Television distils two days of expert advice from leading television practitioners. Reports from the RTS Masterclasses 2019.
RTS Craft Skills Masterclasses 2019
Editors Emma Lysaght and Matthew Gray spoke about how they had each worked with distinguished programme-makers, Louis Theroux and Shane Meadows, respectively.
Lysaght, a documentary specialist, worked on Louis Theroux’s Altered States: Choosing Death, in which terminally ill people prepared to take their own lives.
“It’s a sad subject but, within those dark moments, there is always some lightness,” she recalled. “When I first Skyped Louis, I was terrified. He asked me what I thought the film was about. I said it was about the strength of humanity and love.” She added: “In the edit process, he’s amazing. I didn’t know how controlling he would be – it’s a Louis Theroux film, after all. But he was incredibly open.”
Gray, the recent winner of an RTS Craft & Design award for Meadows’ The Virtues, shown on Channel 4, first worked with the director on This Is England ’90. “Shane’s work is very personal, autobiographical. You have to be sensitive to the material and see if you can take it to places that perhaps you didn’t expect it to go to.
“Sometimes, that feeds back into what’s going on. He’s got a very clear idea of what he’s looking for.”
Lysaght’s father was a film editor, so she grew up watching him cut film. Even so, establishing herself as a successful editor was challenging: “It was quite a male environment, I was very nervous and very shy. I didn’t get into the cutting room until I was 19.
“My dad knew of one female editor. She needed an assistant, so I stepped in and became her assistant.”
Gray read philosophy of film at the University of Leeds, before working as a runner at Yorkshire Television (YTV) and then being offered a post as an editor. “I was thrown in at the deep end and had loads of time to edit material. I was at YTV for… three years and then went freelance, working at Warp Films [maker of Meadows’ films].”
Lysaght and Gray were interviewed by Ruth Pitt, director of the Creative Cities Convention.
Matt Bacon records sound on location, often having to battle the noise of the modern world to obtain a pure track. “We strive to do as best we can. Sometimes… we have to compromise,” he admitted to former factual programme-maker Helen Scott. “On a daytime show, you’re going to be less concerned about it than in a period drama, where you cannot have a plane flying [overhead].”
Mumbling actors or poor sound? “A lot of the time, the recordist isn’t to blame – a lot of artists do mumble,” insisted Bacon. “Part of our role is to say, ‘We can’t hear them; I’d like another [take]. Often, you are overruled.”
He went on to warn: “You can repair [poor sound] in the edit, but it will take you longer and cost you more.”
“If we’ve got good sound, we’ll use it, said Kate Davis, who mixes sound in post-production. “But, a lot of the time, we can make it better if we add something. Obviously, it depends on the budget how much time we have to accentuate the soundtrack.”
“Dialogue is the most important thing in any soundtrack,” she added. “If you can’t hear the dialogue, then you might as well not bother [watching].”
Smooth sound is the objective of the dubbing mixer. “It’s not just about making any clip as clean as possible, it’s about smoothing it into all the elements [of the show], so the sound washes over your head,” said Davis. “Sound is so subliminal – I don’t want anyone to ever think about what I’ve done.”
Sound technology has changed dramatically during the duo’s working careers. “But”, cautioned Bacon, “while the equipment is getting smaller, cheaper, lighter and more complex, technology will only take you so far – trust your ears.”
Drama specialist Sara Deane studied at Bournemouth Film School and the National Film and Television School, whereas documentary cinematographer Mike Robinson was self-taught. “I blagged my way in as a camera assistant,” said the Emmy award-winner (for Ten Days to D-Day), “and I learned on the job”.
Robinson, who runs Man Friday Films with his identical twin brother and fellow documentary cameraman, Steve, specialises in single-camera shoots. “Whenever you film anything in the factual world… you affect what you are filming,” he said. “[With] a single camera, you are as discreet as you can be and the impact on what you’re filming is as little as possible… Allow the action to unfold – generally, people forget you’re there within minutes of [starting] filming.”
