Oscar Nominated, BAFTA Winning Writer-Director Armando Iannucci Discusses Stalin, Satire and Where to Draw the Line!
The oft-described ‘King of Satire’, Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning writer-director, Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It; Veep; In The Loop), delivered an insightful masterclass to NFTS students along with NFTS alumnus and tutor, BIFA nominated, Pete Lambert (The Twilight Saga: New Moon; X&Y) who edited The Death of Stalin, Armando’s latest film.
The Q&A was hosted by NFTS Director, Jon Wardle following a screening of the critically acclaimed film, which is described in Peter Bradshaw’s 5-star review in The Guardian as a “brilliant horror-satire”. The Death of Stalin has also been nominated for 13 British Independent Film Awards, including ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Editing’ and took home awards for 'Best Supporting Actor' for Simon Russell Beale, ‘Best Production Design’, ‘Best Makeup’ and ‘Best Casting’ .
Armando opened the masterclass by saying he had been thinking of doing something on dictators for some time and had considered all the ‘greats’ from Mao to Mussolini! The Death of Stalin was adapted by Armando, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.
Pete explained he got the editing job after receiving an email from the film’s Post Production Supervisor and as soon as he saw the words, ‘Iannucci, Simon Russell Beale and Stalin’, he jumped at the chance. On working with new people, Armando said: “It’s nice to work with people you’ve already worked with but there’s a danger you don’t move on if you don’t have new faces. I find people by asking around if I have seen something I like or I ask for recommendations.”
Many of the scenes in the film involve complex, often slap stick sequences and Armando prepared for those by arranging a robust rehearsal period a few weeks before the shoot with the full cast. He explained: “We worked out the blocking and comedy timing for the big scenes; if you have all those conversations on set, it’s very expensive!”
The decision to let the cast use their own accents or choose accents, such as Jason Isaacs plumping for a Yorkshire brogue for Soviet Army Officer, Zhukov, was made right from the start. Many movies about Stalin feature actors using Russian accents and Armando describes this as “unrealistic. The characters from this period all had different dialects.”
There are many dialogue heavy scenes in The Death of Stalin and Pete explained how he finds these more complex to edit than action scenes. Armando praised Pete’s work: “The first time I saw the assembly put together by Pete, I was bowled over. The pacing of the scene where the committee members vote ‘unanimously’ on a series of decisions and move through Michael Palin’s monologue is brilliantly done.” On how Pete and Armando worked together on the editing, Armando said: “I don’t want to see anything until it’s done. Occasionally Pete sent me a query about shooting an extra continuity scene but I’m not into watching stuff straight back. During the shoot, we are constantly rewriting so by the end of it, I’m tired and want to clear my head so I’m ready for the next day and sharp on set.”
Pete continued: “I spent most of my time on getting the tone right and focussing on balancing the horrific against the funny.”
One of the students asked Armando’s view on author and scriptwriter, John O’Farrell’s assertion that satire ‘serves the powerful and helps normalise politicians with extreme views.’ Armando replied: “You’re on a hiding to nothing if you think anything you write will change anything” and referred to a quote from comedian, Peter Cook who founded The Establishment Club in 1961 and said it was to be a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.”
Another question came in about improvisation. Armando said there wasn’t much improvisation in The Death of Stalin but “if something is funny, we’ll go with it. With anything collaborative, you have to dump your ego at the cloakroom. Story Is key – you have to ask, is this funny and interesting and does it keep developing? Once you’ve locked that all in, I’m all in favour of trying things so long as it doesn’t change the story.”
And on where to draw the line with offensiveness in comedy, Armando said: “There’s no hard and fast rule. You can get away with more if the joke is really good. I do also think, what’s wrong with being offended? People should be able to defend their beliefs. We’ve lost the sense of engaging people who disagree with us – it isn’t healthy. Not to say we should be as offensive as possible for the sake of it, that’s lazy.”
Armando’s next project, David Copperfield, is casting now and due to shoot next summer. The Death of Stalin is showing in UK cinemas now and due for release in the US in March 2018.
NFTS Model Making Course Leader Reveals What it was like Working as Prop Maker on Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“The scale on a production like this is epic!”
Not only are there a fantastic nine NFTS alumni credited on the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but our very own Model Making for Animation Diploma course leader, John Lee was Prop Maker on the film. We caught up with him to find out what it was like making props for one of the most talked about films of the year.
