Updated: Jun 7, 2019
After trying my hand at being an extra in a film for career number 10, I went behind the camera to give TV production a go. Raw TV specialises in drama and documentaries, tackling issues from cyberbullying to women in prisons to the race for the white house, and I spent a week learning about what they do.
Based in Shoreditch, Raw looked cool and full of hipsters right from the off. I’ll admit to borrowing my much more fashionable younger sister’s clothes for the week. There are many words I’d use to describe myself, ‘hipster’ is not one of them. I am however, an avid consumer of documentaries and dramas and have long been curious about how they are made. My base line of knowledge on this? Absolute zero. Fortunately, there was a very kind member of staff on hand to run through the basics with me.
Programmes start somewhere in the Development Team, the people who are constantly coming up with ideas, researching them and writing treatments on each. A new word for me too. A treatment is essentially the blueprint for the TV show or series, a brief outline that’s only a few pages long to give an idea of what the show would be about. These are then pitched to channel commissioners. I’d sort of assumed that broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 created their own content, it turns out this is mostly not the case as this is the role of production companies.
From here a channel commissioner will say ‘yes - full commission’ (very unlikely), ‘no’ (much more likely) or ‘here is some money to explore the idea further’, which is known as funded development.
From here the project is moved from the production company’s development team to its production team. Freelancers are hired to work specifically on each project, meaning the TV industry is very fluid with jobs – most members of staff are not permanent but are on contracts that will only last for the duration of the project. In that sense, job security is pretty low but on the flipside, there is a huge amount of variety and diversity – both creatively and in terms of meeting new people, which is great for someone who doesn’t want any two days to be the same.
I spoke to Kirsty Garland, who has a long career in the industry, having had the opportunity to work on projects ranging from “the British Gymnastics team in the Beijing Olympics to Pink Floyd to abortion”. She felt it was a “unique privilege” to be able to speak to people about things that matter most to them, through the casting process and by working with those who have been cast for a show. People trust you to tell their stories, with that comes certain ethics and morals, and there is an honour in doing so.
What Did I Actually Do?
I spent a week rotating between several different teams, helping out in research, casting and as a general runner. For development, this meant fleshing out ideas that the team were already working on by researching them in more depth.
Whilst in production, I helped put out casting calls through relevant social media groups and interviewing potential cast members. No spoilers though, I’m afraid!
As I runner, I manned the phones, booked airbnbs and hotels very last minute and sourced props ranging from wooden benches to lamps.
The extent that you are personally adding value though is debatable as I found myself asking what is it that I can bring to this role that would change it for the better. I found a transcription programme online to convert audio files into text, rather than typing up thirty pages which certainly freed up my day, but did that really make an impact? Almost definitely not. Due to the sheer competitiveness and fluidity of the industry, it did at times feel like people were replaceable.
Perhaps this also contributed to the strictly hierarchical nature of roles within the industry, which is something I wrote about in my previous post. This is certainly necessary to an extent, as a production is ultimately an incredibly complex project which needs to be managed to tight budgets and deadlines – there isn’t much room for error. This filters down the ranks as all too often people simply do not have the time to engage with the ideas of those below them. There was certainly a feeling that you need to prove yourself by ‘doing your time’ at the bottom before your ideas would become valid, which is true for many industries.
As with all jobs, sometimes it is what you make of it. You can choose to work towards projects that involve plenty of travel to exotic places and/or on documentaries that make a tangible difference off-screen. One production assistant told me how a previous project had featured the story of a young Syrian refugee who needed urgent cancer treatment. It was implied that he was not granted asylum specifically because of this as treatment would have cost a substantial amount. After the documentary was aired, a crowdfunding campaign was set up by members of the public – the money was raised, the boy received treatment and asylum in the West and is now in remission. I really wish I’d written the name down to share with you all!
So, all in all a mixed bag – a huge potential for opportunity and reward, but only with many years of long hours and low pay doing jobs that, whilst fun, are unlikely to provide a high level of challenge and intellectual stimulation. I think maybe video isn’t my medium, but I hope it is some of yours!