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).
The other day I attended a workshop about character-driven storytelling in documentaries. We live in the Platinum Age of TV: there is a glut of content, excellent content, available to us on multiple platforms, and so a TV show must have a compelling character and a powerful emotional pull to stand out in the crowd.
In scripted TV, you can write compelling characters and protagonists that people want to engage with and follow on their story’s journey – but in documentaries, you have to FIND those character from real life. Not only do you have to find the character, but you also have to find and build their story around them. Interestingly, both scripted and unscripted character-driven stories follow a similar formula:
There must be a protagonist, the hero/heroine whose story you are following. This doesn’t always have to be one person, it could be a group or an organisation. For example, a group of scientists are trying to find the cure for cancer.
There must also be an antagonist, something stopping the protagonist from achieving their goals. For example, in our story what’s opposing the scientists is lack of funding.
There must be an overall desire, motivation or mission: the driving force of the story. This motivation can change over the course of the story. In our example, the overall mission is to cure cancer.
There should also be an internal desire, an emotional element that motivates the protagonist. As above, this motivation can change, or there can be multiple internal desires. In our story, this could be that one of the scientists lost her son to cancer and wants to find a cure to save other mothers from the pain of losing a child.
So what sort of protagonist should we look for when we’re telling a character-driven story? Our character should be engaging and articulate, but they don’t have to be a decision-maker or someone at the top of their tree – in fact, it’s better if they’re not. They should, however, be someone who is experiencing the effect of circumstances or decisions that are influenced by other people. Most importantly, they need to undergo some sort of transformation over the course of the story arc. Our protagonist should not be the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.
Now, how do we find these amazing characters?! The best thing to do is to phone people, talk to them, make the effort to meet them. In a world where a lot of work can be done remotely and online, this is a task that must be done in person. You can use personal judgement here: chances are, if you find this person engaging and compelling, your audience will too.
I’m not afraid to admit that when I started out in TV, I was absolutely terrified of picking up the phone. I’m also starting to realise that I wasn’t alone in this!
The trouble is, picking up the phone is infinitely preferable to sending an email. Whether it’s to get a quick answer, or discuss something that’s a bit too complicated to write out, or just to create a personal connection, plucking up the courage to make that phone call is often worth the initial anxiety.
So here’s how I got over my fear of phone calls, and I’ll give a few examples of where you should pick up the phone even before you send that introductory email.
My two biggest fears were that I would not introduce myself properly, and that I would forget to say something important during the phone conversation. The introduction needs to quickly tell whoever you’re on the phone to who you are, where you’re calling from and why you’re ringing – and sometimes, when you’re asking someone for something weird or specific, or if your programme is a bit complicated to explain, that short introduction can be tricky! Often I would listen out to how other people in the office introduced themselves, and then copy their opening spiel. But if that’s not an option, then I would just stick to the formula of:
Hello, my name is [name], I’m calling from [production company], and we’re looking for a [contributor/location/prop] for a new [programme/series] we’re making about [general topic].
In order to remember everything I needed to mention in that phone conversation, I used to prepare myself a little post-it note with the following things on it:
The person’s name (if you don’t know their name, make a note of the name of the person who picks up the phone, and make sure to repeat their name at the end of the call – e.g. thank you so much Brenda, you’ve been really helpful today!
Their phone number
An alternative phone number
Details needed e.g. date/time/email address/tech
After enough post-it note phone calls, this checklist became a mental one, and the calls started to feel a lot more natural! Another thing I found helpful was to imagine that whoever the person on the end of the phone is, they could become your new best friend by the end of the call. So it helps to engage them in the friendliest manner possible – even borderline flirtatious 😉
Always pick up the phone if you need a quick answer, such as a location for the next day’s shoot. If you’re post-it prepared, you could have it sorted within 5 minutes! It also helps to brief contributors over the phone, as you can discuss the structure and topics of their interview or contribution in more detail and make them feel involved, rather than sending them a list of things in an email. And if someone’s being difficult on email, or has raised a sticky problem, absolutely pick up the phone and talk it through with them straight away.
