grateful for his presence because the animation industry in the UK has taken a massive hit in recent years.

But more of that later.

When Broadcast arrives in sunny Altrincham to meet Toby and his friends, there is a palpable positivity in the air. Partly because production of the show is now well into its fourth week but also because, only days previously, the government announced plans to extend its feature film tax breaks to include animated TV series. It came as a huge boost to everyone in this corner of Greater Manchester.

“I think it is going to have a huge impact, frankly, because in a lot of cases it could be the difference between getting something financed and not,” says co-producer Chris Bowden. “We are prepping our next project for 18 months to two years hence, and that has attracted interest. If we can say we might be able to have a tax break on it, that will be absolutely massive.”

Why? Simple, really. Animation, particularly stop-frame, is time-consuming and expensive.

As a result, with ever-dwindling broadcast budgets, producers have, in recent times, headed overseas to take advantage of tax incentives and cheap labour. The result is a decimated UK animation industry, with the likes of Chorion, Cosgrove Hall and Target Entertainment all going bust.
If the government’s proposed tax break comes to fruition, saving potentially 25% of British spend on each production, the problem will be partially solved. April 2013 is the likely launch.

Huge Incentive

The show’s other producer and Komixx’s head of production and creative director, Richard Randolph, is particularly buoyed by the announcement, having been forced to outsource animation abroad in the past. “This is a technically diffi cult genre to complete. But I promise you it is a lot easier to produce it in the UK than it is to make it out in the Far East or in Eastern Europe. The show is easier to direct, and we get the sort of quality we want and the performances that we need.”

To better understand why that tax break is important, you only have to look at the scale of a stop-frame operation: Toby’s Travelling Circus required five months of puppet-building alone.

Somewhere in the region of 40 mannequins were made, each one taking between 12 and 16 weeks to construct. This process required 40 modelmakers, working simultaneously. At the same time, there were props and costumes to be made, voices to be recorded (see box, right) and studios to dress. The budget is as involved as for a feature fi lm. And that’s before production has even started.

“I think we are as efficient as it is possible to be in a television environment,” says Bowden. “Everything we do is geared towards keeping our animators animating because that is the longest part of the production process.”

Each animator on Toby achieves just 11 seconds of animation per day. With six of them working on the 52 x 10-minute series, that’s an 82-week production cycle that will take them well into 2013.

Pounds And Pence

It’s not cheap either. The whole thing is costing £4.8m to make. Had it been made abroad, as a computer generated series perhaps, that figure could probably be halved. But then the show would be completely different in both look and feel.

“Texture is really, really important,” explains art director Holly Cook, who is tasked with making the sets practical from a production perspective and fun for the viewer.

“Some surfaces are shiny and smooth, some are textured, some are not. You can create this with CG but you just don’t get the same quality as stop-motion, where everything looks three-dimensional, solid and as if you could pick it up.”

The Big Top in Toby’s Circus is just one example. “It is painted fabric with a foam core to give it a puffy and soft, yet taut, look,” she continues. “If you just painted a solid surface you would get a slightly different texture. CG would be different again.”

That’s a lot of attention to detail. But is it worth it?

“Young children tend to find stopframe more immediate,” argues Randolph. “They find it easier to make a direct association with the characters. And if you’re going to make a show like this, you make it here where the quality of stop-frame is the best in the world.”

Commissioned for a second series before the first episode has even aired, Toby is already something of a success for both Komixx and Mackinnon and Saunders. And with a tax break on the horizon, there’s no reason why Toby cannot continue to be a happy boy.

KEEPING THE TEAM ON TRACK

Director Barry Purves on the voice record process

“Before we get to the actual recording, we create a camera script so that I know the physicality of the action. This allows me to reveal to the actors where they are at a particular time, be it very close to one another or hanging from a trapeze.

We do about five scripts a day. This is vocally quite hard for the actors, not least as we have three people, working as an ensemble, doing 10 or so characters and they regularly have to swap voices within a conversation – a skill I admire greatly.

My role on a recording day is to ensure that everyone gets on and is very chatty. I would never tell anyone what to do but I will explain to them where they are and what is happening in the scene and how the dialogue fits into the plot. It can be very hard for an actor to imagine running across a circus ring when they are just sitting in a cold recording studio.

So I try to visualise what is happening and then relay this to the actors. To some extent, they have to trust me and let me guide them. It is the same when we are animating. The animators can go from episode one to episode eight in the same morning and it is up to me and the studio director to explain what we need to see and why.

