02
Aug
14

Reaching Creative Flow

Many people are aware of the briliant TED (Technology, Education and Design) community at www.ted.com
Some time ago I stumbled across a fascinating talk on this site about the route to happiness from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  It appeared to be routed in the perfect combination of personal challenges meeting perfectly matched personal skills.  We are at our most creative when our own personal skills are challenged at a level that stretches them, creating an equilibrium and harmony. When challenged too little we become bored and depressed, when the challenge is too great and our skills lacking, frustration and self doubt kick in.

flow_diagram
The talk focused on how anyone can meet this personal equilibrium in their daily work or interests. For those of us working in the arts, and in the case of myself and others dedicated to the enhancement of storytelling and emotional engagement through the powerful use of images and in my case specifically colour, these two opposing forces meet when faced with the desire of the filmmakers to transcend that what has been achieved before or that will engage people with its beauty or savageness. My biggest creative challenge of recent months was working with the much acclaimed artist Isaac Julien, who’s infamous work in the field of video art has challenged the genre of traditional filmmaking. With his work ‘Playtime‘, which debuted in Times Square in New York, the challenges before me were staggered. The first was to deliver to Isaac a standard of creative colour grading and picture enhancement that would satisfy him and to help to take the work to the next level of aesthetic appreciation for the viewer, this in itself is just the first big step to achieve. Once the road to this goal is set, as the colourist working with an artist of Isaac’s expertise, it requires the ability to move in to the aforementioned ‘flow’. As stated at the top of this article, when an artist’s skills are tested to their extreme, then at that moment you can reach this evasive ‘flow’ sweetspot.  The success of any artistic work in my opinion starts with solid building blocks, the belief in the initial direction, the confidence that this direction is the correct one for the work, and that it is the only direction.  When that is locked in then the challenge moves to delivering that execution across the whole work, to create a cohesion to the work, that compliments the director’s artistic vision, the performance, the composition of framing, the editing and the sound design. When the challenge of cohesion is complete then the final step to ‘flow’ is the hardest, the final grasp to perfection. Where every frame of the work is perfect, where minute details are agonised over. At that point the artist, when free from outside pressures, can hit the sweetspot of ‘flow’, and at that moment aspire to create the perfect work.

Artists have various reasons for creating work.  Some do it for themselves, to satisfy their own need for self belief, a competitive nature with themselves as the ultimate critic. Some do it for the audience, to take the audience themselves to a moment of ‘flow’. When art of any kind can challenge its audience’s concentration skills, artistic perception and thus create total immersion in the work, then the artist has given back to the audience the greatest gift.  As artists we have been successful when all those that have been able to engage in the work have moved to ‘flow’ and for that moment taken them from the trappings of day to day life.
To really achieve peacefulness at the end of our day we need to embrace the challenges to our own skills, push them, and give back to our audiences, whomever they may be.

Thomas Urbye | MD & Senior Colourist, The Look, London

playtime_panoramic


I am a colourist working across all genres. From feature films, television drama, documentary, commercial content and video art.

Isaac Julien’s ‘Playtime’ is a seven screen work currently exhibiting around the world. It is 70 minutes in duration and was mastered in ultra high definition at The Look.
For more information you can read more at The Look’s site or at Isaac Julien‘s site.

You can see a short trailer for the work here

The inspiring TED talk referenced in this article can be found here:
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

The Flow diagram is copyright of Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi 

20
Jul
14

What is the future of media creation, salaries and content distribution across all sectors?

Often this very question is debated by experts in our industry, but many have their own agenda, whether that be advertising creation, media buying, low budget film-making, publicly funded television, subscription based services and beyond. But what is the real future for our viewing habits, those of us working in this industry and who will succeed and who will fail in the next five years as technology and human behaviour changes faster than in the last 75 years?

Let’s start with video advertising. Netflix currently accounts for 34% of Internet traffic in the United States.  There are no adverts on Netflix. iTunes is becoming the latest standard for new on demand movie and series releases, rental or ownership – no adverts. Sky has huge rights ownership of major US series, but people record and skip the adverts. BBC iPlayer, no adverts. This leaves ITV and Channel 4 and other smaller channels. ITV will continue to show adverts for its mainstream audience, in the main these are supermarket and grocery brands. Channel 4 will continue to be part funded by adverts but who will watch them?
YouTube currently has adverts, most of which you can skip after five seconds, and if they did decide to introduce a subscription model to avoid advertising then that will be a further loss to the advertising community.
The reality is that TV advertising has, in the main, become less adventurous and lower budget, and brands prefer their money spent online across safe measurable clicking. This in my opinion will drive spending towards Branded Advertising Content and destroy the traditional video advertising industry, programmes and short films that subtlety promote the brands featured will triumph. It could be an online cookery series sponsored and featuring Morphy Richards or Russell Hobbs or a drama/comedy series centred around a road trip using a BMW Mini or Range Rover. At that point you can remove advertising breaks, which audiences no longer want.

