NFTS students were treated to an insightful and inspiring Masterclass with two of the key creatives from the BBC’s acclaimed series Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives – cinematographer, NFTS graduate, Vanessa Whyte and Production Designer, Alison Butler.
(Vanessa Whyte and Alison Butler)
The series was commissioned by the BBC to mark 100 years since the vote was extended to women.  Eight different writers, including Abi Morgan (Shame, The Hour) and Vicky Jones (Fleabag, Killing Eve), wrote one episode each, picking different moments inspired by real women’s stories from the 100 years.  They range from 1930s India to 1970s Yorkshire and beyond.  The 15 minute monologues were performed by actresses including Romola Garai, Siobhan Finneran, Shirley Henderson and Jodie Comer.  The episodes were directed by Rachna Suri, Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, and Vanessa Caswill (Little Women), half of them were edited by NFTS graduate Hazel Ballie.  Vanessa Whyte and Alison Butler, along with the series curator Vicky Featherstone were the creatives who worked on all eight episodes.
(Actress Siobhan Finneran in Snatches - Episode 'Multiples' which looks at the experience of a woman accused of killing her child)
Chatting to Venetia Hawkes, NFTS Executive Producer, Vanessa and Alison revealed how the ideas for the episodes developed from the writers’ scripts.  “One of the principles for the series from the start was that they didn’t want any sets” Alison explained, “so with the directors we all talked together about what we could do to make it interesting, and we started thinking along the lines of a pop videos and art installations crossed with theatre.”  Vanessa continued: “And we wanted it to be different from theatre, it has to be a piece of moving image, it has to be a film, so we very much approached it from a drama point of view.  For me it was probably one of the first times, apart from when I was a student here, when I was involved right from the beginning and I got to sit with Alison and the directors and really brainstorm how we were going to do it – ‘what is the subtext?’, ‘what does it mean?’, so it was really nice for us!  Though it was super intense – we shot eight in nine days, we had two stages side by side so while I was shooting one Alison and her team were striking the day before’s set and building the next set and my team were half lighting with me and half pre-lighting the next one, and we’d switch over each night.”
Vanessa revealed the meticulous planning that enabled them to achieve it - “What I would do with all of them is sit down with the director and really shot list every single thing.  Because we had such a short time and we didn’t want it to be one shot monologue we were really specific about ‘what do we need here? do we need a mid and a close?’, so for example for the episode Compliance we knew for instance it was only going to be those last lines that we shot in the shower, so we didn’t film anything else in there, we knew the mirror was only going to play for this bit, we didn’t cover ourselves, because we had worked out exactly what we needed.”

(Actress Romola Garai in Snatches - Episode 'Compliance' about an actress recounting her experience meeting a Producer in his hotel room)

Venetia asked Alison about the contrast in creating these films with minimal props compared to her work on the lavish sets of TV series Endeavour. “That’s what the challenge was.” Alison agreed, “No-one at home knows if something is low budget, you’re judged on the quality of what you create.  So on Snatches, for each film I concentrated on some symbolism, so it gets really pared back to the basics.  It’s like if you read a whole script and then summarise it in five lines, to think ‘what are the key pieces that tell this idea?’.  It was a really good challenge of stripping back to see the essentials of what something is and how you can tell that through design.” 

Talking about the cutaways which heighten comic moments on the episode Bovril Pam starring Jodie Comer, Alison revealed “The pops of things on the Sixties wallpaper backgrounds was the director’s idea, but we didn’t get time to shoot hardly any of them on the day, so afterwards the director said to me ‘would you mind trying to do them at home?’  So at home I set a board on the floor, made some sandwiches to put in Tupperware for the shot, and I was there with my camera thinking Vanessa is going to kill me!”

(Actress Jodie Comer in Snatches - Episode 'Bovril Pam' which looks at the story of a secretary in the 1960's who starts to explore her sexuality)

Asked by a screenwriting student about what is most helpful for them to get from a writer, Alison unhesitatingly answered “Character notes - that’s always brilliant.  Because if you’re designing someone’s house that a family have lived in for thirty years you want to know as much as you can about that person.  And it’s not always in the script. So that’s a way you can help anyone, whether it’s a DoP or the Designer, is to write character notes.”

One of the directing students followed up to ask what is the most useful thing they can do and Vanessa advised “Visual references are always great, and being specific about what it is you like about them – is it the colour, or the mood, or what?”  She continued, “As a director you need to be really strong and be able to say exactly what you want, and make sure everyone knows, and don’t worry about their feelings because they are professionals and they can take it, rather than trying to make them all happy, because then you’re not doing your job properly and they also aren’t doing their best work as they’re not being led in the same direction.” Alison agreed “Directors who’re clear are the best ones. It’s much better to be direct.”

Asked by the students about the series’ ambition to be made by as many female crew as possible and for their advice on working as women in the Industry, Alison said “I think people make a change by working – the more jobs you’re on, you’re proving you can do it all the time.  The key thing is to be consistent in your approach and professional.”  Venetia asked Vanessa about the collective of female cinematographers she had co-founded, Illuminatrix, and how that works towards positive change.  Vanessa said “For us it’s all about the work – we’re not a lobby group, we don’t campaign, when we go on panels and do events it’s about the work – to show the cinematography of our members.  To be a member we have criteria that you have to have been a DP for at least 5 years, you have to have a certain number of credits.  It’s not about ‘what’s it like to be a woman cinematographer? What’s it like to have children and be a cinematographer’.  It’s about the work - that’s what it should be about – the work.  And it’s been great, because people often say to me when I do a job, ‘oh you’re the first female DP I’ve met’, and now I can show them our website and say – ‘well, look there are all these.’  And there’s more coming up - we now have a sister group called Illuminatrix Rising, which quite a lot of NFTS graduates are members of, people who are up and coming.”

(Alison Butler and Vanessa Whyte join NFTS Executive Producer Venetia Hawkes and students)

Asked for their advice to students Alison said “You have to be strong and have direction but you also have to be open and be flexible, and know when to be strong and when to be flexible – you have to be both.”  Vanessa agreed, “You have to think ‘is this a better idea?’ I may be embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it, but it doesn’t matter who it comes from, think ‘is it better for this piece of work?’ so that the work is the best it can be.”

Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives is available to watch on iPlayer -