Lights, camera, learning

August 28, 1998

Stephen Bayly is fighting to keep the UK's film school at the cutting edge. Kam Patel reports.

Stephen Bayly has gone back to school. Only this time he has gone back to run it. Inevitably much has changed at the Beaconsfield-based National Film and Television School since 1976 when he joined as a student specialising in fiction direction. The school, then five years old, was barely out of its infancy.

Bayly, the producer of Richard III and Mrs Dalloway, recalls his impressions on returning to the NFTS earlier this year as its new director:

"It's the size that hits you - we are rather bulging at the seams. But it is more presentable, much less forlorn, than when I was a student here. It is also much more organised and structured now."

There are 160 full-time students. Graduates include Mark Herman, writer and director of Brassed Off, Paul Kirby, assistant art director for Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Andrzej Sekula, cinematographer for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

During Bayly's training, the school was run by its founder, Colin Young. "He inspired students and gave them maximum freedom to discover their talents. It was fairly laid-back." Under Young's successor, Henning Camre, the regime was more pragmatic, marked by rationalisation. Bayly aims to find a halfway house between Young's spirit of adventure and Camre's sound organisation.

The NFTS suffered in recent years from a view of vocational training that called for courses to match perfectly skills deficits, Bayly says. "In applying this model to the film and television industries, skills acquisition became paramount; ideas and innovation became secondary considerations."

Ironically, it was exactly such new ideas that have been at the heart of the British film industry's recent renaissance. "It is fresh ideas, new perspectives, irreverance, daring and the willingness to subvert existing forms that distinguishes British films and television from global competitors. This is what the industry should value above all else."

Bayly is sceptical of the rush to embrace digital technology, but to ensure that its graduates are au courant, the school is fitted with digital production equipment. In 1996 it launched Createc, an initiative aimed at exploring the creative possiblities of digital technologies. The project links the NFTS with researchers in the field at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Glasgow.

Bayly says students like the digital equipment and enjoy the opportunity to use it. But he also has a warning: "People breaking into the industry and those aspiring to attend institutions such as the NFTS should not focus on the trickery of new technology and flash imagery. They should concentrate on story-telling. Video is cheap, so it is possible to depict simple and moving stories in a very effective way without great expense. The low cost allows one to experiment, and try again and again, until that little gem materialises."

Creating the conditions in which students can experiment is only part of Bayly's job. Perhaps his greater challenge is to ensure the school's survival. It has had a troubled financial history and is still underfunded. "The increase in productivity over the past nine years, without an increase in our budget, has crippled us in some areas. There is dysfunction due to rationalisation and cuts in some areas of the school. We are terribly understaffed in areas of engineering, systems adminstration and operation training."

The school's core funding, Pounds 2 million this year, comes from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. But Bayly, reeling off a list of the school's achievements, estimates that reductions in costs per student since 1991 have saved the department over Pounds 3 million. In the past five years, the number of graduates has grown from 20 to 57 a year while costs per student have fallen 63 per cent.

Funding cuts have forced the school to charge fees - Pounds 3,500 a year in 1999. The school fears that fees will hamper its mission of encouraging talent, irrespective of ability to pay. Having done its best to meet the demands of government and industry, it believes it deserves better support.

In 1995 Ealing Studios was bought with the aim of moving the school there. But the transfer would require National Lottery funding, which Bayly does not see forthcoming before 2001, and it is no longer guaranteed. "Ealing has romance, but the finances do not add up. We are keeping our minds open."

Labour came to power promising more support for culture industries, and culture secretary Chris Smith has proposed a shake-up of film policy. On the cards is a rationalisation of the present machinery, a key proposal of which is to form a Film Council that would absorb the British Film Institute and take over lottery funding for film production from the Arts Council for England. The NFTS would remain separate as an education institution rather than a policy body.

The Arts Council's lottery funding for film production has so far totalled Pounds 57 million. But the council also provides capital funding, Pounds 40 million since 1995, for equipment and cinema infrastructure. The NFTS has been given Pounds 5.5 million of this money (Pounds 10 million with matching funds) to buy equipment to digitise film production processes.

Bayly says the Film Council idea has merit because it will help unify the industry and rationalise government investment. But he fears that splitting the Arts Council's capital and production funds will damage Britain's film renaissance. He wants a proportion of capital funds to be transferred to the new body, along with film production funds.

Nonetheless, he is encouraged by the government's attitude. "It understands the paybacks of investment in film. It is the first time since the previous Labour government that the film business has been taken seriously. With careful investment in the right places, especially training, the government can ensure continued growth for the industry. But unless the engines for creating content in film are well oiled, we will go nowhere. This is where the NFTS can play its role."

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