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Career Path

Setting the scene for a career in TV

By Edward Chung

TV Production – Scriptwriter
Siu Sang
Drama consultant
ATV

A career in television is about as far removed from the glamour of show business as is possible, according to Siu Sang, a drama consultant for ATV. The genial Mr Siu, known throughout the ATV drama department as "Ah-Suk", is a 30-year veteran of the local entertainment circuit. While he is no longer part of the network's in-house scriptwriting team, he is frequently asked for his views on forthcoming series and new ideas.

Mr Siu points out that, while modern technology has greatly improved the lot of television backroom staff, those aspiring to a career on the box still have to tread a familiar path with due care.

"When I started out, most people would try out as many different jobs as possible on set to gain experience," he says. "In my earlier years I did everything, from film editing to acting as a runner. It was important to get a good grounding in all the functions so you'd know how they relate to each other."

Mr Siu's break into scriptwriting was hardly auspicious; part of his duties as a junior studio employee was to laboriously handwrite copies of each script for the director, producer and actors. Back then, the budget-strapped studios did not have photocopiers, while Chinese word processing had not even been invented. "To save time, we'd use several layers of tracing paper, so we could run off several copies at once - my arms became quite strong from having to apply so much force to the paper," says Mr Siu. "As a result, I became quite familiar with the scripts and decided to have a go at writing myself."

Despite working in television, Mr Siu did not have much time to tune in himself and spent much of his free time reading novels and Chinese history. These provided a source of inspiration and ideas for adapting epic tales to the small screen.

Professional framework

Today, most fresh television network recruits are graduates. Mr Siu says that a degree or diploma is not absolutely necessary, although the stations prefer an academic grounding.

"Both the television networks will pose tests and interviews for newcomers, so unless you are really confident in your ability, it's best to get some training first," he adds.

"Apart from creativity and an eye for what audiences like, stamina is also an important quality, as we often have to work to tight deadlines."

Unsolicited manuscripts are, for the most part, immediately filed in the recycling bin.

"The stations are very professional these days and the whole scriptwriting process is managed from start to finish," says Mr Siu. "We have to be aware of what the viewer wants, as opposed to what we feel is stylistically or artistically sound. Television is a commercial enterprise and it is usually unlikely that a novice will know exactly what the stations want. That said, it is not impossible for an unsolicited script to be used, just very unlikely."

Part of the reason for this is that scriptwriting is a collaborative process, normally with a whole team assigned to a single script for a series.


"Working for a network is great experience. You get to see the finished product much quicker and learn what works and what doesn't"

"The team would work out the general storyline and characters first, before organising it into scenes suitable for programming," explains Mr Siu. "Only once the framework is in place do we write the individual dialogues for the actors."

Television remains a fairly flexible industry and there are plenty of opportunities for scriptwriters to switch careers within the business. Mr Siu says that many writers have become directors or producers and vice versa. There is also the possibility of breaking into cinema, although the larger budgets involved tend to prevent rookies from moving to celluloid.

"The first wave of television scriptwriters came over from film or from live Cantonese opera," explains Mr Siu. "That flow has reversed now and virtually all the major Hong Kong directors, including the likes of Ann Hui and Tsui Hark, have some television experience. Working for a network is great experience because the sheer amount of programming means that you need to come up with something new almost every day. You get to see the finished product much quicker and learn what works and what doesn't."

China Opportunities

Although the entertainment industry in Hong Kong remains small, Mr Siu says that there is constant demand for new talent because of a constant "brain drain" out of the territory.

"There are tremendous opportunities for good writers and technicians in China at the moment," he says. "There are about 50 or 60 television stations on the mainland, all fighting for market share and in the market for the best Hong Kong writers and directors."

Mr Siu adds that many of the television staff currently in Shanghai are from Hong Kong, mirroring similar exoduses of talent throughout the 1980s and 1990s to Taiwan and Singapore. In each of those markets, the Chinese networks were largely manned by Hong Kong expatriates, until their local workforce reached the same skill levels.

"At the moment, there is no comparison between the quality of Hong Kong and mainland work, although this will change sooner or later," he says. "Mainland Chinese writers tend to be good at historical adaptations and have a good eye for detail, but have yet to embrace modern writing styles."


 

Taken from Career Times 11 July 2003, p. 24

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