Setting the stage for a UK film industry boom at Shinfield Studios
The UK film and TV industries are seeing record levels of growth and investment – in turn swelling the demand for state-of-the-art studio hubs which can provide blockbuster-scale production facilities and – as Nick Smith, Joint Managing Director of Shinfield Studios beams – allow the likes of Disney and Netlfix to “create whole worlds that we will see on television or in the cinema” for generations to come.
Building on the UK’s global reputation for producing world-class content, Shinfield Studios will offer film and television producers nearly 1 million sq ft of studio space, comprising 18 new purpose-built sound stages, workshop and mill space plus a contemporary office environment and post-production facility. Together, these spaces will ultimately form a ‘Berkshire Skills Cluster’ that will in turn create around 3,000 jobs as well as on-screen legacies as a ‘powerhouse of production’.
Images with thanks to Scott Brownrigg, CURO (drone shots) and Shinfield Studios
- Shinfield Studios
- Sweco services
- Civil & Structural Engineers; Geo-environmental Consultancy
- Scott Brownrigg
- JCT Design & Build
- Curo Construction
- 1 million sq ft
- 18 (by 2024)
Shinfield Studios, the largest new film and television studio development in the UK, is nearing completion of its final phase of construction. With 13 soundstages now in operation, this 1 million sq. ft. studio complex is due to complete Q1 2024.
Just as with Oscar-worthy productions themselves, success comes from behind the scenes when it comes to such an ambitious landmark project as Shinfield. Richard Wood, Head of Structures at Sweco reflects on the benefits of creating what is set to be one of the largest bespoke complexes currently being built in the UK, in Berkshire.
“Our work at Shinfield Studios was borne out of the appetite to expand the UK film sector and associated industries. I believe there are maybe six locations around the world where, generally speaking, English language films are made – and with the demand for more films and ‘box sets’ ever-growing, more are evidently needed.
I suppose the question is, why would they come to the UK? I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that the creative talent is already here – particularly in the Southeast. The area has a distinct talent for everything from costume design and set build to post-production editing and so on, which makes Reading in particular a natural stage for this sort of vision. And of course, with some smart engineering, the real estate is ready and waiting to be developed.”
When we were looking for a location to build Shinfield Studios we knew that Berkshire had so much to offer. Not least its proximity to London, but the area also has a strong local infrastructure to help meet the needs of producers. This includes access to local production talent. The goal is to build on this to help address the wider skills shortage in film production and offer a pathway for local people to a career in this industry.
Nick Smith Joint Managing Director, Shinfield Studios
Richard continues: “If you look at sites like Pinewood and Stern, where Warner Brothers are, and also around Borehamwood, where Sky have their studios, you see sites that are relatively constrained in terms of space. They’re fantastic facilities in their own right, but have been periodically developed over a period of time, expanded in ‘layers’ as needs evolve, and therefore face limitations when it comes to growth or repurposing.
Shinfield, in contrast, presented an opportunity to take an entirely new cluster campus development to start from an open field space, and to plan it, effectively, from scratch. It allowed us to take all of the studio design knowledge that we’ve built up historically at those other illustrious sites, drawing on a deep understanding what the building and industry requirements were and remain for established studios, but then stepping back and looking at the art of the possible when presented with a blank canvas.
Take the warehouses and set building spaces and costume and all those ancillary functions. Being able to cluster these interlinking functions in close proximity to the actual sound stages means you not only maximise efficiency, but also create a community ‘hub’ of creativity within the wider development.”
Behind the scenes there’s huge value in having the experience to be able to dot in the i’s and crossing the t’s. The A-listers rightly get top billing, but in my world the real star is the engineer who spends countless hours on their craft too – finite element analysis, creating the stress profiles, looking at where every single reinforcing bar goes to create the right strength in the right place…for us then to cover the structure with concrete, put a screed over the top of it, install some carpet and never see it again.
There’s a real honour in the dedication of that for me, just like in the hundreds of other roles that we don’t necessarily see on screen once the final production is released.”
Richard Wood Head of Structure at Sweco
And what of the unique appeal of designing structures for film and media facilities in particular?
“I think I think there’s an obvious attraction around designing sites for the movie industry – you of course see the end product of what what’s filmed in facilities you’ve helped conceive and build.
