On this page, I shall outline some of the essential needs for getting a production made.
Film and TV production is an endlessly complex process requiring detailed organisation and planning, but it is problematic at best because crew train within specific departments, they never work for other departments, and so they never understand how they really work. In other words, despite what most film crew believe, they are not as trained for the job as they should be.
(Note: Several years ago I worked on the remake of “Clash Of The Titans”. I was aware that there was a young Production Assistant who was working within the Special Effects Department because she wanted to better understand how they worked to make her a better Production Assistant. People were rightly impressed by that. She will go far).
Examples of problems faced due to lack of cross-departmental experience include;
- Writers who do not understand the problems Production Managers face so they do not format scripts appropriately.
- Producers who do not understand the difference between a good DoP and a bad one. (I worked on a BBC drama once where the DoP blew the entire lighting budget in the first episode. I saw it coming by watching what he was up to. Somehow Production missed what he was up to until it was too late.)
- 1st Assistant Directors who don’t understand the scheduling problems the Art Department faces so they create cost-inefficient schedules (inevitably they say you have to work around the cast, but that’s not an excuse for not working *with* the Art Department to integrate their needs alongside the actor’s schedule and I have *never* met a 1st AD who really does that).
But what makes me qualified to say all this? Well, I am a bit different. During my 28 years in the industry, I have done the following jobs, sometimes briefly, but always professionally;
- Line Producer
- Production Manager
- Unit Manager
- Locations Manager
- Head of Script Development
- Script Analyst
- Director of Photography
- Film Electrician
- Focus Puller
- Clapper / Loader
- Steadicam Assistant
- Camera Technician
- Carpenter / Chippie
- Constructoon Supervisor
- Construction Manager
- Asst. Art Director
- Standby Art Director
- Prop Hand
- Art Director
- Production Designer
- Assistant Editor
- Producer – Audio Plays
- Director – Audio Plays
- Visiting Lecturer in Production Design at LFS.
- Software Design – new scriptwriting, budgeting and scheduling software.
I also have a very deep fascination for SFX and CGI.
The result of all this experience and knowledge is that I know how each department works because – crucially – I have done it. I can use that knowledge when in one department to facilitate cross-department efficiency with other departments. This is why I was so very much aware of the inadequacies of ATG.
Normally, I keep quiet. But the problems faced on “Medinah” were so huge because such basic understanding seemed lacking or because stuff was not getting done, it became necessary. And anyway, this was the Middle East. They work differently there. So the rules were not the same.
And yet despite many efforts to tell ATG they were creating problems by not fixing basic things, nothing was ever fixed. In time, I came to believe their absolute bloody-mindedness was really a refusal to do anything that could lesson the opportunity to embezzle the investors’ funds.
As a result, production of “Medinah” was – and as I understand it from various sources – remains, a mess.
Which is why I have created this page. It will identify many of the areas where ATG/ATP was going wrong. And will also say what they should have been doing.
Let’s start at the very beginning;
STEP 1 – HIRE THE RIGHT SCRIPTWRITERS
ATG did not do this. Instead, they used cheap internal staff that lacked experience on this scale of show. Which does not mean the show is bad. But it is overwritten and it is likely a lot will be cut in the editing room (if the right editors are hired) and that’s wasted money. At the very least, ATG should have hired someone like J Michael Straczynski as Head Writer to polish the show. They did not.
STEP 2. FORMAT YOUR SCRIPTS RIGHT!!!
This is a mistake I see all the time – and I say this as a Art Director and Screenwriter – but ATG took it to a whole new level.
It sounds OCD. It is not. I worked on a feature film once as Construction Manager where I found out on on the first day that the Production Designer and Art Director had different versions of the screenplay but had not noticed because the screenplay had not been dated correctly by the Production unit. Both versions had a few different sets and locations.
Now imagine that multiplied by twenty episodes.
When I joined, I found the following problems in the screenplays;
- Different locations with the same name (there was over 20 desert scenes all called EXT. DESERT – how was anyone meant to know one location from the other? – and this still had not been fixed properly when I left the show).
- Same locations with different names (the inverse problem to the above – again, not fixed when I left).
- Same character – different names.
- Sequences of multiple locations being written as one scene (this meant scheduling would be unnecessarily complicated and costly).
- Drafts incorrectly labelled or not dated making it hard to track which were the newer versions and how new they were.
- No one person responsible for issuing new drafts so the risk of people working off different drafts would be very high (needless to say, this happened resulting in weeks of wasted work).
- Scene Headings incorrectly named so it is harder to organise them.
Let’s look more closely at point ‘7’. Why do this? Because if you have 450 locations/sets (as “Medinah” does) , this helps to keep track of them. Example – it’s easier to find these locations together…
- INT. DOHA, PAUL’S HOUSE, PAUL’S ROOM
- INT. DOHA, PAUL’S HOUSE, KITCHEN
- INT. DOHA, PAUL’S HOUSE, AMY’S ROOM
- INT. DOHA, PAUL’S HOUSE, BATHROOM
- INT. DOHA, PAUL’S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM
…than these ones…
- INT. PAUL’S ROOM, PAUL’S HOUSE, DOHA
- INT. AMY’S ROOM, HOUSE, DOHA
- INT. KITCHEN, HOUSE, DOHA
- INT. PAUL’S HOUSE, DOHA, LIVING ROOM
- INT. BATHROOM
And yet that is what we were facing, multiplied by 450.
