Monday, 22 October 2012

One Night’s Premiere at Belfast Media Festival


Without a day to spare, ‘One Night’ was completed in time for its’ premiere on October 18 2012 at the third annual Belfast Media Festival. Shown at a session held by Creative Skillset to introduce ‘The Next Generation’ within Northern Ireland’s media industry, ‘One Night’ coupled with ‘One Fortnight: the Making of One Night’ was met with positive feedback.  

The two films created a launch pad from which Creative Skillset, BBC NI and NI Screen announced the second intake of Aim High trainees next year. Slightly adapted from our 18 months, the second round of entrants will undoubtedly have as valuable an experience as we have.

Oscar-winning and highly acclaimed writer and director Terry George was also in attendance. The 15 Aim High trainees waited with baited breath to hear his thoughts on our wee film, and to our great delight he was complimentary! The director described short films as a “calling card” to be used to demonstrate what a filmmaker is capable of. This perspective was very welcome as I had thought that short films were often met with an air of snobbery by other TV or feature filmmakers.

We were extremely lucky to have an hour of conversation with Terry after the screening. He used appropriately imaginative metaphors to pass on advice to us. He compared films to cornflakes; some are the All Bran kind that you don’t really enjoy but are good for you. Others are coated in sugar, and some boxes are just empty. So when we’re making films, we should remember that we’re always making cornflakes… Terry’s key point was to always remember that cornflakes, sorry I mean, films must be entertaining (tasty).

Terry also reflected on the crucial importance of telling the story. Writers he says, are the only ones who can start from the end and work backwards because they’re the only ones who really know what’s meant to happen. He also expounded on the importance of the relationship between a director and their Director of Photography.

Terry was patient and encouraging in his conversation with us. His anecdotes of working with the likes of Jim Sheridan, Daniel Day-Lewis and Denzel Washington, and crossing paths with the men whose lives inspired his films, Gerry Conlon and Paul Rusesabagina, were entertaining and witty.

The rest of the Belfast Media Festival followed in a similar style, with keynote speeches and panel discussions packed full of information, advice and even self-mocking commentary on the media industry today as well as hopes for future developments.

‘One Night’ and ‘One Fortnight’ are two films that we deserve to be proud of. Made with industry-standard production values and a personal dedication that only come to a group of young friends making their first film together, we were all happy with the end results. There were hair-raising, headache-inducing, and fretful moments throughout production but that makes the final films even more rewarding.

Stills from the shooting weekend, news and updates on the film can be found at the facebook page.

Stills by Pete Graham

Monday, 15 October 2012

Aim High to Cannes

This month marked one year since the Aim High Production Trainee Scheme began, and appropriately the trainees made another field trip. A far cry from BBC Wood Norton in Worcester, England we were flown to MIPCOM, Cannes.

Twelve months on from the intense training we had received at the BBC Academy “bootcamp” to give us the skills we needed to begin in TV, we were given the chance to see the value that one idea can have in the international television market. The market place itself was overflowing with ideas for scripted and unscripted TV programmes from the four corners of the world.

Amongst the most popular shows was unsurprisingly SYCO’s ‘Got Talent’, the number one selling format being broadcast in 54 countries – so the looped trailer repeatedly informed us. The drama ‘Homeland’ was also the talk of the market (both the original Israeli version and the American hit), whilst Belfast-set, and shot, BBC drama ‘The Fall’ was making its first appearance before it had barely left the cutting room.

We were privileged to meet some of the best distributors, agents, and broadcasters in Europe and the USA. Pat Quinn of Quinn Media was a very attentive listener being a self-confessed fan of Northern Ireland’s productions, eager to find out what programmes we had been working on. Google’s Joe McDermottroe, YouTube Sales Development Manager based in London, gave us a very honest and excited look into the future of content making. YouTube London has just launched the YouTube Creator Academy to support “partners” (YouTube channel owners) to become the next stars on the platform and help them enhance their, often already popular, content.

To balance out the sometimes overwhelming commerciality of the market, Ruth McCance of Sparks Network told us about the fascinating and insightful benefits beyond the dollar and euro signs, of working in programme distribution.

