The NFTS has long enjoyed a reputation for training up skilled professionals ready to walk out into careers in the screen industries. But its fostering of distinctive visionary talents deserves equal emphasis, says the school’s director Jon Wardle.
For National Film and Television School director Jon Wardle, the school’s 50th anniversary has been an opportunity for reflection. “It’s about trying to continually revisit what’s the point of a national film school or a national film and television school,” he says. “Why did it get created 50 years ago? Are we still delivering on that, has the remit changed, and what were some of the things that made it important at that point?”
Wardle joined the NFTS in 2012 as head of curriculum, becoming deputy director in 2015 and then taking the reins from the school’s director Nik Powell, who retired in 2017. These have been years of substantial change, including the 2017 opening of $27.4m (£20m), 20,000 sq ft of teaching space across two new buildings at the school’s campus in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and expansion of courses as the NFTS stepped up to its responsibility to anticipate and address the skill needs of the UK film industry.
Since taking over as director, Wardle has made expanding access and opportunity central to decision-making. “It’s partly about embracing our national identity,” he says. “We are the National Film and Television School, we’re not the Beaconsfield Film and Television School. That’s a gift, and we need to embrace it. There’s a big push on outside-of-London production, which is only going in one direction, and we needed to get out and claim our mantle, as well as live up to our responsibilities around that.”
The past three years have seen the NFTS open bases in Glasgow, Leeds and central London, with Cardiff the latest addition. This has been achieved — in a nimble and fiscally responsible way — by occupying existing facilities, such as at BBC Scotland and ITV Studios in Leeds. Diploma, certificate and short courses are offered, creating accessible opportunities to students in their own localities.
Also around the theme of access, the NFTS has paid increasing attention to the diversity of its cohort. Film education is expensive to deliver, and the school must ensure it recruits students “based on ability, not ability to pay”, in the words of Wardle. The school has made significant strides in the direction of ethnic diversity and gender parity, and is now giving urgent attention to socio-economic diversity.
The third pillar of the school’s access strategy has been about the “plurality of the offer”, adds Wardle. “What I mean by that is, it was all very full-time when I joined and — over those nine years, not just since becoming director — I’ve always said the school has to meet people in different ways in their circumstances, whether that’s three-month or part-time one-year courses that you can do while having a job, growing the short-course portfolio, and now blended and online courses.”
Expansion of the NFTS offer, which now includes 17 MA and nine diploma courses in various disciplines, has been made possible because the school owns its own 3.5-acre site. Despite aspirations by previous regimes to move to central London, Powell and now Wardle embraced the advantages of Beaconsfield, and increasingly students choose to live in and near the town.
“That’s changed,” says Wardle. “When I joined it was probably 70% in London, 30% in Beaconsfield. Now it’s more like 70% Beaconsfield and High Wycombe, and 30% London. People talk about the Beaconsfield bubble. Students come together, there’s real community, and there’s so much going on at the school, from masterclasses to screenings organised by the students. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper to live here.”
The opening of new buildings, regional expansion and proliferation of courses addressing skills gaps — these are all developments that have caught people’s attention. And few would dispute the reputation of the NFTS for training up professionals who emerge ready to walk straight into roles in the film, television and video games industries. Graduate employment rates are impressive: 93% within six months of students graduating.
But the focus on the industrial achievements of the NFTS, with its state-of-the-art facilities and its close links with film and TV companies, perhaps also colours perceptions that the school’s focus is more on career opportunity than fostering visionary talents. For Wardle, that is totally wrong.
“Yes, the NFTS is about producing the craftspeople who will work across both British content and international production in the UK, who make the UK a place where we train the best cinematographers, editors and production designers in the world,” he remarks. “But it’s equally about fostering new voices who will power the British film and television industry — the Rose Glasses of this world.
“That’s what the school has always tried to straddle. Through Nik’s time and my time we did push more into making sure we are producing the craftspeople of the future, but we absolutely haven’t lost sight of distinctive talent.”
In addition to Saint Maud writer/director Glass, Wardle namechecks alumni such as Nick Rowland (Calm With Horses), Shola Amoo (The Last Tree), Cathy Brady (Wildfire), Michael Pearce (Beast) and 2013 graduate Andrew Cumming, whose upcoming debut feature The Origin is backed by the BFI and Creative Scotland. “They are amazing people, and there are just so many of them that it can’t be a mistake,” he notes, wryly.
Many of the NFTS’s distinctive voices — including talents such as Roger Deakins, Terence Davies and Nick Broomfield, as well as graduates such as Sarah Gavron, Clio Barnard, Amoo and Glass — are participating in the BFI Southbank’s season of films and interviews celebrating the school throughout September. Alumni have also been filmed for the NFTS’s newly launched digital archive, talking about their experiences and what they learned. These include Lynne Ramsay, Nick Park and Anthony Chen. The archive also includes a curated collection of more than 200 graduate films, stills, trailers and original screenplays.
The NFTS’s focus on professional training and developing visionary talents “are not mutually exclusive”, says Wardle. “I think the reason the likes of Mahalia Belo and Nick Rowland are so successful is because they know how to work in an industrial model. They meet deadlines, they know how budgets work, they know how to manage a tech recce. Nick walked out of the school and immediately directed Ripper Street before he made his first feature. I said, ‘What was the transition like?’ He went, ‘Actually, the school prepared me totally. I went on the tech recce, and I was one of the most experienced people on it. I’d had 60 students to talk to before, and now I’ve got all professionals.’”
