Making Haste – Slowly

I’ve put this stuff together from the point of view of a professional production team, but if you’re thinking of an amateur weekend shoot, please try to plough through it all. The process is just the same. Easier in some ways, because you don’t have to convince anybody to give you six million dollars to spend on location. But harder in other ways – you don’t have an experienced set designer available or a hotshot editor ready to deal with your rushes. You could just grab a camera and go out there and shoot. And the result would be… just like your aunt’s holiday video! You wouldn’t start to build a house without a set of plans, would you? You’d hire an architect – then you’re pretty sure the house won’t fall down as soon as you build it. A film or television programme is just the same. Do as much preparation as you can – it’s good insurance.
  • Pre-production
  • Production
  • Post-production
But first, here’s the fourth of those three – the pre-pre-production phase! Getting the thing started. All programmes begin with an idea. The idea can come from the producer, the writer, or indeed, anybody. But it’s a long way from there to switching on your television and seeing that idea in full colour.

Preliminary research

There’s so much television programming about these days (some people have access to more than a hundred channels, and not all of them are showing ‘I Love Lucy’ 24 hours a day), so the first bit of research you should do is to see what the other chaps are doing. If you’ve had a brilliant idea for a cookery series, for instance, have a good look at other cooking programmes, and see what they’ve got to offer. And hope your idea isn’t already there on screen. There’s another reason why you should watch the opposition programming; you can learn a lot from their faults! Even if all you learn is not to do is to have a different celebrity chef as presenter each week, that’s a fault you can now avoid. And an aside here; no disrespect for chefs, but anyone who is an expert in one field is less likely to be totally proficient in another. To put it another way, a painter communicates his ideas on canvas; he probably won’t be as good with words. He may be totally captivating as an interviewee, but the chances are he’ll be rather average. If you’ve set your heart on a series of celebrity chefs, don’t despair; just change the format of the programme slightly and do that bit of it with an experienced interviewer learning how to cook that chef’s signature dish. And there’s a corollary; you won’t find many television presenters who are good cooks, gardeners, painters, etc. Yes, Percy Thrower was totally brilliant at both gardening and presenting. Same for Tony Hart, Johnny Morris, and Patrick Moore (except I know Patrick never lifts a spade). But if I were contemplating a cookery series and had the choice between a good presenter who was a rather average cook and a good cook who was an indifferent presenter, I’d take the first one. After all we’ve all known teachers who mug up on the next lesson just before the class, don’t we? And on television you can always go for take two… You need to consider locations if you’re shooting outside a studio. Some organisations have a location library you can consult – a lot easier than scouring the country looking for a Gothic castle or a quiet (but accessible) waterfall. There are agencies that do the same thing, and the tourist boards in many countries are only too glad to send you information (and even chauffeur you around possible locations). But probably before you get that far, you’ll need to get permission and/or money to go ahead.

Programme Proposals and Treatments

Production is expensive, and you need to get money – lots of it – before the idea can be converted into pictures on film or videotape. You need to get the idea down on paper so that the money people can examine and evaluate it. The process will force you to organise and clarify your ideas. You’ll see the weak points and discontinuities, and have answers ready for the inevitable questions. A proposal can be as short as 500 words, or as long as 50,000. The main thing is it should be as short as possible, but still enable an experienced reader to ‘see’ the production in his head. You will need to give details of the kind of programme, duration, the target viewer, likely audience size, the storyline (if it’s a drama) or the approach (non-fiction), maybe some of the key performers, and some idea of the cost. There’s one big thing to bear in mind when you write a proposal; don’t just inform – sell.

What will it all Cost?

A television programme costs a lot of money. In the USA, two or three million dollars an hour is a good rule of thumb for a popular prime-time production. Whether you’re pitching you your head of department in a large broadcasting organisation or trying to get venture capital from a sponsor, you have to convince the reader that your idea will sell – that is, the viewers will like it. You must know who your viewer is. The more specific you can be be about the target audience, the happier the advertisers will be. And you’ll convince everybody you’ve done your homework. There are many, many formats for drawing up a proposal. Think about the priorities of the chap who will approve (or not) your idea. Here’s just one way of drawing up a proposal: Presuming your big boss approves your idea in principle, you’ll probably then need to do a budget estimate. Most organisations have budgeting charts that serve mainly to remind you of all the thousand and one different things which are going to cost money. Including your own salary or fee. There’s no great magic to doing this; it’s largely a matter of experience and organisation. You’ll need to know how many days you need each person involved, for instance – if you don’t know ask around, consult the actual person, etc. At this stage you haven’t got a script, so details might change later on, but you’ll be able to get a rough estimate of the cost at this stage. Of course, if you’re thinking of an amateur shoot with a group of friends, far less paperwork is involved, but I suggest a rough and ready addition of how much it really will cost.

