The first wave of COVID ground virtually every UK industry to a halt, film and TV included. Despite this, two years on the sector in Wales has currently never been busier. How did this happen? Hannah Collins takes a closer look at how things have blossomed domestically.
In 2021, short reprieves between lockdowns and the implementation of safe work practices allowed film and television productions to flicker to life again. In fact, in Wales, they did more than flicker, partly thanks to funding from Welsh Government agency Creative Wales, established in 2020.
“The Wales screen industry was in a very strong position before the start of the pandemic,” says Gerwyn Evans, deputy director of Creative Wales. “It bounced back very quickly, with War Of The Worlds being one of the first big productions back in filming in the UK under the new COVID protocols. The summer of 2021 was extremely busy, with 24 productions underway at one time. This growth and the positivity around the sector in Wales has continued in 2022, with a renewed focus on supporting the skills requirements and attracting new talent into the sector from all backgrounds.”
While he’s not wrong about the pre-pandemic era, it wasn’t easy for the domestic industry to get to this point. At the start of the millennium, everyone’s favourite cosy dino professor Sir Richard Attenborough – then chair of Dragon International Studios – proudly unveiled plans to transform 350-acres of land in Bridgend into a film studio and, later on, a film academy and theme park to ease unemployment. However, a £1 billion price tag, political jitters over its viability, and the improbable discovery of a protected rodent species living there meant ‘Valleywood’ lay stagnant until 2007.
The mid-00s were a landmark moment for building the Welsh film industry, thanks to Jane Trantor, Julie Gardner and Russell T. Davies’ decision to bring the Doctor Who revival to the new Roath Lock Studios. Spinoff series Torchwood, as well as Sherlock, Merlin and relocating Casualty there from Bristol, earned Cardiff a new reputation as a media hub, leading to the founding of Bad Wolf – named after a Whovian storyline – in 2015.
Pinewood and American productions soon followed; by 2018, Dragon Studios was greatly expanded and by 2021, Wales came third behind Manchester and London as the UK’s most popular film base. Bad Wolf, meanwhile, has partnered with Sony Pictures Television.
Thanks to this growth spurt, you’re more than likely to recognise the backdrops of many major releases this year. Disney+’s Willow is a Dragon Studios production, while Netflix’s Havoc, starring Tom Hardy, was shot in Cardiff and directed by Welshman Gareth Edwards. Brand new BBC drama Wolf, too, was filmed across south Wales earlier this year.
The latter is one of the latest to utilise a healthy number of trainees – 14, to be exact – thanks to apprenticeship and Screen Skills Trainee Finder schemes. This month, Ffilm Cymru Wales’ Foot In The Door programme will place another batch on a Netflix production in Newport for a four-week work experience.
“Having such a productive year in the middle of a pandemic – when there was a huge demand for new content – has provided both challenges and opportunities,” Deputy Minister for Arts & Sport, Dawn Bowden said while visiting the set of Wolf. Ironically, two decades on from the stop-and-start of Valleywood, demand is so high there’s a significant skills deficit.
This is also the case throughout the UK. Screen Skills recently reported that a projected worth of £7.7 billion per year for film and premium TV by 2025 (a roughly £2 billion increase since last year) will mean that an additional 21,000 crew are needed. The recommended investment of £289.3 million on training from next year until then may seem like a hefty price tag, particularly amidst an ongoing cost of living crisis, but the training body optimistically forecasts “an economic return of more than 15 times”, with the equivalent of 122,000 full-time jobs created.
This includes investment not just on what appears on theatrical and television screens, but the venues that show them, too – some of which were hit extremely hard by the pandemic. Film Hub Wales has awarded £70,000 in National Lottery money to 13 indie cinemas and film festivals across the country in 2022, emphasising the role cinema plays in connecting communities and contributing to local economies. This year being the first relatively ‘normal’ one since 2019, many of these events will explore “what it means to be Welsh post-COVID.” But on a more expansive note, there’s also a clear desire to use the medium to spotlight diversity and ingenuity.
