Today I started my new job at Channel 5’s in-house production company: Elephant House Studios.
The last six months have been filled with all things Roman, as I worked from conception to delivery on the octuplet series Eight Days that Made Rome. It’ll be out by the end of this month on Channel 5, and I can safely say that the whole team is very proud of their brainchild. I’ve never worked on a project right until the end, so it was great to see how it evolved and developed through every stage of the edit – the down side being the mountains of post-production paperwork that go with delivering the final films.
But it’s a rather snuggly feeling, knowing that soon I’ll be curled up in front of the TV watching a series in which I feel so very involved. From knowing exactly where I was standing behind the camera, to seeing the baby photos of one of the contributors, I have been part of this series at every level. It’ll also be my very first on-screen credit!
And in the meantime, I’m starting all over again with a brand new docu-drama. This one will be more drama than doc, and may well lead my career further into dramatisations, but when I think back to all the theatre productions I produced and directed throughout school and university, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. I get a real thrill from seeing historical characters come alive on the screen, and I think there’s a lot to be said for education through entertainment. This feature-length docu-drama, however, is focussed on the Victorian era, so I’m out of my historical comfort zone and learning every day.
But this is what I love about working in telly. There’s rarely a chance to get bored. There’s always an exciting new project round the corner. Always more people to meet, more facts to learn, more skills to develop. Having put Eight Days that Made Rome safely to bed, I am very keen to get my teeth into this new challenge.
My two weeks of taking on the responsibilities of a producer for two weeks on location are over, and I’ve recovered with a nice week of holiday. Restored and ready to write this blog, I’d like to share with you the best and worst of my producing adventure!
First up, location shoots seem to be 50% standing around watching the action, 40% carrying kit, and 10% frantically sorting out emergencies.
The best part of filming was how the whole team became a little family by the end. Our crew of seven was spending up to 16 hours a day together, day in, day out, for a week. We supported each other through intense heat, hunger, tiredness, long drives and stress. The bonds created between crews are strong and happy ones, connections I hope to maintain for the rest of my career.
The worst part of filming was the lack of sleep. We were working 12 hour days, but that’s not including the evening meal and then the backing up and tidying away of kit and getting everything ready for the next day. I had on average 5 hours sleep a night. That was really tough, and by the end of the first week, the heat and the sleep deprivation really got to me and I started feeling very sick. But I’ve learned from that – I need to manage my sleep better, and become more efficient at backing up the day’s rushes and prepping the shoot materials.
All in all, I’ve come away from the experience having learned a lot, and I know I’ll feel a lot more confident when the next opportunity comes up!
I think it’s fair to say that every industry has a preferred CV format. It’s the same with TV – but I’m sure that many of my friends who work in the Civil Service, for example, would baulk at how my CV is laid out, and I at theirs! But when the average employer spends 30 seconds looking at each CV, you need to make sure yours is one that grabs their attention, that tells them everything they need to know about you at one quick glance.
One genuine moment that changed my life was when a talent manager at the BBC gave my CV a brutal makeover. After that, I appeared far more professional – and felt it, too! So here are a few do and don’ts of how to write a ‘TV CV’:
- DO put your name at the top. In big letters. So people can easily see whose CV they’re reading
- DON’T put your picture on. It’s not your social media profile, and anyway this helps to prevent unconscious bias
- DO put your industry level – and make it appropriate for the job that you’re applying for. So don’t put Sam Jones – Producer, if you’re applying for a Researcher job!
- DO put a little mission statement – but only if it’s a good one. A bad mission statement is worse than no mission statement at all. This should just be a couple of sentences that’s like a trailer for your CV – highlighting your best credits and top skills. Maybe try asking a friend to write it for you – they may highlight things about you that you might have missed! You can then use this mission statement across other professional platforms, like LinkedIn and the Talent Manager
- DO put your contact details – email address, website and phone number are fine
- DON’T put your address. It might genuinely cost you a job, if for example you’re applying for something in south-west London but live in north London. That’s an hour-and-a-half commute, and a kindly production manager may well try to save you the trouble by rejecting your application
- DO put your skills in a list or table right at the top of your CV. This can include things like self-shooting, editing programmes you can work with, a clean driving license, training courses you’ve been on etc
- DO head up each credit with a straightforward top line: COMPANY, Production, Role, Date.
