( Or… My time on The Doctor Blake Mysteries )
So with my final day of shooting on The Doctor Blake Mysteries last Friday I thought I would write a short blog about my time on the high rating ABC murder mystery.
Over the course of the last 6-7 weeks I have been lucky enough to be attached to director Ian Barry (who subsequently is celebrating 50 years in the Film & TV industry this year). I honestly couldn’t have been more fortunate as Ian is not only one of the most incredible directors but also human beings that I have ever met. Even after 50 years the man is still as passionate and energetic about making great film & television as I imagine he was when he first started all those years ago.
Anyway let me start at the very beginning.
I started in pre-production about 7 weeks ago, working with Ian on the final two episodes of the series and our first task was casting with the lovely Lou Mitchell, one of Australia’s finest casting agents. Basically for those that haven’t done a whole lot of casting on this scale, Lou, Ian and myself spent about 4 days auditioning actors for the numerous guest roles on the block. One of the things I have always found interesting about casting is how actors quite often come into the room and give a portrayal of what they think you’re after rather than just playing the truth of the character and situation. In this block (I imagine it’s the same with a lot of shows) the scripts were shifting and changing constantly and so were the characters even though the purpose of why they were in the script never altered. So when it came to auditioning, half the time we didn’t know what we were after and it became more about finding the right person with the right energy for that character and not necessarily what was in the original character description…if that makes sense.
Shortly after we’d done our days with Lou we began to have meeting after meeting after meeting with each department, trying to nut out every aspect of the two episodes that we would be shooting. These meetings would range from script meetings where Ian and producer George Adams would give their notes on the latest draft to stunt meetings where we would discuss how Ian was going to approach a rather large action piece to be featured in the final episode.
Every meeting was just as important as the last and EVERY head of department would fight for the very best whether it be costume, make up, stunts, VFX, scripts or locations. It was such a wonderful thing to observe as each department would try and compromise so everyone could get what they wanted. And to my amazement Ian took EVERYONES opinion on board whether he agreed with it or not. He would sit there very calmly and just listen to what each person had to say. In fact I’m pretty sure I have not heard him once say no to anyone over the last 7 weeks. For anyone that has ever worked in film or television you will understand that is a pretty difficult thing to do.
Another big part of pre is going and doing location recces which is basically where you go and visit locations to see if it’s what you’re after. On the visits are the location manager, production designer, director, 1st AD and on this occasion, lil old me. When on these visits each person discusses why the location may or may not be appropriate. Issues that are taken into account could include look, scheduling, budget, accessibility, actual location (are there any noise issues / parking issues / where will unit base go), etc. Not as easy a task as it sounds on paper! At these recces Ian would also wander around the location and run through how he might shoot each scene if this where to be the final location chosen. Oh and a nice little app hint – the 1st AD Andy put me onto an amazing app to use whilst on recces which is called Photosynth. You can get it on your iPad or iPhone and it can take a full 360 panorama of the room which you can then move around giving you a full 360 view of the location. Very handy indeed.
Throughout the three and a half weeks on pre, between the meetings and the location recces and the casting sessions, Ian and Andy (1st AD) would sit down and work through the script individually. Andy would nut out the schedule and how he was going to make Ian’s vision happen on time and budget and Ian would focus on his creative vision or as he so brilliantly referred to it “The movie in my mind.” Ian would also spend the time going through the script and marking it up with different coloured highlighters. When i asked him about it he told me that it was his short hand for when he was on set. Basically he would go through and highlight important plot points / story information / character dialogue so he knew exactly what was going on and what he had to focus on every step of the way. Clever fella!
As we edged closer and closer to our first shoot day and things started to get locked down, the meetings became more frequent, days slightly longer and things a little more frantic. One of our last meetings was a “Scene by Scene” meeting in which every Head of Department, Ian, George and Line Producer Ross Allsop would sit down and go through every scene to answer any final questions people had relating to the block and also to iron out any potential issues. And then came shooting…
So before I go any further I should probably point out that what I was hoping to get out of this attachment more than anything was to look at how Ian approached covering a scene and also his relationship with his 1st and DP. I also wanted to look at how a director puts their own personal spin/style on a series that has already been set up by a different director on the first block.
So you can imagine how stoked I was when I found out that Ian had a background working as an editor and was so all over it when it came to coverage. He would mark his script as if he was shooting on film so that he knew which shot he was going to use where and for what period of the scene. He would also draw a miniature blueprint of each location with all his performance blocking and camera positions as well as basic storyboards. Subsequently his scripts looked a little something like this…
…and of course this would shift and change depending on any issues that would arise on the day and any discussions with actors and the DP however it meant that Ian’s solid prep in pre-production gave him more time up his sleeve when he was on set. It also meant he had a lot more time to spend with his cast which was invaluable as unfortunately on tight television budgets, rehearsals very rarely exist.
In terms of coverage Ian loved depth and dynamic within a frame. If a scene had been written as four actors sitting around a table having a discussion, he would look for reasons to get them moving around the room making for a far more interesting dynamic. In terms of depth he loved to shoot through “layers” and was constantly asking for more FG (foreground). He would use anything and everything he could to shoot through including doorways, windows, a floating bookcase, trees etc. He also utilised quite a lot of movement with both camera’s either being on a dolly or a slider which helped when capturing the constant movement that Ian loved to have in each scene.
When it came to answering my question about how you approach an episode in something where a style has already been set up, I went back and rewatched series one of Blake whilst shooting with Ian. What I discovered was that each director totally had their own style and approach visually but kept it to within the bounds of the overall series style. It might be a very subtle different use of camera techniques or slightly different pacing in the edit but whatever it was, each director definitely left their own mark on the eps they directed.
So I guess the big question after all of this is what did I learn during my time on Blake?
I learnt that as a director you need to be more prepared than anyone else. You need to know those scripts, those stories and those characters better than you know yourself because inevitably you are going to get asked questions. A million of them in fact.
You need to listen to everybody and their thoughts whether you agree or not because that is where you will sometimes find gold. Film & Television is a creative collaboration and you cannot make this kind of show without having a great team behind you which you get on board because of their talents. You gotta trust those talents and trust that you’re all working towards making the best show you possibly can.
Know your coverage and performance beats but be prepared to throw them out the window on the day. Wonderful, organic things happen in the heat of the moment on set which come from playing on the day, but without having that knowledge and foundation it’s very hard to throw the original plan out the window and see what happens.
Be kind. This was by far the happiest and most productive set I have been on in my 16 years of working in television as an actor. The crew were happy, the cast were happy and not a day went by that I didn’t laugh or have a smile on my face. This was because whatever is at the top trickles down and never have I seen a more supportive team at the top than Producer George Adams, Director Ian and the one and only Craig Mclachlan. These three gentlemen set the bar so high and expect nothing less from those around them. That said though they don’t rule with an iron fist, they have SO much respect for everybody they work with and that is repaid in a mutual respect and work ethic that reflects their own.
And lastly, love what you do. Ian is in his 60’s now and has notched up his 50th year working in film and television. Even after such a long time he is still as excited and as passionate as anyone else working on that set. He would bound out of his chair, scream I LOVE IT and SENSATIONAL from behind the monitor when a shot was nailed and would always fight to get the very best out of his cast and crew. And it is this last point that got me all emotional on the last day, even though I’d only been on set for 3 and a half short weeks. Because it made me realise how lucky I feel to be able to do what I love and to be a part of an industry which is home to such wonderful, brilliant, talented people.