Yes, they have the storyboard, but I have to make sure that we get the plot across on screen, and that means filling in the gaps. Again, I would never tell the animators what to do. Instead, I urge them to have fun but within certain parameters. That’s the joy of stop-motion.

Unlike CG, it is a combination of control and chance. Unexpected things happen and that  is to be encouraged. It is the nearest thing to acting in animation. You cannot quite predict everything.”

CREDITS

Production company Komixx Entertainment

Animation producer Mackinnon and Saunders

Commissioner  Jessica Symons

Length 52 x 10 minutes

TX 9.10am, from 15 September, Channel 5

Producers Chris Bowden and Richard Randolph

Director Barry Purves

Musical director/composer Paul K Joyce

Production design/art direction Bridget Appleby and Holly Cook

Script editor Nick Wilson

Post production Flix Facilities

Cast and voices Toby, Dolores, Momo, Li: Joanna Ruiz Thor, Jang, Freddo, Bish, Bosh: Jimmy Hibbert Clara, Ling, Bash: Julie Ann Dean

[This article first appeared in Broadcast magazine]

4k: The New Gunslinger in Town

Just when you thought it was sufficient to declare yourself ‘HD Ready’, along comes 4k. But don’t panic. Here’s the lowdown on what it all means and what tools are currently available. By Will Strauss.

Will Strauss TV-Bay Article on 4k

As someone that works in (or near) the town named broadcasting I probably don’t need to tell you this but technology advances pretty quickly around these parts. Possibly too quickly for some folks’ liking. Just when you think it’s safe to put your hand up and say that you fully understand and appreciate the latest technological advance, along comes another one to take its place. The most recent example of that is 4k.

For those of you that still haven’t quite got your heads around HD this could be a real mind meld.

All you really need to know is that 4k or Ultra HD (to give it its new US-inspired and marketing friendly moniker) is 3840 x 2160 pixels (that’s four times higher than HD).  It’s the latest step change towards providing content creators with more pixels to play with and TV viewers with better quality pictures.

Oh yes, and having failed to get us all to buy 3D TVs, the manufacturers of television sets are now keen for us to buy 60” 4k Ultra HD screens instead. (At least until they can start bulk building active-matrix organic light-emitting diode – AMOLED – TVs anyway. But that’s a story for another time).

There is no need to panic

There is some interest in 4k from other areas too, including at everyone’s favourite technology trailblazers BSkyB where Sky Sports has been testing 4k on (yes, you’ve guessed it) coverage of football matches. And both SES and Eutelsat have been showing off their live 4k satellite feeds to interested parties.

But there’s no need to panic. As things stand, there is very little 4k content out there, the TV sets are ridiculously expensive and with such a high resolution, while it is possible to use the current H.264 standard to squeeze 4K footage into a broadcast-friendly 50Mbps stream, conventional broadcasting is some way off. Plus, the current breed of set-top satellite receiver box is not compatible and there’s a school of thought that says we should wait for Super Hi-Vision (which is 8k).

The Truth Is Out There

The truth is, unless you work in feature films, the only real reasons to shoot 4k today are to either future proof your content or so that you can manipulate it to infinitesimal levels during post-production.

That said, 4k pictures look pretty awesome from what I’ve seen. And very few people will argue with me if I say that, all things being equal, a high resolution image will always look far better when scaled down than a native size image shot at a lower resolution.

So, while we may not be broadcasting 4k anytime soon, you may want to start exploring your 4k options if you haven’t already. Which is exactly what I am going to do now.

At the camera end of things, the Red EPIC camera shoots 4k as does JVC’s GY-HMQ10U and Canon’s C500 while Sony, which already has the F65, was due to announce another 4k camera as this article went to press.

So tools are starting to become readily available. One of the big gripes up to now, however, has been the lack of anything affordable to view 4k pictures on. This is starting to change with a crop of monitors about to come on to the market.

Remarkably for a technology advance that is only now becoming trendy, six years have passed since the first prototype 4K LCD TV was shown. That was at consumer electronics show CES. Since then, although both TVLogic and Astro Design have started shipping 4K monitors, it is only really this year that 4k viewing devices have started to come even close to being a realistic purchasing option.

Early Bird Catches The Fattest Worm

Let’s start with those early birds. The TVLogic offering is the LUM-560W, a 56-inch native 4k LCD display that is apparently not just for feature film post-production but also for military and medical applications. The 10-bit monitor can display four inputs at a time or scale one input to the full screen.

