RTS Nomination for BBC Films

Storytelling

BBC Special Reports

BBC Special Reports – Fertility

Stories don’t happen by accident, they don’t magically come together out of nowhere; they are a result of a lot of hard work and planning. But how do you go about doing that? How do you put a story together? It’s a combination of intuition, a process to structure the ideas and to use the language of film to translate the story into visuals, lighting and sound design. This case study guides you in how we approached the BBC films that were broadcasted as ‘Special Reports’.

Suffering in Silence

The storytelling process behind our work

These three distinct parts, intuition, a storytelling process and the language of film, each have their own skillset. Intuition is probably a little different — It’s what makes our stories unique. It allows us to see the stories that may not be so obvious to others. It’s about being able to ask the right questions and probe deeper into the story. Its having a perspective that is guided by how we, as filmmakers, see and comprehend the world. And that perspective is rigorously tested through a structured storytelling process, which influences our visual, lighting and sound design. Everything matters in a film project and I’d like to take you on a journey by deconstructing one of our films.

On the 2nd and 3rd of November 2016, we had a strand of two short films broadcast on BBC television. Russell Sheath, a close friend and filmmaker, asked about a collaboration in making two films regarding infertility. We jumped at the opportunity! The first step was to gain an understanding about the possible stories we could tell. Russell did the all of the research and collated all the relevant details. He also focused on finding the right people who were willing to open up and to talk about their deeply personal experiences with infertility. It took time and countless number of phone calls. Over two months, Russell spoke to a number of charities, which in turn put him touch with other people, who again put him touch with others, and it’s almost impossible to recall the chain of who put who in contact. Russell and I conversed constantly throughout this period. We talked about the potential Hearts of our stories (the lead characters) and this often resulted in more phone calls to dig deeper. This is what it means to really “listen” and let the story move you, before you move the story. By the time we were ready to film the stories, Russell had developed a very high level of trust with the people whom we were going to film. This rapport building cannot be underestimated and it was critical for the stories we were going to tell.

By the time we were ready to film the stories, Russell had developed a very high level of trust with the people whom we were going to film.

Royal Television Society 2017 Nominee

The two films were broadcasted as “special reports” and we’re incredibly humbled to have been nominated for “Best Strand within a News or Magazine Programme” by the Royal Television Society. The Southern Centre award nominees for 2017 were short listed to:

  • Fertility – BBC South
  • Inside Out – BBC South
  • Medical Films for The One Show – Topical TV

The Story Background

Let’s focus on one of the films that Russell and I produced. Our chosen Heart was Gareth, a 30-year-old motorcycle workshop manager. He married his wife Natalie in 2009, and soon after they started to try for a family. After about 18 months they sought professional advice and were told to “be patient”. They decided to get some tests done privately and sadly, Gareth’s sperm came back as 0%. The news was broken to him whilst he was at work by a doctor who accused him of having a vasectomy and not telling him. The reason for the 0% sperm was due to the lack of testosterone being made by his body. Gareth expressed “in that one phone call, that was that”. He felt he was a let down, a disappointment. Gareth and Natalie eventually decided to go for sperm donor-ship in order to have a child of their own. In total over an 8-year period they had 9 rounds of IUI (intrauterine insemination) and IVF (in vitro fertilisation). Sadly, Natalie suffered 4 miscarriages in the process.

Gareth expressed “in that one phone call, that was that”. He felt he was a let down, a disappointment.

Gareth found it difficult to cope with the stress. The health system offered no support for men during this difficult and challenging time. The only option he was given was a female councillor who told him it was a waste of her resources. He joined various groups online, but was overwhelmed by the amount of women who seemed to have so much negativity towards men’s feelings. Gareth said, “men don’t talk, and there’s nowhere to talk”. He remembers thinking “I can’t be the only guy?” Gareth then setup a Facebook group to seek support for himself.

They were down to their last frozen embryo. It had been rated very poorly and would have been thrown away had it not been their last chance. By a miracle, the embryo was successful and the due date for their baby was also their wedding anniversary!

The Facebook group has slowly grown over the last year and now has over 230 members with regular activity each week. Although Gareth sought support for himself when setting up the group, he now offers support to many men around the world.

Lets turn our attention to how we approached this story…

Gareth Down on his Facebook support group.

Gareth Down on his Facebook support group.

Story deconstruction

Every one of our stories considers four important elements. These are People, Place, Purpose and Plot. Let’s start with People… These are the characters in our story and its one of the main elements in creating a connection with the viewer.

