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Stage is set for evolving demands of film studios

Words:
Josephine Smit

There’s drama in construction as the industry prepares to meet movie makers’ requirements for bigger, more flexible production facilities

Sky Studio’s new facility at Elstree & Borehamwood by UMC Architects, at nearly 600,000ft2, reflects the demand for new studio space in the UK.
Sky Studio’s new facility at Elstree & Borehamwood by UMC Architects, at nearly 600,000ft2, reflects the demand for new studio space in the UK. Credit: Tomasz Kozak

It is perhaps a paradox of the movie industry that its magical worlds are created in buildings that are essentially big boxes. Those dream factories have become slightly less of a rarity in the UK landscape in the wake of streaming and government support for production here.

The new era of studio development has brought larger stages of 10,000-20,000ft2, to enhance flexibility in use, and more diverse facilities. ‘We’ve seen a trend for more production-style hubs, more campus style studios where there’s a mix of large stages, space for virtual production and also more rooms for tenants and even for training,’ says Samantha Perahia, head of production UK at national agency the British Film Commission (BFC).

According to property consultant Knight Frank’s 2023 report on the UK film and tv studios market, one million square feet of stage space was developed in 2022-23, with newbuild, converted and demountable stage space helping to meet feverish demand. Since then, numerous factors have affected global production, not least the long-running actors’ and writers’ strikes in the US. With the strikes resolved, production is ramping back up at studios, says Perahia, but she still describes this as an ‘extraordinary moment’ for the industry. Strikes, pandemic and a changed economic context mean, she says, that ‘the film and tv industry is readdressing its own needs and looking at quality over quantity’.

That could be reflected in development activity. Knight Frank estimates that, taking a mid-point between high and low-growth future scenarios, around 2.6m sq ft more studio space will be needed by 2028. ‘Now I think we’ll find that there’s less of a race and further development of stage space can be planned over a slightly longer time frame, allowing for additional considerations, such as environmental measures, etc,’ says Jeremy Pelzer, senior stage space strategy advisor at the BFC.

The film and tv industry is readdressing its own needs and looking at quality over quantity

Architect PRP’s Space Studios in Manchester, for client Manchester Creative Digital Assets, has 80,000ft2 of stages and support facilities.
Architect PRP’s Space Studios in Manchester, for client Manchester Creative Digital Assets, has 80,000ft2 of stages and support facilities. Credit: Andy Marshall

Campus complexity

Studios can be complex and costly projects, ‘not because of what they look like on the outside, but because of what happens on the inside to make them energy efficient and perform acoustically’, explains Graham Mackfall, director at UMC Architects. They are also large in scale, with the 585,000ft2 Sky Studios Elstree campus in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, having six sound stage buildings containing 12 sound stages, two production support buildings for activities including costume-making and set construction, an amenity building and a multi-storey car park.

Sound stage buildings need to be flexible to adapt to the requirements of production company occupiers, by allowing for internal division walls to be reorientated or removed totally. During Sky Studios Elstree’s development, says Mackfall, ‘they had an occupier that needed a certain-sized space, so even before we’d finished construction of one of the sound stage buildings, we didn’t build a wall intended to divide one particular space’.

This is just one factor differentiating a sound stage building from the industrial buildings the practice specialises in, he points out. ‘In an industrial building, we would have a hit-and-miss portal frame, which gives you decent open span space and works for logistics. But a studio will have a latticed-truss design because there are a lot of services to hang, and there’s a requirement for walkways and gantries at high level to allow lighting – hung from runway beams running perpendicular to the trusses – to be controlled.’

Another consideration is the acoustic performance of the structure and facade, taking into account outgoing sound from the studio and local noise such as traffic from nearby roads. At Elstree, the steel frame is mostly clad in built-up systems, with insulated composite panels and glazing featuring on offices and public-facing elevations. The facade treatment of public-facing buildings responds to the context, with Sky’s campus occupying a semi-urban site, facing Borehamwood and an access road. ‘We have to make the buildings functional, but also as architecturally pleasing as possible,’ says Mackfall. The welcome to the site is expressed by a feature arch, flanked by two buildings, echoing Hollywood studios.

The scale of the Elstree project made it viable for the architect to work with manufacturers to develop bespoke details which included design of division walls between studio spaces and the acoustic and thermal lining of external walls and roofs. ‘Standard products didn’t really hit the criteria we wanted,’ says Mackfall, ‘because, in the case of Sky, a key driver for the brief was creating the most sustainable film studio development in Europe at the time.’ 

