TLG talks to David Godfrey, Ex Pinewood Group Director of International Operations and the 'go to' world expert for the designing, building and managing of screen-based media facilities
I joined Shepperton Studios as Assistant Studio Manager in 1985 after the studio was purchased by John and Benny Lee (Lee Lighting). Our focus was on customer service, client experience and repeat business.
When I first started the site was old and run down so it was difficult to compete with Pinewood and Elstree. So we decided to focus on independent movies and commercials, often shooting 10 jobs a week. Within a few weeks of getting my feet under the table, my first real challenge was two large movies shooting at the same time (Absolute Beginners and Out Of Africa) as well as several commercial across the lot.
If you are designing production facilities, you have to understand the workflow, the customer, the product and never lose sight of the fact that it is an exciting creative environment you’re building.
We also developed an end-to-end tenant base, turning Shepperton from a general industrial estate into the UK’s first ‘one-stop-shop’ for production. We had grip and electric, cameras, rigging, general stores, wood yard, drapes and other key suppliers.
It was a hugely exciting and challenging time with very long hours, often sleeping in spare dressing rooms after night shoots, and a fast and steep learning curve for me in understanding the needs of different production departments.
Stages, dressing rooms, workshops, costume, art departments, offices, catering, cleaning, security – all of the pieces of the puzzle that helped to solidify Shepperton in the UK market place.
How did you end up as a director of Shepperton and Pinewood working for Ridley Scott?
I didn’t take on my first director level position until Ridley and Tony sold Shepperton in 2001. While they were in charge I did help develop Shepperton’s TV presence as Head of Television, studio managed the day to day activities of the site and managed tenants. I also had the opportunity to work on my first foreign development when I oversaw the construction of the Antalya Studios in Turkey. Whilst there, I ran the facility for Hallmark’s Arabian Nights in 1998 and 1999.
What was it like working with the Scott Brothers in those days?
Working for Ridley and Tony, iconic in our industry and indeed two of my favourite directors, was such a privilege. They were incredibly busy with their own productions for RSA and Scott Free. Ridley’s Gladiator and Black Hawk Down and Tony’s Spy Game all took facilities at Shepperton.
They were also involved in key strategic decisions and were hugely supportive of our expansion. We built J and K stages, opened them for Lost in Space, and added The Korda Theatre and The Orson Wells Building. We converted smaller stages into modern production support areas, replaced our dilapidated conservatory with The Orangery, added function space and increased our workshop and offices footprint.
I really cut my teeth over this period and developed a deeper understanding of media-based project development. I had the opportunity to work with the late Norris Spencer, Ridley’s Production Designer, learning many tricks that architects just can’t bring to a project. If you are designing production facilities, you have to understand the workflow, the customer, the product and never lose sight of the fact that it is an exciting creative environment you’re building and not just an industrial estate. Creative people thrive in the right environment.
How did you become the go to expert on building studio complexes around the world?
Working at Shepperton provided me with a unique and niche skill set. I’m an aeronautical engineer by trade, originally working 747’s for BA, but came to the film industry after qualifying for the stunt register in 1985.
Probably the most rewarding project, given the timeline and the amazing success of the studio, was Pinewood Atlanta Studios.
After my years of studio management at Shepperton, I took on the position of Director of UK Operations for the Pinewood Group, managing all UK sites. I was involved in the expansion of Pinewood and Shepperton as we rebuilt the new 007 stage and added other key facilities and infrastructure.
Having worked with so many film makers over the years, facilitating hundreds of commercials, features and TV productions, along with building and running Antalya Studios, I found I had the skills, ability and passion at a time when the world was crying out for studio space. We were keen to develop a global brand and international footprint and export our skills and services abroad.
Where have you built studios and which are you most proud of and why?
I’ve built studios globally. Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios, with a stunning mix of stages, production support and an amazing marine facility, is a particular favourite. Surrounded by Caribbean beauty and locations, it’s a good base for both Western and Latin-American projects.
Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios provided me with the opportunity to include large broadcast TV studios, postproduction and more marine infrastructure to the film stages, workshops and support infrastructure.
Probably the most rewarding project, given the timeline and the amazing success of the studio, was Pinewood Atlanta Studios. The team of engineers, construction project management and architects were stunning. I worked with Rick Halbert Construction. Rick seemed to have an endless supply of rabbits to pull from the hat and along with architect Bill Foley we constantly tweaked and evolved designs to suit the job. We built the largest sound stages ever constructed using tilt up concrete and developed a system of hybrid stages that sat alongside the tilt-ups. The result has to be seen to be believed. The project timeline was so tight and facilities were booked out as we cleared the land. In fact, we were still finishing the electrical infrastructure as Marvel’s Ant-Man came through the front door. I had to find a way of rolling out three phases (18 stages) in a way that didn’t adversely affect incumbent productions. Construction of new stages next to a shooting lot requires exacting scheduling and planning.
