RTS Craft Skills Masterclasses Day: 30 October 2013

RTS Craft Skills Masterclasses Day: 30 October 2013

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Thursday, 31st October 2013

HRH The Prince of Wales has warned of a growing skills shortage in UK television training.   

Speaking at the start of the RTS Craft Skills Masterclass Day held at the Hospital Club in London’s Covent Garden on 30 October, the Prince recalled how a conversation with documentary film maker John Bridcut and his crew led to him becoming concerned over a lack of training opportunities for would-be technicians.

He highlighted recent findings by Creative Skillset, which identified “significant skills shortages across all forms of production”.

“There are too few designers, mixers, editors, costume supervisors, camera and boom operators and digital imaging technicians,” warned the Prince of Wales.

Of 2,160 graduates who recently entered the TV industry, only 345 are employed in craft and technical roles – just 16%, calculates Creative Skillset.

But the demand for skilled technicians is likely to rise significantly in the future.

“If we don’t plan to meet these future demands now, we will be ill-serving our television industry and minimising the employment opportunities for thousands of people,” said the Prince.

He pinpointed what he described as “the alarming trend in factual programmes to dispense with the services of a dedicated sound recordist, often due to pressure on budgets”.

HRH added: “I hope this expertise will never be taken for granted or allowed to wither away, simply because of cost-cutting.”

The Prince announced that the RTS was extending its educational remit by launching 20 new bursaries worth a total of £60,000 to students studying TV production and related digital media at accredited British universities.

“These bursaries are targeted at students in less affluent circumstances and are aimed at widening participation in our media and related industries,” he explained. 


The insiders’ view

In a following panel discussion, chaired by BBC Trustee David Liddiment, industry leaders – Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia and Sophie Turner Laing, managing director of content at BSkyB – addressed the issue of craft skills shortages.

On the plus side Frot-Coutaz revealed that when The X Factor was exported to the US British technicians were required to help launch the show because of a lack of skilled TV crafts people in Los Angeles.

“In making these formats abroad we found we had to export a lot of British talent because this country is historically the best at training people,” she said.

Turner Laing conceded that training young people in craft skills represents a “genuine challenge”. Nevertheless, the UK still has much to be proud of. “Look at the Oscars, nine times out of 10 the craft winners are all British,” noted the BSkyB executive.

The “elephant in the room” is that production is predominantly a freelance world. “It is very tough to come out of university with quite a lot of debt and work in TV when you don’t have a permanent role,” said Turner Laing.

It is vital that students are given lengthy periods of work experience in studios so that the next generation of production staff possesses the necessary skills in cutting-edge technologies such as 3D and 4K.  

Cohen said the BBC must remain absolutely committed to training people in craft skills. “It is part of our Royal Charter that we train not only people in the BBC but also outside the BBC,” he said.

Cohen added: “We are right to keep challenging ourselves and asking, ‘Are you doing it well enough?’”

Hollywood’s continued commitment to making feature films in the UK tells us a lot about the high reputation British craft skills enjoy globally. “There’s a reason why JJ Abrams wants to make the next Star Wars movie in London,” pointed out the BBC’s director of television.

However, the demand for craft skills puts extra pressure on supplying enough trained specialists.

“This means we’ve got to get better and better at training.” insisted Cohen. “Across the board, whether it is in visual skills, set design or sound, the BBC has a crucial role in continuing to develop those craft skills.”


Sound advice

The day’s first Masterlcass was devoted to the craft of sound.  It featured sound recordist Simon Bishop and sound supervisor Kevin Duff. The discussion was chaired by BBC Television Production’s chief creative officer, Pat Younge.

Duff is a specialist in entertainment shows and currently sound supervisor on The Voice.  

He described the craft of TV sound as a “stealth art” – in other words, people only really notice it when it is not good enough.

Duff, who started his career at London Weekend Television, described the complex challenges of getting the sound right on a live show such as The Voice. This involves a total of 120 microphones covering performers and studio audience.

“On a show like that it’s chaos,” he said. “There’s people everywhere… The sound monitor is doing between 40 and 50 mixes.”   

