Spotlight on Training

From acting and accountancy to stage combat and screenwriting, there are more than 8,000 courses and training opportunities for people hoping to forge a career in the UK’s booming film and TV industries. These range from apprenticeship schemes to weekend courses and degrees at some of the world’s leading film schools.

That depth and choice is no accident — training and skills development have been a priority in the UK for decades. The government formed the creative industries sector skills council Skillset (now Creative Skillset) in 1992, and its funding has grown to about $7.45m (£6m) per year across film and high-end TV training.

And this support has reaped huge rewards, with the UK routinely praised for having some of the world’s best film and TV creatives, craftspeople and technicians. And, thanks to booming levels of production, that skilled workforce is in constant demand.

“Last year had the highest level of inward investment ever [$1.7bn (£1.35bn)], and we want to keep up with that,” says Dan Simmons, head of partnerships at Creative Skillset.

The British Film Commission (BFC), as the organisation responsible for inward investment in film and television in the UK, is one of the many industry bodies that works closely with Creative Skillset to ensure skills and training policy reflects industry needs.

Iain Smith, BFC chairman and producer (Mad Max: Fury Road, 24: Live Another Day), also chairs Creative Skillset’s Film Skills Council. “The impact of tax reliefs cannot be underestimated,” says Smith. “They are crucial to the continuation of the UK’s success in international film and television production. But if the tax reliefs attract productions into the UK, it’s our infrastructure and workforce that keep them coming back. Our technical capabilities are second to none, and our workforce is world class. It therefore makes sense that we as an industry have identified skills development as a core priority, be it from schools to further education or from new entrants to mid-career training. This is the only way we will continue to compete successfully in the global production market.”

Skills development is also a priority for the British Film Institute (BFI) which, as part of its new five-year plan, BFI 2022, will implement a major 10-year skills strategy with Creative Skillset. Simmons says this will “create new opportunities for thousands of individuals from all backgrounds across the UK to join and progress within UK film”.

“We’ve long been regarded as being very active, co-ordinated and progressive in terms of public investment in skills and industry investment of skills through the levies, and that kind of public-private partnership is a great model,” he adds. “We have world-leading crew, and they are also generous to teach the next generation of talent behind them.”

Agnieszka Moody, head of Creative Europe UK, also notes that UK professionals can be helped by wider European schemes. “Every year over 100 UK professionals take advantage of training courses offered by Creative Europe, from Berlinale Talents to EAVE or the Torino Film Lab,” she says. “I am very pleased to say that the UK’s Inside Pictures has built itself a solid reputation across the continent, attracting high-calibre executives and running an impressive alumni network which is a growing powerhouse of industry future leaders rapidly becoming current leaders.”

Training across Europe can also help break down borders. “Not only do you get to know who is who, and how the industry works in other countries, but being in a cohort can lead to future working relationships and partnerships,” Moody says. “Many a co-production was set up as a result of a training course.”

Practical learning

One of the main growth areas in UK skills development is on-the-job training and apprenticeships. Michael Wilson, production manager for Sony Television/Starz’s Outlander, has hosted trainees on all of the show’s seasons, in roles including production design, costume making, painting, props, accounting, special effects and camerawork. It is an initiative that gives back to the industry but also helps keep the production staff familiar with up-and-coming talent.

Outlander is the largest production Scotland has ever had,” Wilson explains. “It’s also a period show and demands a range of specialisms. The work being demanded, particularly by our craft grades — costume, make-up and hair, prop making and construction departments, to name a few — is world class, and the roles therein are not easy to fill. On season one we really struggled to fill roles and find people locally who were game ready. So the desire to really invest in training was born out of a need to build the skills base in Scotland.” That this has been achieved is evidenced by the increasing number of productions choosing to shoot north of the border.

Warner Bros is another organisation that puts a high value on UK skills training. It is a primary contributor to the Creative Skillset-managed Film Skills Fund, and hosts trainees on most of its UK shoots including, most recently, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and Wonder Woman. “It’s vital that young people have access to the creative industries, which is why we’re committed to investing in the next generation of talent,” says Roy Button, EVP and managing director of Warner Bros Productions Ltd. “By employing trainees, we benefit from their creativity and enthusiasm, and also play our part in the development of the world-class talent that’s become synonymous with the UK film industry.”

The UK government hopes to see more such apprenticeships set up in future and is establishing an apprenticeship levy accordingly. “That’s a challenge, but also an opportunity,” Simmons says. “What is exciting is that if we can make them work better for our industries, apprenticeships are a great opportunity to bring in new talents from diverse backgrounds, who can earn while they learn. And the industry gets to train them exactly how they need them to be trained.”

Alison Small, chief executive of the Production Guild, expects that in the future more mentoring programmes will become part of the guild’s regular offering. She is keen that most training is delivered in person, not online. “Online content isn’t a substitute for learning in a classroom or on the job. Part of training is about making contacts with students and trainers.”

In-person training also plays a key role throughout many of the UK’s production and post-production houses, who are all working to ensure a sustained skills base. London-based, Oscar-winning VFX house Framestore, for example, offers a range of training opportunities including dedicated mentors for new staff, artistic and software training sessions for all employees and online training series Digital Tutors.

