The Day They Came to Me

It was a relatively unremarkable day halfway through January, and things at Windfall were going well. I was working away on some research for a few new science documentary ideas, comfortable in my job and fairly sure that Windfall would want to keep me on. I was planning to ask to be set to work on a production, as I felt I needed a bit more action than the regularity of development.

But with just one email, that all changed. It was from a production company with a very good reputation, one I saw as a giant of factual film-making. And they asked me if I might be interested in working on an eight-part drama-doc about Ancient Rome!

A phone call established that it would be a six-month contract, the longest I’ve ever had, and that I would be working with one of my favourite presenters, Bettany Hughes, and a colleague from my first ever TV job. It sounded like the dream team!

So on that bombshell, I had to go an inform my boss at Windfall that I would be moving on. As lovely as she is, I couldn’t help but come to her with a huge grin on my face and ask to leave her at the end of my contract. For me, this one email has marked a huge turning point in my Trail to TV – now, I’m not searching for the next breadcrumb along the path, rather, a whole loaf of bread has been generously tossed in my direction!

I think back to this time last year, when I was still working night shifts, still struggling to pay my bills, still desperately applying to any TV job I could find – and I’m happy and relieved. It did all pay off after all. My networking, my hard work, my attention to detail. They were worth something after all.

I’m so excited to start on this new project, and am very much looking forward to sharing the highs and lows of my first drama-doc production with all you lovely readers!

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The Day They Came to Me

Getting the Best Offer

About a month ago, I was invited up to BBC Salford in Manchester for an interview. I was rather excited – the role up for grabs was a researcher on the BBC’s Bitesize team. With my background of working on educational materials for my mum’s company, it seemed like a good fit! The interview was great, very thorough, quite difficult but not nasty questions, all designed to evaluate my competence for various aspects of the job.

A week later, I got a phone call. They said they would like to offer me a job – but not the one I had applied for. It was an editorial support role, which would mainly involve subtitling. I did indeed have experience of subtitling from a work experience placement, but I really had to weigh up if this was worth moving to Manchester, when I already had a well-paid job and a network of contacts in London…

I sought the advice of my colleague at work. I also emailed a producer friend who had previously worked at BBC Learning. Both advised me that I would be better off staying in London.

However, the question of job security still remained. With the BBC, I had an offer of three months of full time work, guaranteed. January is a notoriously difficult month for getting TV work, and my contract at Windfall Films was due to finish at the start of the New Year. So I approached my boss, told her that I had been offered another job (which made me look like I was in demand!) but explained to her honestly that I would prefer to stay, if there was an opportunity of an extension. The next day, a letter plopped onto my desk, extending me with Windfall for a further six weeks. Win!

And so I found myself in the rather strange position of having to refuse the BBC…

Getting the Best Offer

Straight as an Arrow

Some of you may remember my earlier post about how to make your network of contacts work hard for you and find your next TV job. Well, after the intense six weeks at the BBC, I was very happy to have a little break – but at the same time I knew I needed to find my next job. So I stuck to my system and sent out CV update emails to my contacts, uploaded my CV to a few databases, updated my CV on social/work networking profiles such as The Talent Manager…and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for Arrow Media!

I received an email asking about my availability on the Wednesday evening and by Friday afternoon I had been offered a week’s work with them. I was to help out the researchers on Animal Fight Night with their script annotating.

I have Chemistry A level, so I could bring a strong understanding of science to the job – but actually my ‘layman’s standpoint’ became an advantage when I was researching web facts for the episodes! Specialists in natural history may find certain facts about animals obvious that to the ordinary viewer would actually be really amazing. So I spent a fun but certainly full-on week finding out all sorts of interesting, gruesome and downright weird facts about every nook and cranny of the animal kingdom.

And so I’ll leave you with this: an ant can carry 5,000 times its own bodyweight. That just so happens to be the same weight as a human testicle. Or two mushrooms.

