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].”

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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.


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.”


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.