Back in 1975, Oliver Stapleton BSC, says he was on his way to Canada, to explore and investigate opportunities in the indie filmmaking scene there, when a casual invitation led him to the National Film School. “Once I saw the school, Canada faded out of my head completely, I was obsessed.” Along with being a working DP, Stapleton today is also co-head of cinematography at the school, now called the National Film & Television School (NFTS).
Founded on the site of the old Beaconsfield Film Studios, at that time the NFS (it added the T in 1982) had been open for only four years. However, it had already graduated one of its most famous future alumni, Sir Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC.
“Back then, the school was pretty anarchic,” recalls Deakins. “There was a loose structure of guidance and there were film study classes but, for the most part, students made what they could of it with the facilities that were available to them. Each student was given a substantial budget and access to an ‘Aladdins Cave’ of camera equipment and lighting. We are creatures of our own times and I am glad to have had the opportunity when I did.”
Neither Deakins, nor Stapleton, had a specific cinematography career in their sights when they entered the doors of the NFS. But, their subsequent trajectories challenged the culture of snobbery towards film school graduates at the time – there was enormous resentment towards students who left the NFS in the mid ‘70s and ‘80s – and helped to propel the school from its experimental beginnings towards the global respectability it enjoys today.
“Historically, anyone who came out of film school calling themselves a DP was laughed at,” says Stapleton. “But it is a totally different industry now – 25% of the members of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) are NFTS graduates.”
This includes figures such as: Tim Palmer BSC (Killing Eve, Line Of Duty), Gavin Finney BSC, (Good Omens, Wolf Hall), Adam Suschitzky BSC (Yellowstone, Fear Of The Walking Dead), Suzie Lavelle BSC ISC (His Dark Materials, Normal People), Kate Reid BSC (Hannah, The Nevers), Urszula Pontikos BSC (Marcella, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool), Maja Zamojda BSC (The Spanish Princess, The Great) and Chloë Thomson (Requiem, Adult Material). Indeed, the proximity of the NFTS to the BSC saw 2020 as the year in which the BSC presented the NFTS Cinematography Department with its Special Achievement Award.
Stapleton and his co-head of cinematography, award-winning Pink Floyd DP Stuart Harris, took the helm of the NFTS Cinematography MA in 2016 from the hugely respected Brian Tufano BSC, cinematographer on films such as Trainspotting, Billy Elliot and Kidulthood (the latter made during his tenure at the NFTS), who had steered the ship solo since 2003. Tufano’s influence on the gender equality of the cinematography MA was substantial, and cinematographers such as Lavelle, Reid and Pontikos all learned their craft under Tufano’s tutelage. Today, seven of the eight female members of the BSC are NFTS alumni, a demonstration of the influence of the film school route on redressing gender imbalance within the industry.
Access to the substantial NFTS alumni network is a benefit of attending the school. “Students can go and speak to 242 graduate cinematographers from the Roger Deakins level downwards,” says Duncan Bruce, cinematography coordinator and alumni manager. “They get advice about anything from agents to gaffers, job and APA rates.”
An important date in the NFTS alumni’s calendar is the Sue Gibson BSC Cinematography Award, now in its fourth year, which recognises a member of NFTS cinematography alumni who has advanced the profession of cinematography in a significant way. Gibson, herself an NFTS alumna (1981) and the first female president of the BSC (2008-2010) passed away in 2016.
“As soon as you become a student, you get to vote,” says Bruce. “The alumni decide the nominees, the alumni decide the winner. It’s a great way to pay tribute to Sue.” The inaugural award went to Charlotte Bruus Christensen DFF for her work on Fences, who then stayed on to present a masterclass to the attendees.
Teaching throughout the Cinematography MA is delivered by industry professionals with active careers. There’s a core of permanent staff: Bruce, Stapleton and Harris, supported by a host of visiting cinematographer tutors, such as Dick Pope BSC and double Oscar-winner Chris Menges BSC ASC.