There can be unique moments along the way too. We previously worked on the James Bond studios down at Pinewood, and I remember when we were doing those, the ground investigation team were down there on site and they were they were knocking in boreholes and the crew would come out and say “sorry, you just need to stop for a moment with filming for the next three minutes”. They’d run a scene for one of the most famous franchises on the silver screen…and then our engineers just got back to knocking boreholes. – quite surreal!”
The big source of pride I have on this project is the speed at which we and our partners have been able to move from inception to completion on a number of stage and workshop areas already, which is unprecedented for such a big facility.
Rob Seller Regional Director at Sweco
Sweco’s Regional Director on the Shinfield project shares more on the technical challenges, and achievements, at the site.
“There’s about 15 metres of gradient from top to bottom on the whole site, and of course, the main requirement of a production campus is that it needs to be flat. So the engineering challenges straight away stem from trying to make a film studio work on a site which didn’t naturally lend itself to being a film studio.
In order to change a the topography of a a site like that, you have to basically take a lot of ‘cut’ from one side of the site and put it down as ‘fill’ at the other – without exporting or importing any material, or as little as possible at least.
That process had to be well engineered – it wasn’t a matter of simply ‘dumping’ material where we needed it. It had to be dosed with lime and cement for example. It had to be rolled in a certain way. I believe it was twelve passes over 350 layers. It had to have certain compaction rollers and it had to be tested to meet quite comprehensive earthworks specs.”
The speed of engineering progress is all the more impressive when weather conditions are taken into account. Rob continues: “We had a great summer when it came to sunny days last year – excessively so during some periods. But that’s not ideal for compaction, particularly of soft claim because it just gets so dry. So we had to bring in hydrants and bowsers just to bring in enough water to compact it properly. And then, in contrast, we had probably one of the wettest November – December periods in history in this country!”
Darren Gill, Sweco’s Environment Planning & Design Lead expands upon some of the initial challenges: “While Shinfield didn’t pose a phenomenally complex challenge at ground investigation stage, the scale of the task and the tight timeframes made it a rewarding phase to deliver on time, especially considering the winter conditions.
We employed 3D modelling to determine the exactly how we balance cut with Fill. That was part of our differentiation, because it meant we could play around with the levels extensively on the site to make sure the studio would be as flat as it needed to be, with no costly movement over time.
We were able to stay pretty ‘sustainable’ during the groundwork elements of the project too. We took nothing. We didn’t take anything off site. We reused the materials there by by treating them – which is pleasing in our desire to push the circular economy agenda wherever we can at Sweco.”
As for the operational aspects of such a huge studio undertaking, Rob reflects on a myriad of considerations that had to be integrated into the detailed design part of the Shinfield vision
“First of all, there are the sound requirements. Very few buildings have such an onerous requirement to keep the sound out (and in), and you have to you have to bring in sound experts to actually make sure that every single detail is planned for.
Every single millimetre of walling needs to be interrogated – not just from the point of view of minimising sound impact to and from the external environment but also from plant and equipment echoes – needs to be factored in. You just have to make sure that there’s an environment inside which is completely isolated from any noise, and that’s quite the conundrum in this case with the M4A around 100 metres away.”
Rob goes on: “The spec requirement for the roof on its own is huge and and the thickness is very deep construction-wise. That’s unusual but we were able to impart quite a lot of knowledge on that from what we have done previously at Pinewood. It’s so critical to understand the operation of these studios and what they do in there, when you’re putting pen to paper or stylus to tablet in the design stage.
As an example of the macro detail at play, studios like Shinfield will have a huge amount of kit hung from the ceiling of the structure, and they have these lighting rails every two metres all the way along the building and its considerable length – on which they have dollies and rigs that need to be capable of carrying a sometimes literally a ton of studio equipment, with special mechanisms to be able to move these dollies from one light and beam to another. That we’ve been able to engineer these things seamlessly into the DNA of the reimagined building is something I’m extremely proud of.”
As one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy supported by an increasing demand from online platforms, the film & digital media industry remains buoyant. There is therefore an urgent need to increase studio capacity. Integrating adapting user needs along with achieving speed to market, we understand the demands of the Film Studio sector and our experts have delivered projects from single studios to large complex campuses.