Post production in lockdown

Gangs of London

Thomas Urbye, CEO, The Look

There was an air of panic as we ploughed in to March, right in the final stages of post production on Sky’s Gangs of London (Pulse Films / Sister Pictures) as it seemed more and more likely that the capital could soon be in lockdown.  Even at the start of the month it seemed quite inconceivable that the facility would be shut by mid March, and that we would have to ask clients to vacate by the 17th of the month until further notice, even stranger was having to ask the majority of The Look’s team to leave the office with no idea when we would see each other again, it was quite emotional for everyone.  When would it end?

For more than three years, our CTO Mark Maltby had been actively using remote working.  He had set up our Cardiff office, as well as team members on evening and weekend shifts, so that they didn’t need to come in unnecessarily.  The crucial aspect of Mark’s implementation of remote working was around security, responsiveness and ease of use.  Logging in to a remote computer is not new, there are plenty of web based solutions, but we had chosen to take a hardware based route and so by the time lockdown hit, 80% of the operators already had remote capabilities, the only thing missing was the grading panels.  Within a day this was sorted, and everyone’s spare room or bedroom desk became their new suite.  Before I knew it, I was final grading the last three episodes of Gangs of London from my home in HDR and SDR, with the whole team communicating on a group voice chat – and not a single machine was moved from W1.

Nothing had changed, apart from the physicality of seeing each other in person, and the same for clients.  In fact, by April efficiency had actually improved because everyone involved were being more focused, with resources being planned meticulously rather than the usual “are you done with that machine?” from across the hallway.  Directors Gareth Evans, Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens were also succinct in their notes, which were easy to address.

It has been an eye opening experience, with clients and The Look’s team members realising that remote working could actually be very beneficial for everyone involved post lockdown.  On our latest project, a new six part series for Kudos and Sky, we are even doing live reviews to client’s own laptops and screens, helping them calibrate and using video conferencing to adjust the grade live.  We are also looking at offering the shipment of calibrated high quality screens to client’s homes on future jobs so they can review at their leisure.

Will the world ever be the same again?  Was it ripe for an evolution of working anyway?

I’ll now hand over to Hugh Warren, Producer on Gangs, and our very own Dan Marbrook, senior post producer and industry commentator:

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Hugh Warren, Producer: Gangs of London

Hugh Warren

“We were in the final stages of post production on Gangs when lockdown happened, fortunately all the ADR had been completed, but nonetheless still a way to go with picture post. Gangs is a very VFX heavy show and whilst the main grades had been completed – literally the day before lockdown – there were many VFX shots still to complete and drop in, as well as the whole QC process to go through with both HBO and Sky. I was very concerned about completing everything in time for a 23rd April TX.

The Look managed to set things up so everything could be done remotely, all VFX were noted by the creatives from their homes, and high res “confidence files” were sent out so the grade could be reviewed remotely as well.

Will this be the future? Remote noting via email has always been slower and more cumbersome, but with zoom conferences becoming so much a part of our working lives now we will all learn and adjust so remote working will become more efficient. The reality of high-end international co-productions means that this was already happening for us on Gangs even pre-Covid. We had key creatives and execs in different countries and time zones, which meant we sometimes had to schedule grade reviews live across three different countries. And it worked remarkably well.

So whilst personally I think I’ll always prefer getting in a room together, discussing thoughts and ideas, trying things out with everyone there, the new reality may mean this may already be a nostalgic memory.  I’ll certainly miss popping the champagne at the end of it all with everyone in the room!

The bigger challenge for drama producers is how to shoot drama when some form of social distancing may be required for a long time to come. That will be incredibly limiting in terms of the kind of stories we can tell, but also very challenging to the practical realities of production. The travelling circus of location based shooting in particular is not really compatible with social distancing.”

Dan Marbrook, Senior Producer, The Look

So, how do you plan to deliver a show already unprecedented in its complexity through an unprecedented Pandemic? That’s a rhetorical question, but our excellent team just performed this delivery with barely a break, moving from a facility to a fully remote workflow.

Confidence files were sent that enabled notes, but after this point we asked clients to trust the fact that we implemented to their requirements. Any other method of screening those amends would have risked an infinite crash loop that our timescales didn’t allow for. Fortunately our creative team responded very well, as did production, and they trusted us to deliver to the highest standards.

We should also mention the fantastic team behind Gangs of London who have been ultra supportive through a situation that none of us experienced before.

I am personally hugely proud of our production and operational team, and proud to be part of The Look.

But what next?  Covid 19 will have a major impact on our social political values, and also an obvious immediate impact on our economy. For scripted drama the impact will be hardest felt from May-July with an as yet undisclosed end point. Whilst the immediate impact will be tough on many, great things have traditionally evolved from great tragedy. Our welfare system and NHS are products of global catastrophe and it’s worth remembering on Thursday night as we applaud our real life heroes. Whilst the immediate pain is hard to cope with, my colleagues and I will do all we can to bring us out the other side and build on the foundations that are helping to sustain our business.

We are proud to say that The Look is not simply a vehicle to transfer wealth to those who started it. Our whole team helped build the company. We have carefully and deliberately not over financed, over compensated or reached beyond our means despite the temptation to do so in the recent Boom years. Our business is in a healthy position to ride the storm and our colleagues will be looked after for as long as we are able. We have long harboured a desire for business to have an impact not only in our direct industry community, but also our wider community. We have no exit plan but to lead a healthy work life balance and do what we love to do, working with clients with similar ambitions.
Before the 1960’s, studios and businesses were often organisations where you would feel proud to be a part of the brand, and work hard to keep it stable and secure for all who worked there. The trend to accumulate investment, based on debt, and exit in five years is a recent phenomenon that means many businesses in all industries will struggle to get through three months unaided. Some will have 50% of their team employed as contractors or self employed. For those individuals there is currently little help.
According to BFC figures £3.9 billion filtered its way through our industry in the UK last year. Yet during the worst crisis in our lifetimes, leading businesses could go under, and with those colleague’s income severely affected. This just doesn’t sit right with us. Though there will be some painful times ahead for many, it could also provide an opportunity to make amends throughout our production chain. It’s true that we do not currently know what that looks like, but we would like to extend an invitation to all colleagues across our industry to begin the conversation. How should we look after each other in future……

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