Scriptwriters – I’m one of them so I know from whence I speak (!) – are usually the main culprit for this because they prefer readable scene headings. They want their script to look good! That’s fine when you’re trying to sell a script. But once a script is ready to go to into Production, scene headings should be renamed for ease of use and because Production software works that way. So the first thing that should be done, is the scripts should be checked by a Script Supervisor or ‘able Production person’, fixed, then correctly labelled, dated, and centralised for distribution by one person only.
In the end, I fixed the first five scripts myself (not easy because no-one seemed willing or able to explain to me properly some of the more inconsistent issues). Ahmed had a go at the reminder but I was still finding problems when I left.
So, after 11 months on “Medinah”, the scripts were never adequately organised, and as a result no realistic budget was ever produced.
I gather the problem still isn’t adequately fixed. They did hire a Script Supervisor – albeit far too late. She produced literally hundreds of pages of questions and when I left the show, ATG had still made zero effort to answer them.
STEP 3. ANALYSE THE SCRIPTS
The above image is more for fun, but it illustrates a point. We are all here to tell a story. So you better get everyone on the same page.
This means you bring together your HoDs under the leadership of the director and you spend however long it takes to analyse the scripts, looking for ways to simplify, guarantee costs, enhance production values, themes, narrative, and so on.
The designer might realise that an expensive set is only being used once, but that a whole bunch more scenes can be moved to that set. If the director agrees this is a good idea, costs are reduced, scheduling made easier, drama enhanced.
The director of photography might decide a location would be more dramatic if shot with rain machines. This is costly, so it’s a good job the designer realised the expensive set could be used more, because now the savings the designer made from that set can be moved to hiring a rain machine.
The director might realise that there’s five episodes centralised around one location and s/he can afford to lose an episode. Or shoot them faster if certain scenes are switched from day to night.
A visual theme might be discovered that everyone can use to enhance the show’s message. This theme might change certain things. Those changes might make production easier. And the show better.
I could go on but you should be getting the idea by now. This is basically a ‘read thru’, but for HoDs. It helps to build a team, to develop understanding for the project, to address problems and concerns up front, to get everyone on the same page, to streamline the project and enhance production values, and so on.
So how many read-thru’s did ATG do?
Indeed, they seemed to prefer to keep departments apart for as long as possible. The result was a lack of cohesion, people working in isolation, a lack of continuity and purpose.
STEP 3. BUDGET THE SCRIPTS
There comes a point when each department creates a budget. Usually, they are told what the budget is before they start and it is their job to find a way to make that budget work. They create a budget, present it, then Production okays it or not. If not okayed, the budget has to be cut. If it can’t be cut, other changes have to be made to achieve the cuts. This is done right at the start to make sure the show will be made with the money available.
On a legit show, your budgets are your safety net. Contingencies are the backup safety net.
However, budgets are organic. Initially, they change depending on changes in the schedule and changes made to the screenplays. There will be many more factors during production that will change them too. But without that first budget, your show is just a disorganised mess.
So when did ATG tell the Art Dept what the budget was?
And when did ATG ask the Art Dept to do a full budget?
Nearly a year into prep. And at seven days notice. And for reasons other than to figure out how to make the show.
STEP 4. SCHEDULE THE SCRIPTS
You can shoot linear, parallel, or as a combination. With one director or many.
“Medinah’s” budget is tight (even without ATP wasting or embezzling it), so the schedule has to be smart. Very smart.
And it has to work in tandem with the budget. You can’t do a budget then a schedule. You actually have to do both, side by side, iteratively.
In this way, you can piece the show together such that each line of the budget or schedule supports the other. A finely-crafted budget/schedule should be like a finely-crafted piece of software – if you remove a single line, the whole thing falls apart. But if you’ve got it right, it becomes your salvation, enabling you to bring a show in on budget, on time, with great production values, and a happy audience.
ATP’s schedules were a joke. Wholly impractical to the point of sheer stupidity. Which is why they failed. Again and again. And when they used international crew to do schedules, they demanded it be done their way, ignoring the advice of people infinitely more experienced than them.
STEP 5. BREAKDOWN THE SCRIPTS
The “Game Of Thrones” production department and art department worked on the first season for a year before filming began. This was intentional. They understood the complexity of the show. If it was to come in on budget and on time, careful planning was paramount. So everything was planned meticulously and after a year, they were ready.
I worked on “Medinah” for nearly a year, but the experience was very different. The goal posts kept moving. Huge amounts of time and energy were wasted on the most stupid of things, like the “Cardboard Box Story” – an example of ATP’s daily MO.
What should have happened is the budget, schedule, and breakdowns happened side-by-side. The breakdowns should have been the third part of the Holy Trinity of Schedule/Budget/Breakdowns.
The result is a uniform whole. Costs are efficient. The schedule is efficient. Breakdowns are efficient. And crucially, everyone is on the same page.
Of course, things will change. Actor availability will demand changes. Weather will. A more interesting location will. But these changes now happen within a well defined set of parameters that everyone understands, facilitating swift meaningful changes that enhance the whole, not detract from it.
More following soon…