(NFTS alumni credits include: Production Sound Mixer, Stuart Wilson; Boom Operator, Tom Fennell; Compositing Supervisor, Dan Snape; Compositor, Adam Arnot; Location Coordinator, Caterina Boselli; Stand-By Art Director, Huw Arthur; Concept Designer, Kim Frederiksen; Concept Artist, Tim Browning and Junior Set Designer, Paul Savulescu.)
What was it like working as prop maker on Star Wars: The Last Jedi ?
John: “It was fantastic; we all had to keep pinching ourselves at the time! By the time we started on The Last Jedi, I had already done Rogue One, so I knew what I was letting myself into. I worked with a large team of prop makers at Pinewood Studios, under the supervision of Jamie Wilkinson (Prop Master) and Mark Rocca (Head of Department, Prop Making). At times, there were up to 60 of us working on everything from weapons, hand props, and set decoration, which is where my speciality lies. The scale on a production like this is epic! The main difference of course is that everything is full size rather than in miniature, so there are scale challenges, plus the sheer size and weight of the objects all has to be taken into consideration. The whole process takes months, so the very long hours tend to have an effect, so it’s all about trying to pace yourself.”
What kind of props were you making and did you face any particular challenges making them?
(Rian Johnson directs Daisy Ridley in a scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi standing in front of one of the large scale props John made for the film.)
John: “I was concentrating on set decoration, so I worked closely with the Art Department. Most of the items and sets I worked on were full size and part of the sets rather than hand props which generally have much more engineered elements. I’m no engineer, and in any case, the department has specialists who did an amazing job in that area. The main challenges are always time based, as there is always a rush for everything. Each department on a film of this size follows the shooting schedule from main and second units, so depending on where they are shooting, or whether they are on location, that dictates our workflow.”
What kind of materials/ techniques did you use and are you teaching your students any of these on the NFTS Model Making Diploma?
(NFTS Model Making for Animation Diploma students at work)
John: “The interesting thing about model making and prop making is that you are using the same transferrable skills all the time, so the kind of techniques I’m teaching here will be transferable, so should the students go onto working on bigger film projects, they will have put into practice the basics. The main difference is scale. Often, it is not necessary to put the same level of detail into a prop on Star Wars, as it’s going to be a few feet from camera as part of a large cockpit or set, and in any case, the audience should be looking at the actors and not the props. On the stop frame model sets here at The NFTS, we have to show all the detail, because the set is a scale miniature, and the end result will be blown up onto the big screen, so the level of detail has to be in there and made to a very high standard. The kind of materials we are using are pretty much the same – Acrylics, MDF, etc.
Can you reveal any behind the scenes prop making secrets?
Ha…! Not really…..! We have to respect the NDA’s which we all sign when we sign up to a film such as The Last Jedi, however, I will say that you always have to think two steps ahead, and generally expect the unexpected, because the very nature of the film making process is that it is fluid throughout the build process, and directors change their mind! So it always good to be able to offer an alternative Plan B should this arise. The other thing is try to get some sleep as you’ll need it!
14 NFTS Alumni Credited in The Braddies 2017: The Guardian’s Film Critic Peter Bradshaw’s Films of the Year
The Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw has once again presented his shortlist of the year’s movies, directors, actors, writers and screenplays he considers most awards-worthy and we are proud to announce that a fabulous 14 NFTS alumni are credited. Additionally, Destination Unknown directed by NFTS Directing Documentary tutor, Claire Fergusson is included in Peter’s ‘Best Documentary’ list.
Film of the Year:
The Death of Stalin: Editor, Peter Lambert; Graphic Designer, Louise Begbie
Blade Runner 2049: DoP, Roger Deakins
I Am Not a Witch: Producer, Emily Morgan; Associate Producer/Location Manager, Gabriel Gauchet; Composer, Matthew James Kelly; Supervising Sound Editor, Maiken Hansen; Sound Effects Editor, Ania Przygoda; Dialogue Editors, Raoul Brand and Jens Rosenlund Petersen
Whitney: Can I Be Me: Writer/Producer/Co-Director, Nick Broomfield; Cinematographer, Sam Mitchell
Roger Deakins for Blade Runner 2049
Urszula Pontikos for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Oscar Winning Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy Discusses the Timeliness of ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and how his Films are about “Love and Hope”
Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe winning screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire; The Full Monty; 127 Hours; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) delivered a thought provoking masterclass at the NFTS hosted by the School’s Head of Screenwriting, Brian Ward. Prior to the Q&A, students were treated to a screening of his well-received latest film, Battle Of The Sexes, which is directed by Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and is based on the true story of the 1973 tennis match between world number one, Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler, Bobby Riggs.
