The following article was originally written for the Autumn 2019 issue of the Guild of Television Camera Professionals Zerb magazine. Thank you to Alison Chapman of Zerb for the feature.
In early 2018, we were approached by Three Arrows Media to work on their groundbreaking new series The Baby Club (20 x 15-min episodes, each of which would feature six parents and babies, aged 6–18 months). The show was to be the first programme on the CBeebies channel aimed at a dual audience of parents and children, encouraging viewers at home to join in with their little ones. Simon Makin, my co-company director, was to be DoP on the series, while I would manage the technical side of the show as well as operate one of the cameras.
The groups of parents and babies would be led by the wonderful presenters, Giovanna Fletcher (author of bestseller ‘Happy Mum, Happy Baby’) and Nigel Clarke (Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, STOMP), and encouraged to join in the kind of activities taking place in community baby groups all over the country. In each episode the parents and babies are seated in a horseshoe shape on the floor, with the presenter in the middle leading the group through a mixture of songs, stories and play, all designed to stimulate and aid development of the children.
Now, your first thought might be the infamous TV mantra “Never work with children or animals” – and, filming two episodes a day, with a total of twelve 6–18-month-olds in studio, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, nothing much! The first series went incredibly well, and series 2 was recommissioned before the first had even transmitted. Simon and I knew this was a really special series, which is why we were very pleased to begin prep on filming the new series in May 2019.
A realistic location
For series 2, we returned to The Fuse, a fantastic location for filming. Located in Partington, just outside Manchester, this brilliant building’s main purpose is as a community centre; however, it also houses a large 2700ft2 studio space with two lighting grids that can be lowered to the set floor – ideal for a large lighting setup. Surrounding the studio space are plenty of breakout rooms for production gallery, makeup and dressing rooms, as well as crew areas and production offices. Most importantly, it has large green rooms away from any hazards, which are perfect for the babies and parents when they are off set.
Large-sensor cameras, ISO-recorded
The plan was to use large-sensor rather than traditional studio cameras and we opted for a combination of Sony F5s and FS7s. The programme wouldn’t be vision-mixed, but instead ISO-recorded locally on each camera and directed from a gallery including full talkback to cameras, production and presenters. We also wanted to make sure that using non- studio cameras would be rock solid in the edit, so decided to build custom multicore cables to include vision, return vision, genlock, timecode, stereo audio and comms. To manage this, I built a couple of racks units to distribute the signals to various monitors in the gallery, studio floor and production office, as well as back to the cameras.
Eye level to a baby
During the show, the presenters, parents and babies would be sitting on the floor, so the director, Jason Garbett, was keen to keep the cameras low enough to maintain the eyeline. To achieve this, we bought a few full-sized apple boxes and screwed the well-priced Manfrotto Hi- Hats to them. This gave us a really solid base at the right eyeline, without breaking the operators’ already creaking backs. As well as Simon and myself on camera, we also had Alex Dove, Rory Marshall and Ben Hutchinson, plus Nic Cartwright and John Cooper stepping in on some days. Also around were our fantastic staff camera assistants, Daniel Spencer-Purvis and Will Coldwell, who shared days on the series.
Series 2 refinements
In pre-production for series 2, we were asked to provide an additional camera, with the option to occasionally go handheld to get closer detail shots of the babies or follow them when they wandered off from the main group to explore other exciting things on the set. As you can imagine, this happened quite a lot! Simon decided this camera would be better wireless to avoid cables when the camera had to go upstage. We used one of our Teradek Bolt Pro 500 links for this, which proved to be absolutely rock solid for the full two weeks of production.
The other requirement for series 2 was to pull the cameras and production further back from the set so as not to distract the babies. This meant using longer lenses than on series 1 (Canon CN7 17–120mms), so Simon opted for Fujinon Cabrio 80–300mms. These proved to be absolutely brilliant, giving great images and some wonderful close-ups. We had three Cabrio 80–300mm and two Canon CN7 17–120mm lenses for series 2, with the wider lenses used on a mini-jib on tracks, and the new fifth camera, which would split its time between handheld and mounted on a MYT Works 4’ slider.
Lighting and planning
The challenge in lighting the show was to keep The Baby Club looking like a real place rather than a studio, but still lighting it in a way that would look good on camera. With some of the older toddlers escaping the grasp of their parent at every given opportunity, this meant having to light the space as evenly as possible but also retain traditional key and backlights for the main group positions. The show was lit with a mixture of 4’ 4-bank Kino Flos, ARRI T1s, 300Ws and Chroma-Q Space Force LEDs. The set designer also added in some practicals along the walls to help with keeping the space feel real and the lighting natural.
Three Arrows Media had multiple HoD and planning meetings in pre-production, which was a real godsend. As we are all too familiar, there are so many shows where you turn up and have no idea what the scenery you’ll be filming is like. Having the flexibility to talk directly with the set designer about anything from practical lighting all the way up to the size and dimensions of wall flats to allow space for cameras and avoid shoot-off was such a help, and shouldn’t be underestimated. When it came to the first day of filming, everyone knew what to expect, and it made the whole shoot run smoothly.
Filming with children always means limited hours in the day and for those aged 0–4 is permitted only for a maximum of 2 hours on camera per day, with a 15-minute break every 30 minutes. This meant that whenever the children were on set, we had to be turning over in order to complete the episode. The cameras would run up as the contributors were travelling, and as soon as they were on set we were straight into the episode.
Both series of The Baby Club have been a pleasure to work on, but the second in particular was a real joy. Two lovely weeks of working on a show with colleagues and friends from the camera department even makes it feel not that much like work!