The National Film and Television School is moving home, writes Jonathan Croall. The single most important event since the school's foundation," is how the director of the National Film and Television School, Henning Camre, describes the announcement this month that the school has acquired the Ealing Studios as its new home.
With a Pounds 2 million grant from the Foundation for Sports and the Arts, the site of the historic studios, where many of Britain's classic post-war films were made, will now be converted into an educational centre, where the training work is intended to be run alongside the school's commercial projects.
But what kind of training will the National Film and Television School be bringing to its new Ealing headquarters? The school is unique in its field, offering practical training of a very different kind from the general run of media and film studies courses in universities and colleges. Its penetration of the industry is impressive: in the last three years NFTS students have been involved in over a third of the total film and television productions in this country.
Collaborative work is a strong feature of the curriculum, which consists of 10 specialist areas: animation, art direction and production design, cinematography, direction, editing, music composition, production, screen writing, sound technique and design, and screen studies and dramaturgy.
Through seminars, master classes, practical workshops and combined projects, these areas merge or overlap, giving all the students a broad experience of both film and television. Aspiring directors, for instance, are involved in writing classes, so that they'll be better able to recognise the qualities in a script.
The school, which opened in 1973, is currently housed in a motley collection of buildings in old Beaconsfield Film Studios in Buckinghamshire. Here many British films, from early silent two-reelers to This Sporting Life, were made, and John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings and others in the celebrated Crown Film Unit produced their influential documentaries.
Some 60 full-time students, generally aged between 22 and 28, are taken in annually on the three-year course (for the screen writing course, which lasts 18 months, they may be older).
While many have completed an appropriate degree or training, others have simply had experience in the film industry. Either way, talent is seen as more important than a track record.
"Our greatest assets are the fresh ideas and approaches of the students", Henning Camre stresses. "The technical side is very important, but all that can be learnt. You can't learn talent."
The admissions procedure, designed to catch that talent, is stringent. Applicants initially have to show a portfolio as well as appropriate qualifications or experience; a preliminary short list of candidates is interviewed; and those on the final short list undergo an intensive two-week induction course. This gives the tutors a chance to take an in-depth look at the students' capabilities. Though it's obviously a competitive situation, the students are not just being assessed on their individual skills, but on their teamwork potential.
They have to be aware of what working in film and television demands, Henning Camre says. Many of the newer generation understand the importance of the spirit of collaboration. But others are still too much affected by the school system, where the emphasis is on individual achievement.
Gillies MacKinnon, a graduate who's just directed Steve Martin in A Simple Twist of Fate, speaks highly of the school. "It's a fantastic environment and opportunity," he says. "It gives you a chance to experiment, to learn by your mistakes, but also to understand the importance of communicating with people. "
During a recent controversy about programming at the National Film Theatre, and its alleged failure to show enough classic films, it was suggested that no student at the school was required to study any film earlier than Star Wars.
In fact, film history is an integral part of the curriculum, though it's not studied chronologically, but through movements, or the work of individual directors. Most ideas have been tried before, so students need to look at what's been done in the past, Henning Camre says.
In training students for an industry in which women are notoriously under-represented, especially on the technical side, the school has recently tried to encourage more female students to apply. As a result, the last three intakes have achieved a 5050 balance between the sexes.
Yet only 25 per cent of applicants are women, and in some areas the figure is as low as 3 per cent. "The average female candidate will present herself in more modest, self-critical terms", Henning Camre says. "I don't think positive discrimination is the answer, but the assessors have to be aware of this tendency."
An increasingly important part of the school's work is its umbrella programme, which includes some 80 short courses, lasting anything from a day to a month, and offering training or re-training to people already in the industry, on subjects ranging from copyright, to model-making, to stunts.
The school is funded by the Department of National Heritage and the film industry. And from next year, a student sponsorship fund is being set up to assist with the Pounds 2,350 a year fees, replacing a bursary scheme and supplementing elusive postgraduate grants.
Meanwhile, Camre believes many young people are being short-changed on information about the industry. "I find that most careers officers in schools and colleges don't know what people in film and television actually do, " he says. "There's also little understanding of the variety of what the school can offer."
Further information from the National Film and Television School, Beaconsfield Studios, Station Road, Beaconsfield, Bucks. HP9 1LG, Tel: 01494 671234.