TV Cities, Istanbul: The Labor of Reconstructing History in Turkish TV Series

On the set of The Magnificent Century, Istanbul, 2011. Credit Ed Kashi, source: https://www.almendron.com/tribuna/what-a-tv-series-tells-us-about-erdogans-turkey/
How is historic Istanbul recreated for the screen? Drawing on interviews with local media professionals, Ipek Celik Rappas considers the challenges of filming heritage television series in a rapidly changing city.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on television cities.]

In the last three decades, Istanbul has become a global “media capital” with flourishing local television production—especially that of serial drama.1Michael Curtin, “Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 202–228. TV series are screened on nearly all of the national channels every day during prime time broadcasting and are exported globally.2Yesim Kaptan and Ece Algan, “Introduction: Turkey’s National Television in Transnational Context,” in Television in Turkey, ed. Yesim Kaptan and Ece Algan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 1–24; “Dünyanın En Renkli Ekranı: Türkiye’de Dizi Sektörü,” Deloitte, August 2014, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/tr/Documents/technology-media-telecommunications/tr-media-tv-report.pdf; Nick Vivarelli, “Turkish TV Dramas Continue to Sell Despite Local Turmoil,” Variety, April 3, 2017, www.variety.com/2017/tv/global/turkish-tv-dramas-phi-second-chance-masum-1202019972/. As production locations, Istanbul’s historical sites and neighborhoods with multicultural heritage are in high demand, especially for period dramas—ranging from series that depict Ottoman court life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to those that represent social and political strife in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Ottoman period series have been on the rise since the local and international popularity of The Magnificent Century (2011-2014), which set off a “neo-Ottomanist” trend in Turkish TV drama.3Hilal Ustuk, “Turkish TV series attract audience from 146 countries,”AA, November 13, 2019, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/culture/turkish-tv-series-attract-audience-from-146-countries/1643829/. This trend, in which “various aspects of Ottoman heritage in different realms including education, marketing, architecture and popular culture”4Ergin Bulut and Nurçin Ileri, “Screening Right-Wing Populism in ‘New Turkey’: Neo-Ottomanism, Historical Dramas, and the Case of Payitaht Abdulhamid,” in Routledge Companion to Global Television, ed. Shawn Shimpach (New York: Routledge, 2019), 245. were mobilized by the ruling party, found its most wide-spread outlet in period dramas. These series mainly focus on the lives and deeds of different Ottoman rulers and their families, including titles such as The Magnificent Century: Kosem (2015-2017), Resurrection Ertugrul (2014-19), Fatih (2013), and Payitaht Abdulhamid (2017-), some of which have been exported or acquired by Netflix. Most recently, Netflix Turkish originals have also either delved into the Ottoman past (The Rise of Empires: Ottoman, 2020) or used Istanbul’s heritage locations in mystical narratives (The Protector, 2018- ).

Period set for Muhtesem Yuzyil Kosem in a studio built in Hadimkoy, a former industrial area of Istanbul (image source https://www.turkiyegazetesi.com.tr/kultursanat/442223.aspx

The early episodes of the Magnificent Century were shot in Topkapi Palace. Soon, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism revoked its location permissions, potentially due to the long hours of production that disrupted tourism. The series then continued filming at a post-industrial site that was turned into a film and TV studio with period sets.5For a detailed study on studios in Istanbul, see Sezen Kayhan, “TV Drama Production Studios of Istanbul: From Empty Sound Stages to Standing Sets,” Screen Production and Exhibition in Istanbul Under Urban Transformation, Ph.D. Dissertation, Koç University, 2020. While Magnificent Century and Magnificent Century Kosem recreated sixteenth and seventeenth century Istanbul in sets established in a former wire factory (TIMS studios) turned studio (Figure 1), for The Rise of Empires: Ottoman, Fatih, and Payitaht Abdulhamid the Ottoman past of the city was created in sets of studios converted respectively from a former warehouse in the outskirts of Istanbul (SVC Studios), what was previously shoe-factory on the shores of Bosphorus (Beykoz Kundura), and a former paper factory right outside of Istanbul (Izmit SEKA Platosu). Studio sets also recreate city locations in the mid-twentieth century. Several period dramas set in the 1950s and 1960s—such as Hatırla Sevgili (2006-08), Öyle Bir Geçer Zaman Ki (2010-13), Karadayı (2012-15), and Sevda Kusun Kanadinda (2016-17)—were shot on the backlots of studios that contain street decor reminiscent of old neighborhoods of Istanbul (Figure 2).6For more images of studios with period and street decors, see https://www.turkiyegazetesi.com.tr/kultursanat/442223.aspx, http://www.eyuphaberi.com/egitim/eyup-sultan-film-sektorunun-cazibe-merkezi-olmaya-aday-h902.html

