Author of The Fundamentals of Film-Making, Jane Barnwell, shares her wisdom and her experiences of the film industry…
Interview with Jane carried out in her office without any warning due to the Whitechapel Gallery being closed at 10am!
Jane is Senior Lecturer in Film & Broadcast Production at London Metropolitan University, where she combines her passions for film-making, writing and teaching. She has recently been commissioned to create a film installation for The Womens’ Library. The project, entitled Portrait, is a celebration of brilliant women.
How did you first start working in the film industry and what kind of jobs were you doing?
I was studying Communication and Cultural Studies in Leeds – which involved a tiny bit of production at the time but not much. I did some work placements working as a runner for Amber Films and Trade Films I think, I’m not sure if they still exist now! I wanted to do some placements for experience as I was getting interested in film and they gave me a good general overview of film-making. After university I got a job at BBC Newcastle as a radio broadcast assistant – it’s funny because looking back it sounds like quite a good job really, but at the time I felt like a general dogsbody and wasn’t satisfied. I realised my passion lay in film so I left and decided to go to film school. You had to specialise straight away by choosing between courses on Directing, Producing, Sound, Camera and Editing etc, and I went into Production Design.
Are things the same now – do students still specialise early? What are your students most interested in?
At the university where I teach, MA students now have to negotiate their roles, which is difficult sometimes because usually everyone wants to direct. The thing is, watching other people work and trying out different roles yourself is very important. The majority of my students are interested in drama. We try to get them to think in terms of shorts – things that you can put online, adverts and music videos. There are many jobs in these areas. But they tend to focus obsessively on feature films! Short films and the like are a good place to learn your craft, and help you to build up to working on features. There are so many routes in but it’s a case of finding the right one for you.
You also get trends –when there’s a popular film things filter through where they’re trying to emulate them. After the success of The Sixth Sense a lot of the students’ films started to reveal something striking at the end!
A selection of some of the films Jane lectures on
What should aspiring film-makers be doing to get themselves noticed?
I have collaborated with different organisations (for example CIDA) to get some of my students’ films seen in public. For example, BBC London has previsously broadcast some of our students’ work which I was really pleased about. In their final year our students choose between a documentary and drama module and most of them choose drama – but we have had some really great documentaries that connect with current events. One of the projects was on the 2012 Olympics and no one wanted to do it but some great documentaries came out of it. I think my favourite was a really disenchanted one with the general theme ‘why should we care?’! We do encourage students to enter competitions, go to festivals etc; we obviously do what we can but it’s up to our students to take the initiative.
How do you assess your students’ films?
It depends on the module. For theory modules they have to hand in an essay – on European cinema, for example. For other modules we would award a mark based on a script they had produced, and for practical modules we would look at a short film and some written work. Generally the aspects of production are taken into account – script, camera, lighting, design, direction, sound and editing.
Students’ films are taking over the office somewhat…
What is the best way to get practical experience?
Offering to work as a runner is one of the tried and tested routes.
How valuable are websites such as YouTube for young film-makers?
Any opportunity to share your work and get some feedback is helpful. There are also lots of more specific sites – I was impressed recently with the Doritos film competition idea; I think about two thousand films were entered and overall their quality seemed really high.
What are some of the biggest setbacks and difficulties encountered by your students?
One is the distance between their expectations and the reality of working in film. Another is that they can’t always afford to work for free but this is often a short term way to get your foot in the door. It is unfair because many students have to work a part-time job to fund their degree and they simply can’t afford the time. The only good thing about this is that I suppose it filters people out – the most passionate persevere.
I presume you would recommend studying film on the kind of course that you teach; what do students tend to get out of it? Are they more employable with this kind of qualification or does it really come down to experience and contacts?
Studying film is ideal for some people but others are better suited to get straight into working their way up. Whether you have a degree or not you will usually start as a runner, which can be frustrating.
Are internships a good way for film students to get work experience (as is the case in publishing, for example), or do they need to be making and showing their own films?
I would always recommend a combination of these two approaches.
Have you always wanted to work solely on films or are you also interested in television? What are the main differences between working on the two?
I have worked in television. They are very different in that each job in film is an individual project on a freelance basis and in TV there are more staff jobs which are usually ongoing. Generally TV involves more regular hours but things change all the time and some TV crews are being made more freelance.
