Pupils sink their teeth into film-making

17th December 2010 at 00:00
A project in North Lanarkshire is enabling young people to get behind the camera

Frankie is handed a gun for safe-keeping. He hides it in his bedroom, but is tormented by its presence. As his mind races, a tragedy looms.

This is the compelling premise of Backfire, a seven-minute film made by teenagers in North Lanarkshire. It has won multiple awards and earned praise from no lesser luminaries of the moviemaking world than Sir Alan Parker and Sir Ian McKellen.

The film was a product of North Lanarkshire Council's LensHeads project, an intensive introduction to film-making which started in 2003 as a fun class mainly for pupils of Bellshill Academy. It has since grown to a point where 50 to 60 pupils aged 15 to 18 make four short films over a year, with help from professional film-makers. The course now offers Scottish Qualifications Authority certification, and there are animation, sound and make-up offshoots.

"Creative industries, such as TV, film and drama, are ferociously competitive and extremely difficult to break into," says programme manager Willie Davidson. "LensHeads gives local youngsters an opportunity that is available nowhere else in the country."

Mr Davidson is head of the North Lanarkshire Council Learning Centre in Bellshill, where his time is often taken up with producing corporate or training videos. But the eagerness of the youngsters involved in LensHeads makes this one of the most enjoyable parts of his job.

No experience is necessary to take part - many will only have held a camcorder during family holidays - but enthusiasm is essential. Mr Davidson admits that those who pester him with a phone call every couple of days do no harm to their chances of selection.

The evening courses are free and last about 17 weeks. Films are usually shot over one or two weekends. Some LensHeads are able to return for a second year and create a more ambitious film. This year, for the first time, a course was led by a former student, Jack Friskey, a former pupil of St Aidan's High who is studying sound engineering at Glasgow Caledonian University.

LensHeads films all have a fresh feel and a professional sheen. Curiosities, shot in a mothballed cinema in the South Lanarkshire village of Stonehouse, is a witty and unnerving horror, relocating iconic monster movies - The Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula - to a dingy, shadowy Scotland.

Son and Heir, a hand-drawn animation, recalls the battles to increase miners' pay at the turn of the 20th century, vividly depicting the dangers of the job and the callous disregard of a coal magnate who thinks only of the bottom line.

Some pupils take part purely for the fun, but others say the chance of an SQA qualification convinces them to enrol. They can work towards a National Progression Award in television production, which was validated by the SQA in May at a similar level to Standard grade. That, and the industry contacts they make through the course, can be crucial in breaking into their chosen industry.

LensHeads recently surveyed its alumni to find out how much the experience had propelled them forwards. Two-thirds had pursued a career or training in a media-related field, and most respondents were highly enthusiastic about their experience, even if they had opted for another line of work.

One said LensHeads had "brought me out of my shell and improved my confidence, which has allowed me to further myself as a leader in an international organisation".

Another former participant, Stephanie, said: "LensHeads was useful both in an educational and social sense, as a learning environment that was outside of school where you were treated as an adult - a great confidence booster and a helpful precursor to studying at college and university."

Ideas for LensHeads films have to be strong. Three-quarters of the pound;30,000-pound;40,000 annual funding comes from the Lottery-funded First Light organisation on a year-by-year basis. First Light will only release funding if it is impressed by the scripts.

The rest of the funding comes from North Lanarkshire. The council's learning and leisure services department has been making an annual leap of faith, providing a small amount of funding to run a script workshop in the hope that it will lead to a suitable quality for First Light.

A professional scriptwriter works with pupils who have been identified by English and drama teachers for their writing skills. So far, the risk taken by council bosses has paid off, with maximum funding gained for the last three years.

Backfire, the most acclaimed of LensHeads' films, was made in 2009 by pupils from St Andrew's and St Ambrose high schools in Coatbridge, Airdrie Academy and St Aidan's High in Wishaw. At this year's UK First Light Awards, it was singled out for best screenplay by Sir Alan Parker, director of Evita, The Commitments and Midnight Express. It was also described as "thrilling, ingenious and a well-deserved winner" by Sir Ian McKellen, star of The Lord of the Rings and X Men.

But it may be a few years before Scotland reaps the full benefits of LensHeads.

"The large number of pupils telling us they're getting into film-related further education will, I hope, mean that North Lanarkshire really is developing the next generation of Scottish film-makers," Mr Davidson says.





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