Under The Spotlight: Hannah, Fergus and Alison

Studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is an experience like no other, developing friendships and networks that last a lifetime. Digital Film and Television alumni Hannah Smith (2014), Fraser Thom (2015) and Alison Still (2017) spent time working together during their studies and have been reunited in London, where they produce CBBC show The Playlist. Mark Good finds out more.

Tell me about the sorts of roles you carry out on The Playlist.

HS: I’m the series producer on The Playlist so no two days are the same. I arrange all aspects of pre-production which usually includes booking and liaising with celebrities, locations, crew and any other logistics involved with upcoming shoots. Scheduling is key for a weekly show!

On set, I interview the celebrities, sometimes direct the episodes and ensure we get everything we need to make our cut work. A lot of my time is spent focused on the creative work behind the show, coming up with concepts and features or writing the scripts. I also oversee all the edits and give daily notes as each watch comes through.

FT: I’m the camera supervisor on The Playlist which essentially means I look after the visual side of the show – what we see on screen and how it looks. I work with the show’s director to make sure his vision is realised and bring my own creative ideas to the table. We work to incredibly tight deadlines due to our celebrity participants which means I’m always kept on my toes when we’re shooting.

AS: I’m a junior editor on The Playlist so I spend most of my time editing short comedy VTs and features for the show. Our team is quite small so I also help with research and I’m a runner on shoots.

How are you enjoying working with your fellow RCS graduates?

HS: We are very lucky to work with fellow RCS graduates. Having the same training and taking a similar approach makes working together so much easier. We have extensive knowledge of our disciplines so there’s a lot of respect and – definitely no egos!

FT: It’s really brilliant working with my fellow graduates. Not only is there a sense of camaraderie between us, we have complete trust in each of our abilities and understand where different skills lie in the team. It might seem silly but knowing that we are all technically savvy due to the rounded training at RCS comes as a great advantage. Those who specialise in certain departments often don’t have skills beyond them and when you’re part of a small team it’s important to help each other out.

AS: It’s nice to be working with familiar faces, especially in a first job. We’re all Scots working in London and we can reminisce about home together.

How did you come to be working together?

HS: After graduating, Fergus was offered a job with the CBBC Official Chart Show. Six months later, I had the opportunity to join the team. The show morphed into The Playlist and Alison made the move too. We had all worked on RCS projects together prior to this coming about.

What is it like to have a network of familiar faces to draw upon?

HS: Studying at RCS opens up so many doors in the industry. You come away with an extensive contact book, not only including industry professionals who trained you but industry professionals that you trained with. We have worked with Production Technology and Management graduate Neil McDowell Smith (BA Production Technology and Management 2016) as a lighting designer, Production Arts and Design alumna Kirstin Rodger (BA Production Arts and Design 2015) as an art director and DFTV graduate Kirsty Elliot (BA Digital and Film Television 2015) as a camera operator. Michael J Ferns (BA Digital Film and Television 2012) directed the predecessor to The Playlist, The CBBC Official Chart Show.

We’re very lucky to be able to pick up the phone to fellow graduates, understanding their skills and knowing the great quality they will bring to the table.

How did you enjoy your studies at RCS?

HS: It was an incredible place to study. You’re in a playground where you can express yourself and test your skills with incredible people and importantly, you’re allowed to make mistakes. My time there was amazing and I’ve taken away so much from it.

FT: I loved studying at RCS. The DFTV course itself was everything I hoped it would be in its balance of theoretical and practical filmmaking, and the hands-on experience certainly did a huge amount to prepare me for the industry. Beyond the course itself, RCS always felt like such a vibrant place to be. It’s the perfect place to foster creativity.

AS: It was a great environment in which to study as we were surrounded by creatives who were like-minded and interested in being involved in projects outside of their own course. As a film-maker you had pretty much all the crew you’d need for a film studying at the RCS. We were really spoiled!

What types of skills did the course teach?

HS: As a producer, it was great to spend my first year learning about all departments in film and television. My knowledge now extends to screenwriting, story development and structure, and the technical aspects of our world too. If I’m on a shoot or in an edit, I understand the tech language, a skill I’m forever thankful for.

AS: Developing our screenwriting skills was my favourite part of the course as I learned to appreciate how important story is over any other element of a film. Actually making the films was where I learned the most; working long days on set highlighted the importance of communication. Learning to anticipate each other’s needs was something that we started to pick up as we worked on more shoots together.

Which projects from that time stand out as highlights of your studies and why?

HS: The last few months of my third year were spent developing, pitching and producing a TV pilot with River City, a music video and the three graduation films of my year. At the time, I remember being overwhelmed by the workload and making sure my brain was across all projects at the same time. That definitely prepared me for the multi-shoot, multi-edit, multi-pitch world I now work in. Multi-tasking is key.

FT: Both the River City project and showcase films stand out as highlights of my time at RCS. River City saw us taking over the BBC set in Dumbarton for a week and working alongside industry professionals to produce content and work like a professional crew. It was a hugely valuable time. When you’re launched into the industry you don’t necessarily have time to make mistakes so this was a brilliant opportunity to learn in a safe environment but with professional expectations.

The showcase films took this ethos to the next level in that we were suddenly leading departments made up of our peers on funded films. The fact the films are funded in itself is both unique and brilliant. It means real production value can be added to the films but also adds a pressure to achieve quality and ultimately draws the best from everyone involved.

AS: My highlight was my final year film, Antonio. It was set in the 1970s and I loved the process of recreating the era, through the colours and textures, both on set and in post-production. Being given the opportunity to direct such a big piece with so many people working on it was a lot of responsibility but an amazing experience, and I’m really proud of the final piece.

How did your course prepare you for the industry?

HS: We were thrown in at the deep end on our course. In the first week we were given the premise to a short film and told to ”˜just go make it’. And we did. We learned what worked and what didn’t. I think that go-get attitude really pushed me and with the skills we developed through the hands-on nature of the course, it all became second nature when I entered the industry.

AS: Learning about the ins and outs of crews, what everyone’s roles are, and set etiquette were useful for when I started as a runner on dramas. Now that I’ve moved into a different role on a different kind of team, collaborating and communicating are key.

What was Glasgow like as a place for a DFTV student to study?

HS: I loved Glasgow. I’m an Edinburgh girl originally so felt like a traitor when I fell in love with the city but it’s such a great place as a student. There is a great night-life and it’s affordable! It’s also an amazing place for anyone making a short film people are friendly so they always want to help.

FT: I loved studying in Glasgow. Hailing from the Highlands, it was a leap to be living in the big city but it’s an incredibly friendly place and is always jam packed with creative things going on, so it really did feel like it was the best place to be.

AS: The Glasgow Film Festival and Short Film Festival are great for inspiration. There are lots of screenings at the GFT with Q&As from the film-makers afterwards, which are really interesting and often have big names taking part.

How are the next few weeks and months shaping up?

HS: We have just finished wrapping up series one of The Playlist and series two is quickly getting underway. Between auditions, recces, scripts and pre-shoots we’ve hardly had a minute to breathe. We’ve also been working on a couple of pitches for some new shows so watch this space!

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