MDX students on a film crew were “better than a lot of the people I've employed from the industry”, says the director of a feature who formed a pioneering partnership with the university. He adds that he hopes the collaboration will be the first of many.
Industry peers tried to warn off Seraphim Film Productions' Michael Head from his directorial debut plans, including one who thought the students would “ruin your film”. But in the event “there wasn't a weak link,” says Michael, hailing the students for their talent, experience and above all teamwork: “personally I would use exactly the same crew again for my next film,” he says.
The opportunity to work on half-a-million pound-budget gangster film Bermondsey Tales: Fall of the Roman Empire came about through a meeting between MDX Film academic Professor Eddie McCaffrey, and director and industry/institutional relationship broker Adam Morley, now Creative Industries, Culture, Digital and AI Sector Lead for Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership.
The two spoke about what would be needed to help students access film set roles, more senior than a runner, after graduating, challenging industry perceptions that they are unqualified for more skilled hands-on work. The pair then met with new production company Seraphim, who are focused on developing commercially-driven film and TV projects for the UK and the international market: and so this innovative collaboration began.
MDX offered Seraphim facilities, kit hire and space for a film unit to set up in the Grove Building. The university will receive a percentage of the film’s profits, and around 50% of production jobs, including key positions like First and Second Assistant Camera, went to students. Seraphim agreed to sign a safeguarding document, to ensure students were protected and nurtured.
Michael also wrote the film, based on true stories of his family, which goes back five generations in Bermondsey ("not Krays level but pretty notorious and well-recognised in the area"). Filming took place within half an hour’s travel from MDX. The students were all paid and worked for four weeks, for five days a week and on average, 10 hours a day. “They learned a lot about professional behaviour, protocols, and not to panic on a film set, and the industry learned a lot about students,” says Eddie McCaffrey.
As well as the excitement of a starry cast - including Gary Webster (Ray Daley in Minder), Linda Robson, John Hannah, Vas Blackwood, Vicki Michelle, Adam Deacon, Maisie Smith in her first role since EastEnders and comedian Dapper Laughs - the scale and longevity of the project was an invigorating new experience for the students.
"We had four weeks non-stop. It was way bigger than anything we had done" says Ben Bogdan-Hodgson, who was Best Boy, or second-in-command to the Gaffer, the senior electrician on the shoot.
Then there was the compartmentalisation of tasks on a professional set, and the rare opportunity to work in prominent technical roles.
"With students, you are probably involved in everything on a project," Ben says. "With this, you literally came into work: you know what your role is and you just did that.
"Industry crews normally stick to the crews they're in" says Ben. "The Gaffer works in the industry. Meeting that contact means being able to be in touch with more professionals”.
"When you go to a networking event, you have something to actually say" says Rafael Pastana, First Assistant Camera on the project.
"It was very beneficial for us, especially for gaining skills we didn't have before" says Alina Ilin, who was Third Assistant Director. "I had the challenge of working with more than 50 supporting artists. The first lesson was to learn how to delegate - the runners are there for me. I hadn't been in that position before so I didn't know".
“There were a load of people that it was their first job" says Michael Head. "It shouldn’t have worked. So the fact that it did shows a lot about one's attitude".
“On many occasions I didn't realise the students were students,” said Seraphim CEO and co-producer of the project Rohit Nathaniel, who had an acting part in the film. “They weren't there for the journey. They were there because they really wanted to be there”.
Previously an investment banker and with experience working on a range of skills and enterprise initiatives, Rohit thinks the project yielded much mutual benefit: "We've got the opportunity to work with budding people who've got the passion, enthusiasm, potentially new skills that the industry doesn't have”.
The best thing was “the smoothness of the operation,” he added.
Interviewed by students about the project, he said: “When I went to the BFI for your showcase, to see who I consider our production team go up and get their awards, to see you thanking us for the opportunity, it was a big thing”.
"I felt we were a family all together and supporting each other," says Alina.
Michael Head and Eddie McCaffrey see the project as a crucial step in the way industry interacts with the world of film education. A second film is slated for next month, and a third could potentially happen in December. As a key partner of the GLA Creative Skills Academy and the BFI’s Metro London Skills Cluster, MDX is in a position to bring other universities on board with this initiative.
Currently for graduates launching film careers, “there's no pathway,” says Michael. “It's not the education failing the industry, it's the industry failing the education”.
Through his work at MDX, Eddie is trying to demonstrate to the film and TV industries and representative bodies that new models can work. “We have the potential to change the attitude of professionals about skills, graduates, unis. It’s not a silver bullet but certainly an interesting way to go,” he says.
"It allows us to prove to the industry that our students are indeed industry-ready," says Dr James Charlton, Deputy Dean for Student Success in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries. "When we put them on a film set and they show how brilliant they are, that's absolute proof".
A related project is a pilot placement for students on the Media, Broadcast and Production T Level, now mooted to start running from 2024, allowing them to spend two weeks at MDX, one of them working on a real production in the TV studio. This would again demonstrate how industry and Higher and Further Education can all work together, and offers an opportunity for every stakeholder to learn.
“When we write up the post-film report [for Bermondsey Tales], we can say ‘try this, try that, or don’t this or that’” says Eddie. “Everything is developing and we’re learning something new.
But innovation needs support. “At the same time you need a senior management team, academics and a university which is open to working like this, and MDX deserves credit for that.
“If we don’t innovate, the curriculum will stay the way that it’s always been – and in today's environment, that’s not good enough".