The movie industry is polarised around the world between low budget filmmaking where budgets are so tight that pay is bad for all, and distribution difficult and big budget Hollywood. Government funded film councils do not tend to support commercial scripts and so investment does not recoup for the benefit of the industry, the focus seems to be awards for worthy but non-commercial films.  Directors and Producers however can now distribute themselves directly to platforms and try to recoup without the help of distributors (who are often struggling themselves) or even a sales agent. The only area in the movie industry making profits is large Hollywood tent pole productions that cost $100 million + but can make sizeable profits. Sadly though being a VFX facility in this market is not as lucrative as it once was as you can’t quantify the cost of constant client changes and competition is high. The consolidation of VFX companies at the highend in to even bigger companies is a given, and movie studios will expand on their own inhouse post services, wiping out many post production companies across the world.
Tax incentives from countries like Belgium and Canada are so high that movie and drama productions follow them around meaning pockets of companies relying on work in traditional areas are struggling, those that do win work have used upfront cash investment and inflated quotes in the films or dramas to increase the tax credit and cashflow production. This happens across the world and is acutely felt in Central London where regional spends outside the M25 motorway also greatly reduces inward investment in London services set up as a centre for creative excellence.
All content making companies will continue to move costs inhouse, with post and other services being ultimately done in the cloud, utilising the computer power available. The adage remains, if it can be done on the web, then it will all be done on the web.
The budgets on content creation will continue to drop as competition will increase, access to near as free equipment will greatly reduce barrier to entry and revenue in hire and post production rates and pay rates for companies and freelancers will remain static and in real terms will fall against rising inflation.  Anyone in the industry who wishes to remain relevant will need to own their own content and work with companies to help them to produce work that audiences actually want to watch. This will not be adverts, filler programming or dull formats.
My company’s focus is creative excellence and focused on non-biased advice.  Genres include highend drama and features, remote grading for companies with inhouse post or helping those companies to build those services for content creation across any genre, and working with them as consultants on that move to total control and distribution and creatively engaging content. As agencies become production companies, and former post houses become major production companies going to brands directly, media buying companies will struggle as brands and agencies do it themselves.
The media landscape is changing and the casualties will be high, audiences now control what they watch, anyone can do anything – be sure whatever sector you work in that you make the right decision for yourself.

Thomas Urbye
MD, The Look.
I am the owner of a London post production company and industry commentator, I consult and work across all genres of video creation.
Contact:
Blog@thelooklondon.com

22
Nov
13

When two worlds collide: Advertising and Drama = ‘Content London’ @ BAFTA

I’ve just spent two very interesting days at the ‘Content London‘ event organised by C21 and held at BAFTA.  This event features the foremost industry leaders in the world of video content.

Hopefully my note taking and ideas will be useful to both those that came and those that didn’t, please share this blog with people you think would find it valuable.  Please do send me any feedback in the contact box at the end of the blog.

There was a huge amount of mind opening soundbites, things that prompted me to write down a quote or an idea to pop in to my head, and hopefully you, reader, will find them useful too.  Unlike most attendees at the event, I found myself darting between the sessions because the crossover between advertising focused content and television / drama production and distribution are so similar now because of YouTube and the marketing and distribution models that it felt next year they should actually be combined.

For those that didn’t make it, here is my personal round up of what I found interesting:

Funding the future of content

Firstly, looking at Content Distribution (on the panel: Georgina Eyre / Off the Fence, Jeremy Fox / DRG, Oliver Lang / BBCWW, Peter Emerson / eOne, Tim Multimer / Zodiak Rights & Jeremy Salsby / Saltbeef Productions).

In one of the early sessions of the first day a comment made by one of the panel was that Wildlife and History investment was dropping because it was so expensive to make, and distributors were finding it too hard to sell.  Jeremy Fox, CEO of DRG said that * Fiction, * Factual and * Format was what they were looking for right now.  A fact came up that in the last few years the number of US channels doing ‘fiction’ has risen from 6 to 63.  The question on all the panel’s minds is ‘Does it work globally?’, ‘Will it travel?‘.  There has been a big change over the last few years that traditionally you would license a show to a territory and that would be that, yet now, its all done with ‘windows’, as in a broadcaster has the right to show it for a certain amount of time, and then it could easily swap to another one after a year etc.  Oliver Lang from BBC Worldwide said that they were very keen to get contemporary drama, this also came up on Day 2 with Steve November Director of Drama at ITV also stating the same desire at his session.  The distributors felt that ‘one-offs’ could sell well, but they had to have a big impact, a real hook in the title or idea.

VC Funding Futures

Moving on to investment in to production companies and start ups, there was a very interesting panel discussion with Patrick Bradley, CEO at Ingenious, as well as Jean de Fougerolles, MD at Ascension Ventures and Stuart Mullin, joint founder at Greenbird.  The key notes for anyone setting up a business to make content was:

  • They invest in the person or the team, and a portfolio of work - not an individual project.
  • EIS and SEIS is a great way to raise investment for your start-up.
  • Never forget, that when working with a Venture Capital company that they are looking to make a profit on their investment, usually in a fairly short window of just 3-5 years.  They always want the company to be sold to realise that investment and pass back to their investors.
  • The start-up should not have high overheads on launch as it will mean that money could potentially run out before enough traction has been built up.
  • Development, Design and Distribution was key for them to invest in a start-up, all these have to be set out and clearly defined.
  • A summary business plan was enough, as long as the three D’s above had been addressed, then an email to them citing the company/team/portfolio offering could be enough for them to agree to a meeting.
  • They feel the timing is perfect for new start-ups in the content creation marketplace because the cost of start-up is lower than it has ever been and distribution opportunities are rising fast.
  • The sweet spot for investment is from £50k up to 300k for most VC’s in this area.  They would want on average a 30% share of the business, too little and its not worth their while, too much and it may cause the directors of the business to loose morale.
  • The focus really is TV and online video, and also curated video (i.e. content curation does not include generating content, but instead, amassing content from a variety of sources, and delivering it in an organized fashion).
  • On average the panel said that between 5-10 investments a year in new production companies was possible, and that world wide companies were very interested in buying a UK producer of content so a sale, if the portfolio was successful, (because global companies like a foothold in the UK) was very possible.
  • Find the investor or VC that is right for your start-up, dont just scattergun multiple ones.

