Tag Archives: documentary

The factual shows in 2015 that I haven’t seen yet

I know It might be a bit late to do some predictions for 2015, but here they are anyway. Some thoughts on what I’m looking forward to in 2015. If they exist already, please send me a link!

Something that uses the visceral thrill of stunt bike descents and builds a proper story around it. Clips like this one

 

Something that explains modern France, Now more than ever. A version of this article would be good.

A character as good as market trader Roger Barton in the Indus series ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets‘, my fave doc series of recent months.

A new title for ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets’ – I’m a bit of a title fanatic, and this one didn’t draw me in.

An Asian presenter fronting a regular international show. Australia could do with more Asian faces

For lots more programmes from Channel 4 to live up to their great Born Risky tagline

After all the war docs from 2014, and the new swathe of them in 2015, how about something equally compelling about more peaceful achievements?

A series from the Tumblr generation – like TruTV are trying to do.  Kudos to them for doing a full reboot of the channel

A way to get people who watch live sport to watch docs about sporting stories. They never seem to!

An Anime- K-Pop-factual mashup. I went to Seoul for the first time in the autumn, for Docs Port Incheon, and also met Korean producers at the ATF in December. But outside arthouse movies and kids cartoons Korean content is not well known in the West. So how about combining the two biggest genres in Korean pop culture?

And can we all think of a new word instead of ‘arts programmes’ so that programmers don’t keep saying they’re niche and cutting the slots? We all need creativity in our lives. Something to do with Going Out, or Dazzle – anything but Arts!

See you soon, so much media, so little time…

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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 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).

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Keeping it in the Nordic documentary family

A few days at the Nordisk Forum in Malmo have given me time to reflect on the documentary business in the Nordic countries. I live part of the time in Copenhagen, and I’m half-German, so I’m part-Nordic I guess. I was there for most (not all) of the doc pitches over the two days, pitched our own YARN project with the team, and observed the ‘Nordic family’ at work – as one of the moderators Mikael Opstrup called it.

The comments around the table are really one-liners giving general interest (or not) – you don’t hear much in 8 minutes, particularly when there’s 25 people round the table. Very few projects elicited a negative reaction (except perhaps the one I was pitching!) – the aim seemed to be to keep a positive supportive spirit around the table. The one-to-one meetings we got afterwards for YARN with Nordic funds and channels felt very good, and a bit different to what I’m used to in the UK. There was a focus on the filmmaking, the craft, and what the director wanted to do. Far less buyer/seller talk about the different TV slots, sometimes highly specific, or the impossibility of getting single docs on TV (language I used all the time as a commissioning editor at the BBC).

The assumption of most of the producers was that festival and cinema audiences would see the films first (in their ‘proper’ long version) and then a few months or a year later they’d go to TV in a ‘TV version’. The gap in Denmark between public TV and the film institute  (DFI) was pretty clear – Mette Hoffman from DR pointedly talked about whether filmmakers really should just focus on theatrical releases to tiny cinema audiences which prevented films – often topical ones – being shown on television to far bigger audiences for up to a year after completion.

The  public funding and significant development budgets available to some filmmakers maybe also means that they don’t try too hard to sell beyond their regional market.  I also don’t recall many projects with mixed teams to make genuine coproductions between countries. Maybe it’s just too complicated, particularly if it might change the film – what’s the point making your film international if you  annoy your principal domestic funder?  Also, if there are three or more Nordic countries onboard, then the Nordisk Film and TV Fund can pitch in with a further 15%-20% of the budget. There’s something of a mutual self-help pact amongst the Scandinavian family – if you take mine, I’ll take yours. 

The elephant in the room of this Forum (same goes for other pitching Forums too) was that the amounts to be had from presales from public channels for these documentaries were becoming less relevant in a financing plan, except to unlock other lumps of money from the EU MEDIA fund or the Nordisk Film & TV Fund. 

But the public money won’t last forever, and once it’s run out it’s an intensely competitive world out there (as the makers know). These films – and Nordic  creativity – really need to be tested on the wider market beyond the prestige film festivals and late-night doc slots. I’m very aware that, as someone who pitched a single arts documentary at the Forum, this very much applies to me too. But working together to create ambitious films and grab new audiences internationally is what we’re all doing this for, isn’t it?