Aiming for military precision when filming for film & TV with Bare Arms
Ben Simmons of Bare Arms talks to us about the military training and consultancy services they offer the film and television, the difference in the industry between the US and the UK, working on productions such as Bodyguard and Trust Me, plus others they've seen that got it right.
Hello Ben, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. Tell us about the services that Bare Arms offers the film and TV industry.
Hello! We are mainly military advisers, but we provide a whole host of interlocking services. We work across the theatrical industries, in film and television, theatre, computer games, commercials and documentaries, even the occasional music video.
Our advisers help with technical details in scripts, such as language or designing action sequences, all the way up to coordinating battles on screen and everything that goes into it. We provide armourers and weapons, highly trained soldiers to carry them, all the kit, clothing an equipment that they might wear and use, vehicles, aircraft and we also help find military locations. We run the industry’s leading theatrical firearms training school where we teach a wide range of performers how to handle real weaponry safely and move like soldiers. This has led onto training some high-profile actors in weapons handling and military bearing.
You and other members of Bare Arms have served in the military, which makes you the perfect team to offer these kinds of services. Can you tell us where the idea for forming the company came about and how you went about it?
The idea came from watching films growing up, and then once we had joined the military watching war films. None of the details were particularly accurate when it came to British films, whereas American films were miles ahead. The US military has a department set up to support the film industry, where the UK Ministry of Defence doesn’t.
We spent time on various sets as extras, working out where the gaps where, and we quickly realised that there was a huge gap in the market, not only to do things more accurately, but more efficiently and saving money. After unsuccessfully trying to persuade the MoD that it would be a good idea for it to be a government department similar to America, we decided to set out on our own.
To get started and to cut our teeth, we started offering help on all manner of small and low budget productions, making connections within the industry, learning the technical aspects of filming, all in preparation for when the bigger budget projects started rolling in. Because what we did was so different, and because of the firearms training we were providing to performers, we started getting a name for ourselves. The rest is history.
Bare Arms has now serviced a host of feature film and television productions. Can you give us some examples of the projects you’ve participated in and the work you did for them?
The most recent project to air was The Capture on BBC One. We spent a significant amount of time with Callum Turner who played Lance Corporal Sean Emery, getting him physically and mentally prepared for the role. He trained for a number of months with our physical training instructor (a former paratrooper) which gave him the additional benefit of observing and learning the characteristics and mannerisms of a real soldier. We put him through weapons training, as well as a counter-surveillance exercise which blew his mind! During production we provided a team of soldiers to play the rest of his squadmates, as well as all the kit and clothing they were wearing for the Afghanistan sequence which was shown as helmet camera footage.
For Bodyguard we provided most of the people playing armed police throughout the show, including during the dramatic opening train sequence. We used a mixture of military personnel and actors who we had trained extensively through our firearms training to get the best result.
For Series 2 of Trust Me we trained the lead actor Alfred Enoch as well as some of the other actors to portray military personnel. We helped design and coordinate the opening scene set in Afghanistan which involves a firefight and Alfie’s character getting seriously injured. Again we provided all the equipment and clothing they were wearing, as well as a team of soldiers to play his squadmates.
The next projects to be released are;
Blue Story the hotly anticipated feature film by Rapman who has a cult following amongst the UK music scene after releasing his own short films on Youtube. We provided all the weaponry, firearms and bladed weapons you see in the film, as well as helping design and coordinate some of the action sequences and providing performers to play armed police.
Baghdad Central Channel 4’s adaption of Elliott Colla’s hit novel about the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We were the military advisers for the production as well as providing a few teams of highly trained performers to play various military roles.
There are a load of ongoing projects that we can’t talk about due to strict NDAs, which include two massive computer games which we are very excited about.
As well as these high-profile projects, you have also offered services to short films which inevitably have much fewer resources (i.e. budget). Can you tell us about some of the work you’ve done on shorts and if you still encourage short filmmakers to get in touch regarding their productions?
Short films and low budget features are hugely important as they are the training ground for British cinema and the crews of tomorrow, but they rarely make any money and so aren’t normally financially viable. In an industry that’s a clash between art and business, low budget projects usually struggle to scrape together a big enough budget to afford our usual services.
We are committed to trying to help those kinds of productions as we feel it’s important to support the underdogs. If we have the time and the capacity, we’ll always try and help out where we can. We can usually give advice or help with script questions and dialogue tweaks pro bono. If we can suggest shortcuts or tweaks to reduce cost then we will do. With that in mind, despite our successes, we are still a relatively new company and so we have to concentrate on the big jobs first, but if we have time spare we would be more than happy to help out.
When joining a production that’s potentially already in full flow, what are some of the challenges you face when coming on board to deliver your side of the production? Basically, how can productions make your job easier?
It’s always easier being brought onto a project as early as possible. As a military adviser, it’s often difficult on the day to try and get things as accurate as possible when it is too late to make any large changes. Often you’ll find the tiniest detail that is out of place is the start of a massive thread that you cannot afford to pull on!
