Get Into TV: A Personal Journey
The following entry has been hosted as a permanent page on my website for the past year. I thought it about time I re-published it onto the blog:
Question: “How did you get into television?”
Answer: “Being honest, being a Runner is probably the easiest way into television. You’ll do a lot of hard work for not a lot of money, but if you do it right and have the attitude to match and are in the right place, you can make it”
This question comes up a lot. And I don’t think there is a hard and fast answer to it. I fell into a career in television by accident. Sort of. And it started because of my fascination into bloopers, movie mistakes and out-takes.
As a kid I would scan the TV guide listings at the beginning of the week, looking for any ‘Making Of’ programme. They seemed to be on in the early hours of the morning and never seen through the day. I had a stack of VHS tapes and I’d ask my mum to record anything that showed behind-the-scenes of movies or TV programmes, showing the audience how stunt sequences were put together or showing scenes being redone take after take because of laughter, etc. It all looked like so much fun. For me, the movies and programmes were a work of art already. But getting to see extra stuff, what goes on in the background to put it all together, really fascinated me. I was also quite particular about it and had my brother dub the ‘Making Of’ programmes onto the end of the VHS tapes that had the movies on!
When I was a kid I thought when actors got shot in movies, they really got shot. It made more sense when I found out what blood packs and squibs were. But this sparked something in my mind. What else goes on to make these films happen? In primary school we had to do ‘projects’. The dreaded Projects were a series of documents on a subject of our choosing to prove we had a firm understanding of the subject. I chose robots. A fairly decent choice for a nine year old. But I wasn’t thinking like your average nine year old. I wanted to make my own Terminator endoskeleton hand. As you do. And I did. And I still have that project with my nine year old hand cut out in cardboard with straws for the endoskeleton fingers and wool for the tendons. It still works beautifully!
As technology advanced I became more and more interested in Visual Effects, more specifically Computer Generated Imaging, or CGI. Making something out of nothing. I started collecting books on 3D animation and green screen compositing. I collected books by companies such as Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain and I’d sit through the credits of movies to find out who was responsible for the Special Effects. Remember, I was 14.
This fascination stuck with me through my teens, and by the end of my time at Secondary School I knew I wanted to be a Compositor and working in Post-Production. I told my Careers Adviser what I wanted to do, to which her response was “the computer suggests you should be a plumber. Or a librarian”. She had no idea what I was talking about. And clearly neither did the computer. So I took the matter into my own hands. I researched every Post-Production house I could find on the internet. To my astonishment it turned out the most common ones were all based within one square mile of Soho in London. I wrote and emailed to more than two dozen companies indicating my age and what I’d like to do. As naive as I thought I was, I actually got responses. Several Producers told me my location in Scotland wouldn’t be useful and that if I wanted a career in TV or Film I should move to London. And that jobs were available.
So I moved to London.
Aged 19 I left my cosy council house in Scotland where I was born and bred, telling my mother I’d be “back in six weeks”. I left my friends, family and everything behind to take a risk. I arrived by coach on the Thursday (reminder: never ever take an Edinburgh-to-London coach. Ever) and had job interviews on the Friday for positions as a ‘runner’. Basically, a runner will do all the small, and rubbish, jobs to help make the entire situation runs smoothly. If that means taking and delivering the lunch order for Alex Winter (Director and Actor: Lost Boys, Bill And Ted), giving your ‘visual opinion’ to David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) getting Kylie Minogue a StarBucks coffee, picking up chinese takeaway for Natalie Imbruglia, going to HMV to buy DVD’s for Terry Gilliam (Director: Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, Time Bandits) or finding biscuits at 3am for The Super Furry Animals… then that’s what you do. It’s long, it’s hard and a lot of the time you are treated like crap. And sometimes it’s utterly brilliant.
Before I’d even got home from my last interview I had a message that one company, Rushes Post Production, were offering me a position with their running teams. I was overjoyed and accepted immediately. Needless to say I didn’t go back to Scotland after 6 weeks. I’ve lived in London ever since.
Living in London with the salary of a runner is impossible. I ended up moving departments within the same company and became a Media Librarian, responsible for all the digital tapes and back-ups, booking in and out, etc. But that paid not much more than a runner, so I applied for a job as an Assistant Transmission Controller with another company (Todd AO, later rebranded Ascent Media). This job entailed checking every second of scheduled television for a specific channel. Paper logs would be checked, computer logs would be checked and then the next days listings would be ‘appended’ on to the end of that days listings. All the tapes (before it was all digital) had to be pulled from a library and individually rewound and checked, put into the right order and racked up ready to be put into a huge tape machine (imagine a multi CD changer but filled with video players instead).
From there I became a full-time TX Controller and as the months went on became a Senior. Even in Transmission I was interested in how everything was put together and what each piece of equipment was responsible for. So I became part of Broadcast Operations; a small team who install, test, fix, break, upgrade, soak test, replace, etc, every piece of equipment that’s to be used in the Transmission Suite.
Purely out of the blue I saw a job at Sky News and applied to do some similar type Transmission work, but in a Live environment instead of pre-recorded tapes. Miraculously I was offered a job as a Playout Operator, responsible for all the digital clips and order of the shows. This was similar to the Transmission job except it was now all file-based on computers instead of tapes and the turn-around was one hour instead of 24 hours. Sky News was a major challenge, both physically and mentally (sometimes the content is quite graphic before it’s edited for television).
After a year in Ingest and Playout I became interested in Vision Mixing and spoke to one of the Sky News Directors about it. Vision Mixing is effectively editing a show in realtime. In film and TV an editor will take all the film and recordings and put them together over a period of time, tweaking here and there, until they have the perfect edited programme. A Vision Mixer (or Switcher) does all of this entirely live with graphics sources, cameras, satellite signals, etc. It’s a hell of a lot of pressure, but the technology behind it is immense. When a Director shouts “CUT CAMERA 4!”, it’s the Vision Mixer they’re talking to. I was trained as a Vision Mixer at Sky News and after 4 years also began directing here and there, taking the ‘creative’ side more seriously.
In 2011 I decided I’d like to try my skills with other genres. I’d been a fan of Big Brother since it was first broadcast and started getting in touch with people who either worked or knew people who worked on the show. On a dark and wet Tuesday morning I took a phone call asking if I would like a job as a House Director working on the next series of Big Brother (August 2011) which had been picked up by Channel 5, “starting with Celebrity Big Brother”.
That was the day I chose to go freelance.
Since then I’ve worked on two series of ‘classic’ Big Brother and two series of Celebrity Big Brother, I’ve worked as a Studio Director for Bloomberg TV, Sky News and Five News and Vision Mix for Sky Sports News and Sky News.