Bishop also works on big entertainment shows but on other genres, too, including hit BBC drama New Tricks.

Getting the sound right for a location drama such as New Tricks presents different challenges to live entertainment shows. 

“The difference is that we are not live so we can go again and can prepare,” he explained. “We tend to rehearse, set up, record – and if it is not right, we can do it again.   

“It might look like a set but we are filming in real locations so we have to deal with things such as the sound of fans and air conditioning.

“You can’t to back. You have to cope with what’s there.”


Creative editing

The second Masterclass was devoted to editing.  

Wall to Wall chief Alex Graham welcomed Bafta-winning documentary editor Sean Mackenzie and RTS award-winning drama specialist Luke Dunkley to explain the art of editing.

“Editors are essentially storytellers. If you can’t write, then editing is the next best thing – I think it’s the most creative part of the process,” said Dunkley, who won an RTS award for 2007’s Channel 4 child abuse drama Forgiven. “Editing is a fantastic job,” added Mackenzie. “I am constantly surprised at the window on the world [you see] every time you start a film.”

“I look at a set of rushes and react to what I’m seeing and what the director’s telling me. I’m seeing my own truth in that set of rushes,” said Mackenzie, while discussing BBC Two’s Amish: A Secret Life, for which he won the Best Editing, Factual Bafta earlier this year.

The editor had been asked about how he ensured a documentary, in this case about the life of one Amish family in the US, was “truthful”.

“There were maybe 80 to 100 hours of rushes but it’s a 60-minute film, so the ‘truth’ is the thing we’ve ended up with, and I think we’ve been truthful to that family and the portrait of them,” he added.

Drama editors work with scripts and so have less freedom in the edit suite, suggested Graham. “You always start with the structure of the script, but what’s written doesn’t always work when you sit down and watch it,” revealed Dunkley.

“More often than not we reorder 40%, maybe more. The last scene is usually the last scene and the first scene usually the first, but outside of that it’s up for grabs.”


Through the lens

The subject of the final Masterclass was camerawork. This was given by drama director of photography Matt Gray and wildlife cameraman and producer John Aitchison. The chair was former Lime Pictures boss Carolyn Reynolds.

Gray described the job of the DoP as “getting out into the world and grabbing the stories by the scruff of their neck, whether it’s wildlife or drama”.

When he started in TV 25 years ago, Gray said that he thought he “could make a difference, tell stories and touch people’s lives. That has been my driving force and it’s that kind of core motivation that gets you through the slightly darker moments.”

Following film school and early work in documentary, Gray moved into drama where he knew he belonged. His credits number the BBC’s garlanded Iraq war drama, Mark of Cain, and recent ITV hit drama Broadchurch.

Aitchison, who has worked on blue-chip docs such as BBC One’s Blue Planet and won a Bafta for his work on BBC Two natural history series Yellowstone, described his job as “a way of showing the world to people”.

He added: “There’s a creative aspect and also a scientific aspect. I found there weren’t many jobs that combined the two things. I like both equally – I enjoy telling stories and the biology.”

The wildlife cameraman, who started his career in the film unit of the RSPB, said that modern technology could help aspiring film-makers get a break.

“It’s easier to make a show reel now than it’s ever been, because you can do it on a digital SLR and edit it on a laptop – it’s simple.

“In the past it was incredibly hard and expensive – you hardly ever got hold of a proper film camera and film stock was expensive.”

Gray added that in the past young hopefuls had to learn their craft before they could shoot a film and find their “voice”. Now, he said, “You can find your voice and learn to tell stories very quickly.”

“The biggest mistake to make is to spend too much money on things. If you can, find cheaper ways of doing things so you can do more of it.

“The only sure-fire way of proving that you are able to do wildlife filming to someone who might give you a job is to have done it. You have to make films,” said Aitchison.

“It doesn’t matter what you film on – the format matters not one jot because you are only showing that you can tell stories with pictures.”

The producer of the Masterclasses was Helen Scott.

A full report of the RTS Craft Skills Masterclass Day will be published in the November edition of Television

Report by Steve Clarke and Matthew Bell

Pictures by Paul Hampartsoumian


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