How to create successful channels on YouTube:

Lets move on to the interesting keynote given by ex YouTube Director of Content for EMEA and now at Base79 Patrick Walker.

Base79 is a MCN (a Mutli-Channel Network), and it works with companies and successful ‘YouTubers’ to manage their licensing, channels and content.  Many distributors of content (broadcasters and brands) do not employ a full-time team to manage their YouTube channel, but should.  Other big benefactors from this sort of company would be highly successful ‘YouTubers’ who are essentially directing/shooting/editing/starring in their own channel, but are experiencing people steeling their work and uploading it themselves.  They work with these ‘YouTube’ stars to monetise their successful videos.

Patrick felt that what really worked for his YouTubers or for brands was either comedy, or storytelling.  It was either of these key components that could lead to a successful video.  He used Remi Gaillard, a client of theirs, as a perfect example, one of his comedy videos has 55 million hits.  They also run ‘Flow‘ a YouTube channel focused on Free Running/Parkour.  Patrick was adamant that for real success over long periods you need subscribers to your channel, not just views.

Crowd funding Film and TV

A fascinating session on the phenomenon of ‘crowd funding’.  To most people, this would normally bring Kickstarter to mind, a site dedicated to raising finance via rewarding those that donate money.  The normal route is to set out your idea, put up the amount of money you need to raise, offer some sort of reward (in the case of a film it could be a part of an extra/background artist, your name on the credits, and tickets to the premier).  However, in the broader market seedrs.com is working to allow actual equity investment in start-ups, while slated.com, indiegogo.com and mobcaster.com have focused on investors looking to invest in content creators in exchange for equity, something which has not really been seen before in an online space, they can also act as a actual broadcaster of the content and help sell it on to other platforms/broadcasters.  Traditionally, those wanting to raise finance for a TV show or film would do the rounds to various broadcasters, distributors and investors in the hope that pre-sales and investment could be secured to begin raising more finance, these sites open up opportunities for multiple investors to invest smaller amounts which could amount to large figures (as seen on KickStarter with virtual reality and also films made by cult directors).  The website www.crowdsurfer.co is a good guide to all of the above and how the model can work for you.  Most budgets range from $500k up to $15million, with the average at $1-3million.  Investors are apparently doubling each year in this sector, and up to 900 crowd funding sites now exist!

The comment came up about just how tough it can be to get a pilot made and commissioned to a series, on average 100 pilots are made in the US, 30 are aired, and 5 go on to be hits and return for more eps or another series.  When broadcasting on sites such as mobcaster.com its not uncommon for shows to run for 6 eps instead of the usual 13 (so common in the US).  With mobcaster its a 50/50 split on actual audience revenue generated via their site, and they take 15% if the content is sold on.

All agreed that what works well on these sites is a great story, with great marketing, and sometimes the lighter on the actual detail can actually mean better investment uptake.  When selling ‘the dream’ giving away exact detail on the star, the plot and the locations could actually be too much information, the idea of how it will turn out in an investors head is usually more exciting than the actual reality of what you end up with on the screen.

Nicola Horlick mentioned that exposure in The Times or the Telegraph was the best way to garner interest, as these are the papers read by investors, her new 2014 start-up, moneyandco.com is a crowdfunding website.

I asked a question to the various members on the panel about the commission rate for the site and also if they were global yet or still working purely in $?  The answer came back that on average, a commission of 5-8% goes to the crowdfunding site and that a lot of investors were global (I suspect in the main they still work in $).

Making the new UK Tax Relief work for you

This has had huge publicity in the last year because its now possible to get a 20% tax credit when an episode of your TV programme goes over £1million.  This is not a new benefit for film in the UK, but it has encouraged the world to look at the UK again for making features (as so many US studios fund both).  Various questions came up, I raised a query about how most UK drama is under £850k and so most would struggle to meet the £1million threshold unless people got better rates (!), and the answer came back from Liz Brion (head of media tax at Grant Thornton) that HMRC would be carefully studying claims to check rates hadn’t been inflated to get over the £1million mark.  She did confirm the £1million had to be on core expenditure only, and that a fixed production fee percentage had not been set, as it was clear various formats meant different production percentages so it was not sensible for HMRC to fix this, so production companies could inflate their fee a bit I suspect.  The reality to me is that only major US and UK series which have expensive talent, large sets and locations would be able to hit this mark, and this was confirmed by Ben Stephenson controller of BBC drama commissioning in his session on Day 2, with only the odd BBC drama accessing this credit.  It was also noted by Liz that documentaries would rarely be able to access this credit because unusual that these would have budgets in excess of £1million, but a lobby was underway with HMRC to potentially look at reducing the threshold for this format.  Useful sites include the london filming partnership.

Day 2 – Stuart Murphy, Director of entertainment channels, Sky

The headlines from this keynote was that Stuart and Sky were looking for: SCALE, HUMOUR and EMOTION.  He feels that fewer, bigger, better is Sky’s moto right now, and that there is a focus on quality rather than quantity of drama.  The upcoming slate includes: Dracula, Moonfleet, Penny Dreadful, The Tunnel (remake), Mad Dogs (returning), Strike Back (returning) and A Young Doctor’s Notebook (returning).

N.b. UK Broadcasters in the main are working with these US companies: Starz, Canal +, Showtime, HBO and AMC.

