Commercial production: An eye on the world
As The Drum peers out of its Manchester office window, it can just pick out the desolate figure of a grey NCP car park through the afternoon drizzle.
It is your typical everyday winter’s scene in the north of England. It is not the picture postcard middle-England-in-bloom that a client imagines as it plots its summer television campaign.
“If you want to guarantee a blue sky you have to go abroad to film,” says Mark Platts of Leeds-based MezzoFilms. “And at this time of year, a lot of clients are readying summer campaigns. They want nice shots of a green garden or a family sat around a pool. I bet you can’t picture that looking out into Manchester can you?” Platts adds with a chuckle.
The wind rattling the office windows certainly better conjures chips on the front at Skegness than cocktails on a beach in Spain.
According to Ian Watson, of Harrogate-based Expose, while going abroad for the right shot – and the right climate – is often essential, getting the right look and light wherever you are doesn’t come without patience.
“It is always fun trying to get the exact spot where the sun is going to come up. Especially when a crew of 30 odd plus clients and the agency and the creatives are all walking about on a beach in the dark. That’s the world spinning and sunrise. Not crowd control. It’s about being patient,” Watson says.
Watson admits that even if a lot of his time is spent huddled around a computer in pre- and post-production, the idea of donning shorts to the beach in the name of work sounds like the kind of job most of us would crave.
But Colin Offland, of Manchester-based Chief Productions, says that only a decade ago he’d have had to listen to titters from the rest of the industry if he said he was taking his crew abroad.
“Ten years ago, if you said you were going abroad to film, people would just think you were off on a jolly,” Offland says. “Where the commercial industry has progressed is that going abroad has become the norm – we do loads of jobs outside the UK, especially in winter. It’s just dictated by the creative wants of the client.”
Ian Watson says his role, basically, is to be a facilitator for the client and its agency’s creatives. As such, he has to facilitate some particularly challenging locations to suit the needs of the client all year round.
“One client wanted a 3x30ft snowboard and a 40ft wooden sledge at the top of a mountain range in August, UK summertime. Oh…and they wanted the sledge to work, and slide down virgin snow.
“Because it was summer in Europe, unless we’d have gone to the top of some particularly dangerous mountain range, we had to go to the Southern Hemisphere. We did this job in New Zealand.
“We had to build a hill the size of a tennis court and the height of a bus in 20 minutes to make this happen. That’s working to the needs of the client,” Watson says with the kind of nonchalance not usually reserved for someone who’s built a hill… in 20 minutes.
Having recently plotted filming for Gratterpalm client Focus DIY in South Africa, The Mob North’s John Brocklehurst is equally familiar with shooting on location.
“Most of our work outside this country is shooting on location. Although, we can also use studios abroad, in Latvia say, as opposed to ones in the UK because it’s about half the price to shoot there and the buyout for actors is considerably cheaper.
“With Focus, the shots we needed were obviously very outdoorsy and because of the look of the place and the weather, South Africa was the perfect fit,” he says.
Mezzo’s Platts says there’s little time for sight-seeing when on filming trips abroad, unless those sights happen to be your locations.
“We have a fixer over in whatever country it may be, and they take us from the airport and give us a bit of a whirlwind tour of all the locations to shoot the day before.
“The next day we meet the local crew, then we get shooting and we’re back on a plane to Britain within a day or two to crack on with post-production.”
Platts says it’s vital that producers have the utmost confidence in their foreign-based ‘fixers’.
“When you go to a lot of places abroad you’re there for the weather. To an extent you’re in the lap of the Gods, but if you trust your fixer then the locations will very rarely differ from the stills you’ve been sent.
“You’re relying on these people to pick you good locations, so it’s never as though you turn up and it’s not like it appeared in the brochure.
“Your fixer also pulls together your local crew, which is essential if you’re on a really distant job, say in South Africa, where because of the expense you can’t take your full team out. It’s usually just director, producer and D.O.P.”
Offland believes it’s imperative that both clients and agencies are receptive to being open-minded about where they shoot - if going abroad isn’t going to lose its value.
“I can see an ad and tell you exactly where it’s been filmed almost instantly now which can’t be good,” Offland says. “We have to be creative with locations. This industry uses certain locations in the southern hemisphere now so much and so we need to be mindful of being original.”
Of course, a client doesn’t always have to venture abroad. The Mob has offices in Leeds and London, but according to Brocklehurst, film companies are well-serviced for locations and studios outside the capital.
“All our jobs for northern clients we do in Manchester or Leeds. Even when we’ve got a London job, we try to persuade the agency or client to come up here because the north is about 20 percent cheaper than London.
“I love filming in Manchester. The Pie Factory in Salford is probably my favourite studio and that’s inclusive of anywhere we could use in London,” Brocklehurst adds.
Offland agrees that there are good studios close to Chief’s Manchester base, but filming on location in a city like Manchester is not without its difficulties.
“Manchester council are being a bit difficult now but I can understand why. So many people want to film in Manchester that they get a lot of requests. What you can do in a day in Bolton takes a few days here, it would, in turn, take a few weeks in London,” says Offland.
While filming all around the world, in locations ranging from Prague to the Pyrenees, via Cape Town and Valencia, Watson still loves shooting in Yorkshire.
“Jobs have ranged from very low budget vox pops in Bradford in a hidden studio near to the football stadium (that still remains a bit of secret location), to a five hour timelapse movie of a graffiti artist in Weatherby or a 100 percent Yorkshire crew for a commercial in Leeds.
But, Watson admits, there is a natural fascination of working with new stimuli and people and places which only going abroad brings.
With due respect to locations in Yorkshire, as the rain lashes against our window, The Drum can empathise with any producer dreaming of a brief to hit their desk set in warmer climes.