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Lawrence Breen - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 23rd June 2016

Lawrence Breen, award-winning Archive Researcher, shares his insights on the technical and creative issues surrounding the use of archive for natural history and environmental broadcasting. 

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Lawrence Breen

Lawrence started working for the BBC Natural History Unit in 1988 as a Library Clerk, after gaining a degree in American Studies from Hull University.  Following a series of successful attachments (including work at BBC Sound Archives and at BBC Worldwide) he progressed to a career as a staff Archive Researcher, and then going freelance 15 years ago. 

Lawrence now works for a variety of clients including Tigress, Humble Bee Films, BBC Earth Productions and BBC Science, and has twice been the winner of the Focal Award for Best Use of Archive.



Earth in Vision Project

Lawrence Breen and I’m an archive footage researcher based in Bristol, mainly working with natural history.

How I got started…

Well, my kind of start off was when I was doing work in museum work, mainly Manpower Service Commission (it shows you how long ago it was) and voluntary work in museums and elsewhere including CSV, which was local radio Bristol, and I was doing work there when there was a local paper advert in the Evening Post, wanting a library clerk in the BBC NHU Library. I went and applied for the job, got the job and I started back in April ’88 and then started working on the staff library and there was about eight or nine people and I was doing support, mainly a huge amount of photocopying and card indexing and some shot listing. And then over a period of time there would be ad hoc enquiries from productions who would ask for particular clips that then the library would research, and then over a period of time the productions would ask me to do more and more full-time dedicated work along those lines.

I did a couple of attachments elsewhere in Worldwide and Sound Archives and then came back and then they were doing more and more work in terms of re-versioning and repurposing the archive. And then when that came along there was the production base called Wild Vision, which was seen (similar to BBC Earth now), it’s seen as a way to kind of explore new markets or areas of broadcast, outside the BBC, that would then get more and more work for the BBC and the people working there. And I was doing that for a period of time and then I was offered a job externally to the BBC, because all this time I was on a staff job, building up experience, and I was invited to go freelance to work for an external production company, which I then did for a number of years. Meanwhile I was also asked to do ad hoc work for the NHU Productions and other departments, doing more and more work, but this time it was either a freelance or casual contract, which is pretty much what I’ve been doing since.

The role of an archivist…

The nature of what I do now has changed quite a lot, but basically it’s an understanding of who shot what, where, when and how, on what format, what they did with it, what you can do with it, who owns it, who else wants to use it, how much are they going to pay for it, how much they want to store it for, what drive is it on, has the drive failed, who else may have the same shot or a similar shot, is it HD or is it 4K, is it 2K, is it 1.8, is it DeBayered, etc. So my daily job is in some part dealing with all of those aspects.

I’m also just I’m this kind of go-between, conduit. People from outside the BBC hire me to source material from inside the BBC through BBC Motion Gallery and Worldwide. And people from inside the BBC ask me to source material from outside the BBC. But for most part they both want the same thing, which as you say is the behaviour of the animals.

That is one of the driving things about the NHU that it makes, the fact is it says, ‘this animal does this thing, we will now try to depict the best we can how this animal does this behaviour and present it to the public.’ And that’s why other people look at the NHU output and say, ‘That’s a very good story, we could do that ourselves, it would be prohibitively expensive and there’s a risk involved in it.’ So therefore, there’s an easier… not an easier option, but basically it’s available, that’s why they come there. Generic landscapes, scene setters, a lot more people are doing those, more material, there’s more people go off with DSLRs, etc., and generate their own content, you’ll find that material much more available. If someone’s going to spend… I don’t know, ‘I know I’ll spend 15 days trying to film this animal doing this one thing,’ very, very few people are doing that, even larger production companies overseas or in the UK don’t really attempt to do that to that level, not for a long time.

When did the BBC go big on natural history filmmaking?

