This week we talk to freelance Producer/Director, Paul Vanezis.
Where did your career in the industry begin, did you always want to work in TV?
I had a fascination with television from as far back as I can remember. I used to love fantasy shows such as ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Doctor Who’ and wondered how they managed to create the illusion of different planets and of course, I loved the monsters. So I managed to get onto the Film and TV course at Newport Film School in South Wales, before all the courses became ‘Media’. It was a practical course and we soon realised that we were learning by making our own mistakes.
In what ways has making TV changed in the time you’ve been in the industry?
The big change was the move to tape for location filming instead of film. Now it’s tapeless and HD and inevitably self-shooting. On top of that we have affordable desktop editing. We always had non-linear editing with film, but the post production process has been streamlined making true fast turnaround much easier.
You’ve been making programmes for the BBC for over 20 years, working mainly in factual and specialist factual, what do you like most about working on a BBC production?
Working at the BBC has been an extremely rewarding experience. The fact it’s been producing programmes since the 1930s does make a huge difference when searching for archive material. Such a big organisation could be a little daunting for a newcomer, but once you get to know it you can make it work for your production. But really, it’s the people who you work with that make the biggest difference. There’s a real get up and go attitude which constantly surprises me.
How do you stay fresh and employable working as a Producer/Director, what’s your key to success?
You must keep on top of what’s on TV in all genres, you must be open to what’s happening in other areas of popular culture and you must watch, listen to or read the news. Nobody is born with ideas; they come because we’re influenced by what’s around us. Many of the best programme ideas are generated by observing life around you and ideas are the currency that drives the economy of the TV industry.
You’ve just finished producing the 2nd BBC series of Stargazing Live presented by Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, what’s the key ingredient when you want to make a factual show entertaining?
I think the success of ‘Stargazing Live’ is because we recognised there was an appetite from viewers for information about what’s beyond our planet. Wonders of the Solar System/Universe was very successful and a live version of that was mooted. But by throwing Dara O’Briain into the melting pot created an awesome double act. That strong presenting team coupled with clear explanation of what we think makes the Universe tick is a direct response to audience need. The only other astronomy show on British television is ‘The Sky at Night’ which I series produced. It’s a much more considered and meticulous programme and I don’t think it would play well in a peak time BBC2 slot.
When working on shows like The Chelsea Flower Show on BBC, how important are audience ratings? Are you attempting to seek new viewers or are you happy serving your existing ones?
Ratings are always important, but you don’t automatically think of figures when you plan the programmes. I worked on the Chelsea coverage back in 2001 when the licence was won back from Channel Four and considering how small in scale the Chelsea Flower Show is compared to the other RHS shows, I couldn’t believe the BBC were devoting quite so many hours to it. But in fact the powers that be, were very clever in making high quality daytime output and half hour BBC1 peak time shows followed by one hour BBC2 shows in more depth. Starting last year, the programmes became themed and that has opened up a whole new world of possibilities which inevitably will make the coverage less samey. I think viewers will always find good programmes and the Chelsea coverage has attracted new viewers. These days, everyone is a gardener and they all have telescopes!
What would your dream job as a Producer/Director be?
If I could tell the story of The Rolling Stones in the very personal way it needs to be told, then I would die a happy man.
How easy is it to get your ideas heard by BBC commissioners, have you any success stories?
Getting a programme commissioned is hard and you can end up going round in circles. Often different development teams within the BBC are competing against each other and they’re all competing against the indies. It’s a terrible waste of time, effort and money. But every now and then something magical happens. Destination Titan was a very compelling idea brought to me by a young film maker with almost no experience of how television commissioning works. He’d already shot most of his interviews in a non standard HD format and approached me to try and use some BBC footage in his film. He’d spent six months on it but only had one or two short sequences cut together. I could see there was a great film in there somewhere, so we took it to Kim Shillinglaw, the BBC’s science commissioner. She liked what she saw, so we brought it in-house and made what I think is an exceptional documentary.
What do you think we excel at in the UK TV industry compared to other countries?
We’re very good at developing strong formats which are relevant to the audience. They’re also relevant to international audiences as well and I think we sell a lot more formats abroad than we buy in to make here. Training is also very good at the moment, but now the BBC does less of that due to budget cuts, I am concerned that the next generation of programme makers will be less prepared when they enter the industry.
Is there anything you think TV is lacking currently?
We don’t make enough programmes that genuinely surprise an audience. Most landmark programmes are looking for a wow factor and they of course have their place. But it’s difficult to think of a factual series that has had everyone talking about it on the bus the next day that’s been on in the last two years apart from (possibly) ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ and ‘Frozen Planet’. I’d like to see some of the genuine risk taken with single documentaries on BBC3, BBC4 and Channel Four, also taken with documentary series on the main channels that aren’t natural history or journeys of some sort.
If you could change one thing about how the television industry works what would it be and why?
In an industry where we are constantly told to take risks by commissioners and execs, when we offer risk taking projects very few are commissioned. Those that are only get described as risky when they’re a success. So when you look at Saturday night television you see nothing that’s a risky venture proposition. Switch over to BBC4 or Channel Four and there’s plenty of risk on display, but on a much lower (and less risky) budget. A return to more off-the-wall, riskier documentary making would be welcome.
Paul Vanezis is a freelance Producer/Director and ProductionBase member.