Neighbours is a show that has been part of the serial landscape for well over 20 years and in that time the usual improvements have been made to maintain both a technically high standard and quality storytelling.
However, despite the love, care and attention of all concerned, there was a feeling that the show was in need of a makeover. Fremantle Media very sensibly decided to donate significant attention and financial investment to guarantee the long-term health of this iconic show. Therefore, at the beginning of last year, we planned a major campaign to completely reshape the look of Neighbours, with full HD1080P, using Avid DNX Codec as our benchmark for all improvements to the look of the show. And we gave ourselves six months to do it without stopping production at any time.
To begin with, we decided that for the revolution to be complete, every aspect of design, such as the sets, the backlot and, of course, hair, make-up and wardrobe, had to be tested as an integral part of determining our choice of cameras.
We engaged consultants such as designer Jo Ford, who, with DoP Andy Topp, helped us to create a colour palette which was not only HD friendly, but also imparted a warmth and lushness to the look of the show. My aim was to have the look of the location indistinguishable from that of the studio. To do this, we had to completely rethink how we had lit the show. For a start, a lot less light! In studio, we pulled as many lights off the grid as we could and lit on stands as much as possible, so it would look as if each movement and close-up was individually set up, as if we were shooting shot by shot, like film.
We achieved our goal, despite a nigh-on impossible schedule, where 25 scenes a day are the norm. Adding to the difficulty was the decision to adopt a common, very wide aperture for both studio and location to give an overall shallow depth of field. Again, our aim was that flattering filmic look. And the scary, incredibly sharp scrutiny of HD on skin? Not an issue with great make-up and very subtle filtering in the lens. If it's done right, HD is a kind and user-friendly asset to high turn-over drama.
Thus, every studio or backlot set has either been rebuilt or at the very least repainted and refurbished. The real conundrum for us was that all this change had to happen while we were still shooting in standard definition - the change to HD had to happen basically at the flick of a switch, without dropping a stitch, as it were.
One of the great difficulties up to this time was that we had only ever had one average-sized studio, so different sets had to be bumped in and out every week; year in, year out. With the new brief of creating an HD Neighbours, we commandeered another studio to give permanence to our most commonly used sets so that we could achieve a far higher standard of set finishing and detail that HD requires.
The change to HD has been no less revolutionary for post-production. While the location footage is recorded onto HD tape, all the studio footage is tapeless media streamed directly onto a shared storage system. Once ingested, all the media is common to all the processes in post-production.
We couldn't possibly revamp the show without commissioning new opening titles which are fresh and fun and to meet the challenge of updating the wonderful Neighbours theme tune with a new version. In addition, we have composed an entirely new underscore library which we are constantly updating.
The bottom line, however, is that Neighbours is not just the sum of its parts. We have a dedicated story team that is meeting the challenge of more complex story-lines and a larger cast, while still retaining that familiar homeliness of our much loved characters on Ramsay Street. We have a dedicated crew which understands that we have to shoot the schedule, but would love to do one more take. And of course we have wonderful artists who bring the characters alive and make them real.
Neighbours is a Fremantle Media production and debuts on Five and Five Life from Monday 11 February
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