Another day, another docu-drama

Today I started my new job at Channel 5’s in-house production company: Elephant House Studios.

The last six months have been filled with all things Roman, as I worked from conception to delivery on the octuplet series Eight Days that Made Rome. It’ll be out by the end of this month on Channel 5, and I can safely say that the whole team is very proud of their brainchild. I’ve never worked on a project right until the end, so it was great to see how it evolved and developed through every stage of the edit – the down side being the mountains of post-production paperwork that go with delivering the final films.

But it’s a rather snuggly feeling, knowing that soon I’ll be curled up in front of the TV watching a series in which I feel so very involved. From knowing exactly where I was standing behind the camera, to seeing the baby photos of one of the contributors, I have been part of this series at every level. It’ll also be my very first on-screen credit!

And in the meantime, I’m starting all over again with a brand new docu-drama. This one will be more drama than doc, and may well lead my career further into dramatisations, but when I think back to all the theatre productions I produced and directed throughout school and university, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. I get a real thrill from seeing historical characters come alive on the screen, and I think there’s a lot to be said for education through entertainment. This feature-length docu-drama, however, is focussed on the Victorian era, so I’m out of my historical comfort zone and learning every day.

But this is what I love about working in telly. There’s rarely a chance to get bored. There’s always an exciting new project round the corner. Always more people to meet, more facts to learn, more skills to develop. Having put Eight Days that Made Rome safely to bed, I am very keen to get my teeth into this new challenge.

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Another day, another docu-drama

Best and Worst of Location Shoots

My two weeks of taking on the responsibilities of a producer for two weeks on location are over, and I’ve recovered with a nice week of holiday. Restored and ready to write this blog, I’d like to share with you the best and worst of my producing adventure!

First up, location shoots seem to be 50% standing around watching the action, 40% carrying kit, and 10% frantically sorting out emergencies.

The best part of filming was how the whole team became a little family by the end. Our crew of seven was spending up to 16 hours a day together, day in, day out, for a week. We supported each other through intense heat, hunger, tiredness, long drives and stress. The bonds created between crews are strong and happy ones, connections I hope to maintain for the rest of my career.

The worst part of filming was the lack of sleep. We were working 12 hour days, but that’s not including the evening meal and then the backing up and tidying away of kit and getting everything ready for the next day. I had on average 5 hours sleep a night. That was really tough, and by the end of the first week, the heat and the sleep deprivation really got to me and I started feeling very sick. But I’ve learned from that – I need to manage my sleep better, and become more efficient at backing up the day’s rushes and prepping the shoot materials.

All in all, I’ve come away from the experience having learned a lot, and I know I’ll feel a lot more confident when the next opportunity comes up!

Best and Worst of Location Shoots

The Digital Revolution

Last week I went to an even run by DPP called ‘Online Pioneers’ about making TV for the digital age. They hosted speakers from Facebook, and from production companies Silverback and Fulwell73.

In ‘standard’ TV culture, production companies go to commissioners, who belong to broadcast organisations such as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, UKTV etc, and sell them ideas for new programmes with which they can fill their schedules. The programmes are often designed with a certain time slot in mind, a certain audience, or to fulfil a certain demand or theme.

But in the digital age, this system is turned on its head. There are no more schedules to fill (you can watch content on demand or on your phone whenever and wherever) and no target audiences (anyone anywhere could be watching your content).

This has the effect of forcing authentically good content. People will watch what they think is good – because if it’s not good, they can easily find something else that is. As the speaker from Facebook explained, if your content hasn’t grabbed someone’s attention within three seconds, they won’t watch it. But this means that in order to work across different media – online, social media, and broadcast schedules, multiple versions of the same product have to be created. And this is what we’re seeing happen in TV at the moment – a production won’t just air on one platform, such as BBC One, it will have a Facebook trailer, a YouTube presence (think drip-fed trailers #1 #2 and #3), social media pages and extra content. All these different formats complement each other and create a fuller brand.

Fulwell73 are a production company that took advantage of the very beginning of the digital revolution. They realised that Content is King – that no matter what your delivery format, if the content is good, it will win out. So they pursued every idea that they thought was just really good, no matter what genre or what format. Their production company, as a result, has produced documentaries, music videos, adverts and comedy shows (including the Late Late Show and Carpool Karaoke!). Such a wide range of ideas – but each enormously popular and successful, because they pursued the quality of the idea, rather than a particular slot on a particular channel.

Sometimes these good ideas come from the talent themselves – whether they’re presenters, comedians, historians or scientists – they might have access through their work to ideas and events that are amazing, but that ‘telly people’ wouldn’t know about. The marriage of talent’s great ideas and telly’s editorial skill is often one made in heaven.

Silverback, a production company that makes high end natural history documentaries, revealed some exciting aspects of working with Netflix – the new commissioning giant. They’re a completely different culture – they don’t have the baggage that comes with the TV commissioners – instead what they’re interested in is a big proposition that will make a big splash and get them lots of subscribers. So instead of requesting content that will fit a time slot or audience, their request is simply make it as good as it can be. Once again, Content is King.

The Digital Revolution is accelerating daily, but I for one am tremendously excited by it. In a way, it has forced TV to become a meritocracy: there is a new confidence that if an idea is good, it will win out. The drive to find better stories and tell them as well as possible becomes ever more important – and it inspires me.

The Digital Revolution

CV Tips

I think it’s fair to say that every industry has a preferred CV format. It’s the same with TV – but I’m sure that many of my friends who work in the Civil Service, for example, would baulk at how my CV is laid out, and I at theirs! But when the average employer spends 30 seconds looking at each CV, you need to make sure yours is one that grabs their attention, that tells them everything they need to know about you at one quick glance.

