Vancouver Media: Meet the minds behind Netflix’s Money Heist
When Vancouver Media decided to give birth to “Money Heist”, they knew they were providing a different, risky, ambitious product for the Spanish TV scene. Even so, they could never have dreamt of the international significance this fiction has achieved, to become at present the non-Spanish speaking series having reached the widest audience in Netflix’s history. In fact, this platform has decided to place full trust in Álex Pina -the manager of said series- by awarding him an exclusivity agreement that only other three showrunners in the world enjoy. “El Embarcadero” is another of his most renowned fictions and he and his team are already preparing new formats.
In order to discover about Vancouver Media’s key to success, as well as to gain a deeper insight on their technical approach, we have the opportunity to interview two of the people to blame for this success: Migue Amoedo, director of photography; and Jesús Colmenar, director and executive producer.
What is the origin of Vancouver?
M – The thing is that a number of us professionals met, in addition, as something that was deliberate, desired. I have known Jesús Colmenar for twenty something years. And we have even been flatmates. I and he almost have twin minds. He was working for Globomedia and back then I was involved in more personal projects, movies and all that. I was working in series of which everyone would tell me: the picture is very good, but we are not interested. On the other hand, Álex Pina, the executive producer for all those projects in which Jesús was involved, was also looking for something more movie-like. We began discussions and reached an agreement: let us get together to do something and see was comes out of all this, because to me, he was King Midas of Spanish fiction and he was in search of image improvements. And in the middle of it all was Jesús, fighting on his own to try to instil a cinematographic flair to everything he was shooting. There were structural and industrial elements that prevented that from happening. And then we made a first movie together, which I think is the real seed for Vancouver: “Kamikaze”, which was useful in getting to know how to work together. We found that when faced with trouble we could work back to back, side by side, and we were getting along just fine. Then came “Vis-a-Vis”, where we found a kind of language, a way of understanding Álex’s scripts, a way of telling a story. It is obvious that back then within Globomedia we could not do things the way we liked, so we needed a space for creative freedom. And then, everything worked out really fast, but we were eager to go that way. One day, four of us met at a café and from that meeting we came up with the project of starting up Vancouver and, shortly afterwards “Money Heist” was there. The rest is already history…
One of the principles embraced by the production company is motivation: Is this also applicable to the technological side of the fiction you produce?
M – Álex is the owner of the production company. We are not partners, but we are with him in this project and support everything that comes forward. And it is true that, as director of photography, I am in charge of the whole technical, technological side. It is also true that everyone of us tries to be at the forefront of our discourse. One day, Álex called and told me: I like what we are doing a lot, because we are working on several creative layers; Jesus was so excited when describing a take to me. And I have been just today with the Vice President of Red Cameras. He came to Tres Cantos and visited us. He presented a prototype for us to consider. At present the camera we are using for shooting is a Red camera with a Helium 8K sensor; we have two prototypes fitted inside the camera that we have developed in collaboration with the manufacturers. When shooting we try to put into working images the crazy things that Álex Pina may write. To such purpose, technology is not enough, so to speak. There are things that I say: we have to invent this, it has to be fitted… And I spoke today to this person and I told him: this, this, this and this. And if you stop to think about it, the truth is that it is a real luxury having experienced the international breakthrough that “Money Heist” meant, because now they are listening to us. I believe innovation is precisely that, innovation, whether designing a camera is a requirement, a machine operation system…
J – Or a specific machine for shooting a take…
M – In fact, in order to light up such excessive film sets, a lot of small findings are required. There is a lot of engineering in there, a lot of innovation, huge R&D, a lot of brains. We have imported lights from China, controllers, regulators… Such set-ups had never been undertaken in Spain. We emptied the whole lighting company (laughs). We have no choice but innovating, because the story we are telling is also new…
Would you say that your fiction proposal is unique in Spain, when it comes to fiction series?
J – I do not think it is unique in Spain. The truth is that each producing company has its on background, but for us it was like very explosive. We really never though we could, as producers, set off the way we did in Vancouver. That the first series you shoot becomes the most popular non English-speaking series in history is something that will not be happening ever again. We are quite aware of these things. Vancouver was born as a highly novel producing company and now becomes a relevant player. In this regard, it is something that had never happened in Spain.