Straight as an Arrow

Controlling a Shoot

What a busy fortnight of filming! In the last two weeks of my contract with the BBC, we packed in our four one-day shoots for each of our films, and, as ever, it was all rather hectic. But over the course of the shoots I worked out that you can never plan too much! So here is what I think would be a good way to plan shoots for whichever happens to be my next project. The plan I lay out below may feel rather overkill, and it may seem to encroach on the director’s responsibilities, but in my opinion it’s better to have the plan prepared in your back pocket than to leave it to someone else for fear of encroaching on their remit, only to find that there is no plan.

If you are a researcher or AP working on small scale productions, in an intense dual partnership with a director, your director will thank you when you have all the crucial information at your fingertips – even if it’s as basic as knowing where the nearest ATM is.

On a shoot, you will have a balance of controllables and uncontrollables. Controllables are pretty self-explanatory, but uncontrollables include things like the weather, train delays, traffic (not only of cars, but also pedestrian traffic) and noise. As I’m sure you can draw from that, it means that outdoor shoots tend to have more uncontrollables, and need even more planning.

So here is what I hope will be a useful checklist to make sure that everything is covered for shoots.

  • Are all the locations set up? Location release forms signed?
  • Are your contributors prepared? Has their transport been arranged for them?
  • Have you bought any props you need?
  • Is your presenter prepared with any background info? Has their travel been arranged for them?
  • Have you printed off copies of the script for everyone? Has it been signed off and approved? Have you got separate documents for your interviewees with their questions, and a separate document with the pieces to camera?
  • What tech do you need? What is your cameraman bringing? Are you prepared with the right stock (SD/CF/SxS cards etc. – different cameras need different ‘stock’)? Have you got a safe place to put the rushes afterwards, and something with which to label each roll?
  • Prepare a rough schedule for the call sheet, then a very detailed schedule for your own personal use. In the detailed schedule, mark out what everyone should be doing at each point, and what needs to be being prepared for the next bit of the shoot.
  • What are your Plan Bs for the uncontrollables? E.g. wet weather alternatives, sound checks for planes.
  • Have you got spare release forms?

“’Assume’ is the mother of all screw-ups” – David Gilbert, Executive Producer, Factual Entertainment. This is so true. Even if it seems like a stupid question, ask it. It might just be the crucial question, and it’s always better to double check. Better to be a little bit annoying than suddenly discover that no one has brought a boom pole…

I noticed that often the annoying noise that crept into the sound recording was the rustling of various bits of paper that the crew were holding – scripts, call sheets etc. It would be handy to have all the documents in both paper form and on an iPad, so that they can be consulted silently.

It might even be handy to create a Master Document, dictated by the schedule, so each location has next to it the detailed schedule, the script for that sequence and the shot list, all in one easy-to-read table. I think I’ll give one a go for the next shoot and see how convenient it is! If any of you readers have the chance to try this system out before me, let me know how it goes.

Controlling a Shoot

Fast Turnaround

Those are words I’m both hearing and saying a lot these days. On Day One of New Job at the BBC, I was introduced to my director, whose best-friend-by-default I would become for the next six weeks. We were given the topics for our films. There were four of them. Four films, each five minutes long, to be made over six weeks. Needless to say, it was all systems go from there!

Speaking of systems, working at the BBC is like a big fat slice of chocolate cake after a cabbage soup diet. It’s such a massive organisation that there’s support for everything: IT, Legal, Production Services – there’s even someone who will post your letters for you! But that also meant that I had to do a lot of working out which systems I needed to refer up to whenever I needed help. It’s about knowing who to email. Fortunately I worked out on the first day who I should email in order to find out who to email…

Other systems with which I have become familiar are archive databases. There’s one for news reports, one for radio, and another for all other TV programmes that have been broadcast on the BBC. Knowing your way around these is a very useful skill, and will certainly come in useful at future indie (independent production company) jobs! I have also noticed that many other indies ask for BBC Production Safety training, so I can now happily put a great big tick next to that requirement too.

