Executive producer Adam Chapman reveals why Five Mile Films went with fixed rig production

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“You do realise the dogs might not exhibit any behaviour on the rig, right?”

An off-the-cuff comment from dog trainer Victoria Stilwell during one of her regular consultancy zooms was met with a lengthy silence. Eight weeks from filming our brand-new dog behavioural series The Dog Academy, a baseline of growling, snapping and anti-social toilet habits was essentially baked into the idea at this point.

Following the success of the Bafta-nominated The Dog House, The Dog Academy is Five Mile Film’s latest foray into fixed rig for Channel 4 docs. If the elevator pitch for The Dog House was “First Dates for dogs”, The Dog Academy was “Couples Therapy for canines”; but in the ever-crowded “bad dog” market, we knew we had to bring something different to the table.

For each desperate family who applied, we saw a kitchen-sink relationship drama bubbling under the surface. This was a love story between dog and owner, one that had gone horribly wrong. Having spent years making love happen as series producer of First Dates and executive producer of First Dates Hotel – the latter filmed on a huge rig of 110 cameras – I knew the only way to bring the same level of observational intimacy, depth and character was to harness the all-seeing-eye of the rig.

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From a grieving daughter struggling to connect with her late father’s beloved dog, to a married couple at breaking point over their ferocious cockerpoo, the rig would capture every emotional nuance of the canine/human relationship in a way that felt fresh.

Our Academy was a stately home in the heart of Shropshire – a specially designed training centre rigged with 40 remote cameras, a 360-degree training pen and remote monitoring rooms for our trainers to watch their new students.

As with First Dates, or any constructed rig space, “the world” we created needed to feel as immersive as possible for our cast. Fail to create a workplace that wouldn’t exist in the real world, and the rig wouldn’t come alive. A “bad” constructed rig feels like a film set, and self-conscious, artificial content ensues. The secret is to make the hand of the producer almost entirely invisible.

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Using the art team who’d transformed the First Dates Hotel into the pinnacle of romance, we set about transforming a posh house into a professional training centre. Invitational and colourful, but functional too. Every detail was pored over, from the non-slip rating of the rubber floors to the type of grass planted in the training pen. Joining our expert dog trainers, we cast a receptionist and driver to interact with our families, warmly teasing out story and character through their interactions, as we watched on from our portacabin gallery.

But no matter how perfectly formed the filming bubble… if our dogs didn’t misbehave, we didn’t have a series. As Victoria elaborated on our ill-fated zoom, if you remove a dog from their domestic setting and unleash them into an unfamiliar new place, it can get so overstimulated that it shuts down. Alongside the animal welfare protocols we’d put in place to avoid stressing the dogs out, our canine cast had become the editorial equivalent of Russian roulette.

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Luckily, the rig solved this problem for us. We quickly realised that the simple act of filming a dog’s face on close-up for hours on end gave us a clear window into the inner workings of its brain. The dog’s “inner life” if you like, was written all over its face. Just as the micro-expressions of a human on a first date tell the story of how they really feel about their date; every lick, yawn and side eye, silently revealed how the dog felt about their owner. So, when our dogs weren’t barking down the house – we often ended up with a less flashy, but no less compelling story to tell, in the voyeuristic vein of The Secret Life Of 4/5/6 Year Olds.

In this way, the rig acted as a kind of behavioural CCTV for our trainers. Watching on remotely, they were able to analyse every micro-detail of the dog/human dynamic. And while it once took north of two hours for a secret indoor wee-er called Dexter to finally relieve himself on an outdoor pee post – the euphoria in the gallery when it finally happened was akin to an England penalty shootout.

So, where next for the rig? The Dog Academy has shown us how powerful a tool it is for documenting genuine transformations, territory we’re keen to explore further in non-canine form. As we’ve seen on The Traitors and Rise and Fall, the rig adds psychological depth to even the most constructed of formats – be it gamified murder in the dark, dystopian power dynamics or simply a dog refusing to pee in the middle of the Shropshire countryside.


Adam Chapman is an executive producer at Five Mile Films. The Dog Academy will air at 8pm, 30 March, on Channel 4.