The Content Marketing Masterclass

This session was very interesting, Jeremy Garner from Weapon7 talked about ‘objects’ as protagonists and how these can be products, using the Aston Martin in the Bond movies as an example of a object that becomes a character.  Other references included the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the light sabres in Star Wars.  He also showed the Mercedes viral we graded with Rubber Republic as a great example of doing something different with branded content.

Chris Gorell Barnes at Adjust Your Set talked about the buying decisions the internet user makes and why, looking at the journey through multiple websites and information before purchasing.  They had also produced content for Carphone Warehouse where the brand barely featured but it set out the creative possibilities with tablets and smartphones for musicians, see it here.

Michael Reeves from Red Bee Media talked about how brands and agencies had to change from using the word ‘consumer’ to the word ‘audience’ as that fundamentally changed the way they would make content.  He believed the key lie in the three C’s: Catalyst, Conflict, Conclusion.  Examples ranged from Grand Designs and Jaws!  The point was, regardless of the duration, for something to have a storytelling impact, the three C’s helped to deliver for the audience what they wanted from video content.  He then showed a very nice film for Barclays for those with impaired eyesight, it was lighthearted, but made a great impact, see it here.

Keynote: Mark Boyd, co-founder Gravity Road

Mark’s keynote was very interesting, Gravity Road is rather different from the norm.  Mark said that 60% of their output was branded content, while 40% was original programming.  He stated that he believed the key notes of any successful video content is that it must be either Useful or Entertaining, that is the key to people sharing it.

I was particularly impressed with his work with Bombay Sapphire.  He had worked with the brand to create a script (from a leading Hollywood script writer) that had no direction notes.  They then invited online users from across the world to come up with a full treatment for a short film of the script, a shortlist of 5 would be made and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Watch the initial call for ideas here, and see one of the finished films here (with its 100k+ views).

I congratulated Mark on this campaign (now in its second year) and asked if brands still struggled to understand fiction based content (when so much is Factual Entertainment in this sector) and if it was becoming an easier sell.  He said that Bombay Sapphire in particular had embraced it, and that others were slowly coming round to supporting this type of work.

Co-producing next generation drama for the world

Various highlight comments for me were that The Fall (Artists Studio and BBC) which went to number 1 on Metacritic was purchased by Netflix for exclusive rights for worldwide, outbidding other linear TV broadcasters.  There was comments about how US series shows often feature one strong character (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Dexter) and that could be the source of their international success, rather than UK drama that tends to focus on a number of characters (UK successes would be Cracker, Prime Suspect and Sherlock).

Keynote Interview: Ben Stephenson, Controller of drama commissioning, BBC

Ben talked about the broad range of drama that the BBC is focused on, particular mentions went to the excellent Peaky Blinders and upcoming Musketeers, and the teaser reel showed Ripper Street, and also our work on upcoming 3x 90min drama Quirke starring Gabriel Bryne and Michael Gambon. He also talked about the huge success of Last Tango in Halifax as being a welcome surprise (a show I graded last year).

Keynote Interview: Steve November, Director of drama, ITV

Steve’s overriding desire was for shows with great stories, and that he was aware that the ITV schedule had had too much crime and murder in it over recent years.  He said that ITV are very keen for contemporary drama.  Successes are of course Downton Abbey and Broadchurch, and the teaser for Lucan looked good.

The thought did run through my head that its generally accepted that there are only 7 basic plots, and that its more about the execution and casting that make the difference rather than just the story (as many stories are very similar when you pitch them), the ‘we want great stories’ was a recurring comment from lots of the drama commissioners, but then again, who would want bad stories?!

Keynote Interview: Piers Wenger, Head of drama, Channel 4

I am particularly fond of Channel 4 drama, as I believe they find a good balance between the need to service commercial interests with the need for ratings, but most importantly, the most interesting and dynamic drama as a public service.  Other broadcasters do have the habit of dumbing down story-lines, almost second guessing what audiences will think (I know this because I hear about it from the Directors and Producers who were forced to adjust the script or make story-lines clearer in the edit).  I’m not aware of Channel 4 intervening in this way, or feeling the need to signpost for its audience.  In the highlight reel was Top Boy 2 (which I graded in the summer) as well as Utopia, Southcliffe and Run.  I asked Piers if he would be increasing drama output, and he confirmed that he will double the number of drama hours in 2015.  I also asked if there was much commercial pressure, and while he said there was some, it was not the overriding consideration, and certainly not in the way that ITV or Sky operate.

Dig the new breed: The future of International Drama

A fascinating insight in to ‘Tricked‘ and Entertainment Experience, the new film from Director Paul Verhoeven.  It has been written by engaging with the general public, as the press pack states: In this era of social media, Verhoeven let himself be led by the general public, who determined all the crucial elements of the film making process.  From the direction of the script, plot twists, graphics, music score to even the smallest of suggestions about the set design, Paul Verhoeven’s movie is directly inspired by all the participants involved in this ground breaking film making experience.

Another highlight was Caryn Mandabach who works both in the US and in the UK.  She was a fantastic character, pointing out that 85% of UK broadcaster’s drama output features a murder!  When you think about it not that surprising, but just shows the limits of the drama commissions in recent years.  She was very clear that she doesn’t believe in the complex analytics of audience interaction, and just goes on the simple premise of “is it good?” rather than looking in to what might sell or whats on trend etc.  She also mentioned that the Weinsteins had bought ‘Peaky Blinders’ for the US, a clear indication that it stood out from the crowd, which I totally agree with.

Content London was a fantastic event, and it prompted me to look at new ideas for my own business and my industry contacts.  Congrats to C21 and David Jenkinson for an excellent couple of days.

