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by Staff Reporter
20 September 2023
Associate Feature: Setting the scene

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Associate Feature: Setting the scene

When Peterhead-born film director Jon S Baird was looking for locations for his new film, based on the creation of iconic computer game Tetris, he had his own puzzle to solve.

The biopic, which was picked up by Apple TV+, was to unfold in cities across the globe, requiring scenes set in 1980s Moscow, San Francisco, London and Japan. Filming was to begin just after the end of the first Covid lockdown, meaning that travel was not easy, so he looked close to home for a solution.

Buildings in Aberdeen doubled as Russian Communist architecture, Edinburgh’s Signet Library was used as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev‘s state room, while San Francisco shots were filmed in Glasgow – which often stands in for the US city due to its steep city centre hills – and indoor Japanese locations were recreated in Scottish studios.

“Scotland, which is rightly celebrated for its stunning landscape, also has an incredibly versatile built environment,” says Isabel Davis, Executive Director of Screen Scotland.

“This was Jon Baird, a Peterhead boy who has made films all around the world, coming back to his roots to tell an international story that did not need to be filmed in Scotland at all.

“The production designer [of Tetris] said, ‘Well, Moscow was built by Scottish architects’. That’s also why American cities look like us – because we exported our architecture, so that gives us quite an amazing asset to play with, because we can double as so many other places.

“This, as well as our versatile landscapes, is now all in tandem with fully-fledged studios, as well as what we call ‘build spaces’, which can double as a production space and a stage, and has hugely increased Scotland’s capacity for taking on these big productions.”

Tetris was one of a string of major films and high-end TV series made in Scotland over the past three years, building on a boost in inward investment production spend of 110 per cent between 2019 and 2021 to £374m.

Davis’ colleague, Director of Screen Scotland, David Smith, says a targeted investment and strategic development approach towards infrastructure which began four years ago saw new production venues come on stream in Scotland in 2020, while there has also been a strong focus on skill growth in homegrown talent.

“This is phenomenal news, but there is a reason for it,” he says. “The really strong effort to develop both infrastructure and skills are behind the growth in those numbers.”

A report, The Economic Value of the Screen Sector in Scotland, commissioned by Screen Scotland and produced by Saffery Champness and Nordicity, found significant growth in all areas of film and TV production between 2019 and 2021 (the most recent year studied), driven by Scotland’s role as a location for not only shooting inward investment film and high-end TV, but as a production hub for Scotland-based producers and broadcasters.

In total, an estimated £617.4m was spent on the production of TV, film and other audiovisual content in Scotland in 2021 – including content by Scotland-based producers – an increase of 55 per cent on the £398m spend recorded in 2019. Over the two-year period since the last report, the industry’s Gross Value Added impact within the Scottish economy – the standard government measure of economic activity – rose from £568m to £627m.

Scotland, via the UK Government, has a tax credit for film and high-end TV, which Davis says is “very attractive” to producers. 

However, she also refers to what she describes as a “three-pronged effect” of rising costs, the pandemic and related potential restrictions and climate change having led to producers opting for locations where a film or TV series production can be completed in one place.

“The industry is responding to the climate emergency with more responsible policies towards travelling to multiple countries or regions,” she says.

The Saffery Champness/Nordicity study for 2021 found that growth has been boosted by the opening of new or expanded studio facilities – an area which has been a focus of Screen Scotland since its launch in 2018 – including FirstStage Studios in Leith, where Prime Video filmed the first series of international hit The Rig, as well as the expansion of The Pyramids in West Lothian, also a location for Prime Video for the filming of the second series of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

“Having an international player of that scale [Prime Video] come in and put its confidence in Scotland so visibly gave others confidence both in Scotland’s infrastructure and crew,” says Davis.

The Pyramids, a former government building on the M8, had previously hosted intermittent film production, most notably for the Trainspotting sequel, T2 Trainspotting. Following a recent sale to a studio developer it has hosted productions of significant scale for Prime Video, Apple+ and others. It now has planning permission in principle for further expansion.