Astro Design has four, yes four, 4K LCD monitors that range from 28-inch to 60-inch in size while Viewsonic showed a prototype 4K 32-inch flatscreen computer monitor, the VP3280-LED, earlier this year.

Sony had the SRM-L560 at one time but that product is listed as ‘discontinued’ on its website. As things currently stand, I am not aware of a professional monitor from Sony but I would be hugely surprised if we didn’t see on at some stage, not least as Sony’s TV set people have recently announced an 84” Ultra HD display for the home.

What can we expect in the near future? Well, coming next year will be the PS-840UD from JVC. This is a ProVérité 84” LCD monitor that the company insists is “the industry’s first large-screen 4K panel designed specifically for rigorous commercial use.” It has a 178-degree viewing angle, is ELED illuminated and has an IPS LCD panel with a 120Hz refresh rate and 10-bit color depth.

The big question is, how much will these monitors cost?

At the same time, Canon was showing a prototype 30” 4k display at both NAB and IBC that it hopes to have out by the end of the year while Panasonic has a 20” 4k display on the way.

The big question will be, how much will these monitors cost? As yet, the companies are keeping the pricing close to their chests. To speed up the chances of people actually making 4k content they need to be priced realistically otherwise this latest technological step forward might take too long to come to fruition. And with 8k coming hot on its heels, 4k will have to be quick if it’s going to make its mark.

So there you have it. 4k is real. It might be the next big thing. It might not. What is certain is that change will continue to occur whether we like it or not. So don’t get too comfortable with 4k or even 8k because, before you know it, there’s every chance that another new technology will stroll into town and throw us all into chaos once again.

This article first appeared in TV-Bay (November 2012). You can also read it in its published from in the digital version of TV-Bay.

C4 Case Studies for Broadcast

During November 2012 Will Strauss was commissioned to write four case studies for a Broadcast produced supplement celebrating 30 years of Channel 4.

The printed pull-out showcased the best of the publisher broadcaster, illustrating how it has successfully adhered to its public service remit by constantly pushing the boundaries of television through innovation.

Will’s case studies explored four recent shows and how they had helped to break new talent. You can see the case studies in their published form in the digital version of the supplement. Or you can click on the image below to see a high res version. Or, if neither of those two options suit you, why not simply scroll down for the full copy.

Channel 4 30th Anniversary Supplement

 

Fresh Thinking

By Will Strauss

Channel 4 has always taken pride in helping to break and nurture new talent. Yes, it’s part of its PSB remit but in the 30 years since launch, it has stuck to its task with the kind of gusto that would shame even Sarah Beeney

Channel 4 has showcased new comedians, given new writers their first terrestrial commissions and taken risks on unknown actors and presenters.

What would Big Brother have been like without Davina? BBBM without Russell Brand?

T4 provided a leg up for the likes of Dermot O’Leary and Vernon Kay and dramas such as Shameless and Skins have made household names of both their cast and writers. Scour the CVs of some of the UK’s most established and well-loved stars and you’re likely find C4 on there somewhere. The sign of a job well done.

 

FRESH MEAT
Synopsis: Comedy drama series about the painful truths of being a student.
Production company: Objective Productions and Lime Pictures
First TX: September 2011

Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s comedy drama Fresh Meat is one of the most recent drama offerings to break and support new talent. Series one saw Jack Whitehall in his first dramatic role as JP. Because the show had to work as an ensemble, when it came to casting the producers saw 200 actors per role. Head of film and TV at Objective Productions, Judy Counihan says: “Every time we’d find someone that we thought was one character, they wouldn’t work another one.”

“We’d looked at a lot of posh boys,” she adds, “and casting posh is incredibly difficult. Then Jack Whitehall approached us and although he divided people at first it turns out that he is nice and funny AND he can act.”
As well as bringing Zawe Ashton to a C4 audience, the show also stars Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas and Kimberley Nixon, now appearing in BBC comedy Hebburn.

When series one of Fresh Meat was commissioned drama producers at C4 had only just started making comedy (and vice versa); there was a chance that Fresh Meat could have been a disaster. “It was unspeakably frightening,” admits Counihan. “There is an incredibly fine line when it comes to comedy. One degree this way and it’s funny and one degree the other way it’s a hideous Polish soap opera.”