Let me know if this helps you with phone manner fear – and comment if you have any other techniques that work well for you!
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!
Having spent just over a year working on Channel 5 projects, 2018-19 is set to be the year of the American projects! I can now count PBS, Science Channel and History Channel in my credits.
So what’s the difference between producing programmes for the UK and producing them for the US? Not much in terms of the basic production process, but the big differences can be felt in the time zones and in the target audience.
The time zones are the trickier ones to deal with. I was working on a large-scale documentary series for the Science Channel, and we had several shoots going on simultaneously in the US across different time zones. It meant that the mornings were quiet, and were usually the times when we’d have our production team meetings, but as soon as the East Coast woke up, right up to when the West Coast woke up at the end of the day, our schedules became rather busy! It resulted in quite a few late nights in the office making calls to LA, and at the end of the project I suggested that we trial a change of working hours to match our contributors – which was well received.
As for the target audience – this changes with every programme and every channel. It is often helpful to put a name and a face to the target audience, such as ITV’s Auntie Beryl! Then as we read each script, watch each edit or interview each contributor, we can keep asking ourselves if our target audience character will like/understand/be engaged by the content that we are creating.
If you are about to start on a US project, my advice to you would be to find out how much production will happen in the US, and also find out from your series producer what the target audience is like. That way, you will be able to offer better editorial feedback on target audience relevance – and you’ll be able to plan for the possibility of work eating into your evenings if filming is taking place in the US!
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to learning more about the vast and fascinating American market.
Right now, I’m sat in a cafe, drinking cinnamon tea and reliving last week’s drama shoot. My back still aches from it, and my brain seems to have powered down to energy-saving mode. But the memories made, the jokes cracked and all the things I learned on the shoot still make me smile as I sip my tea.
The production I’ve just finished working on, a feature-length drama-doc about Prince Albert, was always going to be more drama than doc. We had already filmed the talking heads who were going to provide the documentary element of the film, we’d fact checked the script, we had cast the actors, and now it was time to shoot the whole thing. A beautiful country house in Yorkshire had agreed for us to film there, and we were setting off in the car, armed with lots scripts, schedules, socks and snacks.
During the shoot, I was to take on the role of the 3rd AD (assistant director). I’ll write a separate blog on the ins and outs of what’s involved in the role, but I think the first thing I realised when we got on set is the importance of the hierarchy in drama shoots, which just isn’t quite the same as on a doc shoot. There is a very clear pecking order: Director, 1st AD, 2nd AD, 3rd AD, Floor Runner. The hierarchy decides things like who gets to have an editorial say, who gets on set the earliest, even who eats lunch first. And I must admit, it was quite a shock going from being the researcher with quite a significant editorial say, to a position where my suggestions counted for nothing. Although I understand that in many cases, hierarchies are an important way of maintaining order, it is also important never to crush creativity and innovation in an industry that relies so heavily on creativity and innovation.
Of course, there are many other ways in which drama shoots differ from documentary shoots. The schedules and timings are far more precise; there are many, many more people involved; there are many more factors to consider, such as set dressing, lighting, radio communications. Each department multiplies threefold and everyone has their own specific responsibilities. It’s quite an amazing machine – but there again, I discovered a warning symbol. The careful working of the cogs in the machine made the whole shoot so systematic, so pre-determined, so…boring! Whereas on a doc shoot, you’re always travelling to new places, meeting new people, exploring new things, on the drama shoot all the creativity happens in advance, and once you’re on shoot it’s just a matter of getting the stuff on film as quickly as possible. And at the end of 16 hours of being on my feet, the last thing I wanted to do was think creatively about how to make the film as beautiful as possible.
So that’s why, as I finish the dregs of my tea, I feel extremely grateful for the experience of the drama shoot, and very confident that I’m working in the right industry and the right genre for me. I love making documentaries. I love sharing real people’s stories. I love going to new places and discovering new things, and making them accessible to thousands of viewers. I can’t wait to get stuck in to another documentary.
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.