Bristol's TV and film pedigree rivals any UK city. Carly Cassano reports on how a network of production and post-production companies find the grounding they need in the city to blossom
Researchers have been examining fungi living in the earth’s soil since the 17th century. In the 1960s, it became clear that plants and fungi have a mutually beneficial relationship. About 10 years ago, a rather mystical idea came to light: "plants communicate with each other through fungus in the soil". The result of this type of communication amongst living organisms is: an enriched foundation, distinctly nourishing variety, and more equitable growth.
When UNESCO awarded Bristol "City of Film" status in November 2017, it recognised the forest for the fungus. The film and television industry in Bristol has always been as much about nurturing small, avant-garde productions as it has about drawing in the big ones. Fifteen years ago, Bristol created a dedicated film office to provide consolidated access to production services, including resources – such as equipment rentals and studio space – and permissions, such as the use of Bristol city streets. According to Natalie Moore, manager of the Bristol Film Office, this kind of accessibility "nurtures local projects and promotes Bristol globally."
Having a City of Film badge means Bristol is "learning from a network partners all over the world". It means sustainable development, representation of marginalised communities, and the preservation of its independent spirit. The Bottle Yard is a perfect of example of this. It’s a massive film and TV production organisation located in south-west Bristol, where new life pushes through old concrete. About eight years ago, when one of Bristol’s most critical TV productions relocated to Cardiff, the city was at risk of losing its strong local supply chain. Locals were at risk of losing job opportunities. The Bottle Yard was born.
Several huge 70 year-old industrial buildings were repurposed and adapted into production and post-production offices, studio spaces, and very large stages. The beauty of this transformation, says Fiona Francombe, The Bottle Yard's site director, is that it happened organically: "We just thought we’d see what happens." It is now one of the best avenues for local professionals to obtain employment in the film industry.
By supporting vocational programmes through free-use initiatives, participants can see first-hand how valuable their skills are. Students and newcomers can learn production theory, then get their hands on a grip. It’s also the production house for the BBC’s Poldark, ITV's Broadchurch and Channel 4’s The Crystal Maze. According to Dick Penny, managing director at Watershed – a cinema, media studio and cultural centre on Bristol’s harbourside that promotes new ideas and experimental storytelling: "In Bristol, we celebrate each other’s success and try not to be too inward-looking. The whole rationale is to get people thinking about the future. The best lens for that is often narrative, and seeing other people’s experiences."
As a show of faith, it accepts the Bristol Pound, an alternative currency that circulates within, and filters back into Bristol’s economy. And while it’s probably not going to become the dominant currency, that’s not the point. Says Penny: "The point of an alternative isn’t necessarily so it becomes dominant, it’s so it can be independent and equal. A broad range of voices makes the world richer."
The crew at Floating Harbour Studios agree. The film production company is based in a beautiful old Dutch barge, located on the water. Producer Anna Shearer describes the work the company does as "extremely varied". "Working on the water, and on productions for international and local clients means one day you’re doing a documentary at the zoo, and the next you’re up 26 storeys making a film for a steel company in London," she says. Success in a diverse range of projects means the company rents high-end kit, as well as studio and event spaces on the boat. If Shearer is right, and film and TV production in Bristol is about "creation, not competition", it’s no surprise that the foundation is healthy and the future bright.
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