Critics have widely praised the film with Variety describing it as “boisterously entertaining” and Empire summing it up as “a light, funny, blissfully entertaining flick about heavy, sadly still relevant themes”. It is to the relevance of the time that Simon spoke to first: “Every issue that Billie Jean King was fighting against then has popped up again.” Simon met with Billie Jean King to discuss the project and persuaded her that the film couldn’t be made without dramatizing her private life as well as the match between her and Bobby Riggs. He explained: “It was very important to get that part right and makes it possible for non-tennis fans to enjoy the film as it’s about relationships. She was so open and up for the challenge of telling her story; she was a fantastic collaborator.”
Brian asked Simon how he dealt with researching Bobby’s character as he is no longer with us. Simon replied: “I took my cues from Billie as she was friends with him until he died which is strange given the awful things he said. Billie described Bobby as a clown and an actor playing a part and his coach who I also spoke to said everyone loved him and that he had a strange innocence and nothing was done with malice. It was the Jack Kramers (Head of the US Lawn Tennis Association) of life according to Billie who were the real misogynists and hard to combat.”
One of the students asked Simon how he gets people to open up and achieve such a level of honesty in his films. Simon puts this down to starting life as a documentary director, “I am just nosey! For example, with Slumdog Millionaire, I couldn’t just parachute into Mumbai and say I understand your life. I asked people there what they would shoot a film about. In fact all the stories in Slumdog came from other people. I could have written that film five times over with the stories I heard. I’ve learnt how to shape the stories and decorate them. Everyone’s life is fascinating, you just have to dig around and listen. With Battle of the Sexes, I had my arcs of story for each of the themes: Sports, love story and politics and had to create a symphony of them interweaving.”
Billie was very clear she wanted her husband, Larry to come across as a good man. Simon took this request to heart so much that he is “one of my favourite things in the film; he comes across with so much dignity.”
Simon then talked about how he likes his films to have layers but also attract the broadest possible audience: “For example, with The Full Monty, people thought they were going to see a film about stripping but the stripping was the Trojan horse as the film was really about the disenfranchisement of men.” And on how to deal with a story where the audience knows the outcome, Simon had the following to say: “You have to get people so involved in the story so they forget what’s coming up whether it’s the guy in 127 hours cutting his arm off or Billie winning the match with Bobby.”
Replying to a Directing student asking about how to best work with screenwriters, Simon said: “I’ve realised that storytelling is very elastic; you can push it, squeeze it, twist it and still get what you want but also get what others want into the bargain. My job as a writer is to find the middle ground. It took me a while to have the confidence to see that a story can be told in a million different ways and not to be defensive. You need the ability to stay on course while being flexible; it’s the screenwriter’s job to navigate through to the screen without losing your way.”
Another student commented that all Simon’s films have a love story at their heart and asked if that was intentional. Simon replied: “It’s all about love and hope. They are the two things that keep me going in life. All the great stories are about love and hope.”
Simon’s next project is a 10-part TV series called Trust, which is directed by Danny Boyle and is currently filming.
Model Making Students Learn Puppet Making with Mackinnon and Saunders
Students on the NFTS Model Making for Animation Diploma have been busy learning the craft of puppet making with tuition and support from top sculptor and puppet maker, Joe Holman. Joe works regularly for course partner, animation producers and puppet makers, Mackinnon and Saunders and has worked on puppets for popular TV shows such as Postman Pat and Bob the Builder and feature films such as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.
Joe has taken time out of his busy schedule and is spending several weeks with the students to help with the course’s ‘Introduction to Puppet Making Module’. During the module, students build a 1:6 scale animatable puppet to their own design. They learn the process of designing for puppet making and work with ball and socket and wire armatures and make costumes and props to go with their puppets.
The ball and socket armatures the students are working with are made by one of our experienced industry contacts, Julian Clark Studios. Students learn how to make adjustments to the armature such as changing the length of the limbs. Plastacine is used to sculpt and mould a maquette around a wire armature and then a ball and socket armature is added into the mould for movement.
The puppet designs the students have chosen are wide ranging – some are inspired by Mad Max and some are more suitable for children! The next plan is for the Model Making students to collaborate with the Directing Animation MA students to do some animation tests with the puppets prior to starting their graduation films. We are hopeful that next year we will be able to do some animation tests prior to starting work on the graduation.
