Get Interesting Stories onto TV – Making Documentaries with a Difference.

Making TV is all about creativity – plus someone who can organise the ideas and put the practicalities into place to get it to screen – not all creatives can do that. Those that struggle with the practical need to join forces with a business-minded friend/colleague.

Anyway the marriage of creativity and business is a subject worthy of analysis some other time. For now I’d like to introduce you to someone brimming with creativity who also manages to organise his ideas into compelling films.

If you are interested in making films, learning what makes a documentary, exploiting the internet to get your ideas across or simply want to know how others make television, then meet producer and director (and photographer and more) Toby Amies.

Toby Amies

Toby has made films and documentaries as a presenter or director for Channel 4, Radio 4, BBC World Service, BBC Two, BBC 4, Film 4, MTV, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. His photos have been published in The Guardian, Dazed and Confused, The Telegraph, Saga Magazine, The Miami Herald and ID.  He was the winner of The Dali Award at the 1999 International Surrealist Film Festival and has been coasting on that tiny victory for 14 years now. Toby is currently producing & directing documentaries for Sky Arts.

I’ll hand him over to you:



Please can we have a potted biog first – who are you?
I am your standard broadcaster/director/photographer/writer/djrector.
Brought up in Worcestershire, studied art and film, lived in London, Lawrence, Kansas; Tucson, Arizona; Hollywood, California; New York City, Brighton and now back in London. My primary enthusiasms are art, film, music but most of all I think that’s because I am very interested in people, I express that through working as a broadcaster, a director and photographer. I presented and wrote a lot of TV shows for MTV [MTV news, The Big Picture and Alternative Nation in Europe and launched MTV USA’s live programming] Film Four, Lonely Planet, the Rough Guides and Radio 4, and still do bits and pieces as a talking head for arts programmes and have just read the news from the future for the World Service! Generally speaking I’ve found work behind the camera more interesting though less lucrative too. 


What makes a good producer/director in factual TV?

Patience, wisdom, understanding, a genuine desire to learn different ways of seeing the world, an ability to listen comprehensively and act decisively; a reputation for reliability and/or working cheap and within budget. I think empathy is the key emotion… weirdly that’s the thing found lacking in sociopaths, who are common in the media…


Do you spend more time selling yourself as a P/D, or selling ideas for programmes, and which is most effective at finding work?

Increasingly the latter though I’m keen to learn directing within a more structured environment. I’m developing several documentary ideas that may or may not work within the TV frame, and I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for my subjects for not funding them!


What makes a good story for TV?

Immediacy, conflict, visual opportunity and unfortunately, f**king celebrities. Ideally f**king celebrities f**king celebrities they shouldn’t be f**king. Or dying.


How do you find such interesting subjects for your documentary films?

Unemployment and a fast broadband connection are key components here. Personally I’m interested in people with extreme worldviews, I feel if I can understand life from their point of view, even if I don’t agree with it, my own personal horizons expand and that is what I want, especially as I get older I feel the pull toward conservatism and security. One of my mottoes is: Stop learning – start dying. That said there are lots of opportunities out there to make short-ish films about extreme subjects, but the budgets are so low the development costs prior to commissions can be crippling.


Does ‘quirky’ and surrealist sell in the current UK TV market?

My tax return [unfiled still] says NO. See above… Not exclusively, but TV seems to be getting less and less inspiring in its approach and the internet is happy to fill in the gaps. I love the internet; I support it like I used to support bands.


Tell us about your latest film, how you get a film shown at a festival and what value that has? (Or is that a blog post all on its own?!)

It’s called ‘The Man Whose Mind Exploded’, it’s a love story, a kind of cross between Memento and Fantastic Voyage, and if you want something odd, subtle and full of love to get on telly, make sure it gets some festival interest first! A lot!

(Update: Toby’s film got into the Sheffield Doc/Fest – very well deserved too!)


What would be your ideal commission or job right now?

I’d like to direct on a factual series, learn from the inside out as doing everything on my feature has given me a broad overview but I’d like to understand how others go about the process, learn some different methodologies and have a clear sense of what is required from my filming. (Toby landed a job as producer/director on a Sky Arts documentary since writing this post).


What advice would you give budding documentary producers and directors?

Make films for youtube/Vice/Kickstarter, it may not make you a fortune but that is where you will find your audience and once you know who you are talking to it’s so much easier to know what you are saying. Forget about TV, it’s a dying medium. Don’t pay too much attention to what people in their twenties think, and that includes yourself! If all else fails, think. If thinking fails, listen harder.

Toby Amies
dressed for action…



Links to more of Toby (there’s a lot of him!):




Thank you, Toby – entertaining and informative, as always!

1 comment

  • A very interesting article. With things like YouTube, webisodes and online series, do you think that there is going to be a market for smaller docco’s that maybe wouldn’t have been picked up for TV, but would thrive in an online environment?

    ‘Extreme world views’, is a fantastic way to phrase your point about interesting subjects by the way. Do you mainly look for people? or organisations?

    A good read – cheers 🙂

  • Leave a comment

    Want to express your opinion?
    Leave a reply!

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *