I’ve always been a lover of the BBC. As a kid, shows like Byker Grove and Maid Marian & Her Merry Men were always video’d for repeat viewing. Today, iPlayer hosts some of my favourite sitcoms, entertainment and dramas. As an experienced corporate video camera operator, opportunities to work in broadcast are rare, so when I was approached by the Big British Castle (or BBC to normal people) to work on a series of short films for one of their flagship dramas, I couldn’t turn it down.
BBC Studios got in touch with me to shoot and edit a series of short films to coincide with Mental Health Awareness week. Each film would feature a different actor or character from the daytime soap Doctors performing a poem or book extract around themes such as mental illness, anxiety or depression.
There were plenty of challenges. We had 3 days to shoot all 7 films, with only a few hours with each actor due to filming schedules of the show to work around. Plus travelling across Birmingham is a nightmare in itself!
Still, it was a challenge I was willing to accept and excited to get my teeth into.
Here’s what I learnt from my time working with the BBC.
Plan well in advance
From the very start, I worked closely with the producer/director of the shorts Kate Horlor on the concepts and approaches for the films. She had strong visual ideas for all films so it was my role to liaise with her to ensure not just that all ideas could be realised on a cinematic level, but that they could be achieved with the time restraints we had.
For example, one film was to be shot in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. With only 90 minutes to grab 6 setups with our lead actor and several supporting actors, I suggested filming each shot in 4K rather than the delivery format of 1080p. This way, we were able to capture a perfect master shot as a wide shot, and know that we were able to crop in tighter for a mid or close up shot when editing. Shooting on my own Sony FS5 kit made this simple. Although 4K on the FS5 is 8-bit colour, this didn’t affect the end result and we managed to grab so much more in the time we had.
Run & Gun mode
As a camera operator on a hectic shoot, you never want people to be hanging around waiting for me to mount a lens, set timecode or dial in a picture profile when the clock is ticking. Having the FS5 set up in Run & Gun mode meant I could grab the camera right out the bag as soon as we got to the location and start filming within seconds.
The crew was small, on some days just me the director and actor, so I had to make sure I had everything to hand to deal with sound and lighting as well as the camera.
The Sony FS5 is a workhorse of a camera. With relay recording set and a pair of 128gb SD cards, I get nearly 10 hours of HD recording without needing to switch out memory cards. Pair that with my neat Swit 86 Wh batteries and I can easily last a long day without any problems. Just a few coffees and a sarnie for me and I can crack on for as long as necessary!
With no boom operator to call on, I used one of my pairs of Sennheiser G3 radio microphones to attach to the talent. The natty little Ursa Foamies came in handy too as they allowed me to hide the mic in clothing without any rustle. They’re truly amazing. As long as they’re firmly attached to the talent (clothing tape is my favourite with some Pro-Gaff as a backup) you pretty much get them attached in the morning and they’re fine for the rest of the day. We were flying all around Birmingham one day with Ashley Rice (or Sid Vere if you’re an avid Doctors fan) capturing a powerful monologue to the camera in as many locations as we could. Even with a few costume changes of jumpers, jackets and coats, the mic stayed firmly attached to the t-shirt base layer with the Ursa Foamie intact so no resetting was needed in between setups. Brilliant!
Quick turnaround edits
With tight turnarounds required on the films, I’ve never been so glad of my transition from being an Avid Media Composer editor to an Adobe Premiere Pro editor as I was during this project!
After an overhaul of my edit setup a few months prior to this project, I had at my disposal not only a robust footage and project backup system with 20TB of hard drive space, but by lightning fast M2 drive scratch disk, 64GB RAM and reliable Nvidea Quadro graphics card meant that there was never any lag in the edit.
Seriously, no lag in Premiere. I’ve seen the promised land.
Even working with a few layers of 4K footage, effects and LUTs added with Lumetri, playback was still super smooth.
Working with footage of the brilliant Laura Rollins at 400 frames per second was a particular highlight. A simple setup of diffused key light and a black backdrop gave an evocative look to ‘Glitter’. Add to that a few kilos of actual glitter being thrown around a meeting room, the shots when slowed down from 400 to 25 frames per second, graded with a subtle LUT and light leak effects, it really made for a breathtaking film. Especially after a few delicate sound effects from my library were mixed in with some quality Audio Network music choices.
I really couldn’t be happier with how everything turned out.
Working with the BBC was a thrilling challenge. For someone who works mostly within corporate video, producing content for a broadcaster such as the BBC was a fantastic and unique experience. All that’s left now is to clean all the glitter out of my tripod bag…