Low-budget shooting on BBC Comedy Witless

DP Benedict Spence wrote in with details about his work on Witless, the low-budget but highly-successful BBC comedy series about flatmates Leanne and Rhona who are put into witness protection in a grotty Swindon flat, with two extremely young hit men on their trail.

“When my long-term director and friend Andrew Chaplin asked me to shoot the first series of Witless with him I jumped at the opportunity. He described Witless as an action-comedy, with a really great script, and a brilliant cast. “Oh”, he added, “and it’s really low budget.”

Due to our mix of comedy, action and police capers, we used Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007, DP Jess Hall BSC) as a key reference. Having watched it about ten times now, I’m in awe of how much amazing stuff is crammed in. It’s a masterclass.

Witless has the usual number of pages of comedy dialogue to get through, but throughout the series there are also a number of stunts, fights, chases and action sequences. From prep on series one, Andrew and I wanted to create something that was funny, dramatic and as cinematic as possible.

Benedict Spence, Focus puller Dan Villanueva and 2nd AC Louise Harris

The majority of my work is commercials, where each shot is discussed thoroughly. Witless is an entirely different beast. Because of the limited budget, I have three days of prep for each series. That’s two days of location scouting for a total of 27 shoot days. The end result is that we shoot thinking on our feet. There are no easy days.

Shooting single camera, on all but the busiest days, our normal page counts are between five and seven pages, and we generally get around 45 slates per day. This high slate count is vital for the look and pace of the show. Andrew uses every single shot by the way. It also shows, not only the hard work of the crew on-set, but also how in-sync Andrew and I have to be in order to be able to chew through scenes that fast. We rely on our shorthand and mutual trust to get us through.

Working this fast also requires the ADs to be absolutely on-point, and Scott Bates is an absolute lynch pin. On-set Andrew has a rehearsal with the cast and then a crew show. Then he and I have a 60-second chat through shots, perhaps with a minor tweak to the action, before we start the merry dance of shooting. Once we commit to how we will cover a scene there is no time to rethink it.

Director Andrew Chaplin giving notes to Kerry Howard and Zoe Boyle

On series two, my gaffer Alan Martin and his lighting team looked after me. Alan is incredibly experienced having worked on enormous features for many years. I am lucky to have him on the series. During prep and recce, lighting is discussed in broad strokes. More often than not we discuss lighting the room rather than the cast. Can we get a lamp through that window? How much negative fill can we get in here? Can we get an extra 6K on today?

The lighting kit used is geared up for exactly this sort of quick work. As well as a small daylight package, we carry a lot of LED options, including an ARRI Skypanel, an Aladin Flexlite and a pair of Litegear Litemat 4s. I don’t care what the manufacturers say – the colours are always a bit all over the place. But the speed of working with them stomps all-over anything else. The Litemats are fantastic, in that they are big, truly soft and, like all LEDs, can be dialled-down to zero quickly. They weigh next to nothing, so can be taped onto ceilings or boomed into scenes very quickly. The Skypanel is a dream, as being able to dial-in any colour is unbelievably useful when moving as fast as we do.

As well as LED lighting I use china lanterns (with 300w bulbs in LanternLock fixtures) and covered wagons. For night interiors, they are flattering, feel like practicals just out of shot and, most importantly, with a dimmer each they are fast.

The ARRI Amira was designed as a documentary camera, but I love using it for Witless. It has the wonderful Alexa sensor, but it’s designed to be used quickly, which is ideal for a low-budget and tight scheduled job like Witless. Little things like built-in NDs and switches for white balance mean that I can save minutes here and there across the day, and it might mean the difference between getting a shot or not. Although, my long suffering camera team focus puller Dan Villanueva and loader Louise Harris might not agree that being able to tweak white balance myself whenever I want is a good thing!

Our camera suppler, S+O Media, gives us a great deal on all the kit, including a full set of Cooke 5i primes. Filtration wise I always keep a Tiffen Rotating Pola handy and normally have a set of Black Satins, and usually sit with a 1/4 in the camera. Around 25% of Witless is shot on sets. The Black Satins create a slight halation on windows, which helps give the impression the windows are burning out on purpose rather than because we haven’t enough time, money or people to ND them.

The first series of Witless did very well and was recommissioned for a second series before it completed its run. Series two has just finished its terrestrial run and series three is due to shoot in September, with a substantially increased budget. Hopefully we will be able to blow something up. Working on a show as fast-paced as Witless can be very intense. But there is something about everyone coming together and being truly creative with limited time and resources that creates a real family atmosphere.”

Issue 83 – September 2017

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