What are some of your favourite films?
I like quite diverse things – The Hustler, Wings of Desire, Black Narcissus – the main thing they have in common is the emotional intensity they all convey.
Can you tell us a bit about the film you have been working on recently?
Axed is a horror film, set in London and the Lake District. The main character goes into meltdown after losing his job with drastic consequences for his family. It is directed by Ryan Driscoll, whom I have worked with before.
What is your job description? Can you describe your role in the making of this film?
As production designer I am responsible for creating the visual world of the film. In this case that included a London home and a country cottage as the two main settings. I am responsible for finding the locations that help tell the story and enhance character and atmosphere. In a practical sense this often means getting rid of anything that doesn’t fit my design concept for the set.
Costumes and props for students
How do you begin to look for somewhere?
Many houses in London are added to databases by owners who want them to be used as film sets. From these we choose our favourites and narrow them down. In this case, we actually shot everything we needed at that house in a day – very quickly! It was a bit of a killer because it was four stories and I was constantly running up and down stairs! You obviously have to be careful to return it as it was so as soon as each scene was struck I would have to return it to how it was before.
Which film genre do you feel allows the most creative approach in terms of directing/producing?
They all can but some, such as action and rom com, are more associated with formula. Films that break the mould are often the most successful.
What do you think are the main differences between the styles of European and Hollywood films?
Obviously this is a bit of a stereotype but Hollywood films tend to follow a more conventional style while European films can be a bit freer and more experimental. In The Fundamentals of Film-Making, I tried to include a cross-section, from quite obscure indie films to bigger and more well known ones.
With illegal downloading on the increase, the film industry is struggling to make the kind of profits from DVD sales that it used to. Is this affecting people like yourself? Is there a sense in which this could have some positive effects – stopping millions of pounds/dollars being wasted on film production and ensuring only really worthwhile projects get worked on? Or will big blockbusters continue to get made and small indie films suffer?
It is affecting Hollywood more at the moment and I am not so involved in that aspect of the industry anyway. It’s a difficult situation but some big films do seem to have a lot of money squandered on them so perhaps it could have some pros.
Your book emphasises that film-making is about teamwork (your first chapter is called ‘The Team’). Is being involved in the making of a film always a fun/sociable working environment?
No – every film is different. A particular mix of people in a particular place at a particular time … anything can happen. That’s part of what makes it exciting.
It may seem staged but Jane really did have this copy of David Crow’s Visible Signs sitting on her desk
I understand that shortly after finishing writing The Fundamentals of Film-Making, you had a baby. As you also work as a lecturer, has this affected your ability to work in the film industry – with no set 9-5 hours?
I have been lucky in working with people who have given me quite a lot of freedom and flexibility, but that is not always the case. Also I am working on several projects of my own which means I have ultimate flexibility. There are lots of things that I wouldn’t be able to work on now but that’s the nature of film – no settled routine. And that variety is one of the upsides of freelance work. On filming days you have to be prepared to give up your life! Then the film finishes and you’re home again.
Those who want to work in film have to accept that it’s very long hours. It’s even worse for location than it is for design – when they’re shooting exteriors they need all the daylight possible. I’m lucky that being a lecturer is also relatively flexible.
Did you enjoy writing The Fundamentals of Film-Making and do you think it influenced the way you think about your job?
Definitely. It covers and condenses several modules that I have taught so it is very familiar territory for me. I have files for all these topics! The book contains the best of these folders, clear examples, all in one place. I’m a big fan of demystifying – it’s my main mission in life! It was really enjoyable to have everything in one book like that – it’s a great reference point.
Here you can see Jane’s folders with the teaching notes she used for different sections of her book
Do you think it’s important for anyone interested in film to know about all the different aspects of film-making other than the ones which they intend to be involved with?
YES! I think some sort of understanding helps in the process and shows in the end product.
In your book for AVA, you cover the main elements of film-making – such as scriptwriting, producing, sound, directing, cinematography. What do you think is the most vital element in creating a successful film?
All of them because film-making is a collaborative process. But if I had to pick one it would be the script because that is your map for making the film. Get that right and you have a solid foundation to build on. Without it you have nothing.
