Kicked Out Kids: How I made my first documentary for Channel 4

Kicked Out Kids: How I made my first documentary for Channel 4

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 17/02/15

Natasha Zinni was commissioned through Channel 4’s talent scheme, First Cut, to direct an hour-long doc about young people leaving care. With her film, Kicked Out Kids, screening tonight, Natasha talks to us about pitching, getting access and finding a structure…

The hook for the film is the fact that last year the government raised the age young people leave foster care to 21 but if they’re in children’s homes it’s still 18. Did you have the idea when you heard about that? 

A while back I’d approached the Channel 4 First Cut commissioner with a different idea. First Cut offers a £100,000 budget for someone who’s never directed one hour of broadcast television before to make a film. So it tends to be producers or assistant producers or film school graduates. I just emailed a pitch to the commissioner and then went and met her. 

What was that pitch?

It was a completely different idea about Jehovah’s Witnesses. She liked it but it didn’t end up happening. She tried to match me up with production companies who had ideas but not directors but I didn’t want to do any of those. I was working at Minnow as a producer. They knew I wanted to make a First Cut and said they’d support me. I pitched three more ideas. This idea, one about women serving their custodial sentences in the community and a microcredit bank in Scotland. We whittled it down to this. 

When I pitched it, the idea was just that young people are meant to leave care by 18. But when, in December 2013, the government announced they were going to raise the leaving care age for foster care to 21, I had to work with that and change tack. Rather than losing a really good idea, I realised there was still a whole swathe of people to look at.

How did you get access to the young people in the film? 

It was really hard. I went to all the big organisations: the Who Cares Trust, National Voice, the Care Leavers Association. They were really nice but everybody said, you’re never going to get access to these kids. 

I put out a call. Lots of people got in touch – I spoke to 70 young people – but a lot of them had already left care so weren’t quite right. So I went about it in funny ways. Jemma I tracked down because there’s an all-party parliamentary group for children in care and care leavers. They publish programmes for past events and she’d talked at one. It said her full name and her local authority. So I just Googled her, found her on Facebook and she had her phone number on there. Demornia was through a housing charity. Connor was through the organisation that owns the children’s home he lived in.

I’ve worked on so many subjects where people say you’ll never get access. I just produced a film about sex parties. I did a film about the Hasidic Jewish community a few years ago. If you really think there’s an important story to tell, you’ll find a way. Lots of people said no to me but I worked around it. I think face-to-face meetings have a huge impact. People can see what you’re about. 

You were self-shooting. What kit did you use and why?

I had about four and a half days of help with a boom – but basically it was just me. I had two Sennheiser radio mics, a Canon C300 camera and good quality lenses. The C300s my company owned were being used by other productions. So I really fought for us to get another one. I was shooting a lot of domestic settings, which can be quite dull environments so I thought if I have better camera, it will elevate that footage.

It’s hard if you’re rolling solo because with the C300 you’re constantly changing lenses, which takes two hands. So what I had – which is a set up I’d recommend– is something called the Easy Rig [see picture below]. An aluminium pole comes over your head with a metal clip and you attach the camera to it. That meant I could let go when I needed to.

I had a lens belt with two lenses on, as well as one on the camera. A 50mm prime, and 85mm prime and a 16-35mm zoom (f/2.8). I also had a 70-200mm and a tripod in my car. That’s what I did all my GVs [general view shots] on. I wore a bumbag with stickies for the microphones, extra batteries, some folded up release forms in case I needed to get one quickly, money – all that stuff. 

 

Image: filmmaker Natasha Zinni

 

After following the young people for eight months you had 120 hours of footage. How do you begin to wrestle that into shape? Are there conventions you follow? 

You have to introduce them as people because if you don’t know who they are, or hear directly from them, you’re not going to care. You don’t have to have a chronological narrative but with something like this when there’s three people I think it makes sense. You do a basic cut with all the bits that are interesting and could potentially be part of the film, until you have an hour and a half, and then it’s a process of elimination: what are the best bits? What'll bring a bit of lightness to the film? What takes you closer to the characters? I always appreciate when I watch other films that you learn things about characters later on. Some of it’s about telling the story and other bits you can play with.

It only ever becomes entirely clear in the edit. The stories could have been different but there’s only so much space. Say with Connor, I don’t show his move or him unpacking because I’ve already done it with Jemma. A viewer can assume what’s taken place. In the edit suite we had three different coloured post it notes for each character and wrote each scene and then we’d mix them around and decide which order to put them in. It’s a combination of creativity and logic. 

Do you have any advice for someone who’s about to make their first documentary?

Always go that extra mile. You only have one chance to make your first film. I did a couple of other projects on the side but I dedicated basically a whole year of my working life to this. And it was hard. I was tired, I was by myself, I was dragging myself up and down the country but it was definitely worth it. They only commission 10 First Cuts a year so it’s an incredible thing to get your hands on. 

More practically, have your set-up for shooting figured out so you can do it by yourself. Also, I had a couple of big creative ideas initially. One was to get the kids to create poetry with a poet who’d also been in care. The other was to interview 20 or 30 care leavers and have them punctuate the film. It gets busy and I didn’t end up doing that. But if you have a creative idea, see it through. Be bold.

 

Kicked Out Kids screens tonight, Tuesday 17 February, at 11pm on Channel 4 and will then be available to watch on 4OD. 

For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Film hub.

Images courtesy of Natasha Zinni

 
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