I hope you found these notes useful.  If you did, please share it to your industry friends and tweet it!

You can find more information about the kind of work my company does here at www.thelooklondon.com

Many thanks

Thomas Urbye

MD & Visual Director

The Look

London

14
Aug
13

Why is mediocrity such a powerful force?

Ive hit the decade mark!

Yes, Im now in to my second ten years working in Soho’s post production world.  Not only that, I’m ten years working with some great Directors, DoPs, Producers and Exec Producers (not to mention the great people that are hired by these people).

In that time I’ve met all sorts of characters – some geniuses, some nutcases (music promos!), some incompetent, some living on a different planet, and quite a lot of the in-betweeners, a sort of mediocre, they are just, well, getting on with it – making a living.

What’s rather more concerning is I’m still deciding if my work is mediocre.  One thing that has struck me in recent years is that a lot of the people I count as talented (certainly more than me) also aren’t sure if they are mediocre too.  What is surprising is how desperate the really good people are not to be mediocre.  Its almost an obsession, you see it painted on the faces of great creatives, and also, though not as often, on the faces of producers that hire them.

I’ve found myself during the last couple of years sat in meetings, or in the grading suite, or chatting outside a pub with a DP / Director / Producer just saying “we’ve got to be bold with this – punchy”, with Directors and DPs drumming in to me that “we’ve got to push this look, this scene is all about the starkness, it cant look like everything else out there” etc etc.  Yet, by the time shooting starts, and certain execs wade in, the whole project is diluted, re-scripted, and everything that the Director had in their mind is gone.

Then on the flip side, I’ve sat with very gifted DPs and Directors who say very little, but know exactly what they want, its a subtlety to the image, the delicate film-making process, that takes it from mediocrity to that next level.  The directing, lighting, editing, score and the grade can be delicate, slow-burning tension – but the result, anything but mediocre – in its own way very bold.

Interestingly, its this passion that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, and particularly with the shows I’ve worked on this year where the whole team on these projects have tried to be bold, which has propelled these gifted few to such great heights, in a tough market of lowering budgets and mediocre commissions.  Its tough for these more bold creatives and producers to get a job, yet the jobs that could be on offer aren’t the ones they even want to do.  On occasions they have to take them to cover their own personal costs, even though of course the personal cost could be quite great – you are, as they say, only as good as your last job.

Its a stark fact that more than half of producers and exec producers are at odds with these people because what they want is actually mediocrity, an easy life, to get that perfect TV show that gets the ratings and challenges nothing, engages enough, and passes the time and gets a repeat series – hey presto you’ve secured a second home in Devon or even France.  Hopefully it will allow them to make a more dynamic project later for their portfolio, if they have the will to be bold.

For a century of film-making, gifted and bold creatives have pushed back on what is the safe route, and time and again the result has been a more successful final piece.  Mediocrity has seen millions of films, commercials and TV shows end up on the scrap heap, yet when we look at just The Top 10 IMDB Movies (as voted by the users of the site), we see a list of strange choices:

1) Shawshank Redemption: A film set in a prison – Exec Producer “Sounds a bit down – really, another prison break film?”.  Did nothing at the box office, had little P&A budget backing it – then, when people started to see it, well, the rest is history.

2) Godfather: Mob picture, set around a family – 3 hours long, and it was the Exec Producer Robert Evans that made it this length!  It is sloooooow.  But its certainly bold.  Violent, slow burning, an epic movie.

3) Godfather 2: A great follow up to the first, Coppola delivers a tense story of the next generation of the Corleone family.

4) Pulp Fiction: A masterclass in disjointed storytelling, casting and post production – Exec “Why Travolta!?!? All these storylines?” – thankfully the Weinsteins were involved and they have a track record of spotting bold talent

5) The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: not much dialogue, whole lot of on screen tension – then there is the bolder than bold score from the genius of Ennio Morricone (N.b. my fav, Once Upon a Time in the West, which is for me the greatest direction, score, editing and photography I’ve ever seen – shots held for literally eternity – now, editors and execs love a cut).

6) The Dark Knight – A director that uses (mostly) one camera, 70mm, and lets it run well over 2hours – and Hollywood hates that.  He manages to spend millions, which you actually see on screen, as well as being one of the very few films of the comic genre that succeeds as a great movie.  With Inception as well, he shows that a Director’s bold vision is enough to take over a $1billion.

7) 12 Angry Men – Now this is my favourite in this list because its set for nearly the entire movie in a single room.  Its also in black and white, but its a masterclass in acting, scriptwriting and direction.  You can imagine the screams “this picture is all set in one room, the audience will get bored after fifteen minutes”.  Most execs freak out at a one minute courtroom scene. “Quick more cutting, we need to speed it all up, people will turn off!”

8) Schindler’s List: A true story, adapted very well to the big screen.  I can imagine a few squeaky shoes at that first production meeting.

9) Lord of the Rings: Fair play to Peter Jackson, he managed to get a studio to let him spend millions on adapting a book no one had ever risked to take to the big screen on anything like this scale.  And at 9, he clearly succeeded.

10) Fight Club: a film about people who like to beat each other up for fun.  The oddest premise, with Meat Loaf in a supporting role, and with super bold direction – again, can you imagine the elevator pitch?!

