Tag Archives: filmmaking

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.