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On Track: The Perfect Location

Shooting in crowded public spaces can be a logistical nightmare, but Network Rail’s dedicated filming manager is here to help…

Over the last few decades, the filmmaking landscape has changed beyond recognition. Thanks to technology, cinematic horizons now stretch through time and space, taking viewers on journeys limited only by the imagination. Think of James Cameron’s Avatar, for example; the luscious world of Pandora brought so realistically to life in immersive 3D.

Rachel Betts, Network Rail Commercial Filming Manager

But the vast majority of films are still shot in the real world, and the right choice of location is critical. The job of a location manager gets even more complicated when the script requires sequences to be shot in public places; there’s nowhere more logistically and practically challenging that shooting in an environment where acoustics, layout and crowds can throw a spanner in the schedule. One of the most demanding of those situations is filming in a railway station; getting the shots you need while ensuring minimum disruption to travelers relies on excellent cooperation between the production team and station staff.

It’s undoubtedly a mammoth undertaking but, when done well, can result in some memorable moments. Think of the jaw-dropping scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) battles through Waterloo Station at rush hour; the use of King’s Cross as the magical hub of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter franchise, or the CIA safe house at Liverpool Street Station in the first Mission: Impossible. These locations were essential to these films, and were all made possible thanks to Network Rail’s devoted film liaison work.

As one of the largest land and property owners in the UK, Network Rail own and operate the whole of Great Britain’s rail infrastructure, which includes 18 of the largest stations in the country from Glasgow Central and Birmingham New Street to major London terminals like Charing Cross, Euston, King’s Cross and Victoria, alongside an astonishing 20,000 miles of track, 40,000 bridges and over 8,000 commercial properties. And filming in these locations has now become even easier, thanks to the launch of the dedicated one-stop website.

“Network Rail is proud to have such a unique portfolio to offer the industry,” says commercial filming manager Rachel Betts. “We have some of the best filming locations in Britain, and are enthusiastic about providing the perfect backdrop to many production shoots. As a specialist department we have a professional service that offers competitive prices, loyalty rates and a single point of contact to make that process as straightforward as possible.”

It was this service that enabled The Bourne Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass to successfully shoot in Waterloo station, one of the capital’s busiest transport hubs. “Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people are going through that place every hour,” Greengrass told moviesonline.ca. “That makes for tremendous logistical difficulties, [but] you have to see that as an opportunity, not a problem. What you get is the texture of life, that vibrancy, the energy of a huge mainline station. It’s part of what makes the Bourne films special.” In an interview with indielondon.co.uk, Greengrass further extolls the virtues of the Waterloo location. “You can’t behave like a big movie, you’re forced to be a bit like a student film and make it up as you go along, live on the land and shoot when people are around. That gave us a vitality.”

Network Rail don’t just provide location access; they also take a proactive role in attending to the needs of the individual productions. For example, when the Harry Potter franchise needed King’s Cross to be the starting point for the magical Hogwarts Express, the team worked with the crew to transform the interior of the station and create the fantastical Platform 9 3/4. “I found the Network Rail team to be extremely efficient and accommodating; no request seemed like too much trouble,” says the film’s location manager Sue Quinn. “The station was transformed during the shoot and the team was comparative to our needs, making sure the filming process ran smoothly.”

It’s not just big budget productions that have made use of Network Rail’s unique services; BBC TV spy drama Spooks used St Pancras International as a backdrop during its seventh season. “The Network Rail Film liaison team make sure filming runs smoothly, and the locations are diverse and awe-inspiring,” says location manager Patrick Stuart. “From initial recess to filming large set pieces, the set up is efficient, well-managed and flexible. The scope of locations is wider than one might think—tunnels, walkways, offices, they’ve got the lot.”

One of the most remarkable recent uses of a Network Rail location is in the Flash Dance Mob commercial for T-Mobile, which was shot at Liverpool Street Station in January 2009. The ad, depicting commuters on the busy platform breaking into a dance routine, is memorable thanks to its seemingly spontaneous nature. In fact, its success is due to three months of planning between ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi and Network Rail, which involved two overnight rehearsals at the station. Betts describes the project as “tough, but thoroughly enjoyable. When the advertising agency first approached us with the idea of making such a unique commercial at Liverpool Street Station while it was open, we thought they were kidding! We spent considerable time going through their plans until we were happy that the operation of the station and, our number one consideration, passengers, wouldn’t be impacted. The end result is absolutely fantastic, and provides a great opportunity to showcase one of Network Rail’s most widely used and popular filming locations.”

Sam Taylor, head of advertising at T-Mobile, credits the Network Rail team with contributing to the success of their ground-breaking advert. “In the early stages, we spent considerable time talking through the logistics to make sure we got the plan just right. The team’s knowledge and organisation during the shoot proved to be invaluable; they helped make sure our production came in not only on time, but on budget.”

From Hollywood blockbusters to short films, TV dramas to commercials and photo-shoots, Network Rail’s portfolio of locations has something to suit every genre. Their dedicated team and flexible approach will be of huge benefit to every location manager and, though passenger experience remains their main priority, they understand the logistical challenges facing any film team. And, by offering discounted rates for charities, short-film makers and students, Network Rail is committed to supporting grass roots filmmaking.

“Train stations and the railway have always played a supporting role in film and television, and we plan to continue this long-standing partnership into the future,” surmises Betts, who also points out that it’s not just film crews who will benefit. “Additionally, the filming service provides a great opportunity for Network Rail to raise extra funding and plough the profits back into the railway.” ♦ www.networkrail.co.uk/filming

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)
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