Which is ironic as that’s almost exactly how the 8 x 45’ show started life. Rejected by one broadcaster when originally pitched as a “comedy soap”, it was only when the idea landed on the desk of Channel 4 drama that Fresh Meat truly found its identity. “They defined it for us,” says Objective’s head of comedy Phil Clarke. “It’s not a soap, it’s a comedy drama.”

 

THIS IS ENGLAND ‘86
Synopsis: Gritty drama about friends growing up in 1980s Sheffield.
Production company: Warp Films
First TX: September 2010

As a general rule, film-to-TV spin offs don’t work. This Is England ’86 is the exception. Director Shane Meadows’ four-part drama, which picks up three years after the film left off, attracted audiences of more than 2.5m viewers.

For executive producer and head of Warp Films Mark Herbert the success of ‘86 stems from the depth of the characters that were created for the movie. “Shane puts so much work into every character, not just the main ones, working so hard on the back story in rehearsals and that comes out in their performances,” he says. “But with the film we could only focus on the young boy, Thommo. That meant these other amazing fleshed out characters like Lol, in particular, didn’t get the screen time that they deserved. ”

With festival audiences also asking ‘what happened to the rest of the gang?’ the idea of continuing the story was casually mentioned to Channel 4. “We were having a meeting with Film4, discussing something else and This Is England [the film] had just had record viewing figures,” continues Herbert. “While discussing that with then head of drama Liza Marshall, Shane happened to mention that he had thought about taking it further and that perhaps TV was the answer.”

In the film, these other amazing fleshed out characters didn’t get the screen time that they deserved

Successful though it was, This Is England wasn’t without its risks, says Herbert, not least because Meadows was new to TV and as a film director was notorious for over-shooting. “I think it was nerve wracking for [Channel 4] at first because of the way Shane works,” he says. “But during the course of the shoot, once they started to see the rushes, they could see how this mad process would work. And they stuck with it. It was a leap of faith for them and I really appreciate what they did.”

 

THE LAST LEG
Synopsis: Daily catch-up coverage of the 2012 London Paralympics
Production company: Sunset + Vine
First TX: August 2012

Initially Channel 4’s daily Paralympics late night show was going to be a conventional highlights offering. Once relatively unknown Australian comedian Adam Hills was confirmed as the presenter, however, it became clear that there was a chance to do something that played to his comedic strengths and utilized his perspective as a funny man with a disability.

“Between us we established pretty early on that as long as we stuck to the principle of celebrating the Paralympics first and foremost, we could have a bit of fun, and push a few boundaries at the same time,” explains producer Pete Thomas.

Having fronted Paralympic coverage for Australia’s ABC, Hills was very comfortable in the presenting role. But from a comedic point-of-view it was decided that the show would be better if he had someone to bounce off. Another relatively new face, Josh Widdicombe, was chosen because of his passion for sport along with Alex Brooker, one of Channel 4’s ‘new talent’ for the Paralympics.

“I always found Alex hilarious,” says Thomas, “and he was never shy about confronting issues or laughing at his own disability when the situation called for it, so he already had the tone of our show nailed.”

Alex was never shy about confronting issues or laughing at his own disability

For those that still weren’t sold on the format, the pilot came up trumps, says Thomas. “Off the cuff Alex ended up playing paper, scissors, stone with Adam and had everyone on the crew in hysterics, and more importantly had them at ease with the subject matter. The executives at Channel 4 saw this and loved it, they gave us some really positive and constructive feedback, and I think it gave everyone a real boost, that what we were planning to do had real potential.”

So much potential in fact that, following critical acclaim, Hills was handed a one-year deal and a full series of The Last Leg.

 

CUTTING EDGE – KATIE: MY BEAUTIFUL FACE
Synopsis: Inspirational story about a young woman re-building her life
Production company: Mentorn Media
First TX: October 2009

Just a few days into his job, Channel 4 documentary commissioner Mark Raphael was presented with the story of Katie Piper, a model disfigured in a deliberate sulphuric acid attack ordered by a boyfriend who had previously raped her.

With an on-going court case and a colleague warning that ‘it was too tough to show on TV’, it wasn’t an easy commission. But having been shown a taster tape, and hearing that Katie herself was keen to tell her story, he greenlit a Cutting Edge special about her harrowing but inspirational recovery.

“The idea was clearly something that fitted well with their PSB remit,” suggests Mentorn Media chief executive John Willis. “It was a powerful story with an affecting personality at the heart of it. But more than that it was Katie. She shone through in a way that was unusual not least as it was a tough subject, particularly for her.”

