This week we talk to freelancer Shooting Producer/Director, Toral Dixit.
Where did your career in the industry begin, did you always want to work in TV?
I started my working life as a photographer, then later trained as a journalist. I studied photography at Salisbury College of Art. I then began working as a photographer for the British Airports Authority, before becoming a freelance photographer and subsequently, a journalist. TV was so far from my mind – not remotely something I would have considered. Even being a professional photographer was, culturally, very different for an Asian woman.
My TV career began in hospital TV, which works a bit like hospital radio. Harefield Hospital, (then, the leading heart transplant hospital) had a traditional ‘hospital radio’ setup, plus a very innovative volunteer hospital TV arrangement. This ‘broadcast’ short docs and hospital news to the hospital wards via cable. It was staffed by some very dedicated TV professionals. They taught me loads and allowed me to write and direct. From there I managed to get a work experience placement at the BBC as a researcher on Open Space (a community program) and so started my long and illustrious (joking!) career in this industry.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome whilst trying to make it in the TV industry?
I suppose the biggest hurdle for me was trying to get employers to see me beyond what my ‘Asian’ background brought. My BBC work experience wasn’t ‘Asian’ related, however the subsequent programmes I worked on needed someone with in-depth Asian knowledge – getting away from that into mainstream was hard. Plus, I was clear on the type of programming I didn’t want to do. This industry is so all consuming, that unless you love the work you are doing, it can be soul destroying. So, holding out for the right job brings its own challenges, especially in the early years when income as a researcher doesn’t stretch that far. I was able to perfect my waitressing and office temp skills during that period!
You’re an experienced self-shooter and have shot many of your productions using a DSLR. How important is it to self-shoot as a Producer/Director within the industry today?
I think self-shooting expertise is key these days within Factual/Obs Doc/Reality TV – whether you are a researcher or PD. Companies use self-shooters for a number of reasons – some editorial, others budgetary, and even if the plans are to use crew for the bulk of the show, I think that production companies like to have the option of a self-shooting PD, in the event that there may be additional shooting/pick-ups etc.
I have been a fan of self-shooting from the start, probably as a result of my photographic background, although when I started, it was more about good ‘intimate editorial’, which you get more easily if you minimise the crew. There is no doubt the work is much harder though, and a skill in its own right to manage both the editorial and technical areas to a high standard – sometimes I think that gets overlooked. I like to self-shoot, but to have a sound recordist working with me
Competition amongst PDs is fierce. What are your unique selling points?
Competition IS fierce these days, more than I have ever known. I am not sure I have a unique selling point, but I am among a number of PDs who have been around for a while, so maybe its longevity. Plus I started self shooting on DSR at a time when there were few female shooters using these large heavy cameras, so was able to get some good credits to my name. I suppose, having a photographic and journalistic background is also something employers quite like. I have been fortunate to have worked on some amazing programs, which have given me a great deal of experience of filming in remote locations. Filming in these places isn’t for everyone, sometimes it can be difficult to get the job done, as many of the things that you take for granted simply do not apply in remote locations. These can include time management – things can take on a different timescale when in some foreign locations. Plus, working in heat, dust, and a lack of everyday comforts and with an audience of local people who, quite literally, peer over your shoulder during the shoot…it can be taxing! So maybe it’s this that’s my USP, who knows?
Do you have your own moral agenda or ambition when choosing which work to do?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t believe anyone works in this industry purely for money. If so, we would have chosen slick Advertising/PR/Banking as a career. I chose to work in this industry, and subsequently within the programs I make, because I wanted to experience things that only this industry can provide. It provides me with insight and variety. I believe that we are privileged, with ‘ringside seats’ in other peoples’ lives, and sometimes we can do even more than just be observers. I still believe in the power of TV (call me naive if you must). The jobs I do must have something in it for me, beyond my income. It must provide me with an experience that I value.
Your CV is impressive. Which has been the most enjoyable programme to make and why?
There have been several personal high points in my career. Working on a documentary about creating an orphanage for tsunami children, in the immediate aftermath of the Asian tsunami, was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever known; living with tribal communities, and in wonderfully remote locations is awesome. Similarly, seeing a baby being born was amazing. It’s too hard to select just one program. I hope these get better and better! They don’t have to be exotic to be amazing – it can also be about meeting amazing individuals/contributors with fantastic stories.
Thinking about the industry today, what is your biggest challenge as a Producer/Director?
I suppose my biggest challenge is maintaining the balance between holding out for a job that really lights my fire while still having a liveable wage. Once I have a job, I become totally immersed in it – often at the expense of social and family life – so it has to be a good one. I suspect this is true for most PDs, it just depends on what criteria make the job a good’un!
Also, I would like more time to craft a better program. Budgets seems so tight these days that there doesn’t seem to be enough time to really get to know your contributors, have adequate recces or spend time before you go into edit. I suppose it’s a changing environment that’s now here to stay.
You’ve worked on many contributor lead formats. What’s your secret to success when working with contributors?
I think the key to working well with contributors is having respect for them (cliché I know). I think in TV we often forget that contributors usually don’t get paid for their time, and we should, in some way, be beholden to them. That doesn’t mean acquiescing to their every whim, but being considerate and polite. Taking the time to find out what concerns they have and choosing your battles are also important in getting a good working relationship. I think they too, need to see your humanity. I always make myself as ‘normal’ as possible – the woman next door – it’s amazing what a cuppa in the kitchen can do! That said, we have all worked with contributors who would try the patience of a saint.
You’re most recent credit “The Return of the Clouded Leopard” for National Geographic, was filmed in a remote Assam Jungle, how do you prepare differently when working in such conditions?
In truth, there wasn’t a great deal of time to prepare. The one factor I was worried about was that this region of Assam is in the foothills of the Himalayas and I was worried that, as I sometimes suffer from altitude sickness, I might not be fit enough to cope with self shooting on DSR. In the week leading up to the shoot, I spent hours in the gym preparing myself for this. I also read a lot about clouded leopards, and re-read my notes from my hostile environment training, as the area of Assam, and particularly towns nearest the jungle location, had had some incredibly high instances of kidnappings by local insurgents. In the event, we had to be escorted into the jungle by a platoon of soldiers, which caused its own problems!
What would your dream PD job be?
I like to work on intimate stories…strong human interest stories. And, if they are about people from other cultures, then so much the better. My favourite docs are those that take time to work up, whether it’s because of an unfolding story, or because you need to develop good access. Something I can really get my teeth into.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished teaching a documentary workshop at Central Film School. It was an ambition of mine to do some teaching, and wouldn’t rule that out as a future career path I am also in talks to make a series of short charity films over the next 12 months (during any downtime). Other than that, I am available for PD work again, and am now looking for my next exciting project!
Do you feel content with your achievements to date or is there more that you wish to achieve?
I always want more, but I am content with my achievements over the last 16 or so years. But I’m not the type of person to sit back and not look towards the next milestone. I don’t yet know what form that will take, but for now, I love the industry I work in. Sadly though, I do feel this industry does suffer from all the ‘isms’ known to man – be they racism, sexism, or ageism – I have managed to successfully negotiate the 1st two, let’s see if I can manage to navigate my way through the third. I came into this industry relatively late and it’s been an amazing ride so far.
Toral Dixit is a freelance Producer/Director and ProductionBase member.