- DO mention who you worked with on each production, or put them as references after your top line. Your potential employer will call them up if they know them and ask what you were like to work with. So logically –
- DON’T put down anyone on your CV with whom you didn’t have a good professional relationship. If your potential employer knows them, they’ll ring them – and that person may not give the best recommendation for you
- DON’T put your references at the end of your CV. Your potential employer probably won’t read all the way to the end
- DON’T put every exam you’ve ever taken as your qualifications. No one cares whether or not you did Ceramics GCSE – unless it’s relevant to the job you’re applying for, in which case put it in your cover letter
- DO save a copy as a pdf, to prevent the formatting from going weird on different operating systems
Your CV should enable employers to IDENTIFY, VERIFY and CONTACT you. Anything superfluous to that and it starts to become your life story – and that’s called an autobiography!
I’ve talked about networking a lot in this blog, but it really is the bread and butter of telly. To quote Sara Putt, TV has a soft skills security blanket: people want to work with other people who are easy to talk to, have good manners, are gracious and conscientious and hardworking. Employers verify that by asking their colleagues, your references, people who have worked with you before.
As an employer or as a freelancer, your most important asset is your network. This should involve professional relationships at ALL levels. Keep a database of all the people you know, whether they’re people you’ve worked with, people you’d like to work with, or people you’ve met for coffee and advice. You can use your network not just to find new employers, but also to verify new employers – if you’ve just got a job at a new company, you can ask friends who have worked there before what it’s like. Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity – if you have a really good relationship with just a few industry contacts, they’ll work all the harder for you when you need their help.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you want to connect with – most people will be more than happy to help, remember they’ve been in your position before! But don’t jump straight in asking them for a job. Best to invite them for coffee to ask their advice on something – people always like to share their wisdom! Ask them something specific, so that they can focus their answers. I’ve made the mistake of asking too general a question, and that cost me the meeting with the Series Producer I was looking to befriend. And always thank them afterwards – be specific about why they were helpful. Try to get that new contact to suggest another two people that you should connect with – that way you’ll double your network with every coffee!
Try to update your network every three months, or every time you have something new to say. This could be a new credit to your CV, a new skill that you’ve learned, a new short film that you’ve published. That way you stay in your network’s recent memory, rather than buried in a pile of CVs somewhere in the office. Talent Managers often track the availability of their favourite people, so if they regularly see that you’re getting gradually more experienced and more qualified, you may well become one of their favourites too!
In order to make sure that the shooting style is consistent across the series (we’re using four different directors spread across the eight episodes!), the Series Director asked me to find examples of different scenes that you would find in a typical documentary. I realised that I had essentially compiled a list of what you need to shoot to make a high-end presenter-led documentary! So here they are – and look out for each one next time you watch factual TV…
- The Two-Way Interview. This is where the presenter introduces and then interviews someone, such as an expert or witness. Check out my blog post ‘How to Film an Interview’ for more on that.
- The Talking Head Interview. This is just a mid-shot of an expert making a relevant point, with a ‘name tag’ appearing at the bottom of the screen.
- Two Way Archaeological Investigation. The presenter is taken around an archaeological site, or shown an object of interest, while a resident expert explains the significance of that object or place.
- Walking Piece to Camera (PTC) Exploring a Site. This is where the presenter explores a site or shows an object and explains it by themselves.
- Walking PTC Storytelling. The presenter walks through a neutral or themed location (e.g. along a path, in front of some ancient-looking columns, down a corridor flanked by statues etc.) while they tell a part of the story of the documentary.
- Static PTC. The presenter is sitting down, or standing still, telling us another part of the story, or making an important point.
- Presenter on a Journey. This is quite self-explanatory – short sequences of the presenter in a car, on a boat, in a helicopter, cycling – whatever you like – to show them on their way from one location to another. This is particularly important if your documentary takes you to locations all around the world – although it’s perfectly fine to snap from the presenter in front of the Parthenon to a sewer in Tunisia, sometimes it can feel like a sudden and disjointed transition. This helps to smooth it out, and allows for some explanatory narration over the scenic shot.
- Wallpaper Shots. These are non-sync (not talking) shots of the presenter walking along, or big sweeping landscape shots, or aerial drone footage, or close-ups (cutaways) of objects, flowers, road signs, whatever you need to fill in some narration time, or just some contemplating time in your documentary. Remember, you can never have too many of these!
The last two in this checklist are often called B-roll. Sometimes they’re shot by a different cameraman or director, and you can have a bit more fun with these – make them pretty, artistic, effective. They’re just as important for building the story as the talking shots – because, as we saw in a previous blog, one image can speak a thousand words.
I’m thinking of making a few of my own short films over the next year, so I’ll make sure I capture these eight different types of sequences when I’m shooting them!