The NHU and the BBC didn’t do a lot of wildlife film making really until the late ‘70s. They would kind of do, very much, UK, then mostly for the most part, get their film from overseas, third parties, Germans mainly, and they’d go to them for the behaviour they show of the animals, woodpeckers, etc., that would go on until about the late ‘70s. Only since Life on Earth did they say, ‘Oh, we’ve identified that the audience is keen and willing to have more animal behaviour programmes. We’re not beholden to National Geographic for their occasional specials, so we’ll go off and set out to film the animals’ behaviour,’ and Wild Life on One, etc., just ran on, ran on, ran on, ran on.

What changes have you seen?

Stylistically it’s changed, I would say that. I would say that if you were to look at films made in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of how they’re filmed and framed something in terms of long lens, you’d have it whereby they would capture the behaviour. They would film it and say, ‘This is what we filmed, this is what we saw, Hugh Miles filmed this leopard, it does this thing.’ Therefore, incidentally, to make the 15 minutes, you have to have the cameraman explaining how they got to film that animal and how rare it is to film this animal, that’s part of the story. As techniques and abilities evolved, they were actually able to say, ‘We don’t need the cameraman, because we can, because of the technologies, we can just go out and spend a long, long time filming something as it happens in real behaviour as much as we can.’

Or alternatively, this is when it comes to another reason for stock shot footage, for instance, is where they will go out and attempt to film a sequence of say, a lion kill or something like that or a tiger kill, and find that they haven’t got the whole sequence. They’ve got a sequence to tell enough of the story, but there’s elements to it, to which they’ll think, ‘Well we haven’t got the beaver doing that particular activity.’ So to complete the sequence of an animal behaviour, ‘Who else has shot it that we can integrate that sequence and that footage into the clip?’ That is actually more… that was kind of almost like a niche within a niche, that was part of the kind of… And often producers would do that themselves, because they were having to be dealing with people who would be filming that themselves and they’d said, ‘Oh yeah, I filmed that as well, do you want some of this, because you’ve hired me to do this? We filmed it, we didn’t quite get it, but this is something I did a couple of years ago, can you use this?’ So that kind of relationship or communication with producers and the camera folk would happen.

I was going incidental sometimes, but still the drive is, “what is the animal doing and how is it doing it and what can we say about it?”

Why the BBC NHU has so little archive of the changing environment

Survival had a… a production company in Norwich, had an approach to filmmaking where they said, ‘We’ll have a cameraman, we place him in this family in a location for a period of time.’ That person would then go off and film enough, if they could, of a particular animal or a location. From that they’d come back after three years with a whole bunch of stuff and then they’d make these three beautiful, pristine, one-hours about this location. Inevitably they would also make a human environmental story, because given the fact they were there for three years, they’ve got this huge understanding of what was going on in the location and they would always have some element, not always, but normally there would be an add-on programme within there. That was a bi-product, they were there, they were filming it, they were going to do that.

The NHU is different, I think, in the fact is that what they do is they try to prescript what they’re going to shoot, they write the story, they will spend six months or a year researching what they’re going to shoot. So if they did say, ‘By the way we’re going to shoot an environmental aspect of this,’ then it would have had to have had it written in the script, it would have been part of the script, and at some part or other there would be a debate or question about why it’s going to be in there.

I’m not commenting on the editorial processes of commissions, or anything like that, I’m just looking back over the past years about how that came to be a natural part of the programmes from one section of broadcaster, rather than another.

But it would be incidental, anything that kind of originated in terms of environmental impact or environmental changes, they’ve built up this archive, but it’s a very, very… I wouldn’t say thin on the ground, scarce, there’s not hours and hours of it. It’s only exponentially, since late noughties that basically they’ve just been able to shoot a lot more.

So we have, maybe, this preconception of them saying, ‘We have huge amounts of library archive in the BBC, NHU.’ Well, they do, but it’s a variations on the same theme, they don’t have a wide variety. They have lots of lions and elephants, not much in terms of oil slicks.

What happened to the project ‘Creative Archive’?

A few years ago there was that attempt to say, ‘We have this wonderful content, let’s make it available to the public, we’ll concentrate on natural history, because in terms of third party rights and issues, it’s a lot more flexible than most of the material that we have, we have a lot of it.’ That didn’t follow through or didn’t… that wasn’t a success, I don’t know why.

