Don’t mention the E-word

There was a packed auditorium for the main debate at Wildscreen on Wednesday. It covered themes familiar to previous festivals, but no less important for that, according to Wildscreen veterans. How television wildlife films misrepresented the world and its environmental problems. How cute and fluffy animals don’t tell the whole story. How the word  ‘Environment’ is a turn-off for commissioners. Questions from the audience came from people identifying themselves as from the ‘‘Save the Rhino’ or ‘Ocean Conservation’ campaigns. They were impassioned about the need to raise public awareness of habitat and species loss, including of the dreadful trade in shark fin soup which kills between 75 and 100 million sharks a year. The reality of climate change and our role in destroying our planet hung over everything.

On the panel, Channel 4 factual boss Ralph Lee presented a clip of the series Fish Fight, sitting alongside Will Anderson of producer Keo Films. The impact of Fish Fight on the policy of supermarkets, and European Union policy, including through social media is thoroughly documented and well worth a read.

FISH_FIGHT_TXCARD

But Channel 4 has had to set aside some of its campaigning work to keep its ratings up. I heard Ralph Lee say as he was leaving the venue that he’d been dining out on Fish Fight for three years. Alongside him on the panel, the BBC’s Science and Nature commissioner Tom McDonald squirmed a bit when asked if as a public service broadcaster they could do something like Fish Fight. He used the familiar BBC defence ‘we’re not allowed to do campaigns or be political’ – which seems quite weak to me. There’s nothing party political that I can see about a programme dealing with the food on our plates, or how the supermarkets behave. And Fish Fight wasn’t promoting a campaign group, it was an independently produced examination of the subject which got its message out.  If there was a problem with dealing with such issues, shouldn’t the BBC be looking at Watchdog and other consumer journalism? Feel free to browse the BBC’s editorial guidelines to see how you interpret them, and how they apply to series such as Fish Fight.

Ralph Lee had cleverly assembled a reel of C4 clips – from a live show from the Space Race, the drama Utopia, and a Kevin McLoud design series – to demonstrate how environmental questions could be covered in other programme forms, not just documentaries about the natural world. The BBC’s science and natural history commissioner Tom McDonald also reeled out plenty of examples. 

But this didn’t satisfy the audience, or me. The state of the planet is too grim, and climate change too grave an issue, for it to be just ‘smuggled into’ programmes. It really needs creative thinking and leadership from the top. Tony Hall of the BBC has brought about a change in the BBC to be an Arts broadcaster, and a Diverse broadcaster. And backed it up with money and resources. How about allocating similar funds and managerial will to making the BBC actively cover climate change and its effects? This BBC Trust report from 2011 on BBC’s Science coverage still seems to stymie debate in the BBC about the coverage of climate change issues – but it can’t be allowed to. TV has a bigger  responsibility than that.

Joe Smith and Kim from the Open University, with the filmmaker Jeremy Bristow behind the camera, interviewed me for a research project about the coverage of environmental issues in broadcast media. A great subject, and it made me think hard about the responsibility of people with such powerful tools as cameras, TV channels and other platforms at their disposal – and often with money from the public.

2014-10-22 12.15.04
Jeremy Bristow and Joe Smith

 

The channel I’m now working for, SBS, has done a series looking at the origin of the seafood Australians eat, called What’s the Catch? – starting on Thursday 30th October.  I’d like to see more campaigns and awareness-raising on the channel, and know I’m going to be asking myself with the same questions on the best way to get people to engage.  It can’t be beyond us to work it out, can it?

Please comment on this, or email me. Thanks for reading!

Wildscreen…I think I love you

Wildscreen is a conference and gathering held in Bristol for nature and wildlife filmmakers, distributors, and broadcasters. It happens once every two years, alternating with the Jackson Hole festival in Wyoming. Everybody clusters around Bristol’s lovely harbourside, like animals around a waterhole, wandering between the Arnolfini Gallery, Bordeaux Quay, and the Watershed centre.

2014-10-22 16.30.09

It’s relaxed, chatty, and dressed-down. 