What followed was as remarkable as Katie herself. 3.3m viewers tuned in to that original broadcast. But not only that, Piper received more than 7,000 emails from people showing support, sharing stories and asking for help.
The profound rallying cry that emanated from the film and the response it evoked prompted a host of TV follow-ups. That year Piper read Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas message quickly followed by a four-parter, Katie: My Beautiful Friends, in which she helps and supports other people with disfigurements. A two-year deal was subsequently struck with the broadcaster.

“Even during the edit of that first film we could tell there was something exceptional about Katie,” concludes Willis. “She’s a very ordinary young woman in one way but through the tragedy of what happened she became extraordinary. She found a different Katie that had probably been there all the time but had been buried in the life she [previously] led. She is just one of those people that simply cuts through the screen.”

 

 

Broadcast Indie Survey – Nations and Regions

As part of Broadcast’s 2012 Independent Television Producers Survey Will Strauss discovers that not everything is rosy in the garden of the UK’s nations and regions Indies.

UK Television Nations And Regions

Television Nations And Regions

F

or the massed ranks of out-of-London TV producers it was all change in 2011 in every respect but one.

While 2010 saw a small increase in overall revenue, programming hours staying static and staff numbers slightly up, 2011 was the year of the big changes. And the biggest was in the amount of television produced.

The total number of Nations and Regions programming hours in 2011 – based on the indies that responded to the survey – was up year-on-year by a whopping 16% to 2,441 hours. This was due, in equal measure, to a slightly more generous commissioning regime following the credit crunch, a concerted effort by broadcasters to hit either their mandatory or imposed quotas and, of course, some great programme ideas.

Of course, as is the way with research projects, not all companies that are polled this year provided answers last year and there are several nuances but just by taking a couple of examples you can see the extent of improvement: Lime 198 hrs vs 159 hrs, IWC Media 110 hrs vs 88 hrs, True North 105vs 75hrs and so on.

If that’s not compelling enough evidence we can look at an average figure. Taking the total hours in 2011 and dividing them by the number of firms surveyed reveals that each company made an average of 62.5 hours in 2011. In 2010 it was 54, in 2009 it was 55 and in 2008 it was 60. As young people might say, Boom!

Revenue increases

As a consequence, combined out-of-London revenues touched £300m for the first time in 2011, some £38m (14.5%) more than was garnered in 2010 – and that despite less nations and regions indies responding to the survey.

So, with money and hours on the rise, the only area in which there was no real change was in staff numbers even if, taken at face value, they look to have fallen significantly. In 2010 the nations and regions headcount was 1,940 compared to 1,217 last year.

However, this is just one example of numbers not telling the whole story as 2010’s figures included 460 people that worked on Aardman’s film projects and 160 people that are employed by Boomerang. Comparing Apples with Apples, staff numbers are pretty constant outside London.

“There was certainly no cull,” explains Nigel Pickard, the chief executive of Zodiak MEAA/UK Family and Kids which incorporates Maidstone’s Waybuloo producer The Foundation. “But [our figures] lag slightly because some of our shows take nine months to make. The real impact of the recession might not be seen [in the Indie Survey] until next year.”

As far as finances are concerned a lot of the growth can be found in the Top 10.

Seven companies saw some year-on-year growth in 2011 with the big winners being Birmingham’s Embarrassing Bodies indie Maverick who are up to joint third in the table from fifth last year thanks to a nigh on 20% leap in turnover.

Maverick was not the fastest growing out-of-London indie in 2011 though. That honour goes to Manchester’s ever-humble Red Production Company who saw programming hours triple from 5 to 15 and revenues leap 50%.

Changing landscape

Managing director Andrew Critchley says the company didn’t do anything differently last year but he does acknowledge that the landscape has changed in recent times.

“It’s quite simple,” he says. “There were more drama commissions last year whereas a year or two back there was a reduction, although you wouldn’t notice it looking at the TV schedules.”

So, there you have it. More commissions = more money. Who’d have thought it?

Sarcasm aside, things are looking good for Red in 2012 too with 33 hours of drama coming up between now and the summer including Bedlam (6×60) for Sky Living, Hit and Miss (6×60) for Sky Atlantic and The Fuse (4×60) for BBC.

Critchley is hugely encouraged by the fact that over half of these are returning series, something he agrees is still the ‘holy grail’ for drama producers.

“We obviously make them well enough that they get re-commissioned,” he says, again, somewhat coyly.

