From commission to transmission

In the age of instant media, it seems you can't turn around without seeing another 'ripped from the front page'-styled documentary. But although more fast turnaround docs are popping up, it takes a certain kind of production team to pull such work off, not to mention that churning out a fully realized doc in a matter of weeks means lots of takeout pizza, little sleep and, hopefully, a very trusting broadcaster.
September 1, 2009

In the age of instant media, it seems you can’t turn around without seeing another ‘ripped from the front page’-styled documentary. But although more fast turnaround docs are popping up, it takes a certain kind of production team to pull such work off, not to mention that churning out a fully realized doc in a matter of weeks means lots of takeout pizza, little sleep and, hopefully, a very trusting broadcaster. It’s a style of production that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

The UK’s Channel 4 has commissioned several recent quick turnaround docs such as Miracle of the Hudson Plane Crash and Snowstorm: Britain’s Big Freeze, among others. Deputy head of documentary Simon Dickson believes this type of programming isn’t meant to live on television schedules forever, and instead is meant to be of the moment. ‘These fulfill a need in the British broadcasting landscape at the time they transmit,’ he says. ‘We are doing them so that our audience gets a documentary glimpse of the human story [behind] what they’re experiencing in their news bulletins.’

Dickson happened to be watching the television newscasts on Thursday January 15, the day US Airways flight 1549 crashed in the Hudson River, and immediately believed there was potential for a documentary. ‘I literally stood up, went to my telephone and called John Smithson [executive chairman and chief creative director at Darlow Smithson Productions] before the news bulletin had even reached its conclusion,’ Dickson recalls. He stresses that in dealing with stories that call for quick turnarounds, waiting until the next morning to make the call – and it has to be a call, not an email – won’t do.

‘To commission fast turnaround docs successfully, you’ve got to be awake and you’ve got to be concentrating on the creative documentary potential around you,’ he adds.

Tom Brisley, Darlow Smithson’s creative director, says that after that phone call from Dickson, the prodco had about four weeks to get the doc together for delivery. Channel 4 provided DSP with development money and by Friday morning, the crew was filming in New York City. By Monday, Brisley and crew decided there was enough material for a one-hour doc.

‘[C4] took a leap of faith,’ Brisley says. ‘At that stage you know the story is going to be good but you don’t have access to many people.’ In order to get that access, the prodco had a crack team of three constantly on the phones trying to track down people involved in the accident. ‘Because it was a ‘good news’ story, US Airways was very keen to cooperate [and] passed our request down to passengers who then contacted us,’ he says.

By this point, DSP received more financing from Discovery Channel as coproducers. At the beginning of the week of January 19, the team began filming more passengers and by the 23rd, began to edit. ‘We had three editors working side by side, each editing different elements of the show,’ Brisley remembers, ‘and that week we started to commission CGI.’

DSP had three directors working for them in the U.S., simultaneously shooting stylized drama sequences inside a plane in the UK, and a production team of about 13 people working to have a rough cut viewing at the end of January. The show was finished at the second week of February and went to transmission on February 19.

London-based Pioneer Productions tackled its quick turnaround project for C4, Snowstorm: Britain’s Big Freeze, in three weeks to the day, from commission to transmission. Pioneer’s MD Stuart Carter says the project, which examined the potential causes behind Britain’s worst snowfalls in 18 years this past February, was the fastest turnaround the prodco has ever made, and was completed with such speed because it only involved shooting in the UK.

Pioneer head of production Kirstie McLure says that having quick turnaround experience gives them the edge in knowing how to prioritize properly. As various news crews are already handling the ‘newsy’ elements of the story quite well, ‘We don’t tend to go out there immediately and film everything,’ she says. ‘The thing to do is very quickly identify the people and the story.’

Carter says Pioneer collected news footage over a couple of days, set up cutting rooms and then started hiring. The team gathered for Snowstorm included three directors, up to four researchers and APs, and various people looking into archive and location shooting.

‘That’s when you think ‘What’s the stuff to add to the documentary that a news report doesn’t [cover]?” he says. ‘After two or four days we then go and film that. Most of the filming is done the first week, and the second or third week is pure editing, scrambling to get all your online and your sound mixing done.’