You were involved in building Wanda Studios Qingdao in China, the world’s largest studio facility. How did you tackle something that complex and what was it like working in China?
A challenge indeed. Consulting on this project was different to anything else that I had ever done. The language, culture, physical distance and the sheer scale (in excess of two million sqft of mixed space) made it a unique project.
Wanda has 45 stages (including the world’s largest sound stage at over 100,000 sqft and two more the size of Pinewood’s 007 stage), 200,000 sqft of postproduction space, dining for 1,500 and an iconic statement building over five floors with cinemas and conferencing facilities at the front of site. Its sheer size, along with a hugely ambitious schedule, meant a slightly different approach.
In truth, sound stages have changed little since the first four stages were constructed at Shepperton in the 1930’s.
As with the Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios project I worked with Dave Shaw, our top marine expert, to bring the best in marine facilities to China. We added a huge exterior tank, permanent backing and underwater stage to the studio mix. Our in-house technical team brought up-to-date expertise to the connectivity and postproduction facilities of the site.
The scale of the site called for an internal four lane highway and a well thought out road hierarchy to control traffic in a safe fashion. We even needed an on-site bus service to move crews around. Security infrastructure in both technical and manned guarding terms was challenging. Our hi-tech security and service control room and building management systems resembled a sci-fi set with so many cameras and meters across the site being monitored.
Video conferencing with a great assistant in China, who was fluent in Mandarin, and a fastidious project coordinator in the UK were pivotal. Regular site visits and large and lengthy project company and client meetings were required. All Chinese plans were translated and triple checked for accuracy before signing off. The subtlety of language and cultural differences can quickly become major issues if anything slips the net.
That said, our client’s senior management team were highly skilled professionals and whilst they had not worked on media facilities, they had sound construction and technical backgrounds, having built everything from residential to cinemas and theme parks. High levels of collaboration at every turn, was needed. The team worked hard to understand and digest the studio requirements, performance criteria and need for flow across all aspects of the constituent parts of the site.
What makes a state-of-the-art studio complex in 2019 and what can we expect studios of the future to look like and provide?
In truth, sound stages have changed little since the first four stages were constructed at Shepperton in the 1930’s. If anything, I see new facilities being built that are simply not as good as the originals. This is in part driven by cost, but often a result of industrial developers failing to understand the needs of the end user.
Stages have exacting acoustic requirements, extraction needs and climate control. Access and egress, lifting capability and floor loading requirements have increased over the years, are key both for materials and crew. Where else would you see elephants, helicopters, military tanks, dinosaurs and castles needing to go in and out of a building?
State-of-the-art is as much about making the production journey as seamless as possible, from workshop to stage, from plaster shop to paint, from shooting floor to gantry level as it is about construction methods and materials.
A new build will never be beaten in performance terms.
I’ve built stages across the world using different materials; often focussing on local construction norms and supply, using blockwork, precast panels, tilt-up concrete, pre-engineered panels and shuttered and poured concrete. The acoustic and building performance and structural integrity of the finished product have all met or exceeded the design remit.
Processes and technology do change and as a consultant it is vital to stay abreast of film making and stay connected to industry experts. LED lighting is gathering huge traction and only requires one twelfth of the electrical power of tungsten lights. Power infrastructure will inevitably reduce for new stages. Environmental and a green ethos is now very important to our industry and should be considered in early design. Compliance and health and safety demands have also become increasingly important
What makes a producer choose to use one studio over another or is it just all about price?
A producer will of course be cost led. The environment is hugely competitive but many other factors come into play such as fiscal incentives, locations, permitting, availability of crews, expertise, hotels, transport, direct flights and safety. These will all direct a production towards a facility but if that facility is sub-standard, if it does not work in any way, they will not come back – ever!
Apart from stages what other screen facilities have you built?
I’ve consulted on all screen-based media and support infrastructure. Film stages and television studios, postproduction, theatres, offices, artist facilities, catering, gymnasiums, marine facilities, construction workshops and wood mills, SFX, paint shops, plaster workshops, costume departments, art departments and design areas, conference rooms and media tenant space. They all play a part in offering and end-to-end facility and consequently an easier road for a production.
What is the strangest request you have ever had?
Each territory is different. I had to design in air raid shelters for all large buildings in China. In Malaysia, it is a requirement to have prayer rooms for staff and clients; the same sized footprint in the Dominican Republic was needed for a bar!
What are the demands of a new build versus a conversion of say an existing factory complex?