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Earlier this year, FHW’s funding supported the Windrush Caribbean Film Festival in June, the WOW indigenous film festival in February-March and the first-ever film component of Hijinx’s Unity Festival across June, screening work made by learning disabled and/or autistic people. Additionally, Reclaim The Frame is cultivating films from women and non-binary creators; Turner Prize-nominated art collective Gentle/Radical have established a “hyper-local” film club for pop-up screenings in single streets, and the ninth Watch-Africa Film Festival, running until September, is connecting audiences in East Africa and Wales with four Welsh films on the bill. And that’s just scratching the surface of the interesting things your lottery ticket pounds are creating.
Live-action media isn’t the only thing Wales is attracting attention for. Earlier this year, I spoke to dynamic Cardiff-based animation duo Joanna Quinn and Les Mills about their Oscar-nominated animated short, Affairs Of The Art, starring artistically-minded Welsh housewife, Beryl. “It unlocks the fact that Wales exists – we are a country with a particular culture,” Les told me on the specificity of their films’ characters. “It’s a quality that our films have got that I think a lot of people don’t even think about. Every other film is based in Hollywood and the areas around it, but what about the rest of the world?”
On a bigger stage, last year, Creative Wales also pumped money into British claymation icons Wallace & Gromit for augmented reality story The Big Fix Up, blending hands-on traditional filmmaking with future-thinking tech. And on the micro-to-macro level, an animated version of Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl – taken from the music video for 2021’s Chasing Birds – wasn’t produced by a big name American studio, but by Bomper Studio, a small CG company operating out of Caerphilly town high street. (And they were kind enough to lend us Dave for our August print issue cover. Cheers!)
Prior to all this, Wales was mostly known for being part of the on-screen backdrop, but never its driving engine. Stunning natural landscapes and quirky towns have been drawing filmmakers here for decades but never putting down roots. Once, the desire was to contribute to Hollywood. Then it was to bring Hollywood to us. Now, it’s to actually be Hollywood. From the end of July, Creative Wales’ next funding pot – £1 million per year – will allow producers to apply for up to £600,000 per project via Ffilm Cymru Wales, but with an emphasis on said productions having cultural and strategic benefits to the country.
“Supporting and expanding the film industry and making the process more efficient and accessible is a priority for Creative Wales,” says Catryn Ramasut, chair of the organisation’s non-executive board. “[It] will help take Welsh cinema to the world.”
Wales on Film in 2022
Perhaps the most talked-about production that touched down in Wales very recently was the aforementioned Willow, Disney’s spinoff series to the 1988 fantasy film directed by Ron Howard and produced by George Lucas. As lead actor Warwick Davis confirmed to a fan on Twitter, the television sequel returned to one of the film’s key filming locations – Gwynedd’s Dinorwic slate quarry. In real life, it’s home to the National Slate Museum. In the world of Willow, the quarry serves as the backdrop for Queen Bavmorda’s Nockmar Castle. It’s scheduled to premiere in November on Disney+.
Hit Netflix coming-of-age drama series Sex Education has prominently featured the Wye Valley as its scenic school backdrop, including key locations in Tintern, Symonds Yat, and Monmouthshire. Season 4 is said to have started production in June.
HBO/BBC’s His Dark Materials, produced by Bad Wolf, is shot in and around Cardiff, Blaenavon and the Brecon Beacons. Season 3 will air sometime this year.
BBC drama The Pact (Season 2) and brand new series Wolf are being filmed at Cardiff’s Enfys Studios. The latter’s cast includes Game of Thrones baddie – and sometime Cymraeg folk strummer – Iwan Rheon.
Directed by Celyn Jones and Tom Stern, and starring Rebel Wilson in her first non-comedic role, The Almond And The Seahorse was partly shot in north Wales last year.
Film & TV resources
Apply for public money to support Wales-based productions, provided you meet the eligibility criteria.
Access film exhibitor funding, first-step training and opportunities, and development and production resources.
The country’s first industry summit took place last month – stay tuned for next year’s.
Brand-new indie platform for connecting production staff, backed by Craig Roberts.
Become a member (for free!) to access exhibition, Made In Wales and seasonal funding, plus training bursaries.
Media professional training and apprenticeship supplier for organisations like BBC Wales, ITV Wales, Real SFX and S4C.
Online hub for finding creative jobs, opportunities and briefs in the Welsh capital.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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