Future Oscar and BAFTA winners at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield

PUBLISHED: 10:34 18 April 2017 | UPDATED: 10:34 18 April 2017

Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle with NFTS students
Photo: Bruno Grilo

Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle with NFTS students Photo: Bruno Grilo

Bruno Grilo

At the National Film and Television School future Oscar and BAFTA winners are learning skills which will see them follow in some noted footsteps, Sandra Smith discovers

I may be a mere stone’s throw from Old Beaconsfield’s quaint cottages, yet the glass dominated structure in which I’m standing boasts proportions as industrial as its hi tech fittings. Black leather sofas merge with the surrounding monochrome décor as large, tinted doors seamlessly glide to a close behind me.

Here in one of the newest buildings at the world renowned National Film and Television School cutting edge architecture meets state of the art equipment. Staff and students ooze creativity whilst a buzz of excitement reflects the recent BAFTA success – British Short Animation, for the fourth year in a row, no less. Not that such achievements are unusual. A display cabinet showcases numerous accolades – from cinematographer Oswald Morris’s Oscar to Society of Film and Television Arts trophies – for this is where generations of behind camera experts are guided, nurtured and trained by some of the industry’s most experienced practitioners, all headed by NFTS Director, Nik Powell, born ‘just down the road’ in Great Kingshill. We meet just as he’s finishing a classroom session covering marketing and distribution.

As co founder of Virgin Records and Executive Producer of award winning Calendar Girls plus numerous other prestigious productions, Nik seems perfectly suited to this role. Yet he is engagingly self effacing.

“I had no idea whether or not I could do this job. I left school at 16. I have no degree and I was regarded by my family as the least intelligent of the brood. I’ve worked all my life with young talent. This is a different environment, but the same thing,” he reveals.

Nik is proud of NFTS’s independence (the School is equally funded by government, industry and student fees), stressing the strength this affords. As well as an increasing portfolio of courses offered since his arrival 14 years ago (“We are more rock and roll now”), facilities have improved, too, and he stresses his admiration for those high achieving industry professionals who make up the teaching staff.

“Without being disingenuous, we win more awards and run more behind the camera courses than any other film school in the world. Our real strength is we’ve figured out how to put together people from very different backgrounds and specialisations so they work together to make something that is better than the sum of its parts. Students reach a high level of craft in their specialisations and develop the soft skills of being able to use that specialisation when working with other people.”

My next question – his vision for the School – seems reasonable enough. But then I hadn’t appreciated his predilection for the present.

“Visions are for Catholic saints! I’m a simpleton in life. The world changes so quickly. When I do an intro to students I recall a scene from Winnie the Pooh: ‘What day is it today?’ Piglet answers, ‘Today, my favourite day.’ You have to get right what you’re doing today as it’s a building block for the next thing. I have a short term vision only – to be the best. I try to get everyone focussed on getting the present right. I’m not a big believer in strategies, I leave that to the Board.”

With another appointment imminent, Nik grabs a notebook and leaves his office, giving me the opportunity to talk to head of PR, Vicky Hewlett.

“We are proud of our students,” she smiles. “They are mostly post grad with an average age of 28. We keep class sizes small, no more than 10, and our courses are designed to meet skill gaps in the industry. No course works in isolation. For example, students collaborate with screenwriters, designers and composers.”

With an emphasis on vocation, the School works in conjunction with industry partners such as Sky and the BBC, some of whom guarantee jobs. The 300 students – there are plans to extend numbers to 500 – also benefit from masterclasses by visiting actors, producers and directors. Such professionals include Bill Nighy, Julian Fellowes and Sally Wainwright, whose To Walk Invisible set the bar for one of the most engaging television dramas last Christmas.

Vicky continues with a tour around the site which, behind two modern constructions, is a delightfully haphazard mix of architecture, some of which dates back to Art Deco days. But outward appearances, I soon learn, are deceptive. I enter one nondescript entrance to discover MA students in the middle of their first studio familiarisation session. A professional actress awaits instruction as a handful of students get to grips with cameras, their colleagues in a neighbouring gallery absorbing advice about the use of equipment.

David G Croft, one time BBC Assistant Producer and with Live Aid, Top of the Pops and The Crystal Maze to his Director credit, announces: “Shot 15 on 3, we’ve adjusted the cut,” then strolls over to shake my hand.

“I’m teaching hard skills, such as how to multi camera direct,” he tells me. “We teach people by letting them make things. A television studio requires momentum, and that comes from the Director.”

Today each student is taking a turn at different roles. David advises how to frame a shot, stresses the importance of understanding between the camera crew and needs of the director, and effortlessly takes on board every debated decision he hears, gently correcting where necessary.

Like many of the staff, this isn’t David’s first profession. Yet his man management skills are clearly used to their full advantage and, as he reckons, this job is a “natural progression” from his time in the industry.

While students continue recording I meander around a myriad of buildings. In a monumentally sized studio a handful of 2nd years debate camera techniques; other groups huddle over coffee while discussing their forthcoming Graduation Show in Leicester Square. A row of shed like structures offers dedicated space in which students concentrate on creativity and in reception I marvel at a miniature scene from an award winning animation.

Witnessing up to date technical equipment blended with professionalism and ambition has given me an admiration for what goes on behind camera. If, in the past, I’ve occasionally ignored the lengthy credits which follow films, dramas and TV entertainment, I vow never to again. For these professionals deserve our approbation, particularly as some will have learned their skills right here in Buckinghamshire at the world leading National Film and Television School. 

Hall of fame

A long list of notable names have passed through the doors of the NFTS over the years. They include Nick Park, who started work on his first Wallace & Gromit film, a Grand Day Out, there. Then there is cinematographer Roger Deakins (including The Shawshank Redemption and A Beautiful Mind) and director Mark Herman (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), and documentary maker Nick Broomfield.


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