So, despite the fact that so many of us try to be bold, we do lose out to the mediocre.  We for instance are always dealing with producers that just want the cheapest deal, do everything in one big post house, usually with a safe pair of hands / an old drinking mate / or that’s near their office.  Yet, the fact remains, for really great work to be made you have to be bold and pick the team that has the utmost ability to deliver the best.  It doesn’t matter if its TV, commercials, or features or docs, its got to be bold, for me, its like Top Boy, The Wire, to Breaking Bad, to The Fades and on – do not give in to mediocrity, and strive to produce films, whether 5 seconds or 13 hours, that take the audience on a new and exciting journey.

During the next ten years, my motto is “Push it”, and thankfully I’m now working with clients that feel the same – and its fantastic!

If you’re a young filmmaker, whatever your discipline, be bold, be bold, BE BOLD.

Thomas Urbye

MD

The Look

24
Nov
12

Why does my project look different on every screen I watch it on?

The age old question, asked by so many people who’ve come through my suite:

“I’ve downloaded it to my laptop and it looks different?”

Then there is the inevitable panic:

“Thomas, how can we make sure that everyone who watches it, watches it ‘properly’?”

This issue recently came to light here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-19650769

As a colourist, I’ve spent a great deal of time learning to understand colour science, thanks to years of discussions and teachings with friends like Martin Parsons @ Image Eyes and Steve Shaw @ Light Illusion.  We’ve had many chats over different screens and different technologies, and discussed the question asked by Producers, Directors and DPs the world over: “Why does my work look different on every screen?”

I’m going to set out why it does, a brief note on the technology and finally, why it doesn’t matter as much as you think.

A visit to my company’s website will quickly tell you that colour is very important to our business revenue, we are predominantly a colour grading company, and clients from all sectors of the industry use us to make their work look as special as it can, in real terms, adding value to what was shot and hopefully taking the image beyond what the client ever thought possible.  In a world where software colour grading tools, like editing and desktop publishing, is pretty much free, anyone can be a colourist now – just like they can be a graphic designer or editor.

The difference is how quickly you get to the absolute best result, your understanding of your profession, your client skills, the client experience, delivering on time and knowing that your screens are calibrated…….

A lot of people think that there isn’t a standard for colour on screens, but there is.

We have a lot of screens at The Look, all of them using different panel technologies inside – we have LCD, LED, Plasma and projection.  They have varying price points, various issues inherent with their design, and they have varying controls over their calibration.  But this blog isn’t about the intricacies of different panels and the complicated world of colour science.

The current standard of HD TV screens and content delivery, the world over, is known as Rec. 709 and you might be surprised to learn, that most panels inside the TVs you buy are roughly calibrated to this standard.  The problem arises when TV manufacturers add special ‘features’ to the TV itself (rather than the actual panel) so that it appears sharper and more impressive on a shop floor against its competitors.  The ones that drive us colour specialists mad is anything with the word ‘dynamic’ in it.  Dynamic Contrast, Smooth Motion, Noise Reduction and various settings like ‘Game’, ‘Dynamic’, ‘Sports’ etc. all play havoc with the image displayed, heightening colours and increasing the contrast, usually causing any detail in the image which is in the darker or lighter areas to disappear completely as the panel is worked hard to make the image more intense – any subtlety is gone – its like turning up the bass and treble on your amp and wondering why certain songs sound terrible, while others seem to sound more ‘epic’.

If you actually turn off everything, and set the TV to standard you might be surprised to know, and this is in my experience true even with consumer sets, that they aren’t that far off the Rec. 709 standard.  At The Look we measure the black level (to make sure picture information isn’t being cut off, or isn’t too ‘lifted’) and we also measure, using a special probe and specialist software, how bright the TV is when a pure white image is put in to it.  We then measure pure Red, pure Green and pure Blue to see if its close to the Rec. 709 standard.  We then check a grey scale to confirm that their isn’t a strange colour cast or tint to the panel.

Interestingly, with most HD panels from decent manufacturers, you can get them pretty close to the standard, certainly for home viewing.

Why bother with any of this?

Because you should want to watch programmes, feature films and commercials as they were colour graded by people like me and the Directors and Cinematographers I work with, and my other fellow Colourists the world over who’ve calibrated our screens.  Thankfully, digital cinema now means that when you go to your local cinema, it should be pretty accurate to what we saw – well, if its properly maintained that is.

The chances are you won’t be able to do much more than going to ‘standard’ on your TV, turning off all the extra stuff I mentioned above, and doing a visual calibration with your own eyes on a film you trust – which may sound crazy, but in my experience, my eyes are as good as any probe I’ve used.

Even after this, its not going to be perfect by any means, and even in a professional environment we struggle to get every colour at every point in the colour and brightness scale to be accurate to the Rec. 709 standard.

So TVs may seem like a pain to tweak, with all their options and settings.  But what about your laptop, your iPad, your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy etc.?

The bad news is, most of these devices don’t have a way of tweaking your screen, they don’t even work to the Rec. 709 standard, some say they work to the sRGB standard, but thats unlikely out of the box.  I recently purchased an iPhone 5, restored my old iPhone 4 settings to it, so in effect they were identical, with the same home image.  Put them next to each other and I was gobsmacked at how different the same image looked, the iPhone 5 was significantly warmer in its colour tone.

iPhone 5 on the right has significantly more yellow/warmth in the whites than the iPhone 4 display on the left

Its true to say, if you buy another iPhone 5, put the same image on it, it will probably look different on that one too.

So when clients say, “sorry I couldnt make it to the grade, but I’ve downloaded your link and the product looks a bit yellow to me” I get a little frustrated!

“Thomas, how can we make sure that everyone who watches it, watches it ‘properly’ as we see it on your screen?”

You cant.

But I have an explanation on why you shouldn’t worry too much.

