You are being watched. That’s the underlying conceit of The Capture, the BBC’s new drama series which debuted last night, with the same dark tones and rapid pace that propelled Bodyguard to great critical success.
The show preys on our fears of a surveillance state – it’s well known that London is bristling with CCTV cameras, and the use of facial recognition technology at new developments in King’s Cross has recently sparked concerns among civil rights groups.
In The Capture, we get a glimpse of life on the other side of the camera. It follows British soldier Shaun Emery (played by Callum Turner) and a case against him in which CCTV footage plays an important role. The show centres around covert surveillance – and in particular two key ‘operations rooms’ with large banks of hundreds of screens depicting CCTV footage and facial recognition software in action.
These technologies have been depicted in crime dramas for years, often quite incorrectly – see CSI:Miami for a prime example. The production company behind The Capture worked hard to create a more realistic take on what surveillance suites actually look like. It required visual effects software, careful font choices, and some real-world covert filming. But the first step was hiring an artist.
In 1998, Mark Doman used the UK’s first colour surveillance system – in Huddersfield town centre – to make a short film comprised entirely of CCTV footage, following the movements of an unemployed man (actually an artist who Doman directed using a walkie talkie) during a single day.
After that, Doman worked on the BBC series Spooks for many years, and joined the crew of The Capture as CCTV director. He was charged with capturing the footage that would be shown on the huge number of screens featured in the show – both the ones integral to the plot, and the ones that are simply part of the background.
The action, at least in the first episode, happens in and around Sutton in south London. Doman started by collected hundreds of hours of footage shot from rooftops around London at different times of day and night to create a library of CCTV-style images that could be used to populate the background screens in real-time.
“We tried to play everything live, so we film it with the cameras,” says Doman. His footage was tagged and fed into a software system that could populate the screens on set with appropriate imagery to match what was required for the show. If, for example – the characters are observing something happening at night, the screens around it could be populated with other night-time shots.
But before that, the footage – which was filmed in 4K or 1080p resolution – had to be altered to make it look more like the CCTV surveillance images we’re used to seeing from news reports. Visual effects company Framestore worked on degrading the video to make it less sharp, and overlays were used to add timestamps and other details to footage. Finding the right font was one challenge. “I’ve never found an actual match,” says Doman. He based the search on images of the operations room that was in place at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“Everybody has this idea of what CCTV looks like,” says Ben Perry, a development producer at Framestore. “Often it’s very degraded, desaturated. We were keen to identify a look that was cohesive across the series.” The show features two different banks of CCTV screens – a local one in Sutton, and one based on the SO15 counter-terrorism unit – and the production team tailored the look and feel of the footage appropriately to each. “In the control room, we wanted it to feel more sophisticated and less corner-shop CCTV,” he says.
As well as background images, The Capture is full of CCTV footage of the actors in key scenes. This was filmed by Doman in separate takes from the rest of the footage because lighting rigs, cameramen and microphone booms would get in the way of video shot from above. Careful editing work was required to match up takes filmed at ‘ground level’ with the overhead shots. “You have different takes of the actors in completely different movements and areas and marry them together into one seamless take,” says Perry. “It’s very detailed and requires an expert eye to be able to match body movements.”
Those shots weren’t fed in live like the background footage. “In that instance, we’d put grey screen into to those monitors,” explains Perry. Grey-screening is a filmmaking technique similar to green-screening, which uses block colours that can easily be removed in post-production. In this instance, grey was used instead of green because the actors were often close to the screens, and a grey screen created more accurate lighting.
As well as surveillance, an important thread running through The Capture is the idea that we can’t necessarily trust the digital footage that we see, particularly with the rise of AI-powered ‘deep fakes’. However, Perry says that in film-making things are actually going the other way, and the amount of prep work that went into making The Capture looks realistic illustrates that. “The ‘fix it in post’ mantra that we used to hear a lot on set is becoming kind of redundant,” he says. “We’re not trying to fix things in post-production, we’re solving problems in pre-production so we can maximise what we get from the shoot.”
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