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The Shadow Line: Getting the shot

Johann Knobel


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Scene 1:

Aerial shot of two lines of torchlight sweeping across the screen like searchlights. Then they both come together. On a stationary car.


So what are we looking at?

It's 8.07pm on Thursday, 2 September 2010 and we're about to start shooting the opening image of The Shadow Line. And with his usual economy and wit, our writer-director Hugo Blick has indicated in the script exactly what the shot should be.

But we have a problem.

For the shot to work, we need complete darkness and we need it soon.

It's the last day of the Isle of Man portion of the shoot and, having already shot the next scene the previous night, it's vital that we get this shot and this scene in this location - and before midnight, too.

But it's not working at the moment, due to the faint glow on the horizon behind the location, courtesy of the floodlights at the Isle of Man Airport, Douglas, about half a mile away.

There's a hurried huddled conversation about different angles, black-out shades and other possible solutions but we quickly realise the best and speediest option is to ask the airport authority to dim the lights, or even better, turn them off.

All eyes turn to our intrepid location manager and with an imperceptible shrug, he sets off in the direction of the airport.

In so many ways, the scene embodies the spirit of the whole piece.

It orients the audience, tells them to pay close attention to even the smallest thing now, because it's likely to mean a great deal later on.

And the beautiful spare language that Hugo has given Sergeant Foley as he describes what exactly it is that they are looking at, tells us that the world we're entering is different from what we might be expecting - slightly heightened, elevated but hidden.

As Gotham is to New York, so is our world to London.

Thus far, we've managed to achieve it here on the Island, finding, amongst other hidden gems of locations, probably the only street in Douglas that could double for a street in London.

And it's all been conducted with good humour and in a spirit of camaraderie, whether it's scouting for locations while the Isle of Man TT Motorcycle Race takes place around us or cramming just over 15 cast and crew (and their equipment) for a whole day into a hermetically sealed hotel room on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, without any of them passing out.

Or the day we (intentionally) caused an explosion that landed us on the front page of the Manx Independent and gave the people of Peel a night out to remember.

Or shooting a scene in a church graveyard, with Charles Kay (Pendleton in Edge Of Darkness) giving a brilliantly sinister, yet humorous performance, and just as the camera cranes upwards for the final shot, a sheep nonchalantly ambles out from behind a gravestone as if on cue, adding to the slight surrealism of it all (and it made the final cut).

Or the day when several cast and crew members hugged the ground behind a low wall out of sight while the cinematographer raced to the top of Snaefell Mountain to get the last panoramic shot.

Snaefell Mountain, from which local legend states that one can see six kingdoms: Man, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and the sixth, Heaven. But only if the fog stays away and that day, it had been threatening to roll in, all day.

But we got that shot with minutes to spare and now, we need to get this one.

Because, just as the two sides on either side of the line slowly converge in the narrative, so the two lines of flashlight should converge on Harvey's car.

The shot is the embodiment of the whole story, all seven episodes of the series. So, we really do need it to be dark.

The location manager returns. Yes! They'll do it, but only for an hour, there's yet one more flight coming in later on.

And as the camera turns over, I hear a crew member saying under his breath, "They'd better let that plane land, 'cause it'll be the one that we have to get in the morning to get to London to finish the shoot."

Well, we got the shot, we got the plane and we got to London.

Where we would get to the first day of shoot, only to discover it's the first of what will be several tube strikes that late summer and spend several days running around Victoria Park, with a camera buggy struggling to keep up with an actor who probably could've qualified for the British Olympic 100m squad.

But that's another story.

Johann Knobel is the producer of The Shadow Line.

The Shadow Line is on BBC Two and BBC HD at 9pm on Thursday, 5 May.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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