M – But in answer to your question, we can say we are not interested in that. We do not care. We try to deal with day-to-day issues and solve any challenges we face; it is not something we were looking for. I do not decide where to place the lights, I place them wherever I can and I devote a lot of thinking to things…
Vancouver may have experienced some progress at technological level. What resources did you have available when you were working in season one of “Money Heist?
J – In season one? Our budget was a lot lower, but I actually think the budget we had was compensated by what we were doing. When we contemplated doing “Money Heist” what we had was a written piece of paper. There was absolutely nothing at all. We had to make everything come true, we generated everything. And in “Money Heist” it was huge what we wanted to achieve in season one, considering it was a Spanish series, with a Spanish budget, for a Spanish TV station, with a limited budget for a prime-time program.
M – Our budget was similar or lesser than other series at the time.
J – That is where we really worked great, fighting against such constraints, we tried to find the underlying keys: for example, instead if recreating an interior in a real building, we transformed a real building. And that has an impact on lighting. That is, the sun comes in, and then it does. These things can get really complicated sometimes. For this season, we do have a gigantic studio, where a gigantic set is being recreated. We have more means and a bigger budget. But what we want to take to the screen is also much bigger. It balances. I still feel we are working just the same.
M – Look, my feeling is that we came one day, jumped off, rolled over and fell on our feet. And they said: very good, guys. Congratulations. Now, roll over twice in the air. And I go: No, wait. Let me learn to roll once. And we are now in that process.
J – You will see when the series is shown and the crazy things, so to speak, are broadcast and displayed on the screen. We ourselves did not know how to do them. There was some R&D to get things done. We started from there, with lots of creativity and self-confidence.
M – And faith within the team of people making the decisions. I know that when he makes a decision, it will be fine. If Álex says something, there is a reason for it. And beyond technology, the human factor is our strength. We have been picking our team one by one, just like the gang in “Money Heist”: this guy as machine operator, an electrical manager there… We invested a lot in human technology and, in the end, machines are what matters the least to us. In fact, seasons one and two where shot with Alexa Mini. Due to the conditions associated to working with Netflix we are using Red in 4K and I hope people will feel the series just the same. And the important thing is not the camera. The important thing is that the camera is well focused, because we have very little time for shooting, takes are brutally complex, it is a coral series with a lot of action, a lot of camera movements and, well, I think we have found a way of dancing.
J – For example, now that “Game of Thrones” is so fashionable. You watch and episode and then the making-off and then you learn that the catacombs sequence in that episode took three weeks’ shooting. And I get really surprised, because we would have shot that very sequence in one and a half or two days. For example, the shootings when the SWATs get in the building took one session. In a US series, they may shoot the sequence in ten days.
When you made “El Embarcadero” for Movistar+… did you rely on your own resources or did you use the channel’s?
M – Vancouver has nothing in equipment, everything is on rental. We are not interested in investing in any materials because we need in each instance the best for each project. Other production companies partner with firms or purchase the equipment themselves and they are committing financially to pay monthly instalments for the equipment in which they invest. Our materials are the scripts and then, what we need for each take, we source it out.
Is there a difference in equipment when it comes to shooting in different situations?
J – It is always the same.
M – For me there is something that is paramount, as Aristotle said in his book ‘Poetics’: “The main feature of a poetry work is unity”. Unity in style, structural unity…If they change my camera for a sequence I have a real hard time. I need to see that “Money Heist” (literal translation from Spanish would be ‘Paper House’) is like paper, its grade. The image, the texture of the image, the skin, the colors, they must be all the same, it has to be all uniform. Some say: “No, let us shoot this with a small sports camera”. And I reply: “You are crazy, you do not know what you are doing. In our series, this can be clearly seen and everything has the same texture, there are no variations.
J – The drone is a clear example of what he is saying: We drew the line there: we needed a drone that that would be able to carry the camera that we used for shooting “Money Heist”. Otherwise, we cannot do that drone take, and then we had better not do it…
We asked that, of course, because there are aerial takes in “El Embarcadero” on in the trailer for the third season of “Money Heist”.
J – And all those takes were shot with the same camera.
