Production Nightmares!

eyesBy Sean Bell

We’ve all done it at some time or another… had a major, production nightmare. I know I have. And it was a boss, Jon, at a production company I used to work at who reassured me that it was okay. “You’ll learn from your mistake Sean, and then never make the same mistake again” – Yer right!

But first, let me go back around 10 years ago. I was working as a production assistant with the BBC, producing a series of radio dramas to be broadcast on the national network, BBC Radio 4. Remember that this was “pre-digital” and everything was done on a number of ¼-inch open reel machines. We had had all of the actors in and recorded their parts, and had then edited them, ready to be mixed with the sound effects and music. This was at the same time as Operation Desert Storm was brewing, and it had been made clear that when war broke out, studio 3, where we were working, would be requisitioned to handle all of the news reports. In fact, some joker had already decorated part of the room with camouflage netting “just to get in the mood.” It’s also worth pointing out here that there’s an un-written rule at the BBC – if a tape is left in the studio, it’s there to be used.

We’d worked for several days on perfecting this drama series and had just completed the final mix and edit. When I arrived home just after midnight, I was watching the TV with live news coverage as the US and UK air forces started bombing Baghdad. I remember thinking that we’d just completed the programmes in time.

The next morning, I had Graham, the series producer, on the phone to me at just after 8 asking if I’d picked up the master tapes before I left the studio. Of course, I hadn’t, to which Graham replied something along the lines, “well, why would you? It was my responsibility anyway…” before hanging up with despair in his voice. So, as you can imagine, he later went to the studio and found that the master tapes had been recorded over, and our work lost. But at least I got paid to do the job again, and we only had to do the mix and final edit because we already had the actors reels to work from.

Yes, I learnt from that situation to always look after tapes and recording, whether it’s the raw rushes or final masters. I have a colleague who also learnt the hard way when a two camera crew went to film a prestigious awards ceremony, but only the rushes from one camera (the wide lock off with no close-ups) made it back to the edit suite. The same happened on a pop concert shoot, though on that occasion, at least there were five cameras, which did make it a lot easier to edit.

So, back to Jon’s “You’ll learn from your mistake Sean, and then never make the same mistake again” assurance. Not so! We had used a female voice-over, Cathy, for a series of radio commercials. In fact, I recall there were around 32 different scripts. Cathy was also nearing the end of a theatre run nearby, so it made sense for her to visit our studio to record before she returned home to Manchester, which is at the other side of the country from ourselves. It’s not that I don’t want to admit it – because, hands up, yes I did make a BIG mistake – but for whatever reason, the tape spooled round and the needles flicked, but at the end of the session I didn’t play a bit back and when I returned to work on the post production later, I found a totally blank tape! Sheepishly, I went to explain the situation to Jon, which was when I received his kind words. He explained that a similar thing had happened to him on more than one occasion, and there are greater things to worry about in life. Then he told me to book Cathy into a studio in Manchester and to get myself across there and get it sorted. The campaign was on-air on time, and taking into account the added expense, we just broke even.

But, did I learn my lesson? Well a few years later I was interviewing the comedy actor and writer, Rik Mayall. In the UK, Rik is famed for The Young Ones and latterly “Bottom” though perhaps internationally he might be most recognized for his movie role in Drop Dead Fred.

Having been in my teenage years when The Young Ones hit the TV screen, Rik had always been one of my comedy heroes, so I’m claiming that I was in fact “star struck” when I went to interview him – which is why I forgot to press record on the mini-DAT. Actually, I did put it into record to get some level, but I just forgot to release the pause when I started asking the questions. Thankfully, I only missed a few questions covering his early years before I realized, so rather than look like an idiot by asking him again, I simply scripted his background as an introduction to the feature.

And finally, one further memory, though perhaps not so much a nightmare, it was more of a situation that had the potential to go spectacularly wrong and this was out of my hands. I was to produce a small campaign for an advertising agency that wanted to be present with their client when we recorded the voice-over and then throughout post-production. Having previously listened to several voice tapes, they had decided on one guy whom I knew quite well, Pete, who makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is a clinical, manic depressive. Most of the time there is no problem at all, but even Pete would admit that when you catch him on a bad day, then it’s really bad. We’d booked Pete, and as expected he turned up to the studio on time where the agency guys and their client were already waiting. Pete kind of shuffled into the studio, and I instantly knew he was having a bad day. He shuffled over to our guests and limply shook their hands before turning to me, and with a tremble in his voice and struggling to hold back tears said, “I really don’t want to be here today.”

I saw all of their faces drop and turn white with shock. Here we had the agency spending thousands of pounds of their clients money… for this! I explained to Pete what was needed (it was a hard hitting, power read), and he just stood there with his head bowed before shuffling into the booth. I’d been here before, and I kind of knew what to expect, so I started the tape rolling before I took any level. Pete looked me in the eye through the glass and mumbled something along the lines of, “I just want to curl up on the floor and go to sleep” before taking a deep breath… and delivering his lines with such power and clarity and all the right inflection as only a pro like Pete could. Without turning to see those sat behind me, I could feel the immense sense or relief fill the room. Moments later Pete shuffled off again, but our clients were left happy!

Production Nightmares… may yours be few!

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