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

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

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

Top Ten Treatment Tips

Most of my job involves writing up ideas, to all different stages of development.

Stage One: the Pitch. This is usually a one page Word document with a title, summary strapline, short idea overview, and a few pictures. The real core of the idea.

Stage Two: the Treatment. This extends the idea into a PowerPoint presentation, imagines how an episode would play out, and is a lot more visual.

I’m used to writing pitches, but haven’t had much experience with full treatments. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve learned a lot about what really matters when creating them, and how to put together a really, really good one. So for anyone who’s interested, here are Zenia’s Top Ten Treatment Tips:

  1. MAKE IT VISUAL. Use the title page to say as much as you can about the show with a picture. They say an image speaks a thousand words, and they’re right! Identify the three key things about the show and put them together in a bold, statement image, along with the title of the show. Even better if you can use Photoshop and create a really cool composite picture.
  2. KEEP IT CONSISTENT. Find a background design that subtly creates a mood for the show. But don’t make it too elaborate – you’ve got to be able to read what the page says too.
  3. TARGET AUDIENCE. If you’re writing for a specific channel, keep the channel’s typical target audience, its colour scheme and its logo in mind. Make it really easy for the channel to see that show idea in their schedule, show them clearly how it fits into their existing broadcasting.
  4. MIND READ. Put yourself in the position of the commissioner. They get hundreds of these things per day, they’ll probably read it in an Uber on their way to a meeting while also worrying about their five year old with chicken pox, and if they can’t get past the first two pages they won’t read on. So make sure they get what the show is about within the first two pages.
  5. CHECK YOUR TEXT. If you wrote two sentences, can you say it in one? If you wrote ten words, can you explain it in five? Short and sweet. Sure, this is the extended description – but remember that busy commissioner…
  6. USE YOUR IMAGINATION. Let it run away with you! Draw out a full episode, think about how it would work, invent characters, create tension. By doing this, you not only visualise it for the commissioner, but you also anticipate potential production problems. Many a treatment has been almost completely written up, but then when the sample episode is written out, the fatal flaw is discovered…and you have to start again from scratch.
  7. DAFONT.COM. You’re a creative. Your job is literally to come up with ideas. So a PowerPoint template and Times New Roman are not going to impress. Download a new font that is totally in the style of the show – but check how it converts to pdf before sending it off. Sometimes if the person you’re sending it to doesn’t have the same font, it’ll go all weird on their computer and look more like a beauty pageant show than the next Jackass…which could lose you that commission!
  8. LOTSA PICTURES. TV is a visual medium. I know, it’s obvious, but if you’re used to writing stuff in a university setting, this often falls by the wayside. Anything you say that comes with a strong mental image, back it up with a real one! Remember what we said in Point 1…
  9. EASY TO READ. Choose a font colour that stands out from the background you’ve chosen, make the text big enough, and space it out nicely, so that your text isn’t too intimidating.
  10. TIME TO PLAY. Play around with all the formatting options available to you. Sometimes just adding a shadow here, a glow effect there, a subtle background colour tint, will turn your dull treatment into something stunning.

Pitches can be written in about an hour if the content is strong – treatments take time. Don’t expect to turn these around within a day – the extra hour you spend playing around with where that picture sits on the page or scrolling through reams of fonts will definitely pay off. This is the important stuff. And remember that a commission could be worth millions…and that translates to what a good treatment could be worth.

Top Ten Treatment Tips

Life on the Development Side

Well, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll be pleased to discover that I got the job! I’m working as a Junior Development Researcher at Zig Zag Productions, a relatively small production company based in Clerkenwell. Everyone is friendly and supportive – and I’ve really been thrown in the deep end with work! I feel like I’m being given plenty of responsibility, and all my skills are being used to the full, but I’m also being pushed to develop new ones. I’ve got to admit, it’s really not the most lucrative of jobs – but that’s not why I entered this industry in the first place! Low pay is currently coupled with 100% job satisfaction.

At the moment we’re working towards MIP, which is like the TV equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival. Over the course of three days, ideas are pitched and sold between TV production companies and broadcasters from all over the world. These are probably the most important three days of the TV year, and we’re frantically preparing pitches, treatments and teaser trailers for our main ideas. So as you can imagine, it’s all systems go go go – and as you can also imagine, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Life on the Development Side

All about that pitch

While I was working on the series about the Roman Empire, the Head of Specialist Factual discovered another of my interests, which led to him asking me to write the pitch for a new series he wanted to produce. This turned out to be one of the most useful things I did during that two-and-a-half month contract. Writing pitches is a very important skill to develop if you want to work in TV, and totally different from the research or essay writing I had so far been trained to do. The secret lies in being able to tell the commissioner exactly what new things the audience will find out, which new places the presenter will take them to, and why all this is different from any other programme ever before, in two sides of A4. This came in very useful…

I had a work experience placement with ITN for two weeks after my time with Lion, as part of the team that produces the Tonight, On Assignment and Exposure programmes. There, my job involved researching and writing pitches for their new programmes, which had a focus on current affairs, both at home and abroad. It was much higher pressure, as I had only a day or two to research and write each pitch, but it was very exciting, vastly boosted my knowledge of current affairs, and allowed me to work with the likes of Julie Etchingham. I also had a different audience to keep in mind when writing the pitch, an audience that is affectionately termed ‘Auntie Beryl’ at ITN.

Although my area of expertise had moved from the past to the present, the essentials were the same: the FACTS and the STORY. The main difference with these stories was often the legal aspect, as these programmes were making observations about contemporary issues, often picking up the legislation of the Government on sensitive issues, and exposing the darkest parts of history and humanity. It was genuinely exhilarating to be working on programmes that had the potential to change something in our society. The next thing I had to change however, as my two weeks drew to a close, was my employment status…

All about that pitch