M – And we would rather do one take right than ten wrong, no abuse. When a drone takes off, what happens? You have a drone shooting the Albufera in 8K. Drones are suited precisely for general takes. You get a lot of details in those takes. If you use a lower-resolution camera, it really gets a poorer picture and that is noticeable.
J – And in large productions, you can notice how all of a sudden the drone is of a different quality, it jumps, it is immediately caught by the eye; it is something that puts me off a series.
M – We are Spaniards, and we are humble but very dignified (laughs). We assemble our Alexa and if we could, we would hop on up there. Furthermore, for many years in this country, series for TV production have beaten off the notion of ‘cinematography’. Lighting, cameras, all was subject to some obscure interests…
J – Let us say that there was a boom, a golden age for Spanish fiction that came when ‘doing before’ became an industry. Because in the older times, before “Médico de Familia”, (mid 90s), there was a cinema quality in series, such as “Cañas y Barro”, series that were actually movies, shot in movie format by movie professionals. After “Médico de Familia” a model became the standard in which fiction would be shot quite quickly through four cameras placed in parallel, with tripods on wheels and integrated zoom… No cinematography there. When I joined “Los Hombres de Paco” (2005-2010), we were told that the director had to do a staging with actors in the fashion of a theater. And in fact, there was another professional, the filmmaker, who was in charge of, say, moving those four cameras around so everything could be well seen and all was aligned. My quest from the moment I joined in was: It is all right, this is the way it is, I am going to use the four cameras; but I am going to set a travelling here, move the camera, I am going to do some staging in regard to the camera… I was trying to change everything from inside to get the cinematography back. Nothing really mattered: It did not matter whether an actor had a shade here, a shade there, nothing mattered from a visual point of view. Indeed, the sentence I was hearing all the time was “quality of making does not build an audience”, it was something being said most often. And it is true, that happens many times in this country. For example, “Money Heist” was premiered to compete against “La Que Se Avecina”, which being a long-term sitcom, is shot that way, with four cameras and nothing matters a bag of peas. And in Spain there were nights in which “La Que Se Avecina” got more audience than “Money Heist”. What means that there was some truth in the sentence “Quality of making does not build an audience”.
M – Yes, but there was something, a route, a light amidst darkness that no one had seen: We, when making series for prime time, were actually making matches. Suddenly, with platforms, we discovered we were able to make lighters. It is not that making quality does not build an audience, but quality of making is the route towards international productions. This sells the series better than the whole star system. We could have relied on any internationally acclaimed Spanish actress and we would not have sold the series had it been produced as ever before. What has actually sold the series is the making, the narrative, and the way in which the means were used. That was the key. And we have done it again with “El Embarcadero”.
J – This second golden age of Spanish TV stems from all this. Now, all of a sudden is unconceivable making a series without caring for a good making is just unconceivable. You can shoot a sitcom, but no production company will contemplate going back to the four-camera scheme because the audience will automatically reject it.
M – That was my mantra in every single take I shot and illuminated for the past 15 years in TV: I am going to mess with the eye, they will not be able to watch another series like those (laughs).
Moving on… Was “El Embarcadero” already shot in 4K?
J – “El Embarcadero” was shot in 7K for broadcasting in 4K.
And I guess “Money Heist” is being prepared for 8K.
M – We are shooting in 7K with an 8K sensor, but as I want to use Leica Summilux optics, angle shots do not cover 8K in full. That is why we are shooting at 7K. And then it is lowered to 4K. And just today we have started doing tests for HDR.
Do you think these formats will be welcomed by viewers?
J – Everything has to do with the market. To this question, the answer is a clear ‘no’. In fact, I am not really keen with HDR, because definition is already so high that it impacts on image. We are shooting in 7K because of the market and we will shoot in HDR because of the market also.