These are just three of the inspiring professionals we met. We also had the chance to pick the brains of UK and Ireland distributors; Derry O’Brien from Network Ireland, Tim Morley founder of Content West, Helen Jackson from BBC Worldwide, Andrea Jackson of DRG (Digital Rights Group); and the film music library and rights specialists, AudioNetwork.

All of the industry professionals we met had ambitions and dealings beyond the boundaries of our established comprehension of TV. But they all had a link or connection to the work we are doing back in Northern Ireland, whether it be acting as an agent for many of the companies we have worked for, or selling the documentaries and dramas made for audiences back home, to untapped international broadcasters.

The whole experience raised our perspective on developing ideas and stories for broadcast onto a much bigger scale. But it also reminded us that the humble beginnings of those ideas are the universal experiences and values that appeal to global audiences and translate into countless languages and formats.

We also left with some especially trendy bags sponsored by French company, Banijay. You’ll see us rocking these in and around Belfast!

Friday, 24 August 2012

'One Night' – the Aim High Short Film

In May of this year, the NI Screen Aim High trainees decided to make a short film. Little did we know the commitment that we were putting ourselves forward for.

Three months later we find ourselves on the eve of the long August bank holiday weekend, and the two day shoot of our short film, ‘One Night’ (working title).

Our short has been written by a trainee, is directed by a trainee, produced by two trainees and crewed by trainees. We have gone through the normal stages that any short film producers do – in an exceptionally rapid period of time. I have been one of two producers for the short.

In June we went through a quick fire round of script development on three short dramas and one factual short documentary. We pitched all four to NI Screen and at the beginning of July we were left with the chosen script, ‘One Night’.

What followed was a speedy pre-production including casting, crew finding, breaking deals on equipment hire, drawing up a budget, redrafting the screenplay and negotiating locations. With just over 12 hours to go until the first crew call I have just signed off the final call sheet, production schedule and unit list.

Although we have found ourselves hugely fortunate to have the support of fantastic technicians, facility companies and mentors within our reach, it has by no means been easy.

We have learnt a huge amount in such a short period of time. Personally, I came from a singularly factual background and had never even formed part of a crew on a short film before. I sometimes wonder how it is that I have found myself producing a short drama film. Then I remember that it was my idea in the first place and I only have myself to blame...

The proof, they say, is in the pudding. Keep following the #onenight story here and on Twitter to find out if we manage to pull it off...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Eight Months Later

Eight months ago I started Northern Ireland Screen’s Aim High Production Trainee Scheme. Fresh from the first ever Belfast Media Festival, I was excited and impatient to begin working in the burgeoning industry here that I had heard so many positive things about. What can I say now I’m eight months into the job?

June 2012’s Belfast Film Festival has given me useful pause for reflection. When the 15 trainees began we knew fairly well the capabilities of the TV industry here and we weren’t disappointed. I know I can speak for everyone when I say we have all seen and experienced the breadth and quality of TV production coming out of the region. But the recent film festival has demonstrated that Northern Ireland has the ability to reach beyond the small screen, and fill theatres with its feature films.

During the course of the Belfast Film Festival, there were three premieres of feature films produced by Northern Irish talent and made on location in the region.  Good Vibrations is a biopic of Terri Hooley, a Belfast record storeowner at the height of the punk-rock scene, directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn. Jump, adapted from comedian Lisa McGee’s play, is a heart stopping journey through Derry on New Year’s Eve as seven characters find themselves entangled with one another, produced by Brendan Byrne and directed by Kieron Walsh. Whole Lotta Sole is the latest film from Oscar winning Terry George. It’s a comedic tale in which a hapless father and a visiting American get caught up in a fictional underworld in Belfast, starring Hollywood stalwarts Brendan Fraser and Colm Meaney.

All three films embody an ambition that is building in Northern Ireland to test the potential here and see how far it can go. The reception they each received was equally telling of the appetite and support there is to see the industry go far. The effect of the festival on myself, as a trainee here in TV, was to spur myself on to stretch higher in my own roles. I am coming to the end of a placement that gave me experience in numerous fields and taught me a lot about Northern Ireland – its politics, culture and people. For my next placement I feel able to push myself further and take on more responsibility. This is something I hope will be possible.