The changing nature of archive

The animals tend to do the same thing again and again and again, so filming it again and again, the challenge most people see is, ‘What bit of kit can I bring to it that can allow me to look at this animal that I haven’t looked at in the same way before?’ In the same way that sometimes you’ll have the stylistic… the style, so you’ll have, going back to what I was saying earlier, you’ll have that 1970s, 1980s, long lens, this is what will happen. Then you’d have like, the John Downer approach, where you’d construct as much as you could in terms of the animal behaviour, the story that you want in a dramatic kind of way, to tell about this animal behaviour. And then you have the life, mini dramas, where you think, ‘Right, we’re going to film the heck out of this, any, which way we can. We know roughly what the behaviour is going to be, we know what we want to capture, but at the end of it we’re going to have hours of this stuff,’ and then the craft and skill is to figure out what the best way of telling that story is about it, and that’s kind of an evolutionary process that took a long time.

So there’s going to be a lot of slow-mo animals around at the moment, because they have the technology and the ability to film very beautiful images of animals moving very, very slowly. I can see in a couple of years’ time people looking at that and saying, ‘Can we just film the animal normal speed and the animal in the real world?’

What technology would enable valuable archive to be made available to the public?

A digital water-marker, a very discreet digital water-marker would allow anyone to know who shot what, where, when. So basically it would be embedded in the picture no matter how you use the picture, it would still be part of the picture, because then you’d have that, I don’t want to use the word metadata, but I’ve already used the word metadata, but it’s not, it’s kind this little pixel, it’s a little watermark, it’s in there, it’s embedded, it’s part of the image. Because then with that ability, with that facility, you can say, ‘Yes, of course you can have our archive, because we know what you’re going to do with it, because if you do something that we don’t like what you’ve done with it, then we can go back and say, “actually we know where this came from, because we had it imprinted, we had it water-marked, we had a little, kind of, fingerprint on it.”’

Or what you do do is, you make it available, but you make sure that everyone knows where you got it from, these are our aerials of the guys cave diving into Mexico, these are our aerials of the blue whales, these are our shots that we created, that we’re making available for you, because we’re making a point that we are providing it to you, that you’re not just downloading it and doing some comedy voiceovers.

Whatever happened to shortlisting?

Traditionally it was expected by the production to be able to shotlist it. What would happen would be, you’d have a set of rolls, you’d have about ten rolls of film - and again this was the necessary part of the post-production process - because you shot on film, the ability to view that film was quite limited, so therefore you had only one effective hit on shot listing it. They’d then prepare a paper shot list, which would stay with that film for a long, long time. If you wanted to know what was shot on the film, you had to look at the paperwork, because looking at the film was expensive, difficult or you could damage the film in terms of the neg. So what happened then is that you’d have people originating on tape or on files, a lot more material, so therefore the shooting ratios expanded massively, therefore the ability and facility of actually shot listing that fell off, because they couldn’t have time to do it; but at the same time, it wasn’t seen as necessary, because by getting it to the editor quicker, the editor could assess then what he or she could look at quite quickly, and pick out without having to actually create any metadata. So that breakage happened quite quickly, whereby a lot of stuff that was being originated, so they didn’t have to shot list it. So they would say, ‘Why would you want to shot list it?’ And the reason why you want to shot list it is, because you still do want to go back to it in the future.

One film that stands out

For instance a couple of years ago there was Green which was the Wildscreen winner, one of the Wildscreen winners a couple of years ago, which was basically a handheld portrayal of an attempted rescue of an orang-utan. It was self-shot and it was an award winner at Wildscreen. It was on YouTube the same day, because the people who shot it had a very clear agenda of what they were wanting to do and they weren’t going to say, ‘Oh shall we wait for a commission?’ or something like that. They said, ‘We want to tell this message, we’re going off and filming this message.

Can television help save the future Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

If there’s going to be a fundamental portrayal of the significance of environmental changes in this planet that makes a big impact that lots of people will be engaged with, it’s not likely to come from the BBC.

<End of Interview>




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