M – That is the first answer and the good one, as for a platform such as Netflix, HDR opens a new sector within users, which means an increased fee for having access to content of a given quality. It is clear that they want production number two in number of viewers in their platform to be shot in HDR and we have to do it that way, And then, HDR is like color. What happened when color first arrived? Productions where over-saturated. When you watch “Wizard of Oz”, the yellow bricks really jump to your eyes. But it is true that is yet another tool that has to be handled and managed. On the other hand, there is another circumstance in regard to, resolution, those “Ks”. We are in a Babel-like war around resolution that is leading us to be increasingly less familiar with the cameras we use. With all these changes, no one can really master all camera manuals. But I always say: “Money Heist” was ordered in 2K and it was shot in 3.2K. Back then I had to quarrel with everyone to shoot it with the highest quality available at the time in Alexa Mini. But thanks to that little extra resolution we had, we were able to go to 4K and that is why they bought the series from us and positioned it the way they did. We always tend to think in present terms, but we lovers of movie history know the present is already past. Then we must think how we want people to view it, but not only now, also in the future. I will always try to shoot in the highest resolution possible, with maximum quality, maximum sharpness, with the broadest color space, because I expect that in the future someone will be able to watch “Money Heist” and enjoy as they do today. And, in fact, throughout history of Spanish filmmaking many movies were lost because of this somewhat austere thinking in regard to productions. I think in the future much present-day content will be recoverable and we creators have a certain degree of responsibility in packing all this to make it last as much as possible.
“Money Heist” is one of the most binge-watched series in recent times worldwide. When creating new episodes or new fictions… Do you already have in mind creating these permanent cliffhangers?
J – Yes, actually transformation has been brutal in TV consumption. Seasons one and two of “Money Heist” were intended for prime time in Antena 3, in 70- minute episodes. And it would start at a quarter to 11 in the evening, including 20 minutes of commercials spread in several blocks. It would end at one in the morning, it was crazy. When we were making “Money Heist” we all knew this was not a series suited to such TV consumption. And yet, that was what we were doing and we had to do our best. Episodes were structurally thought out to hook up from that point, so people would have to stay up even if they were already sleepy, in order to create an act three, to generate a cliffhanger. When Netflix purchased the series -they decided to do so after having watched just episode one- we had to do an international version of “Money Heist” lasting about 45-50 minutes per episode. We gathered the assembly team and began redoing the series in the assembly room in order to create structures with said footage. We would split the episodes, some were shortened, we changed some structures… The international series is different from the Spanish version. And then, you realize when you see the data that such notion of independent episode that must work as a movie with its own action makes less sense nowadays, as the average viewing of “Money Heist” is something like six episodes in one go. Episodes must end up in a cliffhanger, because you have to get viewers saying ”No, you can’t leave it this way”, even if it is three in the morning. We have also realized that unity is not so important. For example, in conversations with Netflix, they told us that the end of episode three was more important than, say, the end of episode one, because no one will watch just one. Well, you are always adapting to consumption patterns.
M – We must improve the ending of episode six, that is our current limit…
J – And, well the truth is that it is really interesting. In the end, as creators, the consistency of the work itself is really important. I always say that I like working for blu-ray format, that is, something that you can keep on a shelf, which you can watch from beginning to end and it makes sense.
Will you release the new season in full in Netflix?
J – Yes, all at the same time. It is terrible for us.
M – A complete trauma.
J – It is a bit of a shock for us, because in the end, after the huge amount of production time, human efforts involved, for example, in episode one of season three of “Money Heist” is something brutal. And we know that people will watch it and immediately go to the next episode.
M – It is like if you are, say, a cook, then you cook a dish with a lot of care and then they swallow it down in a flash. It is like “Christ stop for a second!”.
What importance do postproduction and color editing have in Vancouver Media?
J – They are really important.
M – Jesús finishes the episodes with that.
J – We shoot and then, assemble frame by frame with the assembly team. Of course, assembly staff make a pre-assembly and show it to us directors, but then we walk into the room and assemble it until it is just perfect. Within our workflow, postproduction is our quality control. And if Álex or he or I approve a take as good, we have to do everything possible to have it perfect.
Have you recently faced any issues or challenges relating production? How did you solve them? Anything springs to mind?
