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

Drama Queen

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!

Drama Queen

The Long Arm of…Education

Education in Kenya’s Prisons

I was heavily involved with this film – I remember like it was yesterday the long Skypes over dodgy WiFi with our contributors in Kenya, the panicked emails with the fixer who was supposed to get our permissions sorted for us, the heart-stopping moment when the Kenyan embassy tried to confiscate the Director’s passport…so it’s wonderful to see all that work emerge as a moving, poignant film!

The African Prisons Project, run by the enigmatic Alexander McLean, works to educate the inmates of Kenya’s overcrowded prisons, many of whom are illiterate. They’ll teach them through from primary to Higher Education – some even graduate with a Law Degree from the University of London! Along the way, they learn how to defend themselves in court, to stand up against injustice and to help out their inmates and families. This project really is life-changing.


Democratic Teaching

Democratic Teaching in the UK

This was by far my favourite film in the Rebel Education series – and as an added bonus I can claim credit for some of the camerawork! This film tells the story of one man from New Zealand who realised there was a better way to teach English. He brought his new system to the London Nautical School, an inner city comp with a high number of children from difficult backgrounds. And the effect he has had is unbelievable.

As you’ll see in this film, Chris Waugh’s system has changed the lives of many of the children in this school. He believes that the children should be entrusted with choosing their teacher – so each teacher presents them with a course themed around something that’s important to them. It allows the teachers add a personal touch to their classes, and it gives the pupils greater responsibility for their own learning. Chris also makes use of technology to allow the pupils to work towards ‘badges’ rather than assignments, which gives pupils greater flexibility in their learning and allows them to achieve more.

The results speak for themselves. GCSE grades have shot up; pupil satisfaction is at an all time high. But Chris never wants to stop fighting. There’s always going to be more work to do, more schools to change, more pupils to inspire.


Saving Mexico’s Children

The Power of Early Education

One of the films I worked on last summer is now available to view online. If you do have a spare half hour, I can highly recommend watching it. It’s about a passionate, energetic, brave woman who is single-handedly turning around education in Mexico; I am honoured to have worked with her.

The Mexican state education system fails its students miserably and is ravaged by corruption. But Elisa Guerra saw this and decided to set up her own school, using her own materials, to make sure her children received the education they deserved. She realised that bad primary education is worse than no education at all, so she encourages children as young as three to learn a different language, play a musical instrument, get involved in sport, appreciate art and culture. This stimulation encourages children to think, not just to learn.

In an ever-changing world, our education systems are struggling to keep up. But a few amazing people are working to change that. These films tell their stories.


How to Film an Interview

My last post covered how to film a fictional narrative. But I want to specialise in factual television. So how do you create the same kind of story in an interview? And believe me, it is a story. Everything is about telling the story, as I said in one of my early blogs.

There is a formula: first of all, you set up your interviewee. Have a shot of them walking into the room, or sitting down, or getting out of their car and coming into the interview location. This introduces the viewer to the interviewee. Then conduct the interview – and it helps to have two cameras here, one on the interviewee and one on the interviewer. This is the master shot. In the master, you keep a steady mid-shot to cover everything that your interviewee says. But fifteen minutes of just someone talking is, of course, going to get a bit boring. Which is why you need to make sure you have the opportunities to cut back to the interviewer.

After you’ve done the master, then it’s time to get some ‘listening’ shots – both for the interviewee and interviewer. Not too much nodding and smiling here, it looks fake, just listening. Then a ‘non-sync wide’ (sync meaning talking), such as a mug on a table in front of the contributor in focus, with everything else blurry. Then maybe some cutaways of the environment of the interview: flowers in vases, glasses, books they might be talking about, other objects.

This may seem like a lot for just an interview, but it’s this kind of detail, this kind of building of a situation and scene that makes television different from radio, and gives it an advantage over radio.

So next time you have a coffee with someone, think about everything your eye touches on. The moment your friend walks in to the café. When you notice they’ve got a new bag. When your coffee arrives. When you look around as you’re talking and notice the couple at the next table, or the painting on the wall. That’s how you see the world – and that’s what we need to take into account when filming, so that it feels as realistic as possible, so that we can get involved in the film just as though it were our real lives. Because that is what can make factual television as absorbing as the immersive nature of fiction.

How to Film an Interview