The production history of Magnificent Century, moved from a real location to a studio, shows some of the challenges involved in recreating historic Istanbul on screen. Even though the city is home to many Byzantine and Ottoman heritage sites—such as those visible in films such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Skyfall (2012), Taken 2 (2012) and Inferno (2016)—and several largely intact nineteenth century neighborhoods, period dramas are frequently shot in studios rather than in the city’s streets and buildings. This article investigates some of the factors that shape the reproduction of historical space for serial television. Between September 2019 and January 2020, I interviewed twenty-five screen professionals about their experiences of working in television production in Istanbul, both in studios and on location. The interviews revealed that even the city’s most protected historical areas are not immune to change and destruction, which renders screen professionals’ job of making an authentic-looking period drama extremely difficult. Furthermore, such demands to recreate the city’s history in an aesthetically appealing and authentic form relies on the extra labor of screen professionals in an already pressurized and often exploitative industry.

A period set in a post-industrial studio in Istanbul (image taken by the author)

The interviewees emphasized that they choose to work in studios because even the most protected parts of the city, its heritage sites, go through structural changes. When working in the historical parts of Istanbul—such as the Old City—screen professionals underline that because of the intensity of construction work it has become impossible to have a clear view of the skyline and take establishing shots of historical Istanbul. Production assistant Kaan states, “I’d like to see and show the historical peninsula but it’s surrounded by construction sites and cranes. I won’t be able to get rid of these for a film shoot.” According to production manager Ahmet, unregulated and abrupt changes in the landscape lead to the loss of an aesthetic requirement in any screen image, the “historical texture” of the city, which can only be recovered now through “montage tricks”:

Urban renovation has no logic to it so you shoot in one street and then you can’t move the camera to the next street cause they’re not similar. If you want to show the historical texture in the background of an action scene for instance, you need to make the character go down from stairs in Eminonu and then cut to him running in Galata… Of course in every film there are such montage tricks but here in Istanbul the reason is mainly because we haven’t kept the historical texture.

Such changes to the historical fabric of the city shape decisions about production and post-production, and eventually adding to the labor of both camera department and cinematography, as well as that of editors. Ozan, a post-production supervisor, explains the impossibility of using mobile cameras in historical films while keeping the post-production budget sustainable:

Urban regeneration increases the price of CGI and decreases the quality of production. We were working on a period film from the ’60s. There was a scene originally planned as a long sequence. But the post-production cost is high when the camera moves like that because then it’s much harder to fix the background in every frame. In order to decrease the cost, period films now use static cameras. Doing CGI on the background of a static shot is much less costly but the production quality decreases.

All these factors not only add a financial burden to the production, but also increase the crew’s workload significantly. Screen professionals often disapprove of the way heritage buildings are maintained and restored, highlighting the lack of competence in preservation and restoration practices, especially when compared to European capitals. They insist on the fact that bad restoration practices end up increasing their hours of work. Enis, an art director who has worked in the Old City on many big-budget international productions, explains that even when shooting at protected heritage sites his job is essentially about fixing irregularities caused by improper restoration practices so as to provide a “beautiful” image of the historical city and maintain the period feel:

Period buildings are not properly protected and there is a lot of unlicensed construction, so the art department constantly makes the effort to cover up places and objects. We put in a lot of effort to render the city beautiful and to cover up the effects of the strange understanding of modernization. It is the Old City so they could have at least restored the façades with period features!

Ahmet, Ozan and Enis’s statements highlight that on top of the challenge of finding solutions to “hide” the anachronistic modern features (either by editing, adjusting camera positions, or using props added by the art department), when portraying the historical parts of the city, the crews also often have to crowd around the same rare locations that have kept their period features.

Screen professionals consider it convenient but do not find it aesthetically attractive to work in studios, especially when it is a period film or TV series. Many consider Istanbul studios to be artificial spaces, with awkward looking period sets, as opposed to the “natural historicity” in period productions shot in Prague or Budapest. Still, they feel like they are forced to shoot period works in these sets because of clumsy restoration practices. I interviewed Zeki, an experienced art director, about the difficulties of producing period works in a city under rampant urban regeneration. He specializes in period sets and has worked on numerous series and films ranging from Ottoman period dramas to films taking place in Istanbul of the 1950s and 1960s. Zeki believes that working in the studio is not only easier than working on a real location (where they have to deal with complaints from residents or possible interference in the production flow), but he also states that this is the only way to maintain the historical setting in Istanbul without the disturbance of anachronistic elements such as antennas and UPVC window frames. During the time of our interview his crew was in the process of creating the décor of a factory from the early twentieth century within a studio that happens to be a former factory, part of the industrial heritage of Istanbul that has been turned into a film and TV studio.

