How to Recce – things to look out for

Throughout my last few years in TV, I’ve set out several times to recce filming locations – usually in order to film interviews with experts there. Over time, I’ve learned about the things to look out for when you’re checking a new venue – and for any of you about to embark on your first recce, I’ve listed them here.

  1. Space. Is the room big enough for you to sit your contributor down, have some space behind them, set up lights, put all the DoP’s kit in a corner, AND have space for you and the director(s) to sit? You’ll always need more space than you think!
  2. Set-ups. If you are planning to interview more than one person in the space, how many different set-ups can you do? How will the background look different for each contributor?
  3. Light. Can the curtains be drawn? Are there blinds? Especially in British weather, with our unreliable bouts of sunshine, it is often easier for the DoP to block out the natural light and light it him/herself. That way the interview achieves consistency, particularly if different parts of the interview are going to be cut together.
  4. Noise. Is it next to a main road? Can you hear trains? Is it on a flight path? Are the windows double glazed? Is it near a building site? Is there anything else happening in the venue on that day that might disrupt your interview because of noise? You either need complete silence or a dull consistent rumble of background traffic – but sudden noises will severely disrupt your interview and waste everyone’s time.
  5. Period features/background. If your documentary is about a certain period of history, you might want a background that fits your aesthetic. So for example, for my last two projects I’ve been looking for Victorian era houses/clubs/hotels – or at least places that are decorated with that comfortable, period aesthetic. But for other productions, I’ve been looking for locations with a classical background – clean lines, columns, statues etc.

Good luck with your next recce! If you think about all those things next time you visit a venue and there aren’t any problems, then you’re on to a winner – and you should probably make a note of the venue. It’ll most likely come in useful again!

Advertisements
How to Recce – things to look out for

Radio Etiquette

One of the other things I learned on the drama shoot was appropriate radio etiquette. Yes, that is a thing. And there are rules. And if you break the rules, people get cross with you. Here are a few rules I learnt the hard way:

  1. When you’re asking to speak to someone, say your name, then “to/for”, then their name. So for example, “Zenia for Tom”.
  2. If someone asks for you and you hear them, respond by saying “Go for [your name]”. For example, “Go for Zenia”
  3. Over-communicate. If someone asks you to do something over the radio, acknowledge them (by saying “copy that”), do the thing, then tell them when the thing is done.
  4. Any conversations that are longer than simple commands or questions should happen on a different channel. To do that, ask for the person you need, say the channel number you want to switch to, then switch to that channel and wait for them to come in. Don’t forget to go back to Channel 1 when you’re done.
  5. Code for the loo is ten-one. Technically, ten-two means…well…a number two, but no one ever says that. Too much detail.
  6. If you hear someone asking for you over the radio, but you’re busy when they ask for you, just wait till you’re finished and then say “Go again for [your name]”.
  7. If you don’t hear anything over the radio for a while, there’s probably something wrong with it. Check that your earpiece is in correctly, and that you’re on the right channel.
  8. To start up your radio in the morning and let everyone know you’re on comms, pick up the radio, fix on your earpiece, and say “radio check”. Repeat this whenever you make a change to your radio. The response to “radio check” is “good check”.
  9. If you can, go for the over-ear D ring connection, rather than the in-ear ‘covert’ connection. That way, you won’t feel half-deaf, and your ear won’t get really itchy.
  10. Radios, funnily enough, emit radiation, so try not to put them near your kidneys or your ovaries. This sound piece of advice was given to me early one morning by the 2nd AD. Try to wear the radio, therefore on your hip, and make sure you wear something that will support it (basically, wear jeans – slotting a heavy radio on to thin leggings can get awkward, as I found out. Also pockets are just generally very useful on shoots).
Radio Etiquette

Being a 3rd AD

Let’s start with the obvious: 3rd AD means third assistant director. So on a drama set, the hierarchy goes: Director, 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, Floor Runner. The Director decides what he or she wants from the scene and from each shot. The 1st AD gives out instructions to make happen what the director wants.

The 2nd AD coordinates anything that needs to be done in order for this to run smoothly, e.g. making sure that any kit, props, special effects or additional features, such as horses and carriages and jibs and cranes and things, arrive on time. In fact, the 2nd AD will spend quite a lot of time in the office, doing call sheets and schedules and making phone calls and generally organising things.