NFTS First Film School to Win Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education
The National Film and Television School (NFTS) is proud to announce it is the first ever film school to win a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. The NFTS is among twenty-one universities and colleges of further education who were announced as recipients of Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in the current - twelfth biennial - round of the scheme at an event hosted at St James’s Palace by The Royal Anniversary Trust today.
Judges commented that the NFTS was chosen to receive the prestigious award as they were “impressed by the reach and influence of the School in a hugely important sector.”
Jon Wardle, NFTS Director said: “Winning a Queen’s Anniversary Prize is a huge honour for the NFTS and is a fitting testament to the fantastic work our students and staff put in to make the School such a success both nationally and on a global scale.”
The Prizes are part of the honours system and are awarded every two years by The Queen on the Prime Minister’s advice.
Work recognised in this round is wide ranging and includes rail and aviation engineering, costume design, vision problems of children with Down’s syndrome, parent-infant sleep, climate change and environmental protection, women’s health, the English language, agricultural engineering and dairy productivity, cancer drug discovery and drug safety, film and television training, photonics, food and nutrition for health and education for learners with special needs.
The Prizes, unique in the honours system in being analogous to honours to individuals but granted to an institution as a whole (irrespective of the area of work recognised), will be presented in February 2018 by a member of the royal family at a ceremony to be held at Buckingham Palace. As a national honour the prize carries no cash value, consisting of a silver-gilt medallion and a Prize Certificate signed by HM The Queen.
Sir Damon Buffini, Chairman of the Royal Anniversary Trust said:
“The focus of the Prizes on innovation and practical benefit to people and society is a great incentive to our universities and colleges to think critically about the direction of their work and its application and relevance in today’s world. The national recognition and prestige conferred by the Prizes also enables individual institutions to win support and leverage funding for their future plans.”
First Year NFTS Animation Student Wins Best Student Film at Manchester Animation Festival
Cabin Pressure, a film made by NFTS first year Directing Animation MA student, Matthew Lee, has won ‘Best Student Film’ at this year’s Manchester Animation Festival. The film was made as part of a first year project on ‘Character’ where the Directing Animation MA students collaborate with the Screenwriting MA students to develop characters and write a story about them meeting.
About Cabin Pressure: A safety and regulations obsessive is forced to revaluate things when a routine flight runs into difficulties.
The jury commented: “For its brilliant characterisation, great use of form and material, it is a perfectly crafted little story.”
Matthew Lee said: “It’s a huge honour to win Best Student Film at the Manchester Animation Festival, especially with a film I made as part of a first year project.”
The NFTS Team:
Directed by Matthew Lee
Starring Wayne Forester, Emma Tate, David Holt
Written By Matthew Lee, Conor Keane, Karim Khan
Cinematographer: Molly Manning-Walker
Set Design: Sally Hughson
Editor: Mirjam Jegorov
Sound Design: Edward Guy
Composer: Rachael Philip
NFTS Grad Game Nominated for Inaugural Student Game Award at “The Oscars of the Gaming World”
Falling Sky, a graduation game developed and directed by National Film and Television School (NFTS) Games Design and Development MA student, Jonathan Nielssen is one of six games nominated for The Games Awards inaugural Student Game Award.
Hailed by The New York Times as “The Oscars of the gaming world”, The Games Awards, which takes place in Los Angeles on Thursday, December 7th, is one of the video game industry’s biggest nights. Falling Sky is the only game developed in the UK to be nominated in the Student Game Award category, which supports emerging game development talent and will be judged on the excellence and ambition of the game by a panel of notable Games industry figures including:
Todd Howard (Executive Producer and Game Director, Bethesda Game Studios); Hideo Kojima (Director, Kojima Productions); Illka Paananen (CEO and Co-founder, Supercell); Kim Swift (Design Director, EA Motive); Vince Zampella (CEO, Respawn Entertainment).
Jonathan Nielssen said: “It’s a huge honour to have my graduation game nominated for the first ever Student Game Award; I’ve loved every minute of developing Falling Sky with the team at NFTS and this nomination is a fantastic testament to all the hard work everyone has put in.”
Alan Thorn, NFTS Head of Games said: “I’m delighted to see Falling Sky nominated for this highly prestigious award in games. It reflects the incredible talent and hard-work of both Jonathan and his team. The NFTS Games MA is committed to building a creative climate where people from all backgrounds can develop the skills and build the connections needed to become industry leaders making innovative games.”
