Attention all young people who want to break into TV! Applications are open for the Grierson DocLab scheme, and it’s well worth applying.
I always found it so hard to find opportunities like this when I was looking into working in TV. All my friends who were applying for graduate schemes could go to a website, find out the application date, read the application guidelines, prepare their questions, sign up for email reminders etc. But the trouble with TV schemes is that there are different ones for different genres, the application dates change, there’s often no regularly updated website or permanent contact.
So every time I come across a great opportunity, I’m going to post it on here so that you guys can find them more easily. Today’s case study is the Grierson DocLab, which is for people who are passionate about making documentaries, are 18-25 and who have not yet had paid employment in factual TV.
This is ideal if you’re in your last year of university or school and want to start working in TV in 2020. Grierson DocLab offer some really amazing opportunities, and have partnered with some fantastic production companies, like Nutopia (where I’m working now).
Now that I’m an Assistant Producer, I’m looking to develop the skills that will help me to get the knowledge I’ll need when I reach the next step on the career ladder: a Producer/Director. There are two roles that are useful as intermediary positions between AP and PD, and those are Edit Producer and Story Producer. For now, the one I want to focus on is Edit Producer.
Edit Producers sit in the edit with the editor and put together the programme in a way that most effectively tells its story. It can be quite a tricky role: sometimes you’ll realise that the script doesn’t quite work when you finally get to putting it all together, sometimes you’ll have to think outside the box to find a better way to tell the story, and sometimes you’ll realise you don’t have enough material! As the edit producer, you’ll have to think of a way to solve all these problems within the time frame, the budget, and the requirements of the commissioner.
When I edited my short film, Painting Freedom, I experienced those challenges. The first ideas I had for how to put together the film really didn’t work, and after getting some feedback from a few director friends, I realised that I had to do a better job of edit producing this film!
The first thing I did was go through all the footage we had, including some that I’d initially disregarded. It’s important to know exactly what your resources are. I then went through all the interviews I’d done with the artist, Hannah, and transcribed everything she said. This is a really handy thing to do, because when you’re looking through material, it’s a lot quicker to read than to watch!
The next thing I did was to divide the story into five beats. Sometimes you’ll need more than this, but most stories can be easily summarised into five bullet points. The beats you should be looking to hit are:
What’s the main event for example
the women are painting their portraits
the spaceship is launching
the king is dead
What’s the background for example
they’ve survived ISIS captivity
the spaceship is looking for life on Mars
was the king murdered?
What’s the twist for example
they’ve never painted before
the astronauts are not sure they’ll get back alive
the king’s brother wants to seize the throne
What’s the next development for example
the paintings are exhibited at the Houses of Parliament
the spaceship computer starts malfunctioning
the king’s son beats his uncle to the coronation
What’s the resolution for example
the paintings inspire DFID to help the Yazidi women
the astronauts fix the computer and make it to Mars
the king’s son banishes his uncle to Corsica
I then looked to fill those beats with content, both audio and visual, and laid it out in a simple table with two columns, VISUAL on the left, AUDIO on the right. In VISUAL, I would put short descriptions of the clips I wanted to use, and in AUDIO, I would put the text of either Hannah’s interview transcripts, or my commentary.
And then it was time to put everything together! I gave the editor this ‘paper edit’, as it’s called, and we put everything in place. Over the course of doing this, we would sometimes change our minds about which visual worked best, and we cut down the audio significantly. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings for the sake of a better story!
The final, and arguably the most important step, is the music. In an ideal world, you would want to get a composer to write a score specially for your documentary, but in the real world of tighter and tighter budgets, that’s not always possible! Most companies will have their preferred music archive (ask the production manager which one they use), but for independent projects I love freemusicarchive.org. It’s got a fantastic range of tracks that are all free to use!
So now that I’ve edit produced my own short film, I’d like to find the opportunity to learn about edit producing longer, more complicated films. I’m going to start by practising paper edits, and I’ll look for opportunities to shadow some of the edit producers on my current project!
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!