Although not amongst the fastest growing, the league leaders Lime Pictures also had a stonking year, increasing revenues by a quarter on the back of 39 hours more television. But where smaller companies relied mainly on domestic commissions, Lime’s revenue also includes international success with the Nickleodeon kids drama House of Anubis and increased revenues from other sources.

“We’ve seen good growth this year largely driven by our breadth of production with shows across a number of genres,” details managing director Sean Marley. “We’ve also increased revenues from non-traditional sources, primarily driven by licensing and merchandise deals”

Marley is quick to point out that any brand extensions are treated very carefully. “Whether it is Hollyoaks, or TOWIE or any of the brands we have done, the show is [still] the most important thing,” he adds.

For House of Anubis, he adds: “It is unusual for America to take Children’s drama direct from the UK. It’s been a huge plus for Lime and has kick started a lot of other US activity. This is a market that will be a big priority for us moving forward.”

Looking Up

Interestingly, despite the huge examples of growth in the top ten from the likes of Lime, the biggest leaps actually came outside it with companies positioned 11 to 39, on average, increasing turnover by just shy of 30%.

To illustrate that, the top five fastest growing out-of-London indies table would read thus: 1) Red 50%, 2) Testimony Films 46%, 3) Lambent Productions 43%, 4) Electric Sky 34% and 5) Rondo Media 26%.

Note, there’s just one top 10 company in revenue terms in that list.

Now, this is all very positive stuff but not everything is rosy in the garden of the UK’s nations and regions.

Despite increasing their programming hours, turnover is down, for example, at a couple of Zodiak companies but Pickard maintains this is partly a result  the ‘ebb and flow’ of the commissioning process on one hand and, perhaps more importantly for a company like The Foundation, on the other down to a “deterioration in the number of commissioning broadcasters for children’s shows” and an emphasis by US broadcasters on staying local.

The Foundation is also in a transitional period moving from a predominantly live action company to one that does live action and animated shows.

“We’re much more limited now as to who we can pitch to so, and you may see this across the board in children’s, we’re looking to mix and match genres,” he says.

With the BBC diverging more commissioning to the nations in 2011 and the arrival of BBC North in Salford it would appear, from the outside, to be a golden time for out-of-London indies. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.

As an example, it is interesting to note that although two indies, Lime Pictures and TwoFour, appear in the Top 20 indies in the UK in terms of turnover, only one of the top 20 fastest growing companies came from outside of London and that was Red Production Company which sneaks in at number 20.

Another interesting difference between the indie sector as a whole and those making a living outside the capital is in their sense of optimism about the future.

While the split for the whole indie community was roughly 70/30 in favour of the optimists, for out-of-London indies it was a rather more cautionary 47/53 with the optimists only slightly outnumbering the pessimists. And this despite a significant majority saying 2011 was better than 2010.

Specific complaints

Aside from the usual grumbles about super-indie dominance and the reducing volume and dwindling value of commissions, there were some specific issues highlighted for the nations and regions.

One Bristol-based factual indie boss suggested a “lack of broadcaster approved creative talent in the regions and inability of the broadcasters to work with regional indies to address this” as a reason to worry.

At the same time the ‘protracted nature’ of the commissioning process was a strand of displeasure with one of the bigger out-of-London indies and, indeed, speed seemed to be something of an issue across the board, especially when it comes to cashflow and decision making.

A significant number of smaller indies in particular are not happy with continual late payment while others would like to get quicker responses to their pitches. “The BBC is frustratingly slow and reluctant still to commission nations and regions for network,” added one Welsh indie.

In truth it seems that an increase in commissioned hours is not quite enough to satisfy everyone.

Pragmatism reigns OK

At the boutique end of the nations and regions table Seventh Art saw budgets for their specialist factual shows decline by as much as 20% but they still managed to do 20% better year-on-year with revenues increasing from £1m to £1.2m.

Founder Phil Grabsky is not reaching for the champagne just yet though.

“We did do better in 2011 but that doesn’t reflect a healthier environment for cultural or social docs,” he says. “The situation is worse. We did better because we were rewarded for good shows and thus repeat commissions and sheer hard work – plus our ten-year Afghan project completed with many broadcasters paying balances as a result.”

He even drawn up some new rules of engagement for indies such as “if it’s not in the budget, don’t do it”, “fight for better shares from distributors and always check their accounting” and  “make films you’ll be proud of in fifty years time.”