J – Many of them. You had a blanket trevelling, but how to tell about it without spoiling it…
M – We have been shooting in one well-known European studio, but only some sequences, in view of their particular features. And, of course we were there like mad, tearing up sets, and I had not had time for anything. When I got in the plane and grabbed the storyboard Jesús had sent me, I saw the takes I had to shoot. And the first thing there was a general take at ground level including a travelling. Given the features of the sequence I had just come up with an underwater housing, a Lambda head, a hot Hydroflex underwater head, and I had to open a wall in the set. As I saw it, I went… God! That was not in the budget, it had not been ordered. I got off the plane, went to the production manager and I told her: We have to look for this. “But Migue, I have no budget…”, she said. At the end, we needed half a day to shoot that take and, there at the studio, I told the machine operator, an Englishman who had been the machine operator in “Full Metal Jacket”: “Get this ready. I thought that maybe you can make this platform, to drag you but then I has to float on water…”. The guy went hands to work, but it would not work any way to tried. So, we still needed to shoot the take and I had been all night up, I did not get to sleep. And just then, I remembered that last year there had been a take in which Esther Acebo was coming out of the vault crawling and we came up with the idea of performing the travelling with a blanket because the other was already in a dolly.
A travelling with a blanket means that he lies down on a blanket with a camera and someone pulls the blanket…
M – I would grab the camera with my hand, lie down on the ground, someone would pull the blanket gently and it would kind of work. But, of course, in these renowned studios, which are part of the history of cinema… At the end I went there and took a piece of carpet. I then I said to myself: “I am going to do this with a blanket travelling, I am going to take a gamble”. I was afraid of a change of lighting, a blackout, a whole room moving, a water effect… So, I threw myself there on the carpet and told the assistant director: man, pull me. I dared not ask the machine operator. And, of course, it had to be done in just one take. So I said to myself: “Do not stop and think, come on, have faith”. And I told the other guy: “Faith, machines do not, it is faith that moves things! So I threw myself on the floor with the camera, it began to happen and then the take was there, assembled.
J – It is a great take…
M – And you know what happened? The managers of that studio sent me a blanket with the studio’s name embroidered; it was really funny…
J – It was like saying: We had never seen anything like that. It is very characteristic of what we do, those small things…
J – We can either use an 8-meter hot head for a take or a blanket travelling.
M – Blanket travelling is already part of our DNA, as Álex Pina would say.
Let is get back to Netflix. How have they accepted you? Were there any conditions? Did it impact your production somehow?
J – I will say in very quickly: beyond the technical stuff that Amoedo will explain to you, I did not notice a big difference. It is true that we have a higher budget, but also the challenge this year is a bigger one. I have not noticed a significant qualitative change, although it was and it is really there.
Have you maintained your own team?
J – We have the same team. Netflix has not interfered in anything. We have formed our own team and, creatively speaking, nothing has been affected in the scripts. We have had full creative freedom in the stories and in the assembly. All replies in this regard have been: “OK”. This means that we are making the series we want and we are doing it exactly as we did before.
M – Even in dealing with suppliers we have been given freedom to work with whomever we wanted. Even though we are working in Secuoya’s studios, they do not require us to work with their equipment. And we wanted to remain very loyal to the people who helped us to make seasons one and two, so we are sticking with suppliers in everything, lighting, cameras, sound… On the other hand, what has really changed, and that is perfectly understandable, is the really strict technical requirements we have been set, which have had an impact in camera models, workflows… You have to understand that streaming technology is completely different to a TV broadcast.
J – The sound making is different too, because broadcast in a private channel is not the same, as they set some restrictions that trim the sound. In this area, you have full freedom with sound levels, the music, audio…
M – We are in a far stricter work environment, but I also understand that this will help us to maintain a higher production standard. We are learning a lot of processes that we will, of course, implement in future productions. I think we are doing a very valuable conversion for us: All HDR tests, camera resolutions… On top of this, we have been really prone to adapt as soon as possible to all this. The color correction console has been changed, we moved to DaVinci because is far more compatible with all Netflix devices.
J – Quality standards are really high. Indeed, in fact you cannot shoot with a video camera unless with prior approval from Netflix.
M – The good news is that our industry is definitely up to the challenge by far. Here we have professionals and companies capable or undertaking the task, and that is what they do.
Vancouver’s way lies in keeping producing TV fiction?
J – Right now the Vancouver’s future is a 5-year contract with Netflix on an exclusivity basis.
M – There are only four showrunners in the world with a contract such as Alex Pina’s.
J – In the next five years, we are obviously going to be working for Netflix in fiction series. We have “White Lines” and “Sky Rojo” already signed up. And more projects to come.