The 3rd AD is on set most of the time helping the 1st, but also has the responsibility of coordinating the background artists (the politically correct way of saying ‘extras’) and making sure the principle cast get through costume and make up when they’re supposed to. Sometimes that means they’ll have to be off set sorting out costume changes – but that’s what the floor runner is for, to help the 1st when the 3rd is not there.

Makes sense?

I loved having the responsibility of looking after the background artists. I ended up feeling very motherly towards them; it really mattered to me that they were having a good time and weren’t left waiting around or outside in the cold too much. And often, when the 1st AD told me to ‘reset the background’, I would turn around to find they had done it themselves! I met some really interesting people with some fascinating back stories, and they always had a cheery ‘hello’ for me when I brought them up to the costume department at the crack of dawn each day.

However, coordinating the transition between costume, make-up and then back on set, with the hectic schedule that we had on the shoot, often meant that I was caught in the crossfire between stressed make-up artists brandishing hot tongs, frantic costumiers with mouths full of pins, actors trying to learn their lines, and the impatient foot-tapping of the 1st AD who had just finished rigging and wanted all artists to set, PRONTO. But of course, I wasn’t allowed to rush the make-up or the costume, or talk back to the 1st AD, or anything like that. Instead, I reported back on every tiny movement of the artists until everyone could be reassured that they were just two metres away from set. And now they’ve just stopped to tie their shoelace. And now they’ve gone to the toilet. And now they’re taking a selfie. Perhaps this was getting a little ridiculous?

Well, I certainly thought so by the end of the shoot. Although the smiles and kind praise from background artists made my day, every day, and although by the end there was great banter and plenty of laughs, I couldn’t help feeling that this was all rather silly. The stress, the long hours, the lack of sleep, and the blame chain: the unspoken rule that the people at the top are fully entitled to take out their failings on whichever underclass of AD was nearest to hand. It’s not something I want to subscribe to for the long term.

So, ciao bella, 3rd AD, it was nice meeting you, thanks for the CV credit and all, but I’ll head home to my AP role and a nice, thought-provoking documentary thanks.

Being a 3rd AD

A Dramatic Turn of Events

Right now, I’m sat in a cafe, drinking cinnamon tea and reliving last week’s drama shoot. My back still aches from it, and my brain seems to have powered down to energy-saving mode. But the memories made, the jokes cracked and all the things I learned on the shoot still make me smile as I sip my tea.

The production I’ve just finished working on, a feature-length drama-doc about Prince Albert, was always going to be more drama than doc. We had already filmed the talking heads who were going to provide the documentary element of the film, we’d fact checked the script, we had cast the actors, and now it was time to shoot the whole thing. A beautiful country house in Yorkshire had agreed for us to film there, and we were setting off in the car, armed with lots scripts, schedules, socks and snacks.

During the shoot, I was to take on the role of the 3rd AD (assistant director). I’ll write a separate blog on the ins and outs of what’s involved in the role, but I think the first thing I realised when we got on set is the importance of the hierarchy in drama shoots, which just isn’t quite the same as on a doc shoot. There is a very clear pecking order: Director, 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, Floor Runner. The hierarchy decides things like who gets to have an editorial say, who gets on set the earliest, even who eats lunch first. And I must admit, it was quite a shock going from being the researcher with quite a significant editorial say, to a position where my suggestions counted for nothing. Although I understand that in many cases, hierarchies are an important way of maintaining order, it is also important never to crush creativity and innovation in an industry that relies so heavily on creativity and innovation.

Of course, there are many other ways in which drama shoots differ from documentary shoots. The schedules and timings are far more precise; there are many, many more people involved; there are many more factors to consider, such as set dressing, lighting, radio communications. Each department multiplies threefold and everyone has their own specific responsibilities. It’s quite an amazing machine – but there again, I discovered a warning symbol. The careful working of the cogs in the machine made the whole shoot so systematic, so pre-determined, so…boring! Whereas on a doc shoot, you’re always travelling to new places, meeting new people, exploring new things, on the drama shoot all the creativity happens in advance, and once you’re on shoot it’s just a matter of getting the stuff on film as quickly as possible. And at the end of 16 hours of being on my feet, the last thing I wanted to do was think creatively about how to make the film as beautiful as possible.

So that’s why, as I finish the dregs of my tea, I feel extremely grateful for the experience of the drama shoot, and very confident that I’m working in the right industry and the right genre for me. I love making documentaries. I love sharing real people’s stories. I love going to new places and discovering new things, and making them accessible to thousands of viewers. I can’t wait to get stuck in to another documentary.

A Dramatic Turn of Events

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.

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