For hundreds, even thousands of years, man has chosen colour by mixing paints and putting this paint on to a canvas, and this canvas would have been lit by both daylight and candle light, and later, by electric lamps of varying colour temperatures, he or she would have carried on working for days and weeks, and just as we cannot change the colour of lamps and sunlight, neither can we accurately control the colour of the screen or the viewing conditions of the millions of people watching our work.

If you visit any gallery in the world, which has natural light as a source, when you visit at 9am and photograph a painting, and return again at 4pm and photograph the same painting with the same settings, the brightness and colour cast could be warmer, or cooler, based on the natural light.  This in itself will have changed the way we see the painting, the colours will have changed to our eye, but one key thing to remember is that our brain interprets the information that our eyes transmit to it.  If someone is wearing a white t-shirt in an image our brain balances the other colours based on that and other known objects and what colour they are.  When someone owns a TV, a laptop and an iPhone, the colour is neutralised by our brain it appears normal (unless you put them next to each other) and its only if we have a reference (a logo with strong colours) that we might spot an issue, otherwise, everything seems fine.  If your TV is set up a bit wacky, that wacky to you is normal.

However, with the gallery example, we don’t see this as devaluing or ruining a painting or piece of art, it is how the colours are used in the painting (or image) that compliment each other perfectly, how the light in the original scene is rendered and controlled, in essence, creating an image that is visually pleasing in whatever environment you watch it in and on.  As the image above shows, the scene that I photographed in Austria is equally beautiful on both screens, and if you were to look at one phone, and then turn it off, and turn the other one on, if you did this with even a few seconds gap, the chances are you’d think they were identical – that is how bad our colour memory is.

There is no excuse for anyone who offers grading services, individual or company, not to understand the complexities of display calibration, it is a known standard that manufacturers do work too, and it allows screens that the work is seen on later to be off in a particular direction without major detriment to the viewer’s experience of the image, particularly if you have set your black and white levels properly.

So if you are panicking about how your project is looking different on YouTube, your Quicktime on your laptop (oh the joy of Quicktime gamma issues), YouTube on your iPhone and then when its broadcast, don’t loose too much sleep – its never going to change, its not as bad as it seems – you just need to make sure you work with people who know why it looks different and how we can counter the issues as much as we can within the controls and knowledge at our disposal.

I leave you with one final thought, years ago I worked on a Channel 4/E4 series here in the UK called ‘Dead Set’.  It was Directed by Yann Demange, DP was Tat Radcliffe and it was Written by Charlie Brooker.  I can remember all of us discussing the issues described in this blog, and how dark we could realistically go with the colour grade without causing issues for anyone watching this zombie horror during bright daylight hours (it was in places graded and lit in a very moody way), and in an unheard of moment of genius Charlie managed to get the announcer to state before the programme: “Now on E4, ‘Dead Set’, which contains graphic scenes and which is best viewed in a darkened environment”.

I had a wonderful vision of millions of people all reaching up to their light switch and turning off their ‘big light’, and there by increasing their enjoyment of the work we had done, and actually seeing some more of the gory detail!

There you have it, problem solved
Thomas Urbye

MD & Senior Colourist

The Look

London

www.thelooklondon.com

20
Jul
12

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BLACK ART……anymore

The Internet has given us unprecedented knowledge at the end of our fingertips. Until the last decade, if someone possessed detailed knowledge, it would bring financial, business and personal rewards.  If you were very specialised in a particular field you could become a consultant, be the go to person for businesses and individuals around the world.
The Internet has opened up knowledge to all, whatever field you are in, in any industry, information on your job, what you do and how you do it is available online. The days of just a handful of textbooks and a few limited experts in certain fields having the only information is gone. Now, whether it be Wikipedia, research sites or forums, whatever your industry, it is likely that the information someone might need is online, they don’t need to consult an expert, and that might mean you.
Now, to the novice and the people that do the actual hire, this is fantastic-a double edged sword though, it has no doubt leapt us forward as a civilisation and democratised knowledge, but
what if you make a living from your knowledge and your practised skills?
Does the fact your customers and clients have information available to them, the tools at the touch of a button to do the work that until ten years ago they would hire you to do, does it now impact on your earnings?
For us in the media industry, after years of training and learning a craft, particularly those that are freelancers, find themselves in competition with those that have scoured the Internet for tips and tutorials on everything from lighting, producing, directing, to sound to editing, grading and vfx etc etc. While this access to knowledge is powerful, in my experience those that come to us for interviews, or work that I see shot by DoPs that haven’t risen through the ranks invariably isn’t that good, finding the gems takes us many hours. The sheer ‘chatter’ of people, those that are DoPs, editors, producers, directors, colourists etc mean the industry is diluted, and the people that hire are left with a mountain of choice with both perceived skill but also with, most crucially, wide ranging daily rates-yet their job title the same. Whatever your industry, the number of ‘experts’ has grown immeasurably and they’re advertising it online, and this for me is the big negative of the Internet. For a company, we find it so useful to purchase random bits of technology with a few button presses, where before we’d have to ask an engineer to hunt it down with his/her contacts, now I just google it. When kit breaks, we just have it replaced. When software won’t do something, we google it. What does that mean for traditional engineers? Not good.  However, when you really want to know something detailed, and want to know the information is accurate, the Internet becomes just chatter, full of inaccuracies and novices.
Every person you speak to will counter that it’s now about client skills, delivering on time-the first time, and within budget.  This is all true, but the argument is shall we a) not add to the chatter, giving away our skills to those that can’t repay via forums b) embrace the democratisation of industry and skills and find a way to make it work for us, both in our careers but also financially. After all, you can make a film yourself on £100-300k with decent kit, and that wasn’t possible ten years ago. You can trade money from your computer without a broker, you can make a website and sell your skills for £100 a day-using iWeb, or make music using GarageBand on a laptop for corporate clients, for the price of a hot sandwich.
When you add this up, does this mean that the person that hires you has more of less respect for your ability?  Or has it meant that you’ve got less work and are being paid less for it?  Does it mean that more people are able to work for themselves, and that if you’re a medium sized company with low-medium fee paying clients your shelf life is running shorter and shorter because you’re in direct competition with someone with no overheads who will do it for half, or less, than your company can?