So all in all, I’m learning loads and working hard and fast at the BBC. I’m already halfway through my contract, but it feels like I’ve barely been there a week! I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this beautiful building to work on further projects, but in the meantime I’m going to use that shiny BBC credit for all it’s worth in my applications for my next job…

Fast Turnaround

Bring on the Beeb

Apologies for the recent radio silence, I have been enjoying a long overdue holiday between the end of my contract at Glasshead and my future engagement at the BBC! But now, as I’m feeling restored and ready to re-immerse myself in the world of television production, I would like to share with you my strategies for moving from one contract to the other.

As you know if you’ve been following the blog, in my case it certainly took time and hard graft to build up my experience, my CV credits and my name as a recognisable one in the TV industry. But over that time I have learned certain techniques which, both after and during the build-up of your experience, can help you to find the next job.

First of all, keep a careful record of the contacts you make at networking meetings, in your jobs or through other people. Try to strike up an amicable acquaintance with them. Whether that’s asking for advice, offering them a coffee, or dropping them an update. It keeps your essential TV network aware of who you are and what you’re doing, so that you are at the front of their mind or the tip of their tongue should the need for your skills arise.

So I keep a database both of companies I would like to work for and of personal contacts I have made, colour-coded as to their likelihood of getting me work. Then, when I find myself touting for my next job, I can easily find and remember which people I should contact. In an ideal world, it is best to start putting out feelers two weeks before your current contract ends.

But the advantages of such short term contracts are: huge variety in your work, a lot of experience built up very quickly, and a knack for making new friends. Fortunately, this is the kind of environment I thrive in, and so rather than being fearful of my situation at the end of my six weeks with the BBC, I’m excited. Wherever next?!

Bring on the Beeb

Lights, Camera, Zenia

In addition to being the researcher across the documentary series I’m working on at Glasshead, I also get to be the assistant on any shoots that we do for the London episode (mainly because the company can afford to send me to accompany the cameraman, whereas the budget doesn’t quite stretch to that for the other international episodes). So one Saturday in early June, I got up at 5am to get the train to Leeds to film a conference. I was just supposed to look after the wide shot and take care of contributor release forms. I was in my element. I like a little camera work, but it’s not my main focus – I genuinely enjoy taking care of paperwork, carrying stuff around, coordinating contributors and interviews, anything that involves being organised and organising other people. And problem solving. Which, as you can imagine, is not what the cameraman/director wants to be thinking about, so I was able to make myself very useful indeed! I had the time of my life, and although it became a 16 hour day, I was still buzzing with adrenalin by the end of it.

I do enjoy the organisational office-based elements of producing, but when you finally get out on a shoot it all becomes worthwhile, you see what your office work has been building up to. And fortunately the story we were covering is genuinely inspiring, I feel honoured to be a part of that production.

But I wasn’t expecting the next development in my role as ‘assistant’.

The next shoot was an evening one, based in London. I arrived on location, set up the wide as before, and looked after it, tweaking the shot slightly as and when necessary (widening the iris, upping the gain, tilting and panning to follow the action). But then we had to film something more dynamic – and the director asked me to take the camera off the tripod and do handheld stuff! Bear in mind that this is a pretty hefty Sony EX3 and I’ve never done handheld for more than three minutes at a time…then imagine the pain in my arms after having held this thing at shoulder and hip level for 45 minutes straight. This stuff is really physical.

But I was so honoured to have been trusted with this responsibility. In every way, on so many levels, working in TV is a constant baptism by fire. You get given the chance to take on more responsibility almost by accident and you have to face it head on, without any training or practice. And if you’re good, if you don’t fail, if you get on with it without complaining, you’ll get to do it again. And again. And that way you get to practice. And then one day, you get really good at it, and you get paid a lot of money for doing it.

I’m just looking forward to the bit where I get paid a lot of money to do this…but in the meantime, I’ll do it because, despite the sore biceps, I love every second.

Lights, Camera, Zenia