Find out how our 16 new entrant trainees got on
In May 2021, the 8th cohort of Grierson DocLab trainees embarked on their intensive online training week. Read about how they found the experience...
Grierson DocLab core online training week
Select a day to read more... or skip to part two of the week
Pen and notepad ✓
Praying the Wi-Fi doesn’t crash ✓
Despite a few nerves, we were all really excited that our DocLab adventure was about to begin on Zoom. We started the day by introducing ourselves to the group and briefly outlining our initial documentary concepts. It was amazing to hear such a wide variety of unique and creative pitch ideas from everyone. This was a great way of getting to know the group, as it would give us a real insight into everyone’s different interests and backgrounds.
We were then split into two break-out rooms for a session of rounds, led by Yen and Hannah. In this exercise, we had to answer three questions; What would you consider success in one year?, how will you make the most of the training week on Zoom? and to name three words which best described how you were feeling. The words ‘excited’ and ‘nervous’ would feature prominently during this discussion, whilst the 12 month goal for most people included breaking into the factual television industry and being financially secure.
Once we had all returned to the main room, Yen would create a Menti; a presentation tool where we could anonymously post about our hopes and expectations for the week ahead. Learning more about the factual television industry and collaborating with likeminded documentary fanatics were two comments that were frequently posted on the online message board.
These opening tasks were really helpful in easing us into a jam-packed week full of invaluable advice, talks and memories.
Everyone in my immediate circle knew what was happening today. Today I was going to ask a question to the man behind Amy; the film that has become a part of the cultural zeitgeist, since I had first watched it five years ago at university. Today I was going to sit in on a masterclass from Asif Kapadia.
Still dealing with first-day jitters, Asif descended into the Zoom like the Apollo 11 onto the Moon – my world will never be the same. After we all introduced ourselves, but more intrigued by his own stories, we settled into hearing about his growth as a filmmaker and storyteller. Most striking was his humility. I'm not sure I could be that humble with a Grierson Award hanging in my background. And yet, he answered our (several) questions eagerly and compassionately. Mr Kapadia was a fountain of knowledge that myself and the rest of the DocLab crew are still processing. The boldness of his filmmaking is compounded only by the simplicity of his storytelling.
That which we call a masterclass by any other name would be as life changing.
Lunch provided us all with the opportunity to reflect upon the morning session with Asif Kapadia, as it was chock full of not only information but inspiration. During our post-lunch chat, we discussed the unconventional techniques he uses to create trust with contributors, his methods of constructing narrative and the use of archive to bring the past into the present for audiences.
After this reflection, we moved on to discuss Bring Me Back to Life which we had all watched the opening segment of over lunch. The documentary had made some interesting creative choices with a voice of god like narration that addresses the documentary’s subject, Taylor, in the second person. This was furthered by his family’s testimonials which also addressed him directly. These choices ended up proving controversial amongst the group. Personally, I enjoyed it and felt it worked well given the documentary’s themes of memory loss. Although I must admit that I was in the minority as most of the group felt it was perhaps a bit too corny or even eerie. We also discussed the ethics of producing such a documentary and gaining consent from critically ill contributors and their families.
We then moved on to an exercise where we were put into pairs and asked to pitch an established factual tv format with a new title, as if it were being presented for the first time. I was paired with Joanna S, creating the ultimate Joanna dream team. After discussing the programme we were assigned, we were then summoned back into the main chat and it was time for us to pitch Bake It Till You Make It, the ultimate feel good baking competition reality TV show. The programme brings together amateur bakers from across the country to be judged by two celebrity cooks and will be hosted by A-list comedians. I’ll give you some time to guess the programme we were given to pitch!
We were then quickly joined by Lorraine Heggessey which gave all of us trainees the opportunity to introduce ourselves. It was lovely to hear from her and to hear a bit more about the ways in which The Grierson Trust can support us, as well as the importance of a first impression!
Then it was time to discuss one of our homework tasks which was to watch two short documentaries called Lift and Missed Call. Firstly we focused on the role of the filmmaker as in Lift Marc Isaacs is an anonymous entity, there to observe and at times provoke. In Missed Call on the other hand, Victoria Mappleback is a central character of the narrative as well as narrator. We then went into how Lift is very much a film of its time, given the fact that in the present day it is too easy for us to be distracted by mobile phones when in spaces such as an elevator. We were then whooshed off into break-out rooms to discuss the films in smaller groups for 15 minutes to then come back and discuss in the main room.
After this final discussion, the first day of DocLab 2021 had drawn to an end! The nerves of the morning had eased but I was just as excited and looking forward to day 2. Of course, only after a well-deserved sleep. And if you hadn’t already guessed the programme we had been assigned to re-pitch, it was The Great British Bake Off!
