Across the Pond

Having spent just over a year working on Channel 5 projects, 2018-19 is set to be the year of the American projects! I can now count PBS, Science Channel and History Channel in my credits.

So what’s the difference between producing programmes for the UK and producing them for the US? Not much in terms of the basic production process, but the big differences can be felt in the time zones and in the target audience.

The time zones are the trickier ones to deal with. I was working on a large-scale documentary series for the Science Channel, and we had several shoots going on simultaneously in the US across different time zones. It meant that the mornings were quiet, and were usually the times when we’d have our production team meetings, but as soon as the East Coast woke up, right up to when the West Coast woke up at the end of the day, our schedules became rather busy! It resulted in quite a few late nights in the office making calls to LA, and at the end of the project I suggested that we trial a change of working hours to match our contributors – which was well received.

As for the target audience – this changes with every programme and every channel. It is often helpful to put a name and a face to the target audience, such as ITV’s Auntie Beryl! Then as we read each script, watch each edit or interview each contributor, we can keep asking ourselves if our target audience character will like/understand/be engaged by the content that we are creating.

If you are about to start on a US project, my advice to you would be to find out how much production will happen in the US, and also find out from your series producer what the target audience is like. That way, you will be able to offer better editorial feedback on target audience relevance – and you’ll be able to plan for the possibility of work eating into your evenings if filming is taking place in the US!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to learning more about the vast and fascinating American market.

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Across the Pond

Drama Reconstruction

Three days. Two nights. One country house. A lot of fun.

That’s basically what happened last week. We did a drama reconstruction shoot at a wonderful house in Suffolk; we stayed overnight in their bedrooms and filmed in their drawing room, dining room, library, and another couple of bedrooms. I was responsible for the costumes, which involved a lot of trying on Victorian dresses and working out which to put on first, the petticoat or the corset. Then there was advising the art department on props, a last-minute dash to find a Queen Victoria costume and a fiddly time learning how to tie ghillie brogues (I failed and pinned them into place).

But it all worked out in the end! Even though we were shooting drama, the atmosphere had a very ‘documentary’ feel about it: everyone chipped in, helped each other, made suggestions, found solutions, and although we were all tired by the end, it felt more like the end of an active holiday than a shoot.

I loved the whole experience, and I think the footage looks pretty good too. I would love to try my hand at a bit more drama reconstruction, as I think, if done well, it can really bring a documentary to life. Let’s see what the next job holds!

Drama Reconstruction

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