My first ever blog was written the day after the MTV European Music Awards. I must admit I felt rather jaded that day, but I was brimming with optimism about the city of Belfast and the time I was going to have here. This latest blog is being published at rather an apt time, as someone I met that night has just appeared in a short film made by a friend of mine who also attended the awards. In a rather cyclical progression of time, after meeting David Monahan on the 6th November 2011 when he streaked at the MTV EMAs we kept in touch and Jane Fletcher asked him to be the subject of one of a series of short films she is making for the NI Tourist Board. David’s story of courageously putting himself, or should I say running, onto the world stage is something that Northern Ireland can empathise with.

Over the past eight months Northern Ireland has done nothing but put itself at the forefront of the world stage, including the hosting of an international concert, the opening of a world class exhibition centre, the launch of three feature films, a visit to the US by the First and Deputy First Ministers on an investment mission, and there is more to come with the Irish Open being hosted in Portrush and a potentially history making state visit by Queen Elizabeth II.

There are now ten months left of my trainee scheme, keep checking in to find out where it will take me next!

I interviewed David for Jane's film. You can watch it below.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

What's in a Flag?

In the week leading up to the Queen’s Jubilee weekend, Northern Ireland was debating its flag policy as part of the all-party ‘Shared Future’ working group. An agreed consensus however could not be found and the Alliance Party withdrew from the group. You might wonder what all the fuss is about, after all flags are just a piece of fabric aren’t they? But that couldn’t be further to the truth.

Flags have always been a point of contention in Northern Ireland and are synonymous with political and cultural allegiances. Flags in general are loaded with history and the shared heritage of a nation. The Union Jack was created at the union of the nations of the British Isles in 1800 and has since been present at so many milestones in the history of the UK. But its symbolism of union may have to evolve if Scotland votes for independence and the question of whether the St Andrew’s cross should be removed from the UK’s flag is already being asked.

In recent years the Union Jack has seen a renaissance, with it becoming an integral part of the trend celebrating a vintage era of quaint tea parties and old-fashioned values. The Jubilee weekend is full of kitsch street parties and all the paraphernalia that goes with them, adorned in the Union Jack flag. It has to be said however that this has mostly been the trend in England and there has been a noticeable lack of Jubilee celebrations over here in NI, unsurprisingly.

Flags are an indication of identity and all those flying them this weekend are expressing an identity as the subjects of a ruling monarchy. It is an identity however that many will not share. It’s this conflict over the identity of a nation that raises the issue of what place a flag has. If a nation cannot join together under one flag then should it be flown at all? But a nation without a flag is one that says it has given up trying to find common values. A flag is worth arguing over because it is important for any country to find common grounds otherwise there would be a very disparate society indeed.

NI is exactly a community struggling to find common grounds, though it has to be said the people here deserve applause for the conflict they have put behind them already. However the politicians on the hill have a great deal further to go before they can be awarded the same. If agreement can’t be made over the policy of flags then what precedent does this set for continued discussions on a ‘shared future’ in NI? Time will tell if old grudges can be put to bed and sacrifices made in order to really move forward.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Ask nicely and you shall receive (or how I maintain my faith in humanity)

It doesn’t take long when you first start working in TV to realise just how much you rely on other people, the good members of the public, in order to do your job. Most of my working day is spent finding the right person to speak to, phone bashing until I come across that expert who is going to share years of research with me. The community worker who is going to reach out to their circle and find the case study I need to tell my story, or even that independent health care company who will not only give me the use of their training room to recreate a hospital scene but will lend me a nurse’s uniform, hospital bed and stethoscope to boot. (True story – and yes I played the nurse.)

And for what price? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Granted there is often an element of mutual exchange; good PR for an organisation wanting more exposure, the highlighting of an issue that is of concern for a group in society or simply the lending of an interested ear to someone with a passion rarely sought by mainstream popular culture.

The absolute importance of building a relationship and maintaining the trust of contributors cannot be stressed to a TV researcher. They need looking after, consideration and gratitude because without them your programme wouldn’t be possible.

Working with people from all walks of life is one of the aspects of this job that I love the most. If you begin as you mean to go on; politely, patiently, and with a listening ear, then there is little that someone might be prepared to do for you. I am constantly humbled by the generosity and openness of people I work with, it always restores my faith in humanity especially when you’re dealing with serious or sensitive content.