The atmosphere is not all negative outside London though. The BBC got it’s fair share of criticism but was also praised. One indie said, confidentially, that BBC Sport moving to Salford has “given the department new impetus, and they are taking a fresh approach to collaboration and new models of working. “ Another stated that they liked Auntie’s “scale of ambition.

[An edited version of this article appeared in Broadcast’s Indie Survey in March 2012.]

This Is Shane Meadows

From a life of crime to self confessed Sony fan boy, director Shane Meadows explains how advances in camera technology are liberating the filmmaking process. By Will Strauss.

Shane Meadows

Filmmaker Shane Meadows

Despite leaving school with no qualifications and dabbling, unsuccessfully, with a life of crime, British filmmaker Shane Meadows has done pretty well for himself.

A Bafta ‘Best Film’ award winner in 2008 for This Is England, Meadows is currently being offered £10m features and is co-writing and directing primetime hits for Channel 4 television (C4). It is a far cry from the early days of his career, much of which was spent either on the dole or selling jewellery at raves.

Meadows’ initial flirtation with filmmaking came about through the Nottingham based Intermedia Film and Video Ltd where he would work for free in return for borrowing camcorders and editing equipment in order to make “crap films with my mates.”

His first film of note, the short Where’s The Money, Ronnie?, was produced using that very same borrowed kit.

Despite this beg, borrow and steal approach, the quality and honesty of Meadows’ storytelling shone through and …Ronnie? went on to win a short film competition and was spotted by The Crying Game producer Stephen Woolley with whom he would later work.

The prize money paid for Meadows’ next short film and in the period that followed he made more than 100 shorts and eight features and has gone on to both critical and commercial acclaim [see biog below].

Learning the hard way

As befits a director who learnt about filmmaking the hard way, Meadows is now keen to share his experiences with up-and-coming directors. This desire to give something back brought him to Manchester in November 2011 and a speaker appearance at the Sony seminar theatre during the BVE North expo.

Meadows spent an hour talking candidly to current and future filmmakers about his career, about the film industry and, perhaps most uniquely for a director, about technology.

A self-confessed ‘tech head’, Meadows is well known for self-shooting on many of his projects and admits to regularly trawling Internet forums looking for information about the latest kit.

“I am a bit of a Sony fan-boy,” admits Meadows. “I had a VX2000 because of the low light capabilities. I had a PD150. I’ve shot maybe a 100 short films on those two cameras. I always wait for the new Sony camera to come out because I’ve got used to it and I like the shape but I’ve tried every type of camera out there.”

His latest experience of working with Sony cameras came during the shoot for This Is England ’88, a trio of Christmas films for C4 that Meadows describes as like a “very brutal Nativity.”

“I always wait for the new Sony camera to come out because I’ve got used to it and I like the shape but I’ve tried every type of camera out there.”

Shane Meadows

A follow-up to C4’s This Is England ’88, itself a spin-off from the movie This Is England, the 60-minute films were shot on Red and the Sony F3 with just a small amount of Canon 7D thrown in for good measure.

Despite some initial reservations, it was during a preview screening at Bafta that the quality of the F3’s images became apparent.

“Although I had seen the Sony footage intercut with Red in the edit suite, we’d never seen the image on [a screen] bigger than about 27 inches,” he says.

“The Red originated at RAW and came down to 2k, while the F3 is 35 Mb/s. I swear on my life it was completely seamless.”

When the shoot started, the S-Log recording option wasn’t available so expectations of the F3 were low.

“I was going to use it as a B or C camera that I could shoot myself,” continues Meadows. “My expectations were that it would be OK in small chunks. But then we started handing stuff to the DIT [Digital Imaging Technician] and blowing [the pictures] up in the van. [Considering it was] XDCam [that] it was recording to, it was phenomenal really. “

Getting more involved

Meadows explains that, as the shoot went on, the Sony F3 went from being a B or C camera to being involved in almost every scene and every shot.

As a result, he’s become such a fan that his next proposed project, a feature-length documentary about the Manchester band The Stone Roses (pictured), will be shot at 4:2:2 on two Sony F3s using S-Log.

The Stone Roses Reunion

The Stone Roses

“I got a call from [singer] Ian Brown and he told me they were getting back together,” explains the director. “They are my all-time favourite band. I said ‘if you let anyone else film it, I’ll kill you.”

A £10m feature film project has been parked so Meadows can work on the project.

Although the director admits to not being a documentary filmmaker, he admires the work that Martin Scorsese has done in music documentaries like the Bob Dylan film No Direction Home. This gives him hope.

