ENGINEERS AS CREATIVE PARTNERS – HOW THE FILM & TV INDUSTRY CAN LEARN FROM MUSIC PRODUCTION
A post I wrote for the National Film and Television School
NFTS Head of Technology, John Maxwell Hobbs, believes the film and television industry should view and work with engineers as creative partners as the music industry does and has designed the School’s new Production Technology MA to do just that.
Why it is that broadcast engineers have long been viewed as boffins who hand out the kit at a beginning of a shoot and then patch it up when it’s returned in pieces after wrap whereas recording engineers have always been viewed as part of the creative team?
The introduction of digital technology into film and television has led to dramatic changes in the entire production process and significantly altered many traditional roles, particularly in technology. This transition is slowly bringing about the change of the Broadcast Engineer role.
For years, production technology has been electro-mechanical and chemical: gears, spinning wheels, cathode ray tubes, celluloid and plastic, developing fluids and dyes – these have been replaced by sensors, OLED screens, and ones and zeroes. A new camera may have a recognisable form factor, but it’s no longer a clanking Victorian wind-up box with a lens on it – it’s now a highly complex computer with a lens on it, and requires not simply a good eye for framing a shot, but a deep knowledge of the complex configurations needed to achieve the desired aesthetics.
Case in point – in the early days of HD production in the UK, I was working for a very big broadcasting company who shall remain nameless. We had the first generation of digital HD video cameras and they were going to be used on a major location shoot by a renowned DP, who shall also remain nameless. When he came to collect the cameras, the engineering team began to tell him what needed to be done to configure and operate the unit. He responded with a brusque, “I know how to use a camera,” picked up the case and left. Two weeks later, a stressed out associate producer came to my team and said, “You’ve got to help us, we’ve got two weeks’ worth of outdoor shots where all the skies are pink.” One of our acquisition engineers got to work solving the problem, and was hailed as a hero for doing something that could have been easily avoided in the first place.
There are positive stories as well. At the same broadcaster, a shooter/director had an ambition to be able to capture the precise moment that interview subjects came to a realisation. Working in collaboration with one of our engineers, they came up with the idea of using an ultra-high speed Phantom camera, normally used for natural history shoots. Not only was it unprecedented to use this type of camera to shoot interviews, but they worked out the way it could be hand-held as if it were a traditional shoulder-mounted camera. By combining their shooting and engineering expertise, they were able to come up with a truly innovative approach to realise a creative ambition.
This productive production/engineering partnership is the norm in music production and always has been. Recording engineers have always been viewed as part of the creative team, and are the main individuals tasked with helping the musicians to achieve their aesthetic visions. Ken Townsend, who engineered The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios, famously invented the Artificial Double Tracking system at the behest of John Lennon. Producer and engineer Eddie Kramer worked closely with Jimi Hendrix to push the boundaries of what could be done with an electric guitar. Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s producer and engineer is often referred to as the “sixth member” of the band.
Digital technology has made the production process more fluid, blurring the boundaries between pre and postproduction, requiring more multi-skilling. Our approach to the Production Technology MA is to give our students not simply an understanding of how things work, but a solid grounding in the creative elements of production and how technology both supports and contributes to creative ambition.
If you are interested in finding out more about the NFTS Production Technology MA, which starts in January 2017, John is running a free taster workshop and open day on the 18th May – for more information and to sign up, please visit www.nfts.co.uk/productiontech