Southan Morris: Behind the Lens

The award-winning Artist of the Year series is an incredibly complex production with very different demands on the crew and the artists. We sit down with Director Southan Morris to get his take on the action, starting with Portrait Artist of the Year, just weeks before filming the new 2020 series begins.


“When it comes to Portrait Artist of the Year surprisingly the most challenging aspect was getting right the iconic set. We wanted something bold that immediately makes a statement, but it also had to be workable for the competing artists. For the first-ever series, we spent months in pre-production working through different permutations and then rehearsing in different shapes and spaces. We eventually settled on a round set, which divided into 3 sections. That allows for one sitter and three artists in each section. When we are shooting set pieces within our set it can become tricky because you can have a presenter and sitter looking outward and artists looking inward. The cameras at this stage will be working on an arc, so you have to be very mindful of sightline issues. We’ve also had to accept that sometimes we capture crew-members and their kit in the back of shot. So, during these set pieces I need to be structured about the approach, but mindful that the flow of the day isn’t lost.

One of the unique things about both productions is allowing the audience ‘in’ on set. It’s such an important part of the programme because their enthusiasm is infectious, which adds to the drama of the day. The show is now so popular that we have some fans who come along on several days in a row. This can cause problems in the edit when the same people keep popping up in the back of shot. We have to discreetly and politely ask them to move!


We asked Southan how watching a celebrity ‘sit still’ combined with ‘watching paint dry’ makes for an entertaining programme….

It’s interesting that you say “sitting still” because quite a few of our sitters come along thinking that’s all they have to do. When sitters listen to their music or just allow their attention to wander, you often get fewer dynamic portraits. What’s fascinating is that some of the actors make it an exercise to “act” as a sitter - really concentrating on projecting something, and when they do that, it very often results in better portraits. But that sort of “acting as a sitter” can be exhausting - so some of our cast end the day shattered - even though in theory all they’ve been doing is sitting around all day!


Capturing the developing paintings from blank canvass to finished item is the biggest logistical challenge we face. No matter how many cameras and producers we have on set, it’ll be often the case that an artist makes a big decision, which affects how the painting is coming together, and we miss it! For that reason, we are looking into continuous recording on our fixed, time-lapse art cameras and putting a roving main camera just on art shots.

"We had fun with Stanley Tucci who asked what he should do if he didn’t like any of the paintings.  We said “you could act!” and he did.  He put his head in his hands and yelled “oh my God”.  It brought the house down."

The secret to the show’s ongoing success is…


We are also constantly developing the format, look and feel of the show. We want each new series to feel fresh and new. I think this is one of the reasons our ratings continue to climb. If you were to compare series 1 and 5 you’d see significant differences. For example, in series 1 we had 21 artists per heat we now have 9!

One of the other things that distinguishes our regular series from other TV competitions is that we don’t cast the competitors on the basis of anything other than their artistic talent. That means we get good talkers, or less good talkers, or some who don’t want to talk at all! With “celebrities” of course we know they are in the entertainment business and so are going to be extrovert and probably funny. That makes life easier in a way - the flip-side of that is that we sometimes have to see the funny side of their painting on the day!

We asked Southan any issues he could recall over the years….


We’ve had a few occasions when all three of the paintings of one sitter were fairly unflattering, but we tend to cast nice people as sitters and so none of them has had a horrified reaction - so far! The sitters have always had a fun day with us, and can usually see the funny side.

Many people think we brief our celebrity sitters beforehand on different ways of reacting to their portraits if they don’t like what they see during the reveal – but I can honestly say we don’t. They’ve usually seen the show and know that they may be in for a surprise. We had fun with Stanley Tucci who asked what he should do if he didn’t like any of the paintings. We said “you could act!” and he did. He put his head in his hands and yelled “oh my God”. It brought the house down.


And finally, …the judges’ decisions tend to cause lots of controversy


We don’t have any influence on the judges. They were chosen because they are the best in Britain, so there’s no need to interfere. But I think it’s only natural to question their decisions. It’s always fun to pick your own top three on the day!


Facts and figures:

  • Equipment: 1X Drone 1X Jib. 1X Steadicam. 4 Main cameras 10X Canon 5Ds. 1X Portrait camera for beauty shots - 18 in total.
  • Crew: 95
  • Daily shoot: 8 hours
  • Post production: 6 weeks offline edit and then 5 days finishing online etc.
  • Highest rated factual programme on Sky Arts ever
  • Over 400,000 people tune in … and its growing all the time