2014-10-22 18.44.10

Nearly 30% of the world’s wildlife programmes are made by Bristol-based companies or crew. The BBC Natural History Unit was founded here over 50 years ago, and provided a foundation for the sector. Now October every two years is the place to be to watch, discuss and celebrate the genre. It has its Panda Awards, given out on the last night – and you can see the results here. Wildscreen feels very different from the business-driven ‘industry’ events like Realscreen, the Broadcast conferences, or Sunny Side. There are sponsors of course, but it’s all low-key.  Like the World Congress of Science Producers, Wildscreen feels run by the community for the community.

After I left for dinner on Wednesday I’d like to think the crowd at Bordeaux Quay would have got down grooving to this little number:

There’s a strong production aspect to Wildscreen – about actually making films as well as financing them. There was much talk about the need to innovate in camera techniques to boost declining audiences. Camera manufacturers and rental companies had their own room to show off their kit, usually with seriously long lenses attached. 4K is now standard for filming wildlife.

2014-10-22 13.13.20

Janet Han Vissering of Nat Geo Wild handed out lots of chocolates, and got the members of her panel on coproduction, the first of the day, to wear T-shirts with flags of the countries they were from. Everybody on the panel knew and had worked with each other. Janet’s metaphor for coproduction was a holiday with a friend, and she entertainingly got audience members to talk about the pitfalls of such holidays. All the panellists looked as if they’d be pretty good holiday company.

2014-10-22 10.12.52

2014-10-22 09.47.23

Partnerships across borders are now essential in factual programmes. Hence the very international feel of the market. I met Germans, French, Austrians, Australians, Irish, Americans, Canadians. Kenny Bae from Korea was there with his hi-tech selfie-taker

2014-10-22 12.48.45

 Hiromichi Iwasaki of NHK in Japan told us about their very big budget Giant Squid documentary from earlier this year. The production used a boat costing $50,000 a day, for 60 days, to try and catch the first images of the squid. $3 million just for the boat, with the rest of the cost of making the film on top. (Though that $3 million did apparently include the submersibles).

2014-10-22 13.35.15

The US producer on this coproduction (on the right in the picture above) told the audience that having invested in the huge cost of the expedition, Discovery said that they wanted a ‘monster‘ film, not an expedition one, as ‘monsters were hot right now’. They needed quite a bit of persuading to keep the expedition aspects in, apparently. 

I’ve been making it my business to work in the coproduction area over the past three years. That’s been with the Sunny Side and Asian Side of the Doc markets, helping the international development of Gedeon, and now consulting for SBS in Australia. Wildlife is a very international genre, but because of that – and the fact it often doesn’t date – supply outstrips demand.  And the audience is always asking for something newer and different, particularly in Australia where both the ABC and the commercial channels show the cream of natural history filmmaking. I’m realising I need to ‘think different’ and find more partnerships with broadcasters – and not just the usual suspects – to secure the impactful shows that we want to bring the SBS audience. I’d love to hear and talk about ideas along those lines you might have.

Suzanne Harle from distributor Green Planet Films,  seeing that I represented SBS, told me of when she was a student in the early days of SBS, where it was associated with programmes about drugs, peace and love. Apparently in those days the student audience watching it was mostly stoned, and SBS stood  not for Special Broadcasting Service but for the Special Bong Station. I will look that when I go to Sydney in December…

2014-10-22 16.31.06

Chasing content and dodging cloudbursts in Cannes

Three and a bit days in Cannes for MIPCOM have just come to an end. The Indian summer gave way to dramatic cloudbursts, making the Croisette  look like somebody had gone overboard on the CGI budget.

FullSizeRender (1)
Shine International party, Majestic Hotel

Drama subplots were everywhere. Warner International’s semi-open stand on the beach got flooded out; All3Media laid on Tuk-Tuks to their lunch for Lion TV’s 17th birthday, only for their drivers to get arrested. Companies that were big were becoming even bigger.   Shine International had fine Sunday evening weather for their opening drinks by the pool – likely one of their last markets as a standalone outfit before the Endemol-Core merger. Your correspondent can report that Shine’s Espresso Martinis were excellent. May such creativity not get lost in the merger.

The frequent downpours in elegant if overpriced Cannes seemed to echo the rapid changes in the industry. A global industry crammed together in a small space, sent scurrying for cover by unpredictable events.  Digital distribution was once again the talk of the market. Ted Sarandos of Netflix gave a keynote – comin’ atcha, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. HBO announced a streaming service. The stands and posters though were all still about the content – in that sense, little changes at MIPCOM from year to year.