Here are some of the more diverse members of society that I have had the pleasure of speaking with…

  • A train signal box enthusiast
  • A rat catcher
  • An American pyro technician
  • The dedicated mother of an 8 year old free style dancing champion
  • The youngest member of an amateur dramatic society, aged 35
  • Helena Bonham-Carter’s parenting coach
  • The sales manager of specialised thermal imaging cameras for firefighters
  • A Master tea blender
  • An Army Major
  • A babyplanner
  • The man who sent the first ever picture text message
  • The world’s best Elvis impersonator

Recently, a friend and I had the most helpful and generous experience with a tattoo studio for a short film she wanted to make. I helped Jane produce the film by finding a tattoo studio who would let us record a time lapse of a tattoo being done in their studio. My housemate introduced me to Belfast City Skinworks and the rest was plain sailing. The studio made our job the easiest in the world, and here's the end result:

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Gay Blood - What's the difference?

Gay rights campaigners have been working for the equal treatment of homosexual men by the blood donation services in the UK for years. Homosexual men were banned from donating blood – indefinitely – in 1985 due to concerns over the increase in cases of HIV. Nearly 30 years on and gay men are still treated differently to other members of society by the blood service of one region in the UK...

Back in 2003 the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) published an ‘Equality Impact Assessment on Access to Blood Donor Services’. The report reviewed the NIBTS under the context of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Section 75 states that:

“A public authority shall in carrying out its functions relating to Northern Ireland have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity – between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial groups, age, marital status or sexual orientation.”

The 2003 report acknowledged that the donor policy of the time, to permanently ban gay men from donating blood, had a differential impact on the gay community. It said that the NIBTS would bring forward the discussion of a 12 months ban with the appropriate parties.

Fast forward to 2011 and the NIBTS is called upon again to review its services against section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland. This time the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) was undertaking a review of blood donation criteria relating to men who have sex with men. NIBTS published in their report of 2011 that “the BTS will continue to regularly review relevant policies and will adopt any changes as per UK Guidelines… Any change to the policy by NIBTS will be in the light of SaBTO and DH (Department of Health) recommendations.”

In April 2011 SaBTO released their report on the UK’s blood donation criteria. The report detailed the extensive improvement in testing for blood borne infections that has occurred since 1985. It also took into account societal changes, namely the concern that the permanent ban on homosexual men from donating blood projected negative stereotypes about the behaviour of the gay community.

The SaBTO report found that the risk of the blood supply becoming contaminated with an HIV infection with the lifetime ban on gay men in place is 1 infected donation for every 4.38 million donations. The risk of the blood supply becoming contaminated with an HIV infection with a 12 month ban on gay men instead is 1 infected donation for every 4.41 million donations. The difference, they said, was negligible.

In September 2011, Health Ministers from England, Scotland and Wales announced that they would accept the recommendation of SaBTO and would change the deferral period of men who have sex with men to 12 months since their last sexual contact. The change came into effect on the 7th November 2011.

On 23rd September 2011, Health Minister for Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots, gave a written reply to a question put to the Northern Ireland Executive. In this published reply, Mr Poots said I take the view that the current position in Northern Ireland should not be altered.” Just over one month later, gay rights group ‘Rainbow Project’ appeared in Stormont to address Mr Poots’ decision. Mr Poots had changed his mind. He said in front of the Health Committee: I have not made the final decision on blood donations by men who have had sex with men.”

Months later and Mr Poots still hasn’t made his mind up. His hypocrisy is deep and the irony, rich.

By declaring that he is seeking further evidence on top of the SaBTO report, the Democratic Unionist Party Minister is implying that the Health Ministers in the rest of the UK have not taken due consideration of all the facts available. He is setting his Health Department a part from the majority policy within the nations making up the UK. Not only this, but since declaring that he has not decided whether to change the blood donation deferral period for gay men, and since Scotland changed its policy to 12 months deferral, Northern Ireland has received blood supplies from Scotland.

Within these imported units of blood, the donation of a gay man who has not had sexual contact with another man in 12 months, could have helped save the life of a sick person in Northern Ireland.

The Health Minister’s indecision is an outright display of prejudice against the Northern Irish gay community. He is the only obstacle standing in the way of the UK receiving much needed donations of blood from a section of society that has been deemed by medical experts, globally, not to be a threat to the safety of the blood supply. Minister Poots is denying gay men the right to an altruistic act and he is denying those in need of blood from taking it from safe donors.