AVA’s range of Film-Making titles – with Jane’s book in the centre
There are some mini interviews at the back of your book where you ask some figures from the film industry 3 questions: How did you get into your job? What is the best bit about what you do? And the worst? What do you personally view as the best and worst jobs involved with making a film?
The best is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a whole different world, starting with reading the script and then doing the research to create the visual world that the script requires. That’s always brilliant because every script is different, so what you’re doing is always unique. The worst has to be the long hours on set.
If you could choose a book to make into a movie what would it be?
I love this question but it’s so hard! Perhaps Zadie Smith’s On Beauty … I really like her work.
Have you ever travelled to any exotic locations to work on film sets?
Unfortunately not yet!
What benefits has CGI brought to the film industry and what are the downsides?
It’s brilliant. I tell my students to view it as another tool in the toolbox, something we are lucky to be able to experiment with. The only downside is when it’s over-relied on – like anything really. It’s a shame when special effects are overdone.
Students are always trying to be inventive – whether with speed, colour, structure etc. They are very digitally savvy now, so they play around and come up with some very impressive things. They’re very visually literate and usually extremely aware of what’s around at the moment, so it’s nice to show them things from the past to contextualise things a bit. You want them to appreciate what’s gone before and simultaneously push them forward.
I love classic Tarantino films such as Reservoir Dogs, but many people find them too violent. There is some public concern over children of young ages becoming immune to images of violence portrayed in films, video games, even on the news, and criticism of the entertainment industry for going further and further in their desire to shock an audience (the Saw films, for instance). Are films getting more violent and is this a problem?
I’m really squeamish! I try not to watch things like that, even though I have worked on a lot of horror films. People are trying to push boundaries, break taboos. In regard to viewing certificates, it seems that a lot more is allowed now: the line has definitely moved backwards. In terms of our students’ films, there are no set out rules. Each film is judged on its individual merit. We see the script and if there was something inappropriate in that we would try to get the students to question it, rather than censor it. I don’t think I’ve ever had to drastically alter anything – instead more often I’m actually trying to encourage them to be more politically aware. We did have a brilliant documentary about the history and nature of protests but they tend not to go in that direction.
AVA books now contain an ‘ethics’ section, in which readers are invited to consider what they would do if their job demanded an action which went against their conscience. In Basics Film-making: The Language of Film, three questions are posed: Are documentary films more ethical than fictional films? Is it unethical to film people without their permission? And – would you produce a documentary film to support a political party? What would your answers to these questions be?
I don’t think documentaries are more ethical than fictional films but I do believe it is unethical to film people without their permission. I wouldn’t personally produce a film to support a political party.
In the back of The Fundamentals of Film-making you provide a great ‘Essential viewing’ list for young film-makers. Are there any recent films you would like to add to this list?
Always! An Education (which won a Best Leading Actress BAFTA for Carey Mulligan), Frozen River (about a single mother who becomes involved in smuggling illegal immigrants), Katalin Varga (by British auteur Peter Strickland, set in Romania), A Mighty Heart (with Angelina Jolie as reporter Marianne Pearl), Moon (directed by David Bowie’s son and with Sam Rockwell), Let The Right One In (a Swedish film about vampires – but nothing like all the other vampire things around at the moment), Fantastic Mr Fox (directed by Wes Anderson and based on the book by Roald Dahl),and Persepolis (an animated film about a young Iranian girl).
You also provide a list of film festivals. Do you often go to these? And how helpful are they for film students?
I go to the London Film Festival every year. There are lots of opportunities to show your work and meet other film makers at the variety of festivals that exist. It is a bit difficult with the baby – the cinema can be tricky so now I mostly catch up on DVD.
What are your plans for the future? Is there a particular aspect of film-making (or genre of film) which you would like to become involved with?
It would be fun to do something futuristic – I’ve done period pieces set in the past but nothing in the future. It would be great from a design point of view because you could let your imagination run wild.
Could you sum up your feelings about your career in film-making/the industry in general in 5 words?
Creative, Unexpected, Challenging, Fascinating, Fun.
Jane’s desk with the new AVA catalogue carelessly left on it… Charlotte Worthington, author of Basics Film-making: Producing, works right next door.
Jane’s book is available from Amazon through our website.