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.
- 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!
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
I’m now working on a docu-drama, an eight-part series about ancient Rome. This is the first docu-drama I’ve worked on, and it’s really interesting to see how the teams of directors and producers (four teams of two, each allocated two episodes) are working to combine the elements of documentary and drama to effectively tell the story of the Roman Empire. Along the way, I’m learning how drama is written, and I’ll share a few of my discoveries with you.
One advantage of dramatizing parts of history is to bring the complex politics to life. The history of Rome wasn’t all epic battles and gladiators: the key moments of change usually involved covert conversations in darkened corridors, House-of-Cards-style. These are pretty boring to describe or to read about, but dramatize them and you’ve got yourself an edge-of-your-seat political thriller!
One of my tasks as the series researcher is to provide the Drama Producer with character briefs for the casting. This means that I get to profile these incredible figures of ancient history in a way that the actor can embody them, understand their personality and their motivations, and bring these people back to life. It’s a great privilege, and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – my previous experience in directing theatre productions has come in useful too! I find that when I read about the leaders and key figures in history, I can vividly imagine what they were like – little details here and there that we get from their biographies make them jump off the page.
But I’ve been particularly impressed by how the producers and directors are so keen on historical accuracy. It’s easy to get carried away with the sensationalism of the story – but each drama sequence has been supported by and based on at least one reliable historical source. The directors are particularly keen to put words in the mouths of their historical characters that sound believable – I’ve been looking up extracts of Seneca’s speeches so that the director can write ‘in the voice of Seneca’. I’m also working with the props department to make sure that each of the key props in the series are historically accurate – for example, that the drinking cups are typical of status and period.
All these details, coupled with the new archaeological discoveries that we’re exploring in the documentary sections of the series, are bringing Ancient Rome back to life. I’m exploring aspects of Roman life that I never covered in my degree, and what will be an intriguing and informative journey for our Channel 5 audience has certainly been that way for me. I’m so happy to be a part of this project – and I can’t wait for filming to start!