About Falling Sky: A cinematic 3D mystery game developed at the National Film and Television School and led by Jonathan Nielssen as the director and sole game developer, the project uses Unreal Engine and motion capture technology in the attempt to create an immersive narrative-driven drama with a Twin Peaks’ influence and elements of open world adventure. Set across the sprawling landscape of American suburbia, the story opens with Daniel – a 20 something-year-old university student who come back home one day to find his younger brother Tommy abandoned by their mom. With only a series of cryptic messages to guide them through the weird place Daniel’s hometown has become, the brothers set off on an atmospheric quest to discover the truth behind their mother’s disappearance.
The 2017 Games Awards will celebrate the best games, eSports, and members of the gaming community with a live stream available on more than 16 gaming and digital streaming platforms, including localized versions for Chinese, South Korean and Japanese audiences. In addition, fans will be able to vote on select categories using Facebook Messenger, Google Search, Twitter DM, and at TheGameAwards.com.
About the NFTS Games Design and Development MA:Games Design & Development at the NFTS is a world-class MA for future games innovators and encourages students to challenge the meaning of games and interactive experiences. The courses’ diverse students are mentored by industry-experienced tutors and work with cutting-edge technology to develop their visions and ideas into a reality. By exploring the creative bridges between innovative-mechanics, emotional engagement and thoughtful storytelling, the NFTS brings together students from many departments, including screen-writing and cinematography, into a collaborative environment where they develop industry connections. There are still some places available for the MA which has a start date of January 2018 – apply at www.nfts.co.uk/games
Join NFTS Graphics and Titles course leader and renowned graphic designer, Hugo Hansell and current student, Xanthe Bondington, who will discuss the course and answer any questions you might have about the 12 month Diploma, which starts in January 2018 and includes a work placement at Sky. So if you’ve got a question about your application, or want some top tips for your interview or just want to know how to succeed in motion graphics and title design, join us LIVE on Facebook @NFTSFilmTV on Tuesday30th November at 1pm.
Find out more about our partnership with Sky and what the students did during their work placement this year:
Read about why shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones have turned opening credits from “disposable moments of television” to” an art form in its own right.
Model Making Students Recreate Sets from The Shining
Our new Model Making for Animation Diploma students have well and truly settled in and have been impressing everyone at the School with their amazing recreated sets from iconic film, The Shining. We caught up with Model Making course leader, John Lee to find out more. In addition to running the course, John is an experienced and active model maker in the industry and has created models for films such as Frankenweenie, Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs and while developing the course, he was busy working on the upcoming, highly anticipated new Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, which is due for release on the 15th December.”
(Second set from The Shining recreated by the students)
What is the process the students have gone through to make the model of the Shining set?
“Firstly, we screened the film and took frame grabs from two scenes and from those pictures, we created drawings and then worked out the scale from that information. The scale we decided to use was 1:6 because it’s a useful scale for stop frame animation models. It’s not the only scale animators use but it’s a good general scale to make detailed, accurate model sets and puppets and it looks good on camera.”
(Iconic scene from The Shining)
Why did you choose The Shining?
“I happen to really like the film; it’s iconic and it’s a film you can watch repeatedly and get something different out of it each time. Both the imagery and the production design are outstanding; I thought it would make two nice model sets.”
(Students learning how to use the laser cutter)
What techniques did they need to use/ learn?
“The students have had to learn a whole host of new techniques including how to use a wide range of industry standard machinery in our new purpose built workshop. They have learnt machining techniques on equipment such as a lathe, panel/ circular/ band or wall saws and pillar drills plus moulding and casting. The School has never had the benefit of this kind of equipment before and this as well as the Model Making students’ skills should dramatically speed up the whole filmmaking process.”
What were the challenges and how did the students overcome them?
“The challenges the students have had to overcome include learning to work accurately and respect the scale so nothing looks out of place. The purpose of The Shining build was to try and reproduce that live action set accurately at 1:6 and the level of detail necessary to make things look real. They had to accurately recreate the props, the paint finishing and achieve practical lighting so all those things come together to make the shot look real. This will really help the students when they start work on the NFTS graduation films next year as they’ve already experienced making something at that scale with that level of detail.”
What’s next for the students?
“The students have now started a two-month puppet making module. Each student will make a stop frame animated puppet based on their own design. Watch this space for more updates and photos!”