All in the family

It's a strikingly simple idea: use modern technology to document the drama of family life.
January 1, 2009

It’s a strikingly simple idea: use modern technology to document the drama of family life. For British director Paul Watson in 1974, that meant using portable cameras and small film crews to track the Wilkins family, quickly making them the most famous ‘ordinary people’ in the UK.

In the new millennium, the idea means removing the film crew, and replacing them with the same spying technology used to equip Big Brother and other settings – creating a true fly-on-the-wall observational style.

London-based Firefly Productions, part of the Shine Group, has successfully used such kit in a number of series, including Britain’s Deadliest Addictions to observe drug addicts as they kick the habit. Channel 4 deputy head of docs Simon Dickson felt that the center ground of British factual TV was getting a bit ‘samey’ and wanted to embark on some landmark series. So they set out to find a British family who would agree to be filmed for 100 days and nights, no holds barred.

The Family completed an eight week run in November, emerging as a solid hit for Channel 4. The broadcaster is now looking to not only carry on the series with a new family, but to apply the same tech to other intimate arenas.

For such a streamlined idea, production of The Family proved lengthy, expensive and logistically challenging. Finding the right family proved the greatest hurdle. Firefly ran a call center to screen thousands of families, closely scrutinizing more than 100. One family was selected, and had their house equipped, only to fall through at the 11th hour. After more than a year of expensive searching, in walked the six-member Hughes family, who the producers recognized as a standout even from the still photo.

With four children ranging from 14 to 21, including a ‘wildchild’ 19-year-old clubbing daughter, the Hughes seemed to fit the bill as a lively, average modern family. With acclaimed British filmmaker Jonathan Smith (The Trust and Make Me Normal) on board to direct the entire series, production began in earnest.

The Hughes family lived in a cottage near Canterbury, and thanks to neighbors willing to be relocated (to larger accommodation, allowing them to host relatives for the holidays), Firefly was able to turn the cottage next door into a studio and edit suite, installing 30 screens, logging area and facilities to support 40 people working 18 hours a day in two shifts. The production also took over four houses and a hotel in Canterbury, which served as the home for the crew and edit and digitizing suites for six months.

Cameras and mics in the Hughes house were all cabled to the cottage next door. Much of the production equipment stemmed from reality television, but was altered for documentary sensibilities. The cameras, hired from Holland, had to be more light sensitive, to avoid having to equip the house with studio-like lighting (when the production did increase the wattage in the home, the family rebelled by wearing sunglasses).

The cameras were affixed to walls at shoulder height, so that the footage would resemble classic docs. Producers spent a long time trying to figure out how the family moved around the house, and positioned cameras accordingly. ‘We had to know the way to cut between the cameras. What you don’t want is unnecessary cameras,’ says Nick Curwin, Firefly’s managing director and one of The Family‘s three exec producers. ‘You’ve got a very careful equation to balance between how many cameras you have versus how long you film for. I feel good about the balance we got.’ Twenty-one cameras were positioned, running for 100 days. With three streams active for the family’s waking hours, there were more than 5,000 hours of rushes to sift through. Blade logging software was adapted to lend itself better to more in-depth storylines than found on reality TV – one episode simply centered upon a missing sweater, so the software needed an expanded notes section to be able to clearly mark out scenes.

The house was equipped with microphones, and the family also used specially adapted radio mics. ‘We didn’t want people to just think it was a kind of Big Brother,’ says Curwin. ‘A visual clue would be if they were wearing those slings and pouches. So what we ended up with was more discreet because we didn’t want that look.’

The toilet and bathroom were left out of filming, and together with the Hughes, the production devised rules about when they could turn the cameras off. ‘We weren’t trying to film them naked and had no interest in filming them getting dressed,’ says Curwin. ‘It’s their house, it’s not like we imported them into studios. They needed some degree of privacy.’ It was agreed that when the cameras were switched off by members of the family, that they would come on automatically after 45 minutes. No filming was done while the family was asleep, although the cameras would start rolling before they got out of bed.

Curwin says that they had to work carefully with the family to gain its trust about filming, in order to allow the cameras to continue to roll during the many arguments that took place in the Hughes household. ‘If the trust is there, it works well. You do need to film in the heat of the moment.’ In fact, father Simon Hughes discontinued filming in February in the midst of an extended row – the cameras were only turned back on four days later after a cooling off period. The entire sequence – including Simon switching off the cameras – became the focus of the episode which producers referred to in-house as ‘The Valentine’s Day Massacre.’ A psychologist was on call throughout filming, and had regular sessions with the family. ‘He was a powerful voice in the production, and was able to articulate independently what was in the best interests of the family,’ says Curwin.

Early on, the makers decided they would eschew commentary and interviews. Music played a major part in helping shape the moods, with each episode designed to make viewers laugh, cry and be moved by commercial music. In fact, music proved one of the production’s largest costs. Determined not to tinker with real life, the production allowed the family members to carry on listening to whatever music they chose. Simon was a particularly big music listener, and often scenes would be accompanied by music which then had to be cleared.

‘The budget for our clearances was astronomical,’ admits Curwin. ‘You try to get out of things as much as you can by using a different shot. But we never allowed the clearance cost to be the tail that wagged the dog. There were a lot of scenes which were very expensive to include. International distribution makes it expensive again. It’s just an annoying cost you have to put up with.’

Neither Firefly nor C4 are willing to disclose what the budget came to for the first run of The Family. According to Dickson, it was plenty: ‘Effectively if most of the time we pay £150,000 (us$230,000) for an hour of television – sometimes we pay less, sometimes we pay more – this was most definitely one of those occasions where we paid more.’ He expects the costs to decrease significantly for the next series, which is currently contingent on finding the right family. ‘If we do it again, I expect that we’ll be spending slightly less on it because we know what we’re doing this time. We’ve effectively piloted this concept – an eight-part pilot. The fact that we managed it was great. Now let’s see if we can do this more often, and more economically.’

The series proved a ratings success, particularly with the 16 to 34 female demo, with an extraordinary number of viewers streaming clips online and engaging in message boards, according to Dickson. ‘It’s pretty pure – and I guess that purity is the reason that some people find it too intense and other people are so hooked on it that they watched all of it. Young people particularly related to it – they were very accepting of the methodology we used to tell the stories.’

ShineReveille International is now rolling out The Family as a format internationally, a seemingly odd concept for observational documentary. ‘You call it a format because there isn’t another word for what it is in the industry,’ says Curwin. ‘It really is the experience of the indie that made it. This is a very particular kind of show made in a very particular kind of way. In that sense it is a piece of very valuable intellectual property and a groundbreaking piece of television.’

Channel 4 are now looking to use the same concept of ‘multicamera obdoc’ to explore particularly intimate arenas, and plan to announce two new series shortly. ‘We’re looking into other spaces where intimate actuality is occurring on a day to day basis where the presence of a filmmaker would be intrusive and unhelpful,’ says Dickson.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.