National Film & Television School, known simply as ‘the School’, is a world leader in post-graduate film education and plays a rich role in the UK and abroad. NFTS’s calculated genesis began with a government recommendation to establish a national film school tailored to the goals of the country’s swinging film industry in the 1960’s. But history accounts for only a small fraction of what makes the School a venerable institution today. In the years since its inception, its distinguished faculty and alumni have garnered international praise for their work worldwide while students continue to collect a host of awards for their own work.
We were eager to learn more about the School’s MA in Directing Animation which is widely revered as one of the best anywhere. With an emphasis on storytelling, students make use of NFTS’s enviable and unique facilities to create 2D and 3D animations using a variety of techniques. We spoke with Helen Nabarro, the Head of Animation and an animation producer herself, to learn more about the program for our latest Q&A. (This interview, done via email, has been edited for length & clarity).
ACR: Helen, great to feature NFTS’s MA in Directing Animation today! Tell us a bit about what students can expect from the program.
HN: Our Animation Directors, like all the students at the School, learn by making films. They work with specialists from other departments and gain experience using industry standard facilities. The first year of the Animation Directing course consists of workshops, master classes and a series of projects, most of which result in a short film. These will become the basis of the students’ show reels. New students start with a 3-week Foundation course including practical Camera & Lighting workshop with tutors Paul Bush and Marjut Rimminen.
The curriculum begins with a Sand Animation workshop led by Caroline Leaf. Once the animation is complete, it is handed over to the Composing students who create an accompanying soundtrack.
All of the first year projects involve students from other disciplines – projects include Storyboarding, Creating Character, Animation Performance, Directing and Voice Over, Pixilation, Working to a Soundtrack, and a live industry project.
The first year students go to the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and also visit animation studios in London. We encourage work placements in the summer break. The second year is dedicated to development and production of the graduation film, working with a team of at least a dozen students plus animation assistants. Our tutors are film-makers and animation professionals – Robert Bradbrook runs the first year curriculum and Paul Bush is in charge of the graduation films. Visiting tutors include Caroline Leaf, Marjut Rimminen, Barry Purves, Ossie Parker, Ginger Gibbons and Geoff Dunbar
ACR: Do students focus on a particular technique?
HN: Our philosophy is more about storytelling than technique. We’re interested in what the film is saying and how it will make the audience feel. Students are free to choose the technique for their graduation film and for most of the first year projects. However, some exercises are technique specific like the Sand project and also Character of Place, which is pixilation.
The students come from varied backgrounds with very different strengths. We encourage them to experiment with alternative routes into storytelling and different approaches to techniques – some have very advanced technical skills and others may have developed a particular aesthetic. The course is small enough to help with individual weaknesses where necessary.
ACR: You’ve mentioned some of the veteran ensemble of working instructors that teach students along with distinguished guests...
HN: I’m not sure they’d like to be called veterans as most are still making films, but we are very fortunate to have some very talented and experienced visiting directors. Master classes in the cinema have included Ray Harryhausen, Henry Sellick, Andy Serkis, Nick Park and Terry Gilliam.
ACR: Similarly, NFTS has an enviable roster of alumni including Nick Park and Victoria Mather. What role do they play for current students?
HN: We are a small School so the students know those in the years above and below their own. This provides a bench mark to aim for, as well as a valuable network when they leave. Vicky’s Stanley Pickle has had a wonderful response (32 awards to date) and this year Afarin Eghbal’s Abuelas is also winning awards around the world.
Our established alumni are also very supportive offering studio visits, work placements, and even job opportunities, as well as visiting to talk to the current year groups. However, I think it’s fair to say that it is the quality of the work rather than the school they come from which opens the door for the students.
ACR: I would be remiss to not ask about your Beaconsfield campus. Give us a taste of what it’s like…
HN: The School is based at purpose-built studios just outside of London. There has been a film studio here since the early 1920’s. Over the years, various buildings have been added and the School now has film and television stages and post production facilities to rival those of many professional production companies – and a wonderful new digital cinema.
The campus is a mixture of old and new. We have a state-of-the-art cinema in the Oswald Morris Building and elsewhere on site we have industry-standard sound, music and post production facilities. As well as the high tech kit, we have large purpose built shooting stages dating back to the days when the site was a working film studio. The main stage even has a large hidden tank under the floor, which was used to shoot miniature sea battles (no longer used!).
In many ways, the facilities inform the School’s ethos - students at the NFTS have the opportunity to learn by doing – they make films in a professional environment, guided by industry professionals.
Our first year Animation students each have their own work station with computer, graphics tablet, rostrum and camera. In the second year, students have their own rooms, usually with a spare desk for an assistant. Graduation films can be produced in any animation technique and each year there is a wide range from traditional drawn animation and all variations of CG to Pixilation and Stop.
ACR: I also understand that NFTS also offers a variety of short courses…
HN: Yes, our short course department offers courses in Production (Drama and Documentary), Producing, Screenwriting, Directing, Editing, Camera, Sound plus bespoke courses by request. These courses are usually 5 days duration.
ACR: Last but not least, is there an ideal candidate to apply for one of the coveted spots in the MA program?
HN: We’re looking for candidates who can tell a story. They will also have the potential to inspire and lead a team of fellow film makers. Strangely, the fact that there are only 8 places does seem to dissuade applicants from applying so the odds aren’t as tough as you think.
ACR: Helen, thanks for your insight into National Film & Television School today. Cheers!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.