UMC Architects’ first work with the film industry was at Elstree, where it found itself part of a large cast, with Legal & General as client, Sky as occupier with its own brief and occupier-side design team in Arup, and UMC itself novated to main contractor BAM Construction. Since completing the project last year, the architect has secured more work in the sector, where it is applying its learning and research. 

That research includes looking at enhancing sound stage flexibility further by adopting large acoustic sliding or folding internal doors and exploring roof design options. Discussions with clients are also focusing on developing even more flexible spaces, with Mackfall talking of creating ‘the ultimate flexible big box in an urban location’, which could begin life as a logistics building and readily convert to studio space.

Sustainability features heavily in new guidance produced by the BFC, not just on-site energy generation but better relationships of sheds with the landscape around such as shown at Space Studios in Manchester.
Sustainability features heavily in new guidance produced by the BFC, not just on-site energy generation but better relationships of sheds with the landscape around such as shown at Space Studios in Manchester. Credit: PRP

Logistics meets studio

Similar discussions are taking place elsewhere. ‘We previously might have been approached by clients who were new to the [film production] sector to build to a recognised industry standard. Then, if the market fell away, the stages could be used for logistics or similar uses,’ says Alistair Weir, partner with PRP. Now, he continues, ‘there’s ever more competition, and constructing to this “standard”, where margins are tight, is challenging, so the current trends are less design-led than viability-led.’

That has led to the increased interest in creating future-proofed stage spaces, which can be enhanced as needed. ‘For many productions, a “warehouse-plus” specification would be quite adequate,’ says Weir. ‘Productions are familiar with adapting stage spaces at their own cost to suit their specific requirements with regard to acoustic and building services performance, where these are not delivered by the base build.’ When filming ends, these added extras remain in place, enhancing the stage specification by stealth in a way that is ultimately more sustainable, he says.

There are many examples of disused warehouses being converted to stage space. Around a decade ago, the architect worked with Manchester City Council and its studio developer/operator/manager Manchester Creative Digital Assets (MCDA) to convert a 250,000ft2 former Sharp distribution warehouse in the city into stage space with supporting creative, digital and media office and event space. 

‘Generally, those spaces are quite easy to convert for stage use,’ says Weir. ‘The infrastructure that’s there for manufacturing or warehouse spaces is typically tall, column free and with flat slabs designed for the load of high bay racking – characteristics not dissimilar to those that would be required for stage space.’ The biggest challenges, he says, are the acoustic improvements required to the envelope and often the lack of load capacity in the roof. 

Client and architect followed the Sharp Project with the purpose-built Space Studios, which has 80,000ft2 of stages and supporting facilities. ‘The demand that the Sharp Project had for studio space effectively led the development of Space Studios Manchester,’ says Rob Page, managing director of MCDA. Development is set to continue, with planning consent secured for another 40,000ft2 of purpose-built stages at Space Studios.

The biggest challenges are the required acoustic improvements to the envelope, and lack of load capacity in the roof

Flexibility is key to the studios’ success, says Page, which includes ‘making sure that, as well as traditional sets, we can accommodate green screen and virtual production set-ups quickly and easily’. With its lighting and equipment, stage space has long been power-hungry. ‘It’s difficult to achieve energy savings against that, due to the high peak demands during filming and the unpredictable way in which stage space is used,’ explains Weir. But, he continues, ‘We’re looking at more sophisticated ways of energy generation on site, whether by photovoltaics or ground source heat pump.’ The Sharp Project and Space Studios have been retrofitted with both, supported by the government’s Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. These are expected to generate up to 70% of the power needed on-site in summer.

Sustainability features heavily in new guidance for new and existing studios, developed by the BFC. This initiative, funded by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, draws on research by consultants including PRP and has already been shared with developers, investors and operators, with sustainability research being showcased at UK-wide round-tables with the production industry.

Round-table participants have shown ‘a clear ambition to make their spaces as green as they can be moving forwards and for new development to be as low impact as it can be’, says Pelzer. For Perahia, the objective of this and all BFC’s work is to ensure UK studio space, ‘stays relevant, competitive and ahead of the game’. It’s an objective investors, developers and designers share.

 

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