The tight schedule saw the program delivered about 12 hours prior to airing. It racked up two million viewers.

Darlow Smithson and Pioneer understand the nature of the beast – quick turnarounds present challenges a longer turnaround doc wouldn’t. Getting there first is a big factor. Brisley says that DSP immediately looks into publicity, putting out a quick press release a couple of days into production. That’s not only for PR purposes, but to also serve as an alert for any other broadcaster thinking about commissioning a doc on the subject, since one is already in the works.

Pioneer’s McLure says a bit more money goes into these productions to snag experienced staff and prime archival footage. ‘You need cracking archive researchers, people who are going to get you access and you’re going to pay a premium for a really good bunch of people,’ she says. Also, archive is at a premium when it’s very current.

But it’s definitely worth the sweat, long hours and takeaway pizza, says DSP’s Brisley. ‘When something is in the public eye, from a broadcaster’s point of view you can create more of an impact by turning something around quickly rather than taking awhile,’ he says. ‘If we were doing the show on the first anniversary [of the plane crash], it wouldn’t have been in the public [eye] as much.’

This type of production requires rigorous editorial procedures, as evidenced by Discovery Studios’ production for the Discovery Channel and Military Channel, Somali Pirate Takedown: The Real Story. This past April, while the 24-hour news outlets were reporting the Maersk Alabama standoff taking place off the Horn of Africa, in which Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates, Discovery was already embedded with the U.S. Navy, working on another documentary. In its case, although the doc was to be turned around in under two months, all footage had to be cleared by the Navy, Naval Investigative Services and the FBI, since it involved a crime scene. That included Navy-shot footage, Discovery’s footage, and ensuring that the CGI was accurate.

‘You had more reviews and more [time] looking at particular footage than you would under a normal circumstance,’ says Clark Bunting, president and GM of Discovery Emerging Networks. ‘We wanted to make sure that we weren’t divulging anything that was compromising the Seals or the tactics that were employed. [But] you want to tell as full and complete a story as you possibly can.’

Although much work goes into the quick turnaround process, the production companies behind them admit that the short deadlines also require compromises. Pioneer’s Carter admits, ‘If you have six months, you would probably have something that had covered all the bases and had absolute breadth of the topic… you have to go in knowing it is what it is.’

David Notman-Watt, company director of Back2Back Productions, dealt with a tragic story, intense competition and a very tight deadline, something he wouldn’t exactly recommend. Notman-Watt set out to make a doc about Josef Fritzl, then accused of numerous crimes after imprisoning his daughter for 24 years and murdering a son that he had with her. Notman-Watt had access to plenty of exclusives, thanks to a partnership with Central European News. Still, he had a hard time getting broadcasters on board and wound up making a fast turnaround doc when Sky One gave Back2Back five weeks to complete the project, to air by the end of the trial, held last March.

The highly publicized case led to aggressive competition between European networks, says Notman-Watt. ‘The presence of paparazzi, the backstabbing and everyone clambering over everyone to get the exclusives on this tragic story kind of set the tone for the whole shoot,’ he says. ‘It was one of the most unpleasant films I’ve ever made.’

The final product, Josef Fritzl: Story of a Monster, did not resemble what Notman-Watt set out to do in the beginning. ‘The entire exercise was made difficult by having to tread so carefully on people’s emotions, [which] were very raw on the lead-up to the trial,’ he says. ‘The film ended up quite claustrophobic and stressful to watch which is probably a reflection of what it was like to make it.’

Notman-Watt can also vouch for the need to compromise in the quick turnaround process. On the one hand, the rushed timeline gives the film a certain kind of energy, with the flip side being that a story like Fritzl’s deserves time and care. ‘I’m not one of these people that like to spend eight years working on a film,’ he says. ‘At the same time, I’d like a little bit more than eight minutes.’

But if you’re still interested in taking the quick turnaround plunge, heed Tom Brisley’s advice: ‘Always keep your phone on 24/7.’

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