Similarly, courses such as editing embrace the craft in all its forms. “We’re one of the only film schools that does an editing workshop on how to edit fixed-rig documentary,” says Wardle. “My view is that all this diversity of experiences makes you even better at what you do. If you’re an editor, you can get experience editing a drama with one director over here, perhaps one who’s in the Shola Amoo, distinctive independent filmmaker space. And over here, you’re doing a fixed-rig editing workshop. These things all strengthen different muscles. It’s something that we lean into. We produce sound designers who can go out and work in film, high-end TV, entertainment TV, unscripted and games.”
In response, broadcasters and television companies have recognised the vital training role the NFTS provides — to their benefit. While the UK film production sector also benefits, the film sector is arguably not as well-placed to give such consistent financial support — especially with studios being headquartered in Los Angeles.
“The school is more supported financially by the TV industry than the film industry,” agrees Wardle. “The broadcasters have been the mainstay of the school’s industry support for more than 25 years.” However, it is important to note that the UK’s Film Distributors’ Association, the UK Cinema Association, the BFI and Universal Pictures International are all NFTS funders.
In the craft departments, Wardle sees the school’s role as producing leaders: heads of department. While noting ScreenSkills and the BFI are continuing to address a skills gap in the film and high-end TV environment, and that “there’s a big desire to open the funnel at the bottom end”, the NFTS must also be mindful of its mission — producing, for example, 10 exceptional MA cinematography graduates each year.
“If you train a composer at the NFTS, they walk out and are capable of being the composer of Doctor Who, which is what Segun Akinola did within months of leaving the school. Or they leave the school and they’re directing a major television series for Netflix or the BBC. Alice Seabright is a good example — she leaves the school and picks up a six-part series for BBC that she’s written and directed. I don’t know anywhere else that does that.”
Wardle takes pride in the awards attention for NFTS graduate shorts — eight Oscar and 32 Bafta nominations to date, converting to 12 wins — and that’s not counting Scottish and Welsh Baftas. Its students have earned more Student Academy Awards nominations than any other film school in the world — and won gold six times.
“I know I’m the director, but I feel like the UK should be really proud to have a film school that punches well above its weight — 500 students in tiny Beaconsfield regularly beat the University of Southern California, New York University, the Beijing Film Academy for the major international prizes around the world,” says the NFTS director. “A lot of that is because that spirit of collaboration, focus on excellence and creative risk-taking is still there, even as the school has become bigger and more structured in its processes.”
Powell, Wardle’s predecessor as director, famously enjoyed fundraising — an activity that not only helped pay for new buildings and facilities, but also ensured the NFTS could offer scholarships and bursaries to a growing number of students. The school has continued to build on the important fundraising work led by Powell, who died in 2019 — and the scholarship fund is now approaching an annual $1.4m (£1m). In the last academic year, 80% of UK MA students received some level of financial support, helping with fees that are an annual $20,300 (£14,800).
“I can’t think of another school of our size in the UK — in art or music, for example — that offers equivalent access programmes,” comments Wardle, who pays tribute to the support of the NFTS board of governors, chaired by Patrick McKenna, for their help here and in so many areas. “But it’s still not enough. You’ve still got to live for two years, you’ve still got to pay your bills and rent, and that’s hard.”
One in four NFTS students over the past five years have come from ethnic minorities — although this can vary between disciplines, and the school is now addressing that. “Production design is a particular challenge,” notes Wardle. “So we’re going to have to do some work around one or two disciplines to make it even more accessible. And on socio-economics, it’s something I feel incredibly passionate about — speaking as a boy from Coventry who grew up never knowing anyone in the film industry, and finding myself in the job that I’m in.”
After much internal discussion about what to measure, the NFTS has now settled on the socio-economic measures set out by the Social Mobility Commission. In the UK, 38% of the population is measured as belonging to the lower of the three socio-economic groups, and at the NFTS that figure is 15%.
“We now are plotting our way forward to 2022,” says Wardle, “and we want to increase that by at least 5% each year using our scholarship activity. There are certain donors who are saying to us, ‘Actually, that’s the thing we want to support.’ Whereas three years ago it was about female directors or writers — and we still have supporters in those areas — new people come to us and say, ‘I really want to support socio-economic access.’”
Wardle is speaking to Screen International in the middle of an epic listening session that he undertakes every summer — meeting all 235 first-year MA students for 20 minutes each. These meetings are important for understanding how teaching can be tweaked to better serve student needs, especially given the collaborative way students from different disciplines come together to make films jointly, and how these relationships need to serve and nourish all parties.
“It’s detailed, granular work — how do we set a tone about how colourists and cinematographers should work together that doesn’t mimic the mistakes of what happens in the industry, but plays to the best of it,” he says.
Judging by the students’ hopes and fears, though, the NFTS is getting it right. “What I’ve been hearing is they hope they’re going to have the same kind of creative, joyful experience in the real world that they have now,” says Wardle. “I was talking to sound designers this morning, and they said, ‘The way we work with editors and composers, it’s just amazing. I hope that’s what it’s going to be like when I leave.’”