People – Creating connection

The early impetus that drew us into Gareth’s story (our Heart) was his desire to have a child, but his struggle caused him to setup his own Facebook group to seek the support that wasn’t available anywhere else. There was nowhere for men to talk. He also realized that he couldn’t be the only man out there struggling with situations like his. This uniqueness soon focused Gareth into wanting to help others. Hence, his desire to speak openly to us was his way to raise the issue that men need support too. The deeper ‘why’ around Gareth’s desire was the lengths that they went to – to have a child, to have a family of their own. They sold almost everything they owned, including Gareth’s beloved motorcycle to pay for the IVF treatment – such was their deep desire for a child to love. “Things” didn’t matter and they could always save up for those items if need be at a future time.

Natalie’s desire was also to have a child. Her uniqueness was that she was faced with what to do when they had got down to the last embryo. She didn’t want to use it, as this would mark the end of their journey no matter what. Natalie’s deeper ‘why’ was similar to Gareth’s, in that it was a joint decision to do everything possible so they could have a child to love. In our story, Natalie was a helper to support Gareth’s journey.

BBC Fertility Film - Natalie Down interview

Natalie’s interview

Place – Creating authenticity

Place allows us to create authenticity by showing where our characters live. We thought very carefully about our “Place”. Russell set about researching the locations on Google Street View. This provided a means for us to exchange ideas and thoughts on how we might film some of the scenes in our story. Let’s have a closer look and break down each aspect of place.

Environment – The most obvious place to find our Heart was at home and at his workshop. We discovered that the less obvious place to find Gareth was when he was out on his motorcycle. Natalie had told us that Gareth would often jump on his bike and “ride away his problems”. We conducted the interviews at his home because that’s where he setup the Facebook group. We filmed Gareth at his motorcycle workshop because it became his escape from the emotional turmoil he was going through. The 90-hour weeks kept his mind elsewhere, as he was trying to cope with issues for which he had nobody to talk with. We then filmed Gareth on his motorcycle to demonstrate him riding away his problems.

Objects – Apart from Gareth and Natalie selling all of their valuables to finance the treatment, one of Gareth’s most valued sacrifices was selling his beloved motorcycle. So we predominately filmed him working on a motorcycle which he would dearly love to own. It was a customer’s motorcycle and he was conducting routine maintenance on it. We also filmed photographs of their wedding day that were on display in their home and the computer that he used to setup the Facebook group.

Situations – We filmed Gareth quietly working away in the workshop all by himself with nobody else around. The 90-hour weeks would have left him working in a workshop alone. We also filmed him alone at his computer, because the support he receives and gives on the Facebook group is private, and its between him and the other men within the group.

Time – Filming Gareth at his workshop late at night was one way of strengthening the “time” aspect of the story. We didn’t do this sadly, but we did film many scenes with a sliding camera movement – to illustrate that their goal posts kept moving with every treatment they underwent. The last few scenes of the film don’t have any sliding movement, because Gareth & Natalie’s dream finally came true – to have a family of their own.

The workshop where Gareth spends a lot of his time working.

The workshop where Gareth spends a lot of his time working.

Purpose – Why does this story matter?

Russell and I spent many FaceTime calls debating “what is it that we are really trying to say”? With so many options available to us, we eventually narrowed down our keywords and our Heart’s purpose. In short, our singular message was “Men are left alone in dealing with fertility issues and they too need support, just like women”. With that in mind, here are our 5 Keywords that encompass the core aspects of the story.

Alone
Being told your infertile is a very lonely experience. Although Natalie has been a huge help throughout Gareth’s struggle, he has felt very isolated with no one to talk to. He felt alone; especially when he found out there was no support for him outside of his relationship.
Support
In the early stages there was no support for Gareth other than from Natalie and friends & family. He tried finding support but there was none out there for him. He started a support group and now has a community of men offering support to each other via the Facebook group.
Family
Gareth and Natalie’s desire to have a family of their own. They have supported each other throughout this difficult and challenging time. All they wanted was a child to love. Their journey has not been easy!
Persistent
They never gave up on their dream of having a family. Even when all the odds were against them and Natalie was unsure if she wanted the last embryo to be implanted, Gareth would still not give up. His positivity and drive to succeed has also seen him set up the Facebook group even after being told it will be a failure as ‘men don’t talk’. The group now has over 230 members from around the world helping each other.
Belief
Gareth’s self-worth as a man was shaken after his doctor phoned to inform him of the life changing news – that he had no sperm. He felt that he had let Natalie down, but both of them found other ways in which they could have a family. This belief carried them through, right up until the last embryo.

