A visit to the production of BBC/HBO's A Casual Vacancy

 The Octocopter with a Blackmagic camera

The Octocopter with a Blackmagic camera

I had a chance to witness the production of the three-part drama, A Casual Vacancy. On 17th August 2014, I came to the Pudding Hill Farm, Arlington near Bibury where the crew were filming the first shots for the opening sequence. They had a octocopter, which is a helicopter that has eight arm frames and propellers. It has a Blackmagic camera attached to which depicts a type of steadicam, a camera that gets a very static shots. These octocopter shots have to depict the countryside and the boys ride on their bikes. I even imagined and expected what the shots look like.

I met Jonny Campbell, the director of the whole series. He wore a navy blue jacket with a Doctor Who logo on the day. He previously directed Alien Autopsy (2006) starring Ant & Dec, the first series of In the Flesh (2013-) and two episodes of Doctor Who series 5 (2010). He showed me a device which connects to the camera and I saw the camera's perspective. It was amazing how they filmed with this kind of stedicam despite this, it lost control when it got higher because of the wind.

When I first arrived, I saw how frustrating it was for them to wait for the sunshine they needed to film. The weather started off as cloudy with drizzle rain, if it rains, they cover the octocopter camera. Luckily they managed to film most of the shots in the sunshine. Furthermore, there were only two actors, Joe Hurst and Sonny Sekis that appeared for the filming. They are still new in both film and TV. I have seen Sonny appearing as Prince Edward in BBC's The White Queen (2013) and he followed his father, Andy Serkis' footsteps. Both actors had to ride bikes during the filming period. During the filming at the farm, when they said 'cut' as the octcopter was up in the air, the boys were just keeping riding because they couldn't hear. I found this hilarious when it happend twice.

After filming at the farm, everyone moved to Painswick near Stroud where we had lunch and did more filming. During the lunch, I didn't expected that Andy Serkis himself, his wife and his other two children were there to keep an eye on Sonny. As I approached to him, I told him that:

  • I'm a big Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fan
  • I have read The Hobbit
  • I appreciated his performance in the famous riddle scene in The Hobbit
  • I have seen his recent film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
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He looked surprised or maybe stunned and I asked him to have a photo with him. The cap he wore has the gorilla logo and at the back, it says 'Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International'. This depicts that he had visited Rwanda to study gorillas for his performance as King Kong. He also wore a blue hoodie and at the back, it says 'Imaginarium'. This was the name of his special effects company.

 Arri Alexa camera on a steadicam and Jonny (director) looking at the monitor

Arri Alexa camera on a steadicam and Jonny (director) looking at the monitor

After lunch, I saw the continuation of filming the opening sequence at the farm, up the road from Painswick. There were two camera types used for this area; the octocopter I had discussed and steadicam. A steadicam is a camera stabiliser that helps to keep the camera steady while filming handheld or moving. They were filming few continuous shots of two boys riding the bikes down the road. The octocopter started from behind the boys, as they reached the bend in the road, it flew up and took the shots of Painswick and the countryside. I would expect the opening sequence to have a picturesque look. I noticed the cinematographer/DOP using the gaffer's glass to check on the natural lighting. After he checked it, he would change the settings on the Blackmagic camera if necessary. As the day was about to end, they decided to film the church another time and called off filming for the day, and also the weather turned up sunny with blue skies compare to the weather at Pudding Hill farm. 

 The Octocopter taking off

The Octocopter taking off

 

I came to meet Ollie, who worked as DIT (Digital Imagery Technician). He collected the rushes/footage and digitally graded them every day during the filming period. He backed them up on the most expensive hard drive. When he finished the grading, he put the graded footage to a small hard drive ready to be sent to the editor in London.

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 The Octopcopter flying

The Octopcopter flying

 Everyone ready for a shot

Everyone ready for a shot

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After meeting Ollie, I thought it was a good idea to come back and see him and ask questions about his job and how he managed to get to this so far. On 19th August, I visited the office or the actual headquarters of A Casual Vacancy production near Stroud. There were producers and people who worked on set design, costumes and props. I saw a lot of miss-en-scene (props, sets and house objects e.g. china) in a warehouse. There was lots of stuff that was for displaying on the interiors of houses, and they were divided into groups as the characters' houses on tables. 

 The location map of Pagford in  A Casual Vacancy

The location map of Pagford in A Casual Vacancy

I arrived to the location set in Minchinhampton and met Ollie at the trailer where he was working. We started with the introduction of the equipment which seems very important for his job:

  • UPS - a rechargeable battery bank in case of no electricity/power in the location set
  • Tangent wave panel (element TK) - used for colour grading

 

  • Silverstack - a software program that organises the footage and also adds the colour to the footage. It backs up the files to any hard drive, as you copy files to the back-up drive, it also re-copy in case of any of the files hasn't copied to prevent issues
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Ollie was aware that the majority of the editors used Avid despite Final Cut Pro is easy to use. He personally owns and used Final Cut Pro like I do, and we also both preferred it over Avid. He told me that H.264 codec is easy to use and quick to buffer, and also mainly used for iPod, iPhone, YouTube etc. He discussed about the file types - the Mov. file used in Final Cut Pro and the MXF file used in Avid. This was important because if the files are Apple progress (Mov.), they have to be converted to MXF due to the editor (the one Ollie sent the colour graded files to) using Avid. One of the shots, filmed before I came, Ollie showed and explained that they used a camera rig, which auto-rotates as the camera moves for example; the shot of feet and do one movement up. This was another example of a steadicam that would film shots very smoothly. 
He showed the DaVinci Resolve, a new digital grading software and explained on how to use it:

  • There were five main buttons - Media, Edit, Colour, Gallery and Deliver
  • In the Media section, it was where you put all the media files in one or more folders
  • I didn't understand the bit about the Edit section
  • In the Colour section, he mentioned two colour corrections - Primary colour correction is where you contrast and neutral the image, and Secondary colour correction is where you do keyframe and change colour
  • In the Gallery section, you capture a still and put it there
  • In the final section, Deliver, you render the media files
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There were three ways to change or neutral the image, which are Lift, Gain and Gamma. This does help to keep the colour balanced in the image. Ollie suggests I could get DaVinci Resolve Lite for free from App Store or buy the full version. He said that in some projects, there were two DIT or sometimes there was an assistant to do organising by using Silverstack while the DIT works with DaVinci Resolve. I had a go on the DaVinci Resolve and understand that using a graph showing three main colours (red, blue and green) would help to get the three colours all in balanced as possible. He also showed by changing the colour (from red to blue) of the box in the shot however the shot moves, he added keyframes so the colour he changed would stay in place.
He also suggested that reading forms, manuals and tutorials would give skills you need for the job. We also discussed that getting experience and doing some reading would help me to get a job. I asked him some questions; he said he had a degree, worked as a runner for commercials for three years and then as assistant editor for a year or two. He also worked as an editor for music videos and does editing in his own time as he has Final Cut Pro, and also does some work for free in order to get to know people. He never advertised and was not a member of any agency but he used word of mouth that helped to get a job.

After a day shadowing Ollie, I witnessed the filming of Barry's death scene and I noticed a woman looking and listening to the monitor, wrote notes down every time they stopped filming. I think she does this because she would send the notes to the editor and possibly the director. I found them doing the long shot of Barry dying with his wife and other two characters, and move the camera up to the cross. I think they were trying to get the meaning of the shot, if it does appear in the final cut, to the audience. The meaning of the shot was that Barry was expected to die of a stroke. Before I was leaving the set, I noticed the actors were having an ice-cream break. 
At the end, it was good to see what is it like to work on a large scale TV project.