How to be a Producer

It’s nearly August, school’s out for summer, nearly everyone’s on holiday, and the weather is feeling decidedly autumnal already. But here at October Films, it’s a hive of activity. We still have half the documentary content to film for our eight-part series on Ancient Rome – but we were supposed to have finished all our filming by now, and so all the producers’ contracts have already finished. Yet someone still needs to produce a week’s worth of filming in Rome, another week in Turkey, and a short shoot in Tunisia…

My time to shine.

I’ve been hoping for an opportunity to take on more responsibility, to take a big step up in my job – and this is quite the step! With a week’s shoot in Rome followed immediately by a week’s shoot in Turkey, all running to twelve hour working days, there’ll barely be time to breathe. I’ll be flung in the deep end, learning on the go, trying to make sure everyone’s happy and that we don’t forget a crucial piece-to-camera.

Brilliant.

Although I’m super excited by this opportunity, I have to admit, I’m a teeny bit nervous as well. So I asked my production manager to give me a quick 101 on how to be a producer. I’ll share with you what she told me:

  • Always think a few steps ahead. Where are we filming next? What time to we have to be there? Are we meeting anyone there? Do we have contact details for them? When’s the next meal? Can we pre-book or pre-order to make sure we’re not using up valuable filming time?
  • Make sure all the crew is fed and watered. Carry water bottles with you, and mark each one with the initials of whoever was drinking from it, so you don’t end up with a load of half-drunk bottles bouncing around in your bag. Stock up on snacks when you arrive at your location and keep some with you to distribute to hot, tired crew.
  • If you’re filming in a hot country, make sure everyone puts suncream on. It’s bad enough being hot and tired without being burned too!
  • At the end of each filming day, make sure everyone knows the next day’s call time.
  • Make sure you know how much money you need to carry with you each day, for food, drink and location fees, and then lock the rest of the money in the hotel room safe.
  • When you arrive on location, double check that all the bookings are correct, and that the DoP’s room is near a lift so that he/she can move their kit easily.
  • Make sure you carry all the filming permits with you at all times, plus any other important paperwork you need. It’s also useful to have a photocopy of everyone’s passports with you, just in case the local authorities ask for ID.

Basically, it’s like taking a large, dysfunctional family on holiday with a ridiculous amount of excess baggage and a crazy sightseeing schedule. I’ll have to stay on the ball, be super organised, and make sure everyone is happy and safe.

Wish me luck!

How to be a Producer

CV Tips

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!

CV Tips

Networking

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!

Networking

A Weekend at BAFTA

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in the BAFTA Guru Labs, a scheme run by BAFTA for new entrants to the media industries: TV, Games and Film. As well as granting us free access to the talks, lectures and workshops at BAFTA HQ in Piccadilly, they also organised networking and advice sessions for us with industry experts. It’s only the second year that they’ve run this scheme, but so far it’s been a roaring success – and I certainly got a lot out of it!

On the first evening we had a networking party, which was a great opportunity to make a few new friends. The attendees were mostly new industry entrants, like me, so it took the pressure off having to impress any potential employers! That happened first thing the next day – but the new friends I had made on the Friday night made the intimidating prospect of a 15 minute one-to-one session with a top Production Exec slightly less scary! As all the participants were in the same boat, at roughly the same industry level, it created a lovely supportive atmosphere for the whole event.

One of the highlights of the afternoon sessions was our Round Table discussions with top execs from the TV industry. Groups of about six of us got together and were able to talk and ask questions about our experiences working in TV, what we should be doing to progress and what to look out for. I was very encouraged by how friendly and supportive everyone was – TV can be a difficult, cut-throat, competitive industry, but there’s a sense of solidarity that comes from being aware that it’s like that for everyone!

By far the most useful piece of advice that I got from the weekend was this: as a freelancer, you need to treat yourself like a business. And like a business, that means you need to:

  • Go to events to promote yourself
  • Build your brand: create a consistent message and image across your social media platforms and your CV
  • Train yourself
  • Be strategic about building your reputation: this means building up your CV by taking jobs that form you into what you ultimately want to be

This is a great way of thinking about life in a freelance industry. YOU are the product – you want to tell your employers that they need YOUR skills, and no one else’s. But unlike a business, with separate departments to look after marketing, finances, strategy, training and research, you have to do all that yourself. No one said working in telly was easy!

A Weekend at BAFTA

Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Static PTC. The presenter is sitting down, or standing still, telling us another part of the story, or making an important point.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!

Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary

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