Gwyn Cole directing the scene to show where Gareth and Natalie spend some of their time outdoors.

Gwyn Cole directing the scene to show where Gareth and Natalie spend some of their time outdoors.

Plot – The journey and the conflict

Plot is the all-important roadmap of the story. There were so many ways to look at Gareth’s story. It can easily get confusing on what to focus on and which conflict you should chase. The first task is to test our story against the 6 universal conflicts. We found that 4 of the universal conflicts gave us a good starting point in identifying our potential chosen conflict.

Man vs. Man
We could focus on Gareth’s struggle with his doctor, who accused him of lying about a vasectomy (which Gareth never had); and having this life changing news delivered while Gareth was at work over the phone.

Man vs Self
We could tell of Gareth’s internal struggle after hearing the life changing news that he has 0% sperm. And witnessing how Gareth deals with this situation and seeing how he overcomes the need for support. This is the conflict we eventually went with and it fitted our 5 keywords, and above all, it just felt like it was the right conflict to go with.

Man vs Society
Perhaps, we could have looked at how society affects our perception of what it means to be a man. Perhaps this is the reason that men don’t talk? We could explore those aspects of our Heart’s journey.

Man vs Spiritual
Another potential conflict is how religion or higher entity played a role in Gareth’s need for support? Does everything happen for a reason? How would spirituality help Gareth find comfort?

Out of those 4 potential conflicts, we chose to go with Man vs Self. The next task was to create the story arc which would ultimately tell Gareth’s story.

BBC Fertility Film - Gareth Down interview

Gareth’s interview

The visual representation of the story

Almost every aspect of our film was comprehensively planned out; this includes our visual elements too. When you are out on-location filming, there are moments during the day where opportunities present themselves. It is during these moments that a thorough understanding of the story gives you the tools to instantly know if they are relevant or not. If they are relevant, you know how they should be captured, including exposure, camera movement, etc. Lets examine some of our thinking of a few scenes and how Russell and I worked through them.

The opening scene starts with Gareth opening the workshop door. This feels like a natural beginning visually, but we also felt that this symbolized our Heart opening the doors on his experience. There was nobody else around and the “Alone” sentiment matched his 90-hour weeks, where he would have spent a lot of time alone in the workshop.
BBC Fertility Film - Doors Opening

Later in the film we see a sliding camera movement pushing into a team of women working in the fertility lab. We’re pushing in because we’re trying to draw the viewer into where the magic happens, supporting our keywords “Persistent” and “Belief”. It took multiple IVF cycles and every time; there was a belief that our Heart’s desire would come true.
The lecture room

We eventually see Gareth supporting other men on the Facebook group. Some of the clips are shot with a sliding camera movement to indicate the passing of time. Support is a slow process and cannot be hurried. Out of our 5 keywords, the scenes support “Alone” and “Support”.
BBC Fertility Film - Gareth on Facebook

Towards the end of the film, we do one last sliding shot while Natalie talks about how after all the years, it can happen and that they finally got there. Again, it’s a statement that encompasses the passing of time. All the clips after that are still frames. We did this to represent that our Heart now has his desire; it’s not a moving goal any more. And we shot the scenes on a monopod to give a sense of being there with the family – providing a subtle handheld quality to the camera movement. And finally these scenes represent our “Family” keyword and we could also probably say “Belief” as well.
BBC Fertility Film - Family

We kept our colour grading to a natural colour pallet for the film. It’s a real life story and changing or dramatizing the colour grading didn’t feel appropriate. We recorded as many natural sounds as possible to give an authentic feel to Gareth’s story. This included careful consideration to the motorcycle sound during the main transition in the story. We recorded the sound from about 8-10 feet away to capture an audio perspective from within the workshop, rather than 2 feet from the exhaust pipe which would have made the sound too intimate!

Conclusion

We hope that gives you an idea of how we develop deep and meaningful stories. Our approach results in telling the best story possible and to do so in a delicate and sensitive manner. The films broadcast on BBC Television were profoundly humbling stories to tell. The two short films were for the Fertility Network UK’s #hiddenfaces campaign, which ran during the first week of November 2016. A huge “thank you” goes to Gareth and Natalie for sharing their emotional and sensitive story. They are both an inspiration and so is their desire help other people out there.

BBC South

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