“We are an industry that is incredibly competitive when sourcing talent, so retaining our best people is really important,” explains Amy Smith, Framestore’s head of global recruitment. “Additionally, as the technology, tools and client demands develop with each project we undertake, we have to ensure our staff have the right skills and tools. Finally, timelines for our work are shrinking, so our staff are trained to undertake their roles as effectively as possible.”

While Smith recognises there is an increasing number of training opportunities available throughout the VFX sector, she asserts that on-the-job learning remains the most valuable, and not just because of the demands of proprietary tools. “By keeping training in-house, we are able to be flexible to productions’ needs and to work our training around individual artists’ schedules.”

School days

Another strength of the UK’s training offer is a wealth of film schools: the National Film & Television School (NFTS) in London, Northern Film School in Leeds, SERC Film and TV School in Northern Ireland, Screen Academy Scotland in Edinburgh and many more.

Nik Powell, director of NFTS, says two years of learning “hard skills” makes NFTS graduates highly employable. “There is a demand for these skills; people want to hire people who can do VFX, who can do lighting, who can do editing.” NFTS is always evolving — alongside its award-winning directing and producing degrees, it has allowed students in the games department to explore VR for the past five years. Other innovations include a new course devoted to natural history and science production and an MA in marketing, distribution, sales and exhibition.

Jeremy Barr, associate dean in the department of production at Ravensbourne, the London based university sector college that concentrates on digital skills, agrees that graduates who learn such state-of-the-art technologies leave ready to work. “We stay at the forefront of technologies such as 3D, 360°, VR and multi-plane imaging, and develop new workflows around these,” he says. “Importantly we have a culture of experimentation and allow students to pursue interesting developments that they discover.”

Constant evolution

The continuing review of skills training is another demonstration the UK’s training sector is not resting on its laurels, but is evolving its offer according to emerging industry demands and aspirations. At the Production Guild, courses are offered not only to its 850 members but to the wider industry, with topics ranging from production accounting and location management to working with US unions and VFX.

The training opportunities increase each year. Following the introduction of the high-end TV tax relief in 2013, for example, the BFC was able to quickly identify an emerging UK skills gap — US-style budgeting for episodic TV drama. The BFC funded an initiative, with support from Creative Skillset, and worked in partnership with the Production Guild to help British financial controllers and production accountants learn directly from US practitioners how to work with US-style high-end TV accounting. The training was repeated in 2017 and extended to include UK unit production managers and line producers.

There are three or four new VR initiatives that Creative Skillset has backed in the past year, which particularly excite Simmons. “These are the kind of areas we are looking at — how are we fostering collaboration with other creative industries and beyond? How can we share our learning? That’s something we want to do more of.” In that vein, Creative Skillset has also backed training for UK writers to understand the writers’ room approach in the US.

At Creative Europe’s UK desk, Moody notes that “for the first time we will be supporting a VR creators’ lab on spatial narration and 360-degree film, organised by the Bavarian Film Centre. The industry is changing so fast you can’t afford not to improve your skills all the time, just to keep your head above the water. If this can be done in the international context, all the better.”

NFTS has partnered with leading graphics processor manufacturer AMD to deliver a series of VR projects as part of the school’s Bridges to Industry scheme. A production technology MA was launched in 2016. “Diversity is not just a question of cultural background, gender and socioeconomic diversity,” says Powell. “It’s also different kinds of people meeting on campus — technologists, games designers, fiction storytellers.”

Diverse workforce

Kate Kinninmont, chief executive of Women In Film & Television UK, says the membership organisation has increasingly been involved “in providing training initiatives to try to redress the grotesque imbalance that persists in employment throughout the industry. In a largely freelance industry, individuals have to take responsibility for their own career development and training is often difficult to come by.”

At the Production Guild, diversity initiatives include Opening Doors, a scheme for people from underrepresented groups to access the creative industries. The Production Guild’s Small is hopeful more mid-career training and support will be introduced. “We also have to be careful of people leaving the industry. We need to keep supporting people as they go up, maybe with smaller interventions,” she says.

At the NFTS, “on the diversity stakes we are way ahead of the industry”, Powell says. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students make up 15%-20% of the student body, and women 40%-50%. This year, a new workshop launched to encourage more women, BAME storytellers and people with disabilities to direct fiction. The pool was widened because the workshop was free to attend thanks to donations. “There were 400 applications for six places this pilot year, and there will be 12 places in 2018,” Powell adds.

As part of its training offerings, Bafta has launched Bafta Elevate, a bespoke annual programme designed to support individuals from underrepresented groups moving to the next stage of their careers. In 2017, the focus is on female directors working in high-end TV and film.

UK-based producer Manon Ardisson, who had a Sundance and Berlinale hit with her first feature production, God’s Own Country, has participated in a number of UK training initiatives, including Screen Yorkshire’s Triangle and Film London’s Microschool. She just completed Creative England’s Creative Producer Initiative (CPI), which she found helpful for the development of her whole career, not just one project.

“It’s great to be part of a course that focuses on your career as a producer,” says Ardisson. “Most programmes are project-based, which of course is an amazing opportunity to develop and finance a project, but CPI helps us think about our careers and ambitions more generally. That’s important if we want to work sustainably in this industry.”

Future Proofing, words by Wendy Mitchell, was originally published in UK in Focus 2017 in association with Screen International.

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