There has also been a strong focus on increasing the number of people skilled in film and production work in Scotland. Jobs in Scotland’s production sub-sector rose from 5,120 full time roles in 2019 to 7,150 in 2021, a 39 per cent increase. 

Across the last decade, with support from Screen Scotland, TV hit series Outlander, a Sony Pictures/Starz production, has provided an ongoing training programme for Scottish crew. Traineeships are available across a range of areas from production management to costume design, joinery and plastering to prop design, hair and make-up. This model of work-based training was replicated by Prime Video on The Rig and Good Omens 2, again with support from Screen Scotland. 

“This has been really instrumental in growing our crew base,” says Smith. “The best place to learn how to work on productions is on production, so you need to create that virtuous cycle of production driving skills development, which builds confidence in Scotland’s capacity.”

Davis points out that many experienced film crews who previously had to travel to England or overseas to win contracts in high-level film and TV are now able to work in Scotland full time, building impressive CVs full of projects for Netflix, Apple or Disney, as well as the BBC and Channel 4.

“We have essentially inherited our own crew base,” she says. “Because we have these additional stages which now allow Scotland to host all of the production, rather than simply the location part, there is a lot more work for crew year-round, allowing crew to return home to Scotland and base themselves here full time.”

The commitment to making Scotland an international hub for film and  high-end TV production has not only come from local industry and Scottish Government agencies like Screen Scotland, but from individual Scots who are already senior in the industry worldwide.
In addition to Baird’s decision to film Tetris in Scotland, other well-known directors with Scottish roots have done the same.

“[Good Omens director] Douglas McKinnon, who is from the Isle of Skye, was absolutely determined that in bringing that show to Scotland, he would be able to create opportunities for Scottish-based trainees,” says Davis. “Moreover, he didn’t want them all to come from the central belt, but from the Highlands and Islands, as he himself had done.”

A total of 18 trainees worked on the production of Good Omens 2, creating new crew with invaluable experience for future projects.

“[Streaming platforms] have been really strong partners in that they appreciate that the need to develop and train crew is something that they have to own as much as we do as public bodies, so it tends to be a happy place for collaboration,” Davis says, adding that Screen Scotland has worked closely with the production platforms to identify the skills gaps.

“Whatever your skill set, there is a job for you in the TV and film production sector. You could be a driver on production, in hair and make-up, or be an electrician.”

In the period after the pandemic, when many venues were closed, Screen Scotland worked with the Scottish Government to offer re-training for people who had previously worked in theatre or live events to adapt their skills for film and TV.

“One of the ways in which we go about future proofing skills is to show that people are open and ready and can bring a wider range of flexible skills to their work, because things are moving so fast and diversity is going to be key to resilience,” says Davis.

While this year’s Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes have resulted in delays for many productions and will undoubtedly have an impact on the film industry across the globe, Scotland is insulated from the problem more than some other countries due to a large proportion of TV shows being written in the UK, rather than the US, where the striking unions are based.

Despite the challenges, Davis is optimistic for the future of film in Scotland.

“We think that further growth is there to be had,” she says. “We’re in a far better place now in terms of infrastructure, as well as more investment into post-production, visual effects, new technologies and so on, so continued skills development is a way that we grow from here.”

However, while she welcomes inward investment, she wants to nurture homegrown talent.
“Screen Scotland really values locally originated production and that’s where the majority of our time and resource will go,” she says.

“Much as we see inward investment as a very important part of our eco system, the delicate work of nurturing local talent, Scottish voices and stories is incredibly important, because not only does that help ensure authentic representation of Scotland and its creative culture globally, but it is a way in which you genuinely build economic and creative sustainability in your country because the intellectual property rights in projects devised and developed here will be owned here in Scotland. 2021 was really reflective of that.” 

This article is sponsored by Screen Scotland

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