“Because of his love of music Scorsese can go and make music documentaries. Hopefully that applies to me and it’s not rubbish. It was one of those jobs that I just had to do.”

For Meadows, the introduction of the F3 and other cameras of its ilk illustrates how the move to affordable but high quality digital cinematography has liberated the filmmaking process.

So much so that he believes that young people who want to get into filmmaking have never had a better chance.

“You can always find a way through,” he urges. “If you don’t get the funding, you can go off with this new range of cameras and [because of the quality they deliver] there is still that potential of a cinematic release.”

For Meadows, it’s the realization of an ambition that goes back some years.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for a 35mm sensor in [a camera] like I used to shoot with when I was 21,” he says with gusto.

“Musicians have always been able to play a great song on a acoustic guitar that sounds great and only costs £10. Film is not quite like that. Film is bound by needing a crew and a soundman to make stuff look and sound great. That gap is now closing. Fifteen years ago, for people like myself from a normal working class town, 35mm [film] quality was very unavailable. Now, for [comparatively] little money there’s no excuse for not making something that can’t be shown in the cinema.”

This Is England ’88 aired 13-15 December 2011 on Channel 4.

About Shane Meadows

A self-taught filmmaker from the Midlands, Shane Meadows is currently one of the UK’s hottest directing talents. Acclaimed for telling low-budget semi-autobiographical stories that are often touching, occasionally violent and always honest, his breakthrough feature film, This Is England, grossed $8m at the box office and has since sold more than 1.5m copies on DVD. His early filmography includes Twentyfour Seven, Dead Man’s Shoes and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands.

[An edited version of this article appeared in the Sony Producer magazine in Spring 2012.]

Press Release Writing

Will Strauss has recently swapped his journalism hat for a (temporary) more corporate one, writing press releases for various technology and facilities companies working in TV.

Press Release Writing

Press Release Writing

In all cases, the client provided the bare bones of the story and Will found the angle, asked some questions and wrote it up. Once approved the release was then distributed – by a third party – to appropriate publications.

Most got picked up. Some were published as is, some were re-written into house style and some were used as a starting point for further research. In all cases, the tone was considered appropriate for the audience.

Topics covered this month include iPad apps, radio programmes, high-end digital film cameras, broadcast tape/disc archive and transfer, radio jingles, storage technology and more.

I won’t embarrass the companies involved by naming them but – suffice to say – if you work in television or radio you’ll have heard of them.

At the same time, Will has also done some corporate writing work for a couple of companies in the construction market and completed articles about DIY.

In the New Year, Will’s booked-in projects include corporate articles about video editing, asset finance, superstar radio DJs and TV drama production. Doubtless there’ll be some more leftfield stuff too like roofing in Leeds or dishwasher spares to add to the mix too.

 

Reporting on BVE North

Will Strauss was recently hired to provide eZine and social media content for BVE North, the broadcast industry trade show that took place in Manchester during November.

BVE North 2011 logo

BVE North 2011 logo

Putting both his journalism and corporate copy writing skills to the test, the work consisted of rapid news gathering from exhibitors and visitors and quickfire reporting on seminar and other speaker sessions.

The resulting copy was included in an email newsletter that was sent to all pre-registered visitors during the two days of the show (16-17 November 2011) .

In addition, tweets and photos were posted to Twitter on the same two days plus the day prior to the show while the halls were being readied.

BVE North is a sister event to BVE, the long established London-based broadcast technology exhibition.

In total, more than 2400 people attended BVE North in 2011. Dates for the 2012 shows are still to be announced.

You can see examples of the eZine copy by clicking on the links below.

Will Strauss eZine copy Day 1

Will Strauss eZine copy Day 2

For examples of tweets see http://twitter.com/willstrauss

What North West Skills Gap?

MediaCityUK

MediaCityUK

Published in Broadcast magazine 27 October 2011

The north-west of England has more than enough television skills and production talent to cope with its current media boom and the expansion of BBC North, writes Will Strauss.

As legend has it, when medieval mapmakers charted unexplored territory at the edges of their known world, they would inscribe it with the words ‘here be dragons’.

If huge swathes of the TV industry have scribbled the same words on maps above Greater Manchester, no one would be surprised. That’s the fearful impression of the north-west they might have if they believe everything that’s been written in the press since the BBC announced in 2004 it was to relocate thousands of jobs and various channels and departments to Salford.

To read the full article visit Broadcastnow.