Still getting used to Zoom life, we kicked Tuesday off with a look into longitudinal filming with the series Up. It was really interesting to watch a documentary series from the U.K. in the 1960’s while also examining the challenges that come along with this type of filming such as continued consent and how these subjects are depicted alongside the effects of their fame. Seeing as it was a series of its time in terms of its casting, it would be interesting to have a similar series now with a more diverse cast. However, in an age of social media I think it would take the magic of this longitudinal filming away.
Leading us into the lingo exercise we learnt a lot of new terms, it great to expand my technical vocabulary. Also, it was interesting to dissect our interpretations of ‘light constructs’ because not all terms in documentary are black and white! It was insightful learning what commissioners look for in pitching ideas especially with how each channel shapes their outputs. This made me want to watch more documentaries on channels I wouldn’t normally watch like BBC Two. Another addition onto the already very long watchlist from the groups' recommendations I can’t wait to dive into!
On Tuesday morning, we began with a look at documentary subgenres and industry formats. Carol gave us a brief overview of the UK factual television industry via comparison to the American entertainment model, the British industry is essentially a public service broadcast, designed to be educational and provide a significant contribution to the public. Alongside this, Carol outlined the technological developments as well as the changing industry landscape to interrogate the ways in which factual television has developed since its inception. We looked at specific broadcasters like Channel 4, as well as such as two case studies: the longitudinal series Up (ITV) and the observational series The Family (BBC). After viewing some clips, we discussed potential challenges to the series such as participant’s consent, privacy, and the issues of maintaining access over a long period of time. We also discussed the ethos at the heart of both shows – the drama of everyday life – which is public service broadcasting at its core.
After this, we took a break from documentary subgenres and began an exercise on unpacking industry lingo and jargon. We watched two BBC commissioning editor’s video guidelines on both documentary commissioning and types of documentary singles. Claire Sillery outlines different formats that are commissioned such as access films, observational, light construct series, and single films. Hamish Fergusson outlines three types of documentary singles which includes talent led films, observational unfolding narratives, and retrospective storytelling. The trainees then used Menti to list all the terminology they were unaware of, and we began unpacking the lingo. The term light construct proved to be the most difficult for all of us, (for clarification, a light construct is a format that takes place in a constructed environment as real events unfold). We unpacked a variety of terms such as 360 approach (all perspectives and aspects of a story), scalable output (show that becomes a returning format), and tariffs (what the broadcasters paid for the programme’s time slot).
After our lingo unpacking exercise, we returned to our documentary subgenres discussion. We looked at the use of animation as a storytelling device in Tower (2016), recreating historical events and reimagining missing archive. We then briefly looked at the trend towards aesthetically striking films such as Dina (2017) which utilises a quirky aesthetic as well as symmetrical and subject-centred cinematography. And with this we concluded our morning training and moved onto an introduction on pitching.
After learning more about broadcasters and industry lingo, we were joined by Lorraine Heaton, Elsa Sharp, and Trine Adler from BBC Studios. They talked about the various job roles and career tracks in factual television as well as their own careers and what led them to their current positions. They were lovely and extremely helpful; it was a brilliant session. We got plenty of tips which will be filed away for future reference, and some fantastic practical advice on contracts and finances, for example. I particularly liked the demystification of production management roles – it certainly gave me food for thought and clarified a potential career path! For someone with no previous contact with the industry, this session exemplified just how beneficial the DocLab training week has been already – and it’s only Day 2!
In the afternoon, a Researching exercise was on the schedule.
With a press of a magic button, we were now in break-out rooms of four, not muting our mics for the first time that day. This was a good chance to crack a few jokes before we got stuck in with our exercise.
Our task was to build on the theme of each of our documentary/programme ideas and brainstorm as a group three different ways of approaching that theme.
Would the story about young Pagans in the 21st century work better as a single or a series?
What broadcaster or platform would be the best match for a coming-of-age story exploring cultural identity?
...were some of the questions we asked ourselves as a group, using a chapter from Nicola Lees’ book, Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch, as a reference.
This was a truly eye-opening exercise as sharing our dilemmas and talking things over with each other helped us realise why certain approaches made more sense than others and what was the core message of the stories we were developing. Guided by a handy tool called the ‘Lucky Dip formatting grid,’ which we decided to call Bingo instead, we continued our research. How many contributors do we envision taking part? Who will be asking questions? How will the interviews look? Suddenly, for the first time, our programme ideas started coming to life. And how exciting it was to see other people react to them!