Whilst the story always must come first, where we can we like to get the details as spot on as possible. We want military personnel to be able to watch the productions we have been involved in, and not get wrenched out of it when they something out of place. Usually these problems can be sorted much earlier on in the process. One of the facts of filmmaking is that you never get the time or the budget to do everything you want to do. You have to prioritise where you can so that you get the production the biggest bang for their buck. I think it’s actually more of a question of what can we do to make the production’s job easier. By providing all of the services that we do, linked-together, we make everything smoother and more efficient, saving time and money which are both vital. Providing trained performers is one of the biggest time savers in our opinion. There’s no need for training or extensively rehearsals, they just get on with it!
With the various services you offer, how much lead time do you need, as a team or with the actors, before arriving on set?
It entirely depends on what we are being asked to do. When it comes to effective weapons training with cast, we really need a few days, not a few hours. You cannot teach someone from scratch how to use a firearm properly in under a day. Often this is something that is overlooked. Marching and military drill takes a similar amount of time. If it is something relatively simple, like providing weapons or equipment, and we already have the required kit, then we can do that with around 24hrs notice.
We were asked recently to go to one of the major theatres in London. Their gun had failed to fire during the matinee, and they needed it working for the evening performance in a few hours! More warning is always better, but we have pulled some remarkable things out the bag in very little time. The craziest was probably organising a squadron of Spitfires on an airfield for a big TV show. We had about 5 days warning to find them, but we managed to pull it off.
For you personally, what has been the most rewarding project from a work point of view that you have been involved with so far and why?
That’s a difficult one. Everything is rewarding in different ways. The Capture was great, because Callum absolutely nailed his character. I think it’s the most believable portrayal of a soldier on screen. The TV show with the Spitfires was incredible! Any day that you get to work with real flying WW2 fighter aircraft is a huge bonus. The noise they make is fantastic.
Trust Me was hugely rewarding because we had so much freedom with the military aspects of the script. We were allowed to totally change the setting and the action, as well as the language used. We made as realistic as possible and I was very pleased with how it turned out. The most rewarding part of the work that we do though, is nothing to do with the filming, it’s the firearms courses we run. I firmly believe that we are really making a difference and are making the industry a safer place for everyone. It gives me immense pride to take a course of students from ‘zero to hero’ in a few days.
One that sticks in the mind was a stunt performer who was terrified of firearms. He wanted to do the course to get over the fear of handling weapons as it was affecting his career. Not only was he totally confident and happy with weapons by the end of the course, but we had him as a firearms officer in Bodyguard a few months later.
We keep in touch with all our students, and its great hearing back from them how they are getting on, some of them landing jobs because of the training they have done with us. We have a Christmas party for them every year, and it’s great to see the small army that we’ve trained over the last few years.
With your military background and experience you now have in production, what’s a film or television show you’ve watched and thought the work done was spot on? There’s very little that’s accurate in the modern canon, which is something we are hoping to change. There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions including the truly brilliant Kajaki about a team of soldiers stuck in a minefield which I recently watched for the first time. It's based on a true story and it is about as close to the real events as possible, everything from the kit and clothing, to the language the soldiers use, is absolutely spot on. It's a really difficult film to watch as it's so visceral and nerve shredding. I've now met three of the soldiers who were involved in the incident. Sand Castle was a massively underrated Netflix production that is pretty spot on. The most infuriating are the ones that follow old Hollywood clichés or where the language is totally forced and sounds unnatural. I’m not going to mention names! The current crop of inaccuracies is the portrayal of PTSD which is frequently misunderstood and portrayed badly.
Bluestone 42 a comedy set in Afghanistan was pretty good. They got the modern kit and equipment pretty close, but mainly because the characters of the soldiers and officers were fairly on the nose.
In terms of action, nothing beats the beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Firefights can be total chaos. Being in charge during a firefight can be terrifying as everyone looks to you for instructions. In a similar vein Band of Brothers will always remain as one of the highlights of the genre. Going back a few years A Bridge Too Far is a classic based on true events. Blackadder Goes Forth, especially the final episode, has more realism in it than most people might think, especially for a comedy.
What advice would you offer anyone looking to follow in your footsteps in the industry?
I’m still not entirely sure as to how we got started. If I knew what I knew now, I might have been scared off! My advice is to totally ignore fame and stardom. Those that seek it, rarely ever get it, and if you want it, you are probably in the wrong industry. Most of the hugely successful people are in the industry to work and you wouldn’t know who they were if you walked past them in the street.
Concentrate on doing a good job and doing it as well as you can. Go above and beyond to be helpful, but also be wary of those that might take advantage of goodwill. Continue to improve by training in your spare time, or working with those better than you. The industry is small and made up of many groups and families. Work hard and get on with someone and they will take you with them wherever they go. Help those below you and don’t pull up the ladder behind you. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing and the jobs you aren’t getting, it’s totally wasted effort and won’t help you in anyway. The biggest bit of advice that we live by is something called Rule#1 or “Don’t be a D*ck” which comes from my days working in disaster relief. We work long, hard days and you need to be able to get on with people. If you are difficult, you won’t get asked back.
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