Getting it done in South Africa

Producer Joe Kennedy of Table Mountain Films established a South Africa office in 2007. In this post, he discusses his recent experience producing an episode of PBS’ Secrets of the Dead, ...
November 10, 2010

Producer Joe Kennedy of Table Mountain Films established a South Africa office in 2007. In this post, he discusses his recent experience producing an episode of PBS’ Secrets of the Dead, and offers insights into the advantages of bringing a project to South Africa.


It seems that budgets for television documentaries are on an ever-downward spiral, yet the fees demanded by production personnel and facilities are not following suit. If anything they’ve increased substantially with the industry change over to high definition production over the past five years. So how do you square the circle? How far out of the box should you go to get your documentary made to the highest possible standards and still be on budget?


One radical solution is to leave the shores of the (expensive) Northern Hemisphere  and head south. Hop on the airplane and make your way to Cape Town, South Africa. There you’ll find yourself in one of the most beautiful cities in the world – warm, sunny, and surrounded by more than 580 vineyards when you’ve had enough of budget crunching. It will almost make you forget why you went there.


If the subject for your next project is Southern African then you’re in the right place to secure everything you need. You’ll soon discover that South Africa has one of the most hard working and professional film production industries in the world. If all you require however is post-production service then you will have the pick of some of the most diligent editors in the business, as well as fully kitted-out HD facility houses, graphic design companies, and sound editors and mixers who will help you deliver your film to the highest standard.


I discovered this upon setting up an office in South Africa in 2007.  My productions varied wildly, from classic blue-chip natural history to high-end commercials for FIFA’s World Cup extravaganza, to a full-on costume drama reconstruction called Slave Ship Mutiny for PBS’s series Secrets of the Dead. Throughout it all an extremely high level of expertise and a 110% commitment to producing the best possible films were the hallmarks of South African personnel and facility houses.


And importantly, you can go much farther on your budget in South Africa. It’s not just that many (but not all) of the production costs are lower than what you’ll pay up north, it’s also because the film production industry in South Africa is committed to getting things done.  Perhaps it’s something in the culture – this country likes to build things. Skyscrapers in Joburg, transcontinental highways, and more recently, soccer stadiums. Turn that work ethic towards film production and you get results. 


Here is a test case: on Slave Ship Mutiny, we needed nearly three dozen actors and three dozen crew on set to act out and record an elaborate dramatic reconstruction of an 18th century mutiny of Malagasy slaves aboard a Dutch East India slave ship.  Muskets firing, stuntmen flying, spears thrown, lots of blood. And it had to be authentic, believable and moving. We had big names attached to this film, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s foremost human rights campaigner. We couldn’t afford to get it wrong. The challenge was immense, especially on a tight budget. But to a man and woman, the crew performed with utter determination to get the job done. The rushes were phenomenal. We then had nearly 100 green screen shots to composite against 3D animation of the slave ship. A huge mountain to climb, and not without some problems to overcome, but in the end we got there on what most producers would call a shoestring budget.


So when you are worrying about how to get the next job done, think of South Africa.


Slave Ship Mutiny, premieres Wednesday, November 10, 2010 on PBS’ Secrets of the Dead.  Watch the making of the film at [Restricted access to US/Canada/Mexico.]


Table Mountain Films has offices in Cape Town SA and London UK.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.