Drama has always been the most expensive TV genre, but the economic downturn is piling on the pressure for producers to find creative ways to make a production budget stretch. One answer is high-definition video, an increasingly common delivery requirement for domestic HD channels and international sales.
“The audience expects incredibly high production values, on a par with the best of US drama,” says James Burstall, chief executive of Leopard Films and Leopardrama. “That's a very big challenge.”
Burstall believes those expectations can only be met through a combin-ation of artistic talent and the best equipment. “If you can create a long-running returning series, you can amortise costs over time without having to compromise on quality.”
The cost savings of HD over film aren't always straightforward. High-end digital cinematography cameras tend to cost the same to hire as 16mm, making the choice as much aesthetic as economic. HD turned out slightly cheaper than 16mm for World Productions head of drama Simon Heath, who had £720,000 to spend on BBC4's 90-minute Hancock and Joan.
But as Heath explains: “We chose 16mm camera because we were creating a period piece.”
While posting digitally avoids the hefty expense of lab processing, managing digital imaging systems can still add to the bill.
“With a digital technician, the kit and transport is an additional cost, as is the cost to download from data to Beta SP for the edit machines,” says Company Pictures head of production Helen Flint. “All of this makes cameras such as Red more expensive. On a 10-week shoot, the extra cost would be a minimum £10,000.”
HD kit typically costs between £4,000 and £5,000 per week to hire, so producing an hour of quality drama for anything less than £500,000 is a challenge.
“Top-end HD is definitely a cost saving against film, but there's still a struggle if you pitch HD against Digibeta budgets,” says Tiger Aspect head of production Frith Tiplady, who needs to deliver an HD master for the third series of Secret Diary of a Call Girl while sticking to ITV's original Digibeta budget.
Although camera hire facilities can offer competitive deals, cutting back on artistic costs is not an option. “It is imperative to plan thoroughly, perhaps asking your team to multi-skill and structuring the shoot so you film and edit in blocks,” says Burstall.
“You can't deliver on production values while shaving craft costs,” agrees Tiplady. “Allowing ample time for a grade, for example, is essential.”
Company's Flint has overseen HD shoots for Shameless, The Devil's Whore, George Gently, Skins and Wild at Heart. She maintains that what a production designer might have got away with on film will not be possible on HD. “The production designer will need more personnel and materials than ever before to finish to higher standards.”
She adds: “The overall lighting package has also increased. If you don't have the resources during filming to light and design properly for HD, you'll have to make fixes in the grade at an additional cost. We don't currently believe we can make HD drama for less than a film drama budget.”
Film cameras are also considered superior to their bulky, cabled counterparts for dramatic action or shoots in remote locations where battery recharging is difficult.
Although the BBC ruled against the use of Super 16mm for HD transmission, producers are exploring cheaper, cropped versions of 35mm. So-called 2-Perf film exposes three-quarters or half of the full 35mm frame, yielding up to 50% cost savings per roll. BBC dramas Survivors and The 39 Steps went this route, as did C4's Red Riding 1980, serviced by Arri Media.
“When cropped to 16:9, a 2-Perf image is still more than 80% larger than the Super 16 frame,” explains Arri Media business development chief Milan Krsljanin. “2-Perf addresses the concerns of HD broadcasters and offers a 35mm look at a fraction of the normal cost.”
One way to cut HD costs is to lower the number of copies commonly generated from rushes by digitising everything at source into the offline. Sky 1's Skellig went one further.
Krsljanin explains: “The rushes were recorded onto HDCAMSR straight from [Arri's digital camera] D-21 for digital intermediate while in parallel, a second HD signal was fed into Apple FCP as a ‘video assist' and to generate material for remote reviewing.
“This created files for upload to Beam TV's FTP site ready for viewing by Sky executives next morning. No duplicate tapes, no DVDs, no offline copies required, no shipping costs.”
Another option is to use file-based formats that have gained wide acceptance in factual programming. Producers who want ultimate image quality might disapprove, but file-based formats are creeping into episodic drama because they speed up the workflow.
Fremantle Media's production of The Bill is recorded on Panasonic's solid state media P2, while location-based segments of Hollyoaks are recorded to Sony's XDCAM HD disc. “It's much quicker to ingest into the server than digitising tape,” says Lime Pictures head of production Jamie Hall.
Tiplady says new technology is polarising production. “We're moving into an era of either very high-cost drama or low-cost episodic production.”
The pressure on drama bud-gets is nothing new. “Drama is expensive and it's the role of the producer to make the most of resources at their disposal,” says World Production's Heath. However, close liaison with a workflow consultant, post facility or camera-hire firm can pay dividends.
Eleven film producer Joel Wilson believes the innovative, guerrilla attitude that has already hit British indie film-making has yet to have an impact on TV drama. “There are accepted industry practices that exist for no other reason than as a way of keeping prices for services and equipment in check. Perhaps it's time to challenge those rules.”
History's hardest Prison
Pulse Films opted to make its first docu-drama - History's Hardest Prison - in HD, despite National Geographic commissioning the finished film in SD. Shooting on a Sony EX3 and posting in-house, enabled it to be brought in on budget.
“We shoot a lot of music videos and generally use the EX, for which we've established a great workflow,” explains head of production Marissa Clifford. “If you shot HDCAM with 35mm lenses, you'd be looking at £750 a day. But the EX3 is £120 a day and a set of wide and zoom lenses is £200, so it's at least half price with no tape stock.”
The production was recorded to two 16Gb SxS cards, which hold 50 minutes of HD at 35Mbp/s. Offline was performed at Pulse on Final Cut Pro.
At £800, an SxS card is many times more expensive than tape, but Clifford says this is no barrier. “You just do a good deal with your reseller who will usually bundle in a couple with the camera. Big post houses put considerable mark-ups on HD post, whereas HD editing is quite simple to manage in-house, and perhaps only the grade would need to go externally.”
Hoping to get a series commission from the 60-minute pilot, Clifford believes Pulse has a formula for budget HD drama-docs. “The quality you can end up with is unbelievable,” she says.
There's a widespread perception that any savings made by hiring a Red camera can be negated by complications in post. Not if you do your homework, explains Eleven Film's Joel Wilson.
“We researched Red assid-uously and devised a very cost-effective workflow, with great help from [hire house] The Post Factory.”
It was so effective that Wilson says the budget for 6 x 60-minute C4 drama Cast Offs - currently being filmed in Norfolk and Nottingham - is around the same as for Digibeta.
“The Post Factory gave us a good deal on the camera hire,” says Wilson. “Add to that lighting, at least 6Tb disc drive storage, a transit van, plus post and it still was not much more than a Digi shoot.”
Rushes are downloaded twice a day onto hard drives on location in Norfolk. Three copies are made, one sent for offline on Avid at Eleven Film. Finishing is at The Mill.
DP George Steel is accompanied by a camera assistant, sound recordist and boom operator. Wilson and Steel oversee the transfer of rushes from camera to disc, so there's no need to pay a special imaging technician. Cast and crew are accommodated in a caravan park rather than hotel, which further trims costs.
Film-style digital cameras such as Red are heavy, but Steel was able to shoot the project largely hand-held using specially adapted still lenses.
“They are fiddly to take on and off, but the look is great and we're pleased with what we've shot,” says Wilson.