We were then summoned back to the big room, where some of us presented the newly-developed programme approaches to our Trainers and received useful feedback. The exercise helped us gain some much-needed clarity when our brains were overloaded with ideas and new terminology and felt like a great warmup before our pitching sessions on Friday.
What better way to start a mid-week morning than to be introduced to the energetic, creative, and successful Tom McDonald! As the Director of Factual at BBC Studios Productions Tom oversees the running of the Documentary, Natural History and Science units and in his past role has commissioned amazing programmes such as Blue Planet II and The Yorkshire Ripper Files. It was a pleasure to hear about his journey into TV, how BBC Studios is currently working and its ‘cultural revolution’ Tom is excited to be a part of leading.
Hearing Tom’s journey into TV was both reassuring and funny! Tom explained how he muddled his way into television from a low socio-economic background through getting the odd job offer over a pint to commissioning flagship BBC shows, to now welcoming people like us into the industry. To help us, he offered us some insider knowledge. I learnt that emailing production companies and showing genuine interest and in-depth research is a good place to start building contacts and knowledge. He even gave us advice on how to structure emails and within that how to mention our views on the programmes we admire. We went onto discuss how quotas are not the only way to change the industry – giving a platform to unique perspectives are vitally important: BBC Studios’ Factual needs to diversify the talent pool and move from presenter to contributor led narratives, so they have a platform to tell their own fascinating stories.
Tom is in a perfect position to be ‘finding new voices’: his own background drives him to find a range of voices who can represent contemporary Britain. Tom intends to diversify the BBC through contributing to its move out London: re-locating key job roles outside of London and expanding Cardiff, Salford, Glasgow, and Bristol bases. Tom’s passion for transforming BBC Studios into a truly diverse place with an awareness of the nation’s people beyond the boroughs of London really shine through. Knowing there are people like Tom involved in planning the BBC’s future fills me with confidence that the BBC will be a hub of varying storytellers and as a result, more ‘stories that resonate with the now’. This reminded me why I desire to work on documentaries: to reflect and mould the world we live in.
I found almost every day of the DocLab scheme to be incredibly helpful, but the third day was certainly a highlight to the week. Meeting Tom McDonald, (on his birthday no less) and hearing his incredible career journey was truly an eye-opening experience. He spoke with such enthusiasm and quickly filled us into his incredibly impressive history of work in UK Television. Thankfully by this point, I had introduced myself several times to the guest speakers in the days prior and so was beginning to get past the initial nerves of speaking over Zoom.
Later in the day, we got to discuss our documentary ideas with the group in more detail. It was through the training and informative insight provided by Carol, Jane, and the guest speakers that I had the confidence to change the idea of my documentary pitch that day. In what felt like a real light bulb moment, I chose to seize the opportunity and push forward with a documentary idea I had shelved for quite some time.
In a breakout room I told a few other trainees of my new proposed documentary and was met with such great feedback that it boosted my confidence even further and just like that I knew where I was headed, for both the end of the week pitch and thereafter.
As well as this, I enjoyed hearing the other trainees elaborate on their ideas in much more depth. It left me feeling very inspired since every idea seemed to be more unique than the last.
Wednesday PART 3!
Guest speaker: Jane Zurakowski - Head of Production Management Talent at the BBC
‘You’re Mother Hen, you’re like Mission Control’
To round Wednesday off with a bang, we spoke to the incredible Jane Zurakowski about the Production Management route into television and film. I don’t think I have ever ingested more information than in the last few hours of that day - what an incredible education! Speaking about everything from smaller details, such as the importance of ALBERT (an online system that keeps production companies choosing greener environmental options), to full-scale overviews, like a production timeline that was mapped up to the final editing deadline, her presentation left the whole group in awe of Jane and the Production Management route. Celebrating this path and dispelling myths left, right and centre, Jane explained that Production Management is a very creative career, contrary to popular belief outside of the industry. Involved with and integral to all parts of the programme, she weaved us in and out of different production stages from start to finish and got us thinking about every single nut and bolt that holds the ideas of a film/programme together. If I have to take anything away from her talk, it is that without Production Management, we wouldn’t have TV and Film - it is vital to every single second played on-screen and it needs celebrating much much more than we do right now!
Jane told us at the start of the session that she would sing about production from the rooftops, and she did just that! If we weren’t thinking about considering the Production Management route before that session, we definitely were by the end of it! Jane equipped us with an incredible toolbox of knowledge and transferred over her endless enthusiasm; skills and passion that the Grierson Doclab trainees will be learning from and referring to for years to come - a simply invaluable talk! Thank you Jane!!
Now on to part two of the week...
Published: 9 June 2021