Standing in my office at the National Film and Television School on the afternoon of Monday 16th March, (only last week but feels like another lifetime ago) - having just sent out an email closing the facilities and moving all learning online, I wasn’t entirely sure which way we would go.
The NFTS is a very hands on School. Students ‘learn by doing’ making films, television shows and games to an exceptionally high standard in a real studio environment. Our graduates go on to work on 97% of the biggest films and television shows made in the UK, from Chernobyl, to 1917. Translating a fraction of that into a new online format felt like a mammoth task.
On Tuesday morning we all gathered for a hastily organised ‘All Staff’ meeting via the video conferencing software Zoom. 95 of the 110 people who work at the School were ‘at’ the meeting. Most had never used Zoom before and I’m pretty sure many of them had never participated in a group video conference.
I started the meeting off by setting out the decisions taken to date and what I thought we needed to do to ensure the School kept going. Then one after the other my colleagues spoke with passion about what they were going to do to help. The sense of purpose and togetherness was palpable. Of course we were going to keep going, we owed that to the students and to each other, and we weren’t going to simply stumble on, we were going to try and smash it.
By the end of that day the IT team had packaged up more than 60 computers and were busily arranging for their delivery to student houses. This bit was critical because it’s hard to learn Visual Effects, Composing or Games without a high performance computer.
We set up almost a hundred Zoom licences so that teaching departments could run classes online and rechecked that everyone could login to our intranet, Facebook Workplace.
By Wednesday new teaching sessions were beginning to appear online. The ingenuity and imagination of my colleagues astounded me.
There were practical filming and sound recording exercises that students could complete around their homes; online demonstrations of lighting live from Cinematography tutor houses; group screenings and reviews of student films that were already in post-production with 60+ staff and students gathering together on Zoom to critique work. Student Services chipped in by organising online mindfulness and meditation sessions.
Students have thrown themselves into these sessions with gusto, some have done so with their own children sat on their knees, others are sat at their mum and dads kitchen table others have joined us from their bedrooms, although we have a no pyjama rule (!)
Having cancelled our Open Day a couple of weeks ago, for the first time we have introduced course specific Virtual Open Days - many have gone live already and have been really successful.
Inspired by my colleagues, I reached out to a number of the School’s most high profile supporters to ask for their help. David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven) was the first to reply. He was happy to do a masterclass with the students via Zoom if it helped keep up their morale and wow, what a boost it proved to be for everyone when it took place earlier this week! We've also had Masterclasses with the wonderful Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Gentlemen Jack), Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Succession) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) and we have many more in the pipeline with names like Ricky Gervais (Afterlife, Extras) Nainita Desai (For Sama) and Alex Gibney (Enron, Going Clear) to name just a few.
When I wrote to tell the students about David Fincher, one of the students replied to say ‘what a silver lining’…and I think that sums it up.
We can’t offer the students some of the things we would normally and certainly not in their usual way – I’m very sorry about that. But my colleagues and I are going to work damn hard to ensure we find the ‘silver lining’ and that as a community of more than 600 staff and students, instead of falling apart we will fall together."