New Fixed Rig Show Gives Shooting Partners a Taste of Prison Life
“Life Behind Bars: Visiting Hour” is a 60-minute documentary, commissioned by Channel 4 and produced by Chalkboard TV, that tells inmates’ stories of hope and heartbreak through the people who come to visit them – like the 84-year-old ex-reverend who makes a 300-mile round trip every week to see his son who is serving time for attempted murder, and the woman who’s wedding is on hold until her fiancé is released.
Mike Benson, managing director of Chalkboard and executive producer of the documentary describes the show as the first of its kind saying, “The stories, inmates and visitors we’ve worked with across the project will challenge people’s perceptions of prisoners and prison life in the UK.”
But filming inside a prison is no easy task.
Finding a location
It took two years of negotiation to secure a location. Scottish prison HMS Low Moss agreed to give Chalkboard the access they needed to find and film these stories – but their stringent conditions around shooting times, interaction with inmates and communication with the outside world provided no room for error. While the prison governor was enthusiastic about the production, if at any time the head of security felt that the shoot presented security risk, he could pull the plug on the entire project.
Filming natural interactions in a restricted environment
Having relied on Shooting Partners to provide camera solutions on a previous production, the Chalkboard TV team once again approached the professional video equipment rental company to advise on, and provide, camera equipment for “Life Behind Bars: Visiting Hour.”
Choosing a fixed rig approach met the prison’s safety guidelines (cameras bolted to the ceiling can’t be grabbed and used as a weapon) and made filming less invasive.
“Some commissioners complain that they’re tired of fixed rig, but I believe it’s not a passing fad because it gives you something extraordinary – natural conversations caught on camera,” says Benson. “As a factual producer, I’m always looking for stories where we can get natural interactions, and fixed rig provides that better than any other approach.”
Shooting Partners Project Manager, Ash Starr, joined the Chalkboard team on a recce of HMS Low Moss, but because photography within the prison is prohibited, the rest of the technical team had nothing but his sketches, measurements and some old stock photos to work from – the first time they would see the location would be when they arrived for the shoot.
The crew were also subject to security scrutiny and had to be booked two months in advance so that prison authorities could do background and criminal record checks.
Once cleared, all crew had to attend a day-long health and safety and security training session in Scotland to ensure that they knew how to react should any incidents occur during their time in the prison. With no mobile phones permitted on the premises, once inside there was no way that the crew could contact the outside world.
The prison required a full kit list be provided before the shoot – like a carnet but far more detailed – with every cable, accessory, nut and bolt accounted for and cross referenced.
“Every piece of equipment had to go through a series of security checks in and out of the prison, so we had to be as compact as possible and only take what we absolutely needed,” explains Starr, “but because of the restraints of the recce, we also needed to make sure we had the gear to deal with any unexpected curve balls.”
The crew also faced restricted time to shoot in the visiting room and only had a total of nine hours to capture twelve stories. Six shoot days were spread over a two-week period, but working around the prison schedule meant that each shoot day consisted of only an hour-and-a-half filming time. While the balance of the programme would consist of backstories and interviews, the visiting room footage was the crux of the show concept. The limited shoot time meant that the crew would need to record two visitor experiences at a time.
Success is based on careful planning… and flexibility
The Shooting Partners team did extensive testing at their warehouse in Feltham to ensure that the crew were prepared for every eventuality. “We created a mock-up of the visiting room location, complete with stand-in inmates and visitors so that we could test the equipment and plan the setup as accurately as possible based on the recce notes,” says Shooting Partners Director, Shaun Wilton.
“We chose to use 8 x Panasonic AW-UE70 remote heads because of their excellent zoom capabilities and small footprint – they could be rigged discreetly some distance away and still capture close-ups without losing quality.” Footage was recorded to a Quadras drive via two controllers, with each controller setup to manipulate any of the cameras, providing the team with a flexible approach to covering both the featured visitor’s tables.
“While planning is important for any shoot, it’s easier to change plans when you’re shooting on a camcorder than it is when you’re using a fixed rig setup. As we discovered on “Life Behind Bars: Visiting Hour” shooting a fixed rig show in a prison requires a whole different level of preproduction – but it’s also important to remain flexible because no shoot runs exactly as planned.”