Zombie movie Anna and the Apocalypse, which was shot by Deane, is at the other end of the spectrum. For one musical number, she ordered 800 coloured bulbs to light the scene; and planned every shot meticulously.
Discussing the cinematographer’s creative influence on a drama, she said: “I come to a [project] with my own ideas but, essentially, there is one person – the director – who is running the show. My [role] is to understand their vision. Before we get anywhere near the set, we will spend a lot of time together talking through ideas.… [I try] to enhance their project – if you’re not working together, you will always be in a battle.”
The best photojournalism and street photography offer valuable lessons to the cinematographer. “Seeing how a moment is captured when the composition is just perfect… I try to learn from that,” said Robinson.
“When I get a script,” said Deane, “I will spend quite a few days watching films… so that I can send a load of references to the director.”
Deane and Robinson were in conversation with factual entertainment executive Nell Butler.
RTS Student Programme Masterclasses 2019
Nerys Evans, creative director of comedy at independent producer Expectation, explained how she had worked her way up from secretarial work at the BBC to become one of the UK’s top comedy TV practitioners.
At the BBC, she produced Miranda, Jonathan Creek and French and Saunders, while at Channel 4 she commissioned shows such as Catastrophe, Flowers and Derry Girls.
“I’m from a very small town in Wales,” Evans told Sarah Asante, session chair and commissioning editor for BBC Comedy. “No one I knew ever worked in TV. I had no in. I just followed my dream and worked really hard to get my foot in the door.”
She’d always been obsessed by comedy. As a student at Liverpool John Moores University, where she read politics, Evans got involved with the student radio station. “There were comedy shows on the radio, so I worked with a lot of comedians. After university, I joined the management agency Avalon as a receptionist. I thought I’d won the lottery because I could go and see lots of live comedy for free.”
Her next job was at the BBC, as a PA in the comedy department, working for Little Britain producer Myfanwy Moore. “It was an extraordinary insight into the editorial process of comedy,” she recalled.
Evans then joined Comic Relief, before becoming an associate producer for BBC producer Jo Sargent, whose shows included French and Saunders and Ab Fab.
“I learnt a huge amount from working with her,” said Evans. “Jo had put Miranda Hart in a French and Saunders sketch. She was brilliant and I ended up doing the pilot for Miranda. “It was a big, brave thing to do. Phoebe Waller-Bridge takes all the credit for talking straight to camera, but we did it on Miranda, which was a story of a woman who felt out of place but was trying to be herself.”
On the difference between being a producer and a commissioner, she said: “As a producer, you’re first in, last out. Your DNA is in every part of the show… As a commissioner, you’re part of the creative process, but you don’t get your hands dirty. You don’t go home and cry.”
Rageh Omaar is international affairs editor, ITV News, and one of British TV’s most distinguished foreign correspondents. He reported on the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad in 2003 for the BBC, and won a Bafta for his BBC coverage of the invasion of Afghanistan, where he was the only western TV journalist to report from Taliban-held Kabul.
Educated at Oxford, where he read history, he was born in Somalia, having moved to the UK as a child. Omaar told the students not to be put off if their families had no contacts in journalism.
“There were no other journalists in the family.… Journalism is very hard to get into without contacts. It is still a somewhat opaque calling,” he said.
Dedication and hard work reap dividends, as does the ability to work as part of a team. “Viewers don’t realise that reporters don’t just pop up in global hot spots and start reporting. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“They’re only there, able to operate and, hopefully, stay safe because of the local fixers. These are journalists who work as local production staff to support international news crews. Without them, to quote our Prime Minister, we’d be dead in a ditch, literally. They’re our guardian angels and know the places that have to be avoided.”
Omaar has seen the horrors of war many times. In these situations, it is vital that reporters keep their emotions in check: “You always have to think practically when you’re telling a story. What you’re witnessing on the ground may be heartbreaking, but you’re always thinking: ‘What shall we film?’
“It’s not callous, but, when you’re at the centre of a humanitarian crisis, such as the drought in Somalia, you have to make calculated decisions about what would look good on TV and get you more time on the bulletin.
“Of course, you empathise [with the victims] but, at the same time, you have to think: ‘How can I make this story come to life so that people back in the UK can relate to it?’”
Rageh Omaar was interviewed by Nuala McGovern, who works for the BBC World Service.
South Londoners Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith started writing together at sixth-form college. “We discovered we were very much into movies; not just watching them but actually wanting to make them – and, specifically, to write them,” recalled Fajemisin-Duncan.
“It was mainly Tarantino [-style] monologues,” added Smith. “Spike Lee was also a big thing for both of us, especially Do the Right Thing.” Their break came with the gritty Channel 4 drama Run, which starred Olivia Colman and Lennie James – and went on to win an RTS writing award. It told “stories about people that we grew up with. At that time, they were seldom seen on screen and, in some respects, still aren’t,” said Fajemisin-Duncan.
Sky Atlantic series Save Me followed: “[Lennie] had three scripts and we worked with him to plot out the rest of the series, and wrote episode 4 as well,” continued Fajemisin-Duncan. They have just finished working on series 2, Save Me Too.
Success in the UK has caught the attention of studios in the US, where the writing duo have two movies in development. But Smith admitted that they had had disappointments – “things that we’ve developed for a couple of years have never made it to the screen”.
“We have similar tastes – I think that’s important when you’re looking for a partner to work with,” he added.
“We work together, plotting and outlining… and then we carve that up into an act structure and go away and write,” said Fajemisin-Duncan. “We come back together and critique, and come to a consensus on what the rewrite will be. I rewrite what Marlon has done and he rewrites mine, and you keep doing that until it finished.”
“We’re friends… I’ve known [Daniel] since I was 12 or 13,” said Smith. “We do have disagreements and it helps that we can have an all-out, crazy argument and be joking a couple of minutes later.”
Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and Marlon Smith were interviewed by drama producer Carolyn Reynolds.
Arthur Cary tackles difficult subjects in his work, which includes BBC Two Holocaust documentary The Last Survivors, with great sensitivity.
His first job in television was at Endemol, as a runner on the reality shows Celebrity Scissorhands and Big Brother: “I exploited every connection I had at Endemol and got a job at North One, which used to make a lot of Cutting Edge [documentaries] for Channel 4.”
Cary’s break in documentary came with a Cutting Edge film about four eight-year-olds going to boarding school, Leaving Home at 8, which Cary developed and worked on as an assistant producer.
BBC Two doc Louis Theroux: Savile, Cary’s first major directing job, revisited Theroux’s relationship with the monstrous DJ, first captured a decade and a half earlier in When Louis Met… Jimmy.
“You get very emotionally involved and you need to harness that – films that I make are as much a reflection of my emotional response to a subject as they are an intellectual response,” admitted Cary. “You don’t want to shut off emotion; equally, you need to be able to function while you’re making films.”
Discussing The Last Survivors, Cary said: “I’m not Jewish, so I felt a responsibility as an outsider making this film.… You’re really struck… at how important it is to the community to make films that chime with how they feel and do justice to the subject.”
Film-makers have to represent their contributors fairly: “[They] watch it before it is broadcast.… They don’t have editorial control, but they can check for factual inaccuracy and fairness.… You [have] a responsibility to make something they feel is fair and an honest reflection of [their] story.”
Documentary film-making, he added, can be relentless: “You’re thinking about it 24/7.… there’s no separation and that can be tiring. You need a break… [to] start engaging with the world [again]… to work out what you want to make a film about next.”
Arthur Cary was interviewed by the film-maker and creative director of True Vision Yorkshire, Anna Hall.
Reports by Matthew Bell and Steve Clarke. The RTS Masterclasses were held on 5-6 November at IET Savoy Place, in central London, and were produced by Helen Scott.