One genuine moment that changed my life was when a talent manager at the BBC gave my CV a brutal makeover. After that, I appeared far more professional – and felt it, too! So here are a few do and don’ts of how to write a ‘TV CV’:

  • DO put your name at the top. In big letters. So people can easily see whose CV they’re reading
  • DON’T put your picture on. It’s not your social media profile, and anyway this helps to prevent unconscious bias
  • DO put your industry level – and make it appropriate for the job that you’re applying for. So don’t put Sam Jones – Producer, if you’re applying for a Researcher job!
  • DO put a little mission statement – but only if it’s a good one. A bad mission statement is worse than no mission statement at all. This should just be a couple of sentences that’s like a trailer for your CV – highlighting your best credits and top skills. Maybe try asking a friend to write it for you – they may highlight things about you that you might have missed! You can then use this mission statement across other professional platforms, like LinkedIn and the Talent Manager
  • DO put your contact details – email address, website and phone number are fine
  • DON’T put your address. It might genuinely cost you a job, if for example you’re applying for something in south-west London but live in north London. That’s an hour-and-a-half commute, and a kindly production manager may well try to save you the trouble by rejecting your application
  • DO put your skills in a list or table right at the top of your CV. This can include things like self-shooting, editing programmes you can work with, a clean driving license, training courses you’ve been on etc
  • DO head up each credit with a straightforward top line: COMPANY, Production, Role, Date.
  • DO mention who you worked with on each production, or put them as references after your top line. Your potential employer will call them up if they know them and ask what you were like to work with. So logically –
  • DON’T put down anyone on your CV with whom you didn’t have a good professional relationship. If your potential employer knows them, they’ll ring them – and that person may not give the best recommendation for you
  • DON’T put your references at the end of your CV. Your potential employer probably won’t read all the way to the end
  • DON’T put every exam you’ve ever taken as your qualifications. No one cares whether or not you did Ceramics GCSE – unless it’s relevant to the job you’re applying for, in which case put it in your cover letter
  • DO save a copy as a pdf, to prevent the formatting from going weird on different operating systems

Your CV should enable employers to IDENTIFY, VERIFY and CONTACT you. Anything superfluous to that and it starts to become your life story – and that’s called an autobiography!

CV Tips

Networking

I’ve talked about networking a lot in this blog, but it really is the bread and butter of telly. To quote Sara Putt, TV has a soft skills security blanket: people want to work with other people who are easy to talk to, have good manners, are gracious and conscientious and hardworking.  Employers verify that by asking their colleagues, your references, people who have worked with you before.

As an employer or as a freelancer, your most important asset is your network. This should involve professional relationships at ALL levels. Keep a database of all the people you know, whether they’re people you’ve worked with, people you’d like to work with, or people you’ve met for coffee and advice. You can use your network not just to find new employers, but also to verify new employers – if you’ve just got a job at a new company, you can ask friends who have worked there before what it’s like. Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity – if you have a really good relationship with just a few industry contacts, they’ll work all the harder for you when you need their help.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you want to connect with – most people will be more than happy to help, remember they’ve been in your position before! But don’t jump straight in asking them for a job. Best to invite them for coffee to ask their advice on something – people always like to share their wisdom! Ask them something specific, so that they can focus their answers. I’ve made the mistake of asking too general a question, and that cost me the meeting with the Series Producer I was looking to befriend. And always thank them afterwards – be specific about why they were helpful. Try to get that new contact to suggest another two people that you should connect with – that way you’ll double your network with every coffee!

Try to update your network every three months, or every time you have something new to say. This could be a new credit to your CV, a new skill that you’ve learned, a new short film that you’ve published. That way you stay in your network’s recent memory, rather than buried in a pile of CVs somewhere in the office. Talent Managers often track the availability of their favourite people, so if they regularly see that you’re getting gradually more experienced and more qualified, you may well become one of their favourites too!

Networking

A Weekend at BAFTA

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in the BAFTA Guru Labs, a scheme run by BAFTA for new entrants to the media industries: TV, Games and Film. As well as granting us free access to the talks, lectures and workshops at BAFTA HQ in Piccadilly, they also organised networking and advice sessions for us with industry experts. It’s only the second year that they’ve run this scheme, but so far it’s been a roaring success – and I certainly got a lot out of it!

On the first evening we had a networking party, which was a great opportunity to make a few new friends. The attendees were mostly new industry entrants, like me, so it took the pressure off having to impress any potential employers! That happened first thing the next day – but the new friends I had made on the Friday night made the intimidating prospect of a 15 minute one-to-one session with a top Production Exec slightly less scary! As all the participants were in the same boat, at roughly the same industry level, it created a lovely supportive atmosphere for the whole event.

One of the highlights of the afternoon sessions was our Round Table discussions with top execs from the TV industry. Groups of about six of us got together and were able to talk and ask questions about our experiences working in TV, what we should be doing to progress and what to look out for. I was very encouraged by how friendly and supportive everyone was – TV can be a difficult, cut-throat, competitive industry, but there’s a sense of solidarity that comes from being aware that it’s like that for everyone!

By far the most useful piece of advice that I got from the weekend was this: as a freelancer, you need to treat yourself like a business. And like a business, that means you need to:

  • Go to events to promote yourself
  • Build your brand: create a consistent message and image across your social media platforms and your CV
  • Train yourself
  • Be strategic about building your reputation: this means building up your CV by taking jobs that form you into what you ultimately want to be

This is a great way of thinking about life in a freelance industry. YOU are the product – you want to tell your employers that they need YOUR skills, and no one else’s. But unlike a business, with separate departments to look after marketing, finances, strategy, training and research, you have to do all that yourself. No one said working in telly was easy!

A Weekend at BAFTA