A new build will never be beaten in performance terms. A ground up development can address all production needs once the challenges of planning have been completed. Conversion by its very nature is a compromise, often not benefitting from clear span floors and with little in the way of suspension capability from roof structure. Retro-fitting soundproofing is difficult and expensive and very often the buildings have not been designed with the necessary power infrastructure, cooling, heating or extraction, or indeed ability to park the number of standby trucks and artist trailers. That said, if the building to be converted ticks key boxes, the end product can be highly usable if budget is directed wisely to the key elements. There are some great products out there to assist. I’m involved in two conversions at the moment, but in each case it was a lengthy search to identify the correct facility as the basis for conversion for film and television use.
Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios and Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios both look amazing. Who were the architects and what was involved in building those studio complexes?
They do indeed look amazing. Orbitarq in Santo Domingo worked with me on the Dominican Republic facility. An adventurous practice with a clear vision for the look of the site led by Alejandro Marranzini. The huge overarching wings that provide cover between offices and film stages for both sun and hurricane season rains were pivotal for their vision but had to be completely decoupled from the stage structures to ensure that rain noise was not transferred to the stages; needing mass and stability, we used them to hide all HVAC plant. The office building with its canted walls was designed to resemble the logo on a superhero’s chest!
Kamil Merican, CEO of GDP architects in Kuala Lumpur brought in a mixed and varied international team including local experts, Australian M&E and UK coordination for the build in Iskandar. The mix of screen-based media facilities produced a site that can cater for everything from film and large audience TV through to postproduction and gaming.
Which are the top five working studios in the world and why are they so busy?
All UK facilities are extremely busy with Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden hosting many tentpoles. European studios like Nu Boyana in Bulgaria and the Korda and Origo facilities in Budapest remain very busy. European facilities are always growing. In the States, Georgia is a massive success story for the industry with Atlanta now absolutely solidified as the go-to destination in North America. Canada too is flying.
Content is king, and capacity is currently stretched. High end TV for Netflix and other providers is driving the need for top quality studio facilities. Content growth in the Chinese, Indian and African markets offers huge opportunity for additional new facilities. Streaming services in these territories has created a vacuum in content provision and the facility market is reacting to the need with new projects planned.
We were talking to Nu Boyana Film Studios, Bulgaria, at FOCUS in December. It's incredible how they seem to have progressed the classic studio business model. What other examples are there of forward thinking studio management groups doing studio business differently?
Nu Boyana Film Studios has positioned itself as a full-service facility with stages and exterior sets where huge action scenes can be shot. The international management team and on-site services make it an easy choice. It has been a remarkable success story and continues to grow.
Producers want ease and safety, an environment where they can simply focus on the project and not worry about the day to day issues of security, catering, parking etc. In simple terms, they want to get off a plane with a script under their arm and drive to a safe and secure facility that will provide as much of the production value chain as possible, allowing them to leave some time later with a finished project. The top studios are working towards this model. Pinewood Studios Group with its facilities, staff and huge media tenant base are still world leaders here.
What are you working on now?
I started my own international media design, build and management consultancy service in August last year and am currently working on projects in South Africa, Asia and Europe. Some of this work is design and build projects and some covers audit and management systems. The screen-based media business continues to grow worldwide, and audience growth will continue to force the demand for facilities. I am fortunate that I have a wonderful network of media experts and professionals, allowing me to bring the dream team to any project, at any stage of the development from feasibility, design and build to management, training, staffing, sales and marketing. It is a very exciting time.
Please tell us about your charity work?
I’ve had the privilege of working in a very generous industry full of many warm-hearted folk with deep pockets. Over the years I’ve raised money for many children’s charities, skydiving and putting teams together to race the Three Peaks, Scottish coast to coast race, cycled to Paris, swam the channel, kayaked non-stop from Oxford to Westminster and across to France. I’ve also run ultra-marathons and Ironman Triathlons. I continue to support local charities where I can.
What do you do to chill out after a hard week of designing, consulting and building the world's best screen facilities?
Family time with my wife and children is my key to relaxation. I also write and am a keen on- and off-road cyclist and motorcyclist. When stressed, I find my mountain bike or Harley Davidson a great cure!
What was the last film you saw and loved and why?
Over Christmas I watched The Grinch with my family and took in a live stream of The Nutcracker from The Royal Opera House at my local cinema. I love the cinema and think that live streaming of major events has added a wonderful new depth to the experience.
If you hadn't ended up as the ‘go to’ man for building screen facilities worldwide what other career would you have liked to have done?
I followed stunts as a boy and was always more interested in the stunt performers and second unit directors than the stars. They were my childhood heroes. Maybe I’d start again and change my name to Vic Armstrong!
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