We wanted to get an intimate view of the ambulance crews. The solution: shooting on GoPro cameras and wrangling data in the back of a Volkswagon, says Jacqueline Hewer
Production company Brown Bob Productions Commissioner Hilary Rosen Length 10 x 60 minutes TX 8pm, W, weeknights for two weeks from 28 November Executive producer Jacqueline Hewer Series producer Audrey Neil Producers Soufian Shamsi; Sarah Binns Head of production Nicki Gottlieb Post house Rapid Pictures Programme summary An ambulance rigged with cameras gives a unique perspective on what it’s like to respond
This is what I wrote in our pitch document: “We will use interstitials of the medics’ conversations between call-outs to highlight their human side, so that the series has them as people at its heart, rather than just as paramedics doing their job.” We’ve all written stuff like this. It’s not that we’re lying; we’d love to be able to deliver shows that do that. It’s just that it’s incredibly difficult to get it to work on screen, especially when you’re on a limited budget and working to a tight schedule. But here, we could deliver on our promise. Our paramedics are absolutely the stars of the show: there’s Steve, who can’t understand the point of onesies; Michelle and her weakness for McDonald’s hash browns; Jamie and Carly, whose wonderful chatter covered everything from what Carly’s nan thinks of gay marriage (“If it’s good enough for Elton John, it’s good enough for me”) to sweetcorn as an ill-advised pizza topping. The secret to our success? They shot the whole series themselves with not a crew in sight. Each paramedic wore two body-mounted cameras, and we rigged their ambulance with six GoPros. Then we recorded every minute of their 12-hour shift, for 60 consecutive days, capturing 7,000 hours of footage. That was the easy bit; the bigger challenge lay in working out how to manage the absurd amount of media they were pumping out. This was a rig, but with no gallery and no live mixing.
They were on the move the whole time. This is where our own brilliant team came in. On every shift, we had a cameraman running all aspects of the rig. After each patient had been delivered to hospital, they’d hand the cards to our data wrangler, who set up an entire mobile wrangling unit on the back seat of a Volkswagon Sharan. They were ably supported by a runner and a boot full of snacks. Paramedics are very hungry people. Having secured the footage, we then had to get consent. A location producer attended every call-out, and it was their responsibility to make on-the-spot editorial judgements about the strength of each story, and to start consent conversation. We simply had too much footage to take everything we shot into the edit. We only wanted the stories that were genuinely going to make the final programmes, and decided not to ingest anything we didn’t have consent for. When you’ve got six edit suites ploughing through stories with fantastic speed and efficiency, that’s a hard rule to keep. Most people were happy to be filmed, but not quite so many of them wanted what we’d filmed to be on telly.
Unique challenges We planned the post-production process with extraordinary care. The complexity of the operation was unprecedented. Our post house stepped up and created a totally new workflow to meet the unique challenges of a mobile rig. The good news is the stories themselves made it all worth it. As TV producers, we’re always looking for new ways of doing things and the GoPros gave us exactly what we’d hoped for. Jacqueline Hewer: My tricks of the trade * Don’t give in to the temptation of hiring someone just because they’re available and affordable. * Find a post house that cares about your show as much as you do. * Stay calm in the chaos. * Don’t let your ego get in the way. If a story needs to be transcribed to help a hard-pushed edit, just do it. * Have great hair. * A few cases stand out, such as when Neil was in absolute agony with bursting ulcers. A fixed camera captured his pain in an utterly visceral way that I haven’t seen when I’ve put a PD in the back of an ambulance with a hand-held camera. As for Fatima, a young Lithuanian woman terrified she was going into early labour at 32 weeks, the paramedics’ cameras caught the fear in her eyes with no sense of intrusion. Above all there was Joe, an 18 year-old who’d had a debilitating panic attack at work in a factory. The call-out is utterly compelling to watch as it puts you right in the heart of Joe’s breakdown. The paramedics are amazing. Gently, steadily, they calm him down, slow his breathing, talk to him and listen to him. It would have felt too intrusive to have a traditional camera in Joe’s face while he was in such a moment of crisis. But what we can now broadcast – with Joe’s full backing – is an incredible story of what mental health problems really look like. We’re proud of this series and it’s been a real joy to make. The whole team at UKTV were friendly, positive and supportive throughout – as was everyone at the West Midlands Ambulance Service. The biggest lesson we’ve learned is this: if you ever need to call an ambulance, try to do it in Walsall.
A new angle on the emergency services Nicki Gottlieb, Head of Production We knew that if we were going to pitch paramedics, we needed a new take. Looking at GoPro footage posted on various platforms, we decided to use them to shoot the entire series. That is easier said than done when you realise you need timecode and audio sync for each of the 10 GoPros. Plus they were running for 12 hours a day, for 60 days straight, and throwing out on average 1TB of media. Once we’d decided that we were going to create an entirely mobile rig, we needed to work out an air-tight workflow. Luckily, we came up with this crazy idea at just the right time as technology was on our side. One piece of equipment that proved invaluable was the tentacle that sat on the GoPros, as it enabled us to embed synchronised timecode to all 10 cameras and the audio recorders. This, along with a detailed logging system, was invaluable for post-production, as we could effortlessly synchronise all angles ready for the editors. Due to the sheer amount of footage, Rapid Pictures used the automated system Group It For Me to create the group clips. It saved huge amounts of time in the edit, and allowed stories to be turned around quickly.
Lesson learned One of the many lessons we learned making the series was that a GoPro shoulder mount is one of the most temperamental pieces of equipment out there. Also, trying to data wrangle masses of media in the back of an MPV causes a lot of stress. But overall, we created a workflow that enabled us to achieve exactly what we set out to do. This project gave us the opportunity to experiment with new technology, to be creative with our workflow, and to deliver a truly original insight into the ambulance service.
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