Odds are that in the rollercoaster world that is television, many a producer would love to have a little bit more insight as to what makes people tick. Think of the benefits of such knowledge – being able to ‘read’ the commissioning editor sitting across the table from you during a pitching session, or having the quiet calm needed to rein in a temperamental director.
Thus, it’s not such a stretch to imagine making a move from studying psychotherapy to setting up one’s own production company – indeed, such study should even be a prerequisite for the endeavor. It certainly didn’t impede the production capabilities of one young man in Cologne, Uwe Kersken, who believed he was set for a career as a psychotherapist, until he caught the producing bug.
‘When I was very young and came to Cologne from my hometown, I needed a job,’ explains Kersken. ‘The first company I called was the public broadcaster WDR. At that station I had learned throughout the years many things that had to do with production, style, content and technical stuff. So besides my main studies, I learned through doing those things everything I needed to know about film production.
‘When I started to work as a psychotherapist in a private environment and also in a hospital, after a couple of years, the virus of making films and being involved in television took over,’ he continues. ‘Having patients was wonderful but at the end of the day I found it became boring compared to the filmmaking I had done on the side. Even when I was doing psychotherapy, I was making little films which became bigger and bigger.’
And they’d become bigger still, when Kersken decided to close the door on psychotherapy and instead concentrate on his ‘virus.’ He opted to become an independent producer in 1985, operating out of his home and working on whatever projects he could. And from that decision came the creation of Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion in 1989, a production company that would make a significant mark in the fields of history, science, factual and natural history television over the next 20 years.
STARTING SMALL, THINKING BIG
Kersken says that although the training at WDR was invaluable in terms of learning as many aspects of the craft as possible, he knew he would have to branch off from the organization sooner rather than later.
‘It’s probably part of my genes,’ he says. ‘I don’t like to be ‘employed’ – I’m a self-made person. My parents were like that too. Despite the fact that I had a job at WDR, I never felt like I was an employee. When I started [my own company] I was a one-man show, what we call in Germany a ‘rucksack producer.’ I had my Steenbeck in the second room and produced my films from home.’
In his travels, he met up with several other ‘rucksack producers’ and the decision was made to combine talents, ‘to be stronger in the shark pool.’ The first German television commissions for the fledgling Gruppe 5 included WDR children’s program Sendung Mit der Maus (which the company produced over several years) and other assorted children’s documentaries. In 1991, Gruppe 5 embarked on its first international coproduction, a project that began as a labor of love for Kersken, The Havana.
‘I was so convinced about this project that I invested some of my own money into it, because I knew it could be successful and be sold to other broadcasters around the world,’ says Kersken about the 58-minute program, which told the story of the world’s most popular cigar. The Havana sold to ARTE, HBO and Discovery International among others, and opened up international vistas for the young production company.
Those vistas would be broadened by programs such as Dolphin Stories, initially broadcast as seven 26-minute episodes in 1992 and then packaged as five 52-minute episodes for Discovery International, and The Forgotten Island: Tristan da Cunha, shot for BBC’s ‘Under the Sun’ strand in 1995 and Kersken’s personal favorite of Gruppe 5′s projects (it was also the last program he’d direct himself).
Ten years in, by 1999, Gruppe 5 had taken what Kersken calls ‘bigger steps into the international realm,’ cementing numerous international coproduction relationships with partners such as Canal+, Discovery International, ARTE and ZDF. That year also saw the debut of Fabulous Animals, a 13 x 26-minute copro with partners including Canal+ and National Geographic Channel that racked up several awards in Germany. But even before then, Gruppe 5′s reputation as a solid, dependable producer of natural history and science was making the rounds internationally, with the prodco’s strengths being discussed in some rather interesting locales.
‘I was 99 feet up in the air at the top of a giant tree in South America, quaking and trying to hold onto one of the branches,’ recalls Steve Burns, EVP, content for National Geographic Channel. ‘This was during my first go at Nat Geo [Burns left the company for Discovery in 1992, returning in 2007]. The filmmaker we were profiling, Neil Rettig, was telling me about this great series he was doing for Uwe Kersken [Harpy Eagle]. And of course I was afraid of falling out of the tree, but he kept talking about what a great producer Uwe was. So when I finally got back down to terra firma and felt safe again I asked Neil more about him.’ Burns would go on to work with Kersken and Gruppe 5 over the next 15 years, on some 22 projects.
‘I think that’s one of Uwe’s strengths – he’s not afraid to reach out and find the most talented people in the world to work on his productions, and that mirrors what we do here at National Geographic,’ offers Burns.
Olaf Grunert, head of themed evenings for ARTE G.E.I.E., first met Kersken when the fledgling producer was looking for a German coproducer for the Forgotten Islands project. Grunert says that as WDR was, at the time, showing no interest in the project, he was excited to get on board. ‘Since I am an island maniac (or nesomaniac), who had lived in Iceland and the Faroe Islands for parts of my life, I was eager to get the program,’ Grunert explains. Alas, the interest shown by other channels ignited WDR’s interest and Grunert did not personally work on the show with Gruppe 5, ‘but the contact was made and soon we started our first project.’ Dead Men Telling Tales, a two-part history of forensic medicine, also had ZDF and Wales’ S4C on board, and was nominated for a science award at the International Broadcasting Convention’s Nombre d’or Festival.
As for other projects ARTE G.E.I.E. worked on with Kersken and crew, Grunert brings along another tree-related anecdote. ‘The most unusual project we did together was a 90′ documentary film on a single tree,’ he says of 2004′s The Tree of Trees: Mysterious Oak Life. ‘I am not an expert in nature and wildlife programs and I was not convinced that an old oak tree actually had the potential for being the star of a feature length doc. But Uwe as the producer and director Herbert Ostwald proved to me it did.’
MOVING ON UP
While the structure of the company would change over the years, with three of his early partners leaving the fold (Christel Fomm, one of the original five, remains), Kersken, as MD and EP, was steering the ship towards more uncharted territory as the 21st century approached. ZDF Enterprises, the commercial arm of the German public broadcaster that had been a partner for many of its productions, offered Gruppe 5 the next step of its evolution by purchasing a participating interest in 2002.
Peter Arens, managing director of culture and science for ZDF, has worked with Gruppe 5 on productions since 1998, and names 2002′s ‘superdoc’ Storm Over Europe: The Wandering Tribes (with ZDF, ZDF-Enterprises, ARTE, SBS, RTE, ORF and Discovery U.S.) as a personal favorite. ‘We never had produced a docudrama with such a high production value,’ he says. ‘Mass scenes, strong narratives, story-driven dramas with action, animation and special effects, which was [all] new in German television at that time.’
With projects incorporating more re-enactments and CGI to bolster the considerable research that would form the backbone of a typical Gruppe 5 production, more big programming emerged such as 2006′s Secrets of the First Emperor (which added National Geographic Channel and National Geographic Channels International and RAI to the mix) and The Jews: A People’s History (ARD, ARTE, Telepool, Film Foundation NRW, MEDEA). 2007 saw what Kersken calls Gruppe 5′s most ambitious production – the futuristic, CGI-saturated Update 2057: The World in 50 Years, which saw Discovery Channel, NHK and Science Channel come on board with ZDF, ARTE and SBS.
‘It is very important to have a constant exchange between the program makers and the coproducers,’ says Arens regarding Gruppe 5′s strengths in copro. ‘During the years Gruppe 5 has established good relationships with coproducers worldwide and we all know that the first coproduction is always the most difficult one. I know that Gruppe 5 welcomes coproducers in the editing suite in order to adapt the different versions of our shows to the needs of each market.’
America Before Columbus, Nat Geo’s most recent coproduction with ZDF-E and Gruppe 5, premiered in the U.S. in mid-November as part of the cabler’s popular Expedition Week. ‘Quite often their CGI is unparalleled, and their re-enactments always have this great, epic feel,’ Burns summarizes. ‘But it all boils down to top-notch researchers, producers and directors and strong storytelling.’
Kersken sees the value in CGI-aided modern storytelling: ‘We have to attract younger people,’ he says. Still, when it comes to creating quality content, as you might expect from a licensed psychotherapist, he’s all about balance.
‘Many young people watched The Germans, and it wasn’t like an MTV project,’ he says of Gruppe 5′s top-rated 2008 history series. ‘So yes, we have to learn to make things more modern but the classic stories will always work.’
GRUPPE 5: A SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY
1991 – The Havana (partners include WDR / ARTE / SABC / HBO / Discovery International)
1992/1993 – Dolphin Stories (WDR, assorted international broadcasters)
1996/1997 – The Forgotten Island: Tristan da Cunha (BBC ‘Under the Sun’ / BBC Worldwide / WDR / ARTE)
1999 – Fabulous Animals (WDR / Explore / Docstar / Canal + / Film Foundation NRW / National Geographic Channel)
2000 – Toxic: Learning from Disaster (WDR / ARTE)
2002 – Storm over Europe: The Wandering Tribes (ZDF / ZDF-E / ARTE / SBS / RTE / ORF / Discovery U.S.)
2005 – X-Days: Days that Changed the World (ZDF / ZDF-E / ARTE / Discovery Channel U.S. / TVE / ORF)
2006 – Secrets of the First Emperor (ZDF / ZDF-E / National Geographic Channels Int. / National Geographic Channel U.S. / ARTE / RAI / SBS)
The Jews: A People’s History (ARD – WDR, BR, SWR, NDR, RBB / ARTE, Telepool, supported by Film Foundation NRW and MEDEA)
2007 – Update 2057: The World in 50 Years (ZDF / ZDF-E / Discovery Channel U.S. / Science Channel / ARTE / SBS / Sogecable / NHK)
China’s Great Wall (ZDF / ZDF-E / National Geographic Channels Int. / National Geographic Channel U.S., in cooperation with CCTV and CITVC)
2008 – The Germans (ZDF / ZDF-E)
2009 – America Before Columbus (ZDF, ARTE, National Geographic Channel)