Along with the difficulties of getting the necessary permissions and the production and post-production labor of covering up anachronistic features in real historical locations, the convenience of working away from the chaos of the city compels most local film and TV productions to recreate period Istanbul in studios. When I ask studio manager Hasan why crews prefer to work in studios rather than on location, he explains,

Several studios have Cihangir, Galata, Balat [traditional Istanbul neighborhoods] streets. Crews have trouble in these neighborhoods. Where will you park the caravans in Cihangir? Plus, you pay the local and regional municipality, you pay the stores whose businesses are affected, and then you pay mafia-like formations who demand money to let you work. So it comes to a much higher rate to shoot on location.

Asim, another studio owner, adds, “The crews tell me that for a five minute scene we struggle for five days! A tram passes from there. Residents make noise. A lot of problems occur during location shooting unless you’re dubbing!” Screen professionals admit that shooting among the local and tourist crowds in heritage sites or city streets is not only expensive but also a nightmare for organizational purposes, so for reasons of convenience they prefer studios. Hence, the period streets and house facades in studios allow the crews to avoid the disturbance of the city’s contemporary routine and chaos and accommodate the high volume of local TV series production that the city cannot handle anymore. Then again, working in studios, as the interviewees confess, often means working for longer hours as they can work without interruption. They underline that they can work into the night inside these studios, which are protected from the kind of complaints from neighbors that occur in residential production locations.

Another labor-intensive aspect of producing period series in studios is the sets’ constant state of temporariness. In most of these former-factory-turned-studios there are only a few permanent sets such as a period street or a hospital, and most of the decor is built and rebuilt for each TV production. While some managers feel sorry about the waste of the material and labor used repeatedly to build sets, others admit that they profit from this constant turnover of sets since they charge production companies for each one constructed. If a TV series for which the set is built is cancelled due to low ratings, an elaborate period set may be destroyed or put into storage to rot after having been used for only a couple of months. Aysel, a studio manager, is frustrated with the constant turnaround of sets and décor:

They build sets and then in a couple of weeks destroy them. Maybe they are laundering money… In Turkey, you cannot have permanent sets, one art director destroys the decor built by the other one and then they either rot in a storage facility or are given to a scrap dealer. Such a waste…

Aysel’s words reveal that in Istanbul, what the city is going through—constant deconstruction and rebuilding—parallels what happens in the studios and vice versa. As in other global cities, the construction of Istanbul’s post-industrial film and TV studios is tightly connected to the increase of TV production and is shaped by urban regeneration. But unlike other global studios with permanent sets, the studios in Istanbul mostly have temporary sets. In this sense they share a similar fate with that of the city—that is, just like the city, the studio sets are prone to abrupt change and destruction.

Conclusion: Re-Constructing Historical Istanbul in Studios

For screen professionals in Istanbul, the production of serial television has a significant workload, which has been exacerbated over the 2000s and 2010s with the gradual extension of running times from 90 to 130 minutes and later 140 minutes per episode.7For more on labor conditions in Turkish TV series production, see Ergin Bulut, “Dramın Ardındaki Emek: Dizi Sektöründe Reyting Sistemi, Çalışma Koşulları, ve Sendikalaşma Faaliyetleri,” İleti-ş-im 24 (2016), 79–100. This burden is further augmented by rampant urban change, which makes ensuring visual continuity and historical authenticity increasingly arduous. Extreme urban regeneration practices, in which all that is solid is susceptible to destruction, add significant physical and psychological pressures to screen professionals, an issue I explore further in my forthcoming book, Speculative Shootings: Film, Television, and Real Estate. In dealing with the chaos of space, studios replace “the real” when outdoor locations become too unpredictable and unstable in terms of the temporal (such as period features) and spatial (such as disappearing and changing buildings) coherence of the image. In a city undergoing an accelerated urban regeneration process, professionals who feel anxious about preserving control over the production space prefer working in studios, in which the city is recreated in its historical form. These studios, often former factories that are themselves part of the city’s industrial heritage, end up standing in for the historical city. While the city becomes an unfixed studio susceptible to constant change, studios end up standing in for and recreating the historical city.

Notes[+]

Celik Rappas, Ipek A. "TV Cities, Istanbul: The Labor of Reconstructing History in Turkish TV Series." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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