Christopher HallBA (Hons) Film and Media Production
Christopher Hall is a senior lecturer for our BA (Hons) Film and Media Production course. He specialises in film and television editing and has worked on television shows like What Not To Wear and Shipwrecked. He′s also created cutting edge video art for galleries and theatres around the world. He talked to us about whether or not making film and television is the most fun you can have while working, or the hardest job on Earth.
To start with Christopher, how did you get into film and television?
I studied sociology at Hull, a long time ago, and I was in halls with lots of film students. We didn′t have much money, so we just used to rent stacks of VHS tapes. So I watched a lot of movies and started to understand them a lot more than I had previously. At the same time, I was involved in the drama society there, and they had this video production unit that wanted to make a film about the impact of Aids. So I learned a lot through that, too.
Eventually all these things led me to Sheffield Institute of Arts in 1995 to do a postgrad in Film and TV Editing. After that I joined BBC Manchester as a runner, and then ended up doing loads of freelancing in London, editing all kinds of documentary television
How did you end up back in Sheffield?
I′ve always had one foot in Sheffield, thanks to the huge amount of professional relationships I made in my postgrad studies. So wherever I was in the world, Sheffield was always on my mind. One of the reasons for that is a theatre company I've been involved with since school, called Third Angel. After a while, I felt like I’d reached a ceiling in television. So when a job came up at the Institute, I went for it.
From the outside, it always seems like television and film are full of these weird jobs: best boy, first grip, second grip. Is a big part of the teaching explaining these roles?
I′m going to quote Orson Welles here; he said ‘an artist needs a paintbrush, a musician needs an instrument, a filmmaker needs an army’.
That might not be the exact phrase, but it′s true: this is basically an industrial process, so it is all about division of labour,to get that huge thing done. So we broadly split the course into six elements: directing, producing, camera, editing, sound and art direction.
Of course we still create a rich learning environment, and put a lot of emphasis on collaboration, on people skills, on planning. But for the last two semesters, the students will start to specialise. They’ll still come out with a degree which says ‘Film and Media Production’, but they′ll have spent the last year totally immersed in editing, for example
How do they respond to that?
Really well. It′s really exciting to see the ones who started as 18 year olds saying ‘I don′t really know what I want to do’, and then at some point in the third year you′ll see a switch flick in their heads, and they′ll get really excited by this incredibly narrow bit of filmmaking, like art direction. Which is great because that′s what you need.
Let′s talk a bit about ‘making it’ then. Everyone knows it′s a competitive industry. How do you help students prepare for that?
As in any other creative industry, it′s a combination of bloody hard work, determination, talent and luck, and the main thing is bloody hard work. I was on a film course where I learnt editing, and there weren′t a lot of editing students, which meant I had an immense amount of work to do in a 12 month period. But then I came out of the course, and someone asked me if I could use a particular piece of software at BBC Manchester, and I answered of course I could, and got a job starting the next day.
You get a lot of students who start this course, or who come to the open day, and they′ll be 17 year olds who love The Avengers, and perhaps have done a bit of green screen work in sixth form, and they′ll think making films is going to be fun. But it′s not just going to be fun. It′s going to be knackering, and you might have to work part-time to achieve what you want to.
How does that go down?
Ha! Actually, a lot of them will often be working in part-time jobs already. And we always say, that′s not a bad thing. Because if you′ve spent Christmas working on the bread counter at Tesco, or in Costa, the skills you need there aren′t that dissimilar from the entry level skills the industry wants. The students look at us like we′re mad, but we have to explain to them that having to get coffees and be nice to people who are sometimes incredibly rude to you, when you′re knackered, that′s what you′ll be doing in your first months in the industry. That′s what it′s about.
But is the prize achievable?
Yes totally. One thing that really helps is when we go down to London on employability trips, and we take the students to offices where we′ve got links, where we′ve set up internships. And the students get to see that these offices basically look like their bedrooms, and people with the jobs they want are eating breakfast off their desks like they do. And someone will say, ‘yeah, I graduated two years ago, and now I′m working on ads’. The point is, those people thought it was unachievable too. It might be unachievable for everyone to work on a Bond film. But the work is out there.
Having said that, we had one student a couple of years ago who presented her work at the end of course screening we do at the Showroom cinema, and a mate of mine was so impressed that she recommended her to a production manager. That production manager was working on the marine unit of World War Z! So she worked on that, and while she was there she impressed someone who said, ‘I′m doing Skyfall next, come and work with me’. So it does happen!
Your work seems to straddle the divide between commercial and non-commercial, pop and highbrow. Is that how you′d describe it? And is it something you bring to the course?
Pop and highbrow is an interesting way of looking at it! At my most pretentious, I′d probably refer to it as the sacred and the profane. But yes, I′ve done things like What Not To Wear and then I′ve had stuff in galleries all over the world. Basically, it was film school that turned me onto film as an art form. Until then, I just thought working in film would be the most fun you can have and still be paid for it.
But then after film school, I started to see film in a totally different way. And once you start exploring that, as I do with Third Angel and with other people, you can′t ever really imagine a time when you′ll stop. Because once you begin to think about it in that way, that′s it. So even when I′m doing What Not To Wear or Shipwrecked, I′m always thinking: in three months time I′ll be doing the antithesis of this, and that′s fantastic.
Find out more about Christopher Hall here