There is no such thing as a ‘black art’ now, experience is not worth what it was.  There are clients of yours that refuse to use someone cheaper with less experience-they dont want the hassle, but are they the old guard, how long till they are replaced or forced to go cheaper?  Does a cheaper product in the end hurt the purchaser, does a rubbish piece of music, or a badly designed website, or a cheap online advert shot on a 5D camera make your products look cheap too?

I’m not sure on the answers, so will all the people and the chatter please discuss?

Thomas Urbye
MD and Senior Colourist
The Look
London

17
Dec
11

2011 wasn’t all that bad for TV & Commercials, was it? So what does 2012 hold?

2011 was pretty depressing, reading the paper or watching the news was a miserable experience, and all in all, those who still have a job, or have a business should apparently be chuffed to bits!

Interestingly, a lot of my clients have actually had a pretty good year, not exactly the best ever for most, but many have told me that when they actually worked out the numbers, their figures were actually very good – both freelancers and production companies.

So if this is the case, and for us we had our best year ever (our fifth), what is it that makes us all feel so uncertain about 2012, despite quite a few of us media based companies having surprisingly good revenue?  The big thing for many is “Do we expand premises, get more people, invest in new technology, or just keep capital in the business just in case it gets bad in 2012?”.  Unfortunately I think the tendancy is to opt for the latter, and I’m inclinned to agree with them, which does nothing for getting the economy going, but most people are just too scared to risk loosing it all when everyone is telling you that 2012 is going to be horrible.

This year we worked on ‘South Riding’ for BBC, ‘Monroe’ for ITV, ‘Top Boy’ for Channel 4, ‘The Fades’ for BBC, ‘Whitechapel 3′ for ITV, ‘The Bodyfarm’ for BBC, ‘Bert & Dickie’ for BBC and ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ for BBC.  This adds up to 29 hours of drama for us, and we’re very proud of all of the work.  ‘Top Boy’ and ‘The Fades’ stood out for this year as youth orientated shows which both received critical acclaim.  With ‘Top Boy’, Channel 4 invested thousands in advertising, which meant that it pulled in a large and very diverse audience.  During its transmission week, it was the second most popular thing (trending) talked about on Twitter in London, Manchester and Birmingham.  Its fantastic when a series pushes the boundaries of storytelling and its craft, and produces something which is more than just ‘ok’, and ‘Top Boy’, though difficult for many to watch, received such great reviews that everyone involved is genuinely proud to have worked on it.  To engage with such a diverse age range from all different walks of life, is a testament to what can be achieved to create great, world leading UK drama – any comparisons to ‘The Wire’ can only be gratifying for those involved.

We were delighted to work on some wonderful TV drama this year, and I genuinely feel like the standard of UK drama is increasing, despite the year on year reduction in budgets from some broadcasters.  Although more drama is being commisioned next year from nearly all the broadcasters, the chances are there will be more drama series but a little bit more money spread across quite a few more of them.  This does have the unfortunate effect that UK drama has: too few shooting days and prep, too few extras and atmosphere, too few truly realistic locations, and too few decent wide shots if anything other than contemporary UK is the subject – all this hinders UK drama when compared to what the US can produce.  The directing, acting and technical craft is so high in the UK, that its a shame that sometimes the budget and subject matter is often so, well, safe.  For UK drama to really get to a world stage then broadcasters need to increase budgets to capture the aforementioned, give writers more time to finesse their work, and increase budgets on those dramas that really need it, only then can we hope to create true ‘brilliance’ for a world stage on more regular occasions.

2011 continued to be a very poor year for independent British films, with many directors not able to find funding to bring their film to the screen.  Despite successes like ‘The King’s Speech’, and despite post production companies becoming investors, it wasn’t enough for many to get their film off the ground.  I cant see this changing in the short-term, but we will continue to actively look out for great scripts and directors for potential investment, if not move in to Production ourselves in 2012.  We have to hope that other investors can return to the industry with the support of EIS schemes and tax benefits for those investors.

3D Stereoscopic has been huge for Hollywood, with nearly all children’s movies being in 3D.  Here in the UK though, Sky are left to fly the 3D flag for us with sports and natural history programming.  Sky are commited to 3D and I’m sure we’ll be hearing of some big commisions in 2012.  However, a recent survey discovered over half of people who own 3D televisions don’t actually know they have 3D built in!  Viewing 3D in a cinema is one thing, but wearing glasses at home is another.  However, the Olympics and Euro 2012 along with transmitting Hollywood 3D movies could be what Sky and also BBC (if they commit to 3D) need to push the audience into the third dimension, and its not going to be quick – but we cant give up now.  Fingers crossed Sky and BBC increase the momentum.

Finally, I’d like to thank all those that have supported The Look and the team that work here during 2011, we’ve worked with some of the best UK talent and some really lovely people, and we are very grateful to be chosen to work on some great projects this year.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you

Thomas Urbye

MD

The Look




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