FullSizeRender_1
The market at 0815 on Monday morning

The days were full with half-hour meetings – ‘speed-dating’, as my boss at SBS Peter Andrews called it – and my notebook quickly filled with titles, delivery dates, and conversations to follow up. Being with my new colleagues Peter, Ben Nguyen, Tony Iffland & Andrew Golding  as we were pitched by distributors and producers was a great way to learn about SBS, and my version of the SBS editorial pitch is now flowing a bit more naturally. Our acquisitions wishlist and programme catalogue got held up in French customs for a day, but eventually it became a useful prop to head off the ‘what are you looking for?’ question. Let me know if you’d like a pdf emailed to you  – though it’ll also be online soon.

Wednesday ended with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand’s drinks and dinner on the roof of a chi-chi hotel. Plenty of new contacts to follow up on when I get to Australia in December.

FullSizeRender_2 (1)
BBC WW ANZ drinks, V Hotel

It was good to be back in the swim of broadcasting,  and I’m really looking forward to my new role.  Next time I come to Nice airport though, I’m going to remember to pack my helicopter.

FullSizeRender_4

 

Being Buster Keaton

I’ve mostly been at the writing/producing/commissioning end of the documentary-making business, (though I did start out as a photographer). Last week I did some real actual filming for the doc I’ve written called YARN. It was in Barcelona at the SWAB art fair. Helgi Felixsson is the director (and has also shot a lot of it) Iga Mikler is the DoP, but neither could make this particular event with one of our characters. So I said I’d go. How hard could it be?

After my few hours filming, I’ve got a new respect for what doc filmmakers (I mean anyone who holds a camera). I rented a Canon 5D MkII. Hardly an enormous camera, but after a few hours you can feel the weight. I also don’t know how anybody does manual focus with that camera’s LCD screen – I was sometimes setting the focus on the lens barrel according to the distance, as I just couldn’t tell from the screen what was sharp and what was not. Or giving up and going autofocus. I know there are some tips and settings I could have used – but I didn’t know about them, and only had an hour after getting the camera before starting filming.

keaton carrying camera

Filming movement, like Olek‘s crochet-clad performers – was a real challenge. You had to be aware of what people were doing, what they were going to do next, be looking behind you to see what else olek crochet models

was going on, constantly thinking about how to make a conversation into a 3 shot sequence. And worry about sound. Which I failed totally at. Plus you have to keep the shot steady, hoiking the camera on and off the monopod. Oh, and did I mention finding unusual creative shots with movement and interesting composition? Then when you add data management, (knowing the right camera settings, having the right cards, downloading it all correctly) it all feels too much for one person. Yet that is the reality of documentary filmmaking.

I know we could have hired a camera operator instead of just the kit, But a) we didn’t have the money; b) I knew Olek and what the other material looked like; and c) I fancy myself as a photographer and wanted to give it a go.

keaton monkey camera

Re-reading Viktor Kossakovsky’s rules for documentary filmmaking, I realise how little attention I used to pay to the photographic nature of the work. With DSLRs it’s much more evident that the filmmaker’s role is to find images that capture a moment, rather than just record situations. As using a DSLR makes you feel you’re capturing a still image, it also makes you focus on what’s on the screen.

A lot of factual programmes can look very basic visually – not everybody is trying for a ‘photographic’ look. The ‘interviews + archive material’ formula to tell stories in the past tense is a formula for so much television. I’m beginning to understand why – it’s more straightforward to do, people sit in a chair and talk, and interviews can be planned in advance. The craft of filmmaking – whether that’s a short TV report or a long feature, I’m not making a TV-film distinction – is taking a situation and making a sequence out of it – not just one image, but several which together create a mood, an emotion in the viewer.

But I think of all the researchers and assistant producers being sent out with cameras with next-to-no training, particularly in the UK,  generally on their own as part of a larger team to get material for formatted factual series. As they’re having to deal with the actual situation they’re filming, the craft of what they’re doing understandably gets lost. And their shots are then edited by an edit producer with no reference to them, or the time to talk to them about what they’ve shot and why. Except to moan about how they’ve forgotten GVs, close ups, and so on.

I guess I’ll get better with practise, and it’s about time I bought my own documentary-ready DSLR. If anybody has tips and recommendations about what I should buy, I’d love to hear them.