Director of Photography MIKE SPRAGG GBCT, tells us how he shot the series
Back in January I was approached by producer Nick Pitt and director Jon East about an unusual children’s drama for the BBC. Having spent much of my DoP career in the world of crime, forensics and dead bodies on shows like Waking the Dead, The Commander and Trial & Retribution, I wasn’t so sure about 10 x 30min films for kids until Nick and Jon enthusiastically pitched the idea. Bo was to be shot with only 4 days on location in the ‘real’ world in East London and 11 weeks on two stages at 3 Mills Studios. The basic story is that Bo (age 15) and her younger sister (age 11) and 3 friends are in fact the last 5 spirit warriors charged with defending both the real world and the Chinese fantasy world and in Ep1 they are whisked off to the spirit world to fight the evil Emperor Li. They have to acquire 12 spirit pieces before he does otherwise he will destroy the world. Simple enough!
Their journey would be through 4 different worlds/levels – wood, ice, earth and fire. We had to reuse the same basic sets for these, but with clever design changes and strong colour, we were able to make it feel like a progressive journey ending at Li’s palace for the final confrontation.
Bo and the Spirit World Still
Still 2
Still 3
Still 4
The reality was that here was a very ambitious project with too small a budget and a series of sets that would constantly have to be redressed (often overnight) as we shot, but with little or no pre or re-rig time. Two substantial stages divided into caves, forest, desert, palace interiors, a monkey world in the treetops, various Chinese streets, temples and domiciles, a massive blue screen area .... and 4 sparks. I was also told that we would constantly have to move around the sets daily to accommodate the kids’ working hours – 4 hours on set - (yet still shoot a 10hr day). The Designer, Catrin Meredydd, did an unbelievable job and managed to secure substantial set elements from a number of recently wrapped feature films. What the BBC ended up with was far, far beyond what they actually paid for in the design budget as a result of the amazing creativity of the design team.
Still 5
Still 6
The project was to be shot virtually entirely handheld on the HDWF900R Cinealta camcorder, supplied by Take Two. Jorge Luengas operated ‘A’ camera (with Emma Ware as 1AC and Louise Ben-Nathan as 2AC). I operated ‘B’ camera as and when required. I did consider using both the Red and the Arri D21 but after consultation with the CG supervisor and knowing the speed at which we would need to work, I went with the 900R. There was a massive amount of CG work to be considered; fortunately, Jon was across the whole project and had actually hand drawn beautiful and extensive storyboards for every major setup. What was also put in place was a dedicated web site by the CG artists, RetroJuice, where all concept art, design plans, relevant reference material, and even taped stunt rehearsals could be viewed and discussed.
The biggest challenge was going to be installing a rig that was flexible and fast. My Gaffer, Joe Burke, suggested that as many of the lamps as possible should be remote in terms of their movement and our ability to change the colour temperatures. Finally we installed an overhead rig using Martin Macs TWI lamps, Varilite VL1000’s and a Wholehog 2 control desk supplied by ELP and supplemented by scattered 5 and 10k’s where I knew I would always need a punchier backlight. Installed in the middle of the sets almost on a mountain top, our Desk Op was able to see over the whole stage. These remote lamps could move to any position in seconds and although not exact in their colour temp, we were able to reprogramme colour internally (closely enough for our purposes), were fully dimmable and we could store every scene on the desk, so whenever we went back to part scenes or ‘worlds’ these were recalled instantly. I don’t think we would have achieved it any other way and would never have achieved the average of 50 slates a day otherwise.
Our final ‘toy’ was the Phantom high speed HD camera, which although can run at 1000fps, we averaged 350-400fps on our blue screen and this gave us some stunning slo-mo pictures. It just gets very hot with that many Kilowatts of tungsten light on set - about 50-60kw including the chroma cloth.
Stills 7
Jon, Nick and the BBC seem very pleased with the final results, we even had a set visit from Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Jana Bennett Director of BBC Vision, the head of CBBC channel, the head of children’s drama and a number of other senior execs. I think it will be quite a high profile series for the BBC and will hopefully sell well internationally. Let’s hope the BBC continues to fund these kinds of projects and support innovative filmmakers like Jon East!
I have a great crew who regularly work with me but a special thanks to two exceptional AC’s, Emma Ware and Louise Ben-Nathan!
Stills 8
Mike Spragg
Director of Photography
Click back to Newsletter Index of Articles ...