Compromise or Cut

There will probably ensue a few days, or weeks, of negotiation. Your head of department likes a bargain as well as anyone, and he wants to get the best value possible. Can you use a cheaper lead and do it on tape instead of film? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to set the piece in West London, not Tokyo? Some organisations prefer to short-circuit all this and just allocate a fixed fee based on expected audience size and time and day of transmission. Obviously some programmes will be exceptions, and they’ll need to be bargained for. Whatever your local situation, you’ll probably find a bit of a squeeze. Very few producers are handed a blank cheque book and told, “Enjoy”. It’s time to get down to the real nitty-gritty.

The Pre-production Phase

Old hands know the maxim: The most important phase of production is pre-production. Or to put it another way; a stitch in time saves nine. Even if you’re not shooting Titanic, programme making is an expensive business. It would take a huge calculator with room for a whole row of zeros to work out how much money has been wasted by producers and directors rushing into a shoot before they’ve planned it properly. One or two people (or even a dozen of them) in an office, planning, researching, and kicking ideas around aren’t too expensive. Crews, editing, star performers, location travel and accommodating are all huge drains on a programme’s budget. It is in pre-production that the vague ideas and conjurings of the writer, producer and director become a shooting script, schedule and storyboard. Lots of paperwork, I’m afraid. The director tries to see and hear the final product in his head. But the huge army of people who will turn that vision into reality need to have their efforts coordinated and orchestrated otherwise it’ll be “dog’s breakfast” time.

Hiring and Auditions

People need to be recruited. You’ve almost certainly got at least one person in mind for each of the major roles, both on screen and off. If you haven’t, ask around, look in Spotlight and consult the Internet which has all sorts of directories. If you’ve got a programme running, you’ll almost certainly have a file of young hopefuls who’ve written in asking, begging, for a chance to appear. You’ll probably need to run some auditions. Different people like to run them in different ways, but it generally comes down to some sort of mock-up of the final production; a couple of pages of dialogue with someone from the production office playing the other role(s). Before I did my first auditions I asked a very old television hand what to do. He said, “Just book the very largest audition room you can, set your desk as far from the door as possible, and by the time he’s reached you, you’ll know”. And, what do you think? He was absolutely right. The body language, what he or she is carrying, first words, the whole approach all tell you as much as a full camera test. Don’t forget the viewer in all this. In order for your programme to have value and a lasting effect, the production must in some way affect the viewer emotionally. This is a major key to success. Accurate visualisation is extremely important. But extremely difficult, at least to begin with. When we’re young, most of us convey our ideas to others in verbal form. As we grow older and go to school, then college, we progress to using written communication. If we want to send a message, the instinct is to write words. But television and film are, primarily, pictures. Telling a story in moving pictures is very difficult, especially at first, but hugely powerful when you get it right. Consider the famine in Ethiopia; for many months people knew that there was disease and death. But it was only when a camera crew got pictures of small children with sticks for limbs, distended bellies and flies crawling across their faces that the world leapt into action and we had Live Aid and all sorts of other aids. And AIDS is another story. But a poll revealed that most of the people who had given money had no idea where Ethiopia is; indeed a sizeable number of them didn’t know to which country the money was going.

Who’s going to Watch?

A very important thing to bear in mind during the pre-production process is the identity of the viewer. Is he or she a child? A retired person? A businessman? A rebellious teenager? You’d need to approach the story differently depending on who your target viewer is. And I say viewer in the singular deliberately, at least for television. For many dramatic programmes, especially feature films, the viewer isn’t usually addressed directly by the cast (Woody Allen is a notable exception). But for documentaries, travelogues, consumer programmes; the vast majority of non-fiction television programmes, you must regard the experience as one-to-one communication. Lines like; “Those who were watching on Thursday will remember . . .” are definite no-nos. Address the viewer personally; “If you were watching on Thursday you’ll remember . . .” And the presenter is singular too; how many times have you heard the line; “Tell us, Mr Smith. . .” and wondered how the interviewer became a plural person?

