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Careers in Film

Creative Careers

Barbican Young Programmers
25 Oct 2017
4 min read

How do you start a career in film? We asked a panel of film industry experts to share their experiences and the paths that led them to a career in film.  

Sebastian Thiel, filmmaker

‘I wasn’t that young person who was handed a camera when he was 4,’ said filmmaker Sebastian Thiel. ‘I thought I was going to be a basketball player.’ Sebastian was at the airport ready to fly to a basketball camp when they were told that funding had been pulled. ‘In the end the people that could afford it went. I wasn’t able to go.’ He dropped out of college, took a gap year and instead started focusing on graphic design. ‘I didn’t know what to do after basketball, so just focused my efforts on things I liked.’

Channelling his energy into this new creative task, Sebastian created a series of t-shirts which were designed to cause a conversation, and he got emerging artists to wear them publicly. But it wasn’t until he made an advert for the t-shirts that he started to look at the power of film, ‘It gave me purpose, it was fulfilling.’

He did an apprenticeship which taught him how to edit film, and then started to make sketches online, posting them to YouTube. ‘I started to collaborate with peers creating stuff.’ As part of the YouTube generation, he learnt how to do each part of the filmmaking, and when it came to his first short film he had to be told what to do in the role of the director. Part of the reason he loves the role is that it allows you to be involved with everything and anything you enjoy, such as the music, the actors, and even how posters look. His dreams were forced to change track early on, but with time he said he has learnt that a lot of career steps simply grow from people doing what they like. ‘I speak on panels with people and you realise that a lot of people don’t know what they want to do or how they’re going to do it.’

Sebastian taught himself how to write for film because, ‘I don’t like waiting for anything so waiting for other people [to write it] was taking too long.’ He created a web series which was then commissioned by BBC3 with Big Talk Productions who have done shows such as Hot Fuzz and Him and Her.

‘Just go out there. Create. YouTube gives you that opportunity,’ Jack explains, ‘It’s allowed me to go through the back door.’ He admits there is a lack of opportunities for young people, especially for young people of colour to get onto mainstream platforms. ‘Just go out there and focus on doing things you love.’

You can follow Sebastian on Instagram and Twitter, @SebastianThiel, or through his website.  

Kate O’Hara, Development and Production Executive

Kate’s main role is working with new and emerging film writers, directors and producers. After doing a drama degree at the University of Bristol she floundered a bit. It’s a common feeling. After doing some temp work and moving back home, she got admin work with Walk Films. Through that she became an Office Manager, and then started reading scripts and giving notes.

Her advice to anyone keen on going into a creative career? ‘Read loads of scripts, watch loads of shorts, films and TV and theatre.’ The more stories you consume, the better.

It wasn’t all easy sailing from there. She was made redundant and worked for a palette company. ‘These are life affirming things, you’ve got to work at these places to give you a kick up the arse.’ From there she got a job in Bristol with iFeatures and has been there for five years, working her way up from an Assistant to her position today.

Networking has been a vital part of her career progression, ‘You have to be good, but a lot of it is being open to different people and having the time to talk to people’.

iFeatures is a platform for first time feature makers creating low budget films. Out of 400 applications, Kate develops 12 stories through to full scripts, with residencies and workshops. It’s about career progression, Kate believes getting into film festivals and getting agents. They’re not expecting to make millions of pounds. Recent films to have come out of the project include Lady Macbeth, The Levelling and Apostasy. One of the aims of the company is to encourage filmmakers to leave the capital, and all of these films have a strong sense of place.

Kate also works for Shortflix, a similar venture for short films. ‘We really wanted to find more diverse voices and stories,’ she believes. ‘We’re not seeing them coming through so we need to find them younger.’ At Shortflix she works with 18-25 year olds not in full time education or employment. Applicants don’t need to have any film experience. Similarly to iFeatures, Kate oversees the development of a selection of the applications, then 5 of the shorts get made on £10,000 each. ‘Bold stories, that’s what we want’.

 Isabel Moir, film programmer

Isabel always wanted to be a film programmer but never knew how to get into it. She tried to find work at film festivals and cinema exhibitions before starting work as an assistant at the cinema department at the Barbican. From each experience she has gained valuable skills. At the Barbican she has the opportunity to make so many contacts, watch films and be around curators who have been in the industry for far longer.

‘If you’re going to work in a job that’s the field you want but not specifically the job you want, think how you can learn from it.’

She knew that she wanted to programme films, so she started taking films to a pub. It wasn’t always to large audiences, ‘It was like having a birthday and no one comes!’ But she persevered. She has since created the Overnight Film Festival, a weekend in a big hotel in Eastbourne where guests watch films, have breakfast and parties. For those getting started in film programming, she recommend Scalarama, a website full of resources for people wanting to put on their own screenings.

‘The idea of networking is still really scary to me,’ she says, ‘We wanted to create a space where you had a chance to meet fellow film fans. A lot of people stayed in the hotel all weekend, so people can sit together and hang out. At certain networking parties you want to talk to certain people and it’s over too fast.’

Overnight Film Festival has guest curators who show films that have inspired them, or films that haven’t been screened. They also wanted to give female programmers a platform.

Isabel also recommends going to film festival, and trying to find work at film festivals, ‘There are so film festivals around the UK that need help and they’re really passionate about what they do.’ She advised volunteering in roles you don’t know a lot about. ‘I worked in tech and met a lot of people. Try to get the most out of different roles rather than just thinking this isn’t my path. Make the most of it.’

Another volunteering option is watching submissions, for festivals such as London Film Festival, Underwire, Open City Ducks Festival. ‘They rely on people watching their submissions. It’s a great way to learn about your tastes and the more you watch the more you know about what makes a good film and see what other people are doing and what budgets they’re working with.’

On the topic of unpaid work, she suggests being selective, finding opportunities that fit around your paid work, and only doing things you’ll get something out of.

Sebastian Barker, visual effects at Automatik VFX

‘I was a bit of a nerd growing up, into computer animation, but I didn’t have much of an academic career.’ Moving to London at 18, he got a job as a runner in a stop frame animation company. He wasn’t great at it… But his boss suggested that he do a short course in animation instead – a nicer way of firing him!

Eventually he got a job working as a Junior Visual Effects Artist on 28 Weeks Later, which got him a foothold in the industry. After five years in visual effects he became impatient at being at a computer all day, so started working on his own movies and ended up working with Vertigo Films. By then he was designing visual effects.

Then followed several more successful films such as Tom Green’s Monsters: Dark Continent and Fernando Coimbra’s Sand Castle. Sebastian and his business partner expanded their company, moving to Berlin, setting up another studio in Shoreditch and a third smaller outlet in Hamberg.

Visual effects have grown massively, and now account for significant proportions of film budgets. Like Isabel, Sebastian suggests that there are lots of ways to take yourself to areas in film that might not be the thing you necessarily think is what you want. The skills you collect will find a way of making themselves useful in future projects.

Words by Kate Wyver

This session took place on Wednesday 25 October 2017


  • Just go out there - create. YouTube gives you that opportunity
  • Consume as many stories as you can - scripts, TV, theatre, films. 
  • Networking is a vital part of progression - find the time to talk to people
  • From each new experience you will gain new skills - if it's not your dream job, think what you can learn from it
  • Go to film festivals. 
  • Don't be afraid to volunteer in roles you don't know a lot about
  • Look out for opportunities to help film festival watch film submissions - it's a great way to learn more about what makes a great film
  • Volunteering is great - but be selective, volunteer roles should always fit in around your paid work and only do something you'll learn from

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