The longest running workshop is that run by Billy Williams OBE BSC, “which has been going since I was at the school in 1978,” remarks Stapleton. “We also do a seven-day series called ‘Perspectives In Light’ and bring in the superstars, like Seamus McGarvey BSC, Robbie Ryan BSC ISC. They come in for one day, we give them the set and the students act as their crew.”
Stuart Harris also heads the Directing Commercials Diploma at the NFTS. “Stuart introduced this commercials element to the Cinematography MA,” says Stapleton, “which means our cinematographers can now get commercials on their reel.” He explains that supplementing their income with commercials allows DPs to wait for the career-boosting projects they really want. “You can pay the rent shooting commercials,” he emphasises.
Another new introduction is the Set Protocol Workshop, “a part of the process we really need to get right” according to Stapleton, where directors, DPs and designers are brought together early in the programme and taught the importance of set etiquette and collaboration.
Indeed, director/DP partnerships formed at the NFTS can last well into a graduate’s career and be a vital part of how they get work after they leave the monastic bubble of the school.
BAFTA Award-winning DP Jakob Ihre FSF, recipient of the third annual Sue Gibson Award for Chernobyl, collaborates regularly with fellow NFTS contemporary, director Joachim Trier, on features like Thelma. BAFTA nominee Stephen Pehrsson BSC has teamed up with fellow graduate, director Toby Haynes, on series such as Dr Who and Black Mirror.
Indeed, Stapleton himself admits that director, Julien Temple (whose credits include The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson and Shane), was entirely responsible for getting his cinematographic career going after the NFS. Standing up to the pressure to use an established DP, on movies like Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy, Temple stuck by Stapleton, his NFS contemporary and friend. “Without Julien I wouldn’t have had the same career at all,” Stapleton stresses.
Bonds formed within the Cinematography MA are also really important when graduates come to find their feet in the industry. “One or two start picking up work, and when they can’t do a particular job they’ll say to the production, ‘I’ve got this mate who…,” explains Stapleton. According to Duncan Bruce, “around 91% of NFTS graduates continue a career in cinematography.”
NFTS graduates enter the industry with a working knowledge of the kit used at all budget levels, both film and digital. “Next year,” says Stapleton, “we will be up to six ARRI Alexa Minis with WCU-4 remote controls, along with dozens of lesser cameras. We just ordered a second set of Cooke Panchros. We have good, old-fashioned lighting equipment, but also the ability to hire-in fancy LED lighting.”
Making a bond with the cinematographers of tomorrow reaps rewards for rental companies down the line. “We’ve always found the rental companies incredibly supportive,” says Bruce. “Panavision and ARRI often send their teams to the school with large format cameras, like the ARRI Alexa 65 and the Panavision Millennium XL2 for workshops,”
The NFTS is also the only UK film school with its own industry standard stage, “probably one of the largest stages available to a film school anywhere in the world,” says Stapleton. It also boasts a 4K television stage, rehearsal studios and, new in 2017, the Teaching Block Studio which supports both television and film productions. On a recent visit back to his alma mater, Deakins notes, “The school is more structured nowadays and offers a much broader range of instruction in any number of disciplines, as well as having incomparable equipment on which to learn and experiment.”
The NFTS Cinematography Department was awarded the BAFTA for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema in 2018. With nearly 280 applicants for just eight places each year, expanding to ten as of January 2021, entry may seem unattainable. But that’s not something that should put anyone off.
“Don’t think that you won’t get in,” emphasises Stapleton. “We particularly want to appeal to UK students, just apply and see how it goes.”
“Also, don’t be put off by the costs,” Bruce continues. “Apply to the NFTS and if you get in, then let’s talk about how we solve your money issues.”
Eighty per cent of the UK MA students at the NFTS receive support, including BAFTA and BSC scholarships and targetted funds like the Toledo Scholarship, created to help applicants from the UK’s ethnic minorities access industry training.
“We aim for what we consider to be the best candidates,” says Stapleton, “but in that aim is very much an awareness of gender balance, diversity and cultural background.”
For Stapleton, returning to the school as a teacher was like coming full circle. “Without the NFTS I wouldn’t have had a career,” he reflects. “So now I’m giving back, why not?”
By Natasha Block Hicks