The art of the Possible

As well as the aesthetics, you must remember the practicalities. By the time you’re halfway through pre-production, locations will be firming up. But you can’t just whizz off there and shoot. Hotels, flights, location caterers, portable lavatories, generators, all sorts of things have to be organised. And in many cities it’s just not possible to find a good quiet street, set up your tripod, and start shooting. You may well need access permits, licenses, security bonds and insurance policies. In public locations the controlling agency will usually restrict shooting to certain areas and to specific hours. If there is a street scene and traffic will be affected, it will be necessary to arrange for special police. Private premises are easier and more difficult. Depending on the nature of the production, insurance and a bond may be required.

The Last Few Weeks

During pre-production, all the personnel to be involved will be booked, many consulted, some in great depth, and all of the major elements will be thought through and planned. Anything the designer does will affect the way the set is lit, and therefore where the microphones are placed. There will be at least one, often a long series of planning meetings with all the key people. Some changes will be made; some just to get the thing to work, others because someone has been able to add another dimension to the director’s plans. And there will be plans. Not just drawings to enable the set to be constructed, but a scale drawing of what will be where in the studio. The director will work out how he will get various shots and plot positions for each camera.

The Script

The script, which started off as a simple list of dialogue and stage directions will have each shot listed opposite the speech or action which the shot will capture. Hours and hours of work. There will be graphs and charts of who is needed where and when. A very complicated dovetailing to make sure that the shooting is done in the most economical way. And, if the production is a drama, the plotting of shots will take place after each of a series of outside rehearsals. (They’re called Outside because they happen outside the studio – in a church hall or gymnasium; anywhere there’s a large flat space.


The second AD or Assistant Floor Manager will put tape marks on the floor to show where the walls of each set will be, and there’ll be old junk furniture to stand in for the expensive leather armchairs of the real set. Doors will be indicated by a couple of upright posts and staircases will just be a couple of telephone directories. Any old stuff will do, as long as the shape and size of each set is correct so the cast can get an idea of how much room they have for moves. The first rehearsals will be simpler, though; everyone sits around a table or a ring of chairs and reads from the script. There will be changes and improvements, and gradually the script will disappear and the cast will start to add ‘business’ to the plain words. During this time, other people will be beavering away. If the right costumes can’t be hired, they may be specially made for the production. A long-running series will have a series of costumes for each of the main cast members. There may even be a number of identical shirts, for instance, if a scene involves someone getting wet. And the cast will probably have to attend fittings for costume, even for wigs. Towards the end of the outside rehearsals, there will be a technical run. Design, costume, sound, lighting; all the craft people will be there. The designer will show models of his sets, samples of the wallpaper, and the wardrobe supervisor will bring along some or all of the costumes. The technical run is usually the last outside rehearsal, then there may be one or two days rest before:

The Production Phase

Here is where everything comes together in a kind of orchestrated coincidence of splendour. Or something like that. Some programmes are broadcast live; news, current affairs and sport are obvious examples. Most other things are recorded. There are all sorts of reasons – the ability to go for a second take if there’s a problem, costume changes, etc. And some live programmes are also recorded – so they can be sold to broadcasters in other countries, or for a repeat at three in the morning, for instance.

The Post-production Phase

If the programme is recorded, a large amount of post-production work is largely concerned with editing the programme. The producer, director, and videotape editor view the rushes, make major editing decisions, and start work on a rough cut. (If the programme is a drama, this may well be happening during the shoot; often each day begins with a viewing of yesterday’s rushes. The editor will then be assembling sequences while the next few scenes are being shot. This can help if there’s a huge problem – at least the cast and crew can be brought in to see the problem and a re-shoot scheduled quickly.) Whether editing is done concurrently with the shoot or later, the editor will produce a Rough Cut; just what it sounds like. A first assembly. Every scene, at full length; if there’s an interview, most of it will be in, even if only one or two sentences are needed in the end. Rule of thumb; the first rough cut usually runs one and a half times the projected programme time. The editor will then show this to the director and perhaps the producer. They’ll have ideas for tightening; maybe whole scenes will go. Then the editor will produce a second cut and that will get a viewing; more cuts, and so on. Eventually, everyone will agree it’s perfect, or it’s nearly transmission time, so let’s go with it, whatever. Then music will be added; if there’s commentary, that will be written and recorded, and the masterpiece will go to air.

Don’t stop before the End

But that’s not the end of the story. There are plenty of other things to do whether the show is live or recorded: The set and props must be returned to the hirer or store, or carted off to someone’s garage. Many, may accounts must be settled; most of them financial ones. Fees for artists and other people; transport; hire of the studio and/or equipment – many many different bills. Trailers and other promotional material must be prepared. Transmission forms are needed; they’ll give accurate timings, details of credits and any suggested introduction.