July 27th, 2016
A chance meeting in a lift at The Groucho Club in London’s Soho introduced us to Ailie Smith, part of the Oscar-winning team of Mad Max: Fury Road and CEO of Creative Media Skills, the UK training facility based at Pinewood Studios set up to bridge the skills gap in the film industry. Warpaint headed to leafy Buckinghamshire to discover more.
In 2012, fresh back from the heat of the Namibian Desert, Ailie had noticed a gap in the industry for a platform where professionals could learn from experts to practise and enhance their skills. She took her 15 years of experience and contacts to bring the biggest names from behind the scenes in movies – heads of departments who are renowned and respected in the industry – under one roof with the aim of giving them a platform to pass on their lifelong skills, knowledge and hands-on tutoring to the next generation.
Growing up on film sets as the daughter of producer Iain Smith OBE, Ailie has always been around the industry, working as a make-up artist for about 12 years on films such as Cold Mountain, Troy, Alexander and many of the Harry Potter films. She found herself working with a lot of the people that she’d grown up with – in make-up, hair, costume, locations, art department and many more, and realised there was the possibility of linking a skills need with those industry pros.
“I had gaps in my knowledge that I wanted to work on, but there was nowhere to go,” she explains. “That was when I started to see a gap in the industry for a place where top level professionals with masses of experience could pass on their knowledge to the next generation of film makers. My love of the industry, something that I had been around all of my life, and my appreciation of the skills and expertise of a top level crew prompted me to set CMS up, and it is still the ongoing reason to grow the company, to keep on making it better and better! It is truly magical to watch professionals of this level passing on their knowledge and inspiring those coming up behind them. There are many moment where we here at CMS are just astounded by the magic that is created.”
Alongside CFO Facundo Turdo, Ailie set out to create a point of difference from the other UK schools.
“We don’t call ourselves a school; we are a platform that supports the knowledge of these industries to be passed on and exchanged, as well as providing a platform for professionals to network. We don’t tell our tutors what to teach, but advise them on what we have researched, what may work and where the skills gaps lie. They then tell us what they need and we facilitate it. By providing training in this way we are unique because we allow those working on projects to come and teach with us when they have down time between things, resulting in the most current and best possible training. We let the exchange of knowledge happen as organically and professionally as possible. We strive constantly to provide a safe and relaxed but highly professional space for professionals to exchange knowledge and experience.”
CMS feel that by being adaptable, this is the key to continually persuading top level professionals to give up their time to enlighten younger crew coming up behind them. In this way, crew receive highly professional training targeted to their greatest point of need. Their constantly growing bank of tutors have worked with legendary directors such as Lean, Spielberg, Fellini, Kubrick to name only a few and their knowledge is unsurpassed.
The choice of tutors approached by CMS is something that Ailie feels very passionately about. Growing up in the industry and then working in it extensively provided her with a huge network of contacts, and also a strong sense of the traditions and standards in the business; she learned where and who the really wonderful people were. CMS courses range in length between one and five days, so they’re very specific and highly targeted. With each slot they looked for the best suited professionals to lead each course around their shooting schedules. They have built up a great deal of trust with the industry through the way they operate and the tutors they work with, which makes it easier to approach more and more wonderful professionals to join them. The bank of tutors is constantly growing and evolving, and they’re now seeing more and more professionals coming to them with ideas for training.
Students range from teenagers to experienced professionals, as Ailie and Facundo have created an offering that appeals to a wide audience, with Summer Schools being particularly popular with the younger visitors. They run three strands of training: Under 18s intro to film skills, Over 18s intro to film skills, and Pro level masterclasses. Each course is targeted specifically to each group and the right tutor chosen for each level and the areas covered.
“We constantly strive to make our training better and more targeted,” continues Ailie, “and over the four years since our incorporation we have really developed a line of trust with those working in the industry. We have really tried to become the place to access the best suited and most experienced technicians who are all keen to pass on and ‘up skill’ the new generation. Most importantly we’ve worked to sustain what makes the UK such a desirable place to film: our world-class crew, along with their high standards and traditions.”
Courses cover much more than hair and make-up, and new content is frequently added, driven by a desire from the industry, as Ailie comments.
“Every new area of film making that we look into, whether it be assistant directing, locations or script supervision, we find the same issues and unmet needs. There is just no provision for training in most of the roles on a film set, even for many extremely high-earning, powerful and hugely responsible positions. It is a crime that there is nowhere for some of the best in the world to pass on their knowledge, so we’re thrilled to be making that happen. Our appreciation for the masses of knowledge behind the making of large-scale movies drives us to continue to provide a place for this knowledge to be passed on.”
Location too is an integral factor in CMS’ success. Based at Pinewood Studios for just over a year, they are currently expanding the space, but built the company for the three previous years with pop-up training that took place all over the country in different venues: Soho, West London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
“We wanted a home,” admits Ailie, “and with my close ties to Pinewood – my father has been based here for 30 years, and I spent many a summer roaming the gardens when I was younger – as well as its status as the home of British film it was the obvious choice. We still run pop up programmes regionally and are developing our base at Pinewood Studio Wales which is just outside Cardiff. We are developing training as far away as Malta and answering the training requirement for other locations across the globe as and when they come our way. Britain houses the best film crews in the world, so we have a lot of interested parties from abroad – they recognise the level of talent and skill that we have in this country and want to learn from the best. We have had participants join us from as far away as Canada, North America, India, Pakistan and Australia.”
In today’s cost-conscious environment, fees can often be a tipping point for both students and established pros, and CMS work hard to make training as affordable and therefore as accessible as possible.
“It isn’t easy, believe me,” Facundo confesses, “to provide training that is relevant, impactful, affordable and open to all is at the core of the company’s values. We work hard not to clutter the training with non-essentials; we keep it simple and believe that spending a few days around the right person, being able to ask questions and hear their stories etc., while developing skills in a professional environment is more important than flashy equipment.”
The company works closely with the government to recognise and provide for skills gaps. There are some bursaries available where participants can be eligible for up to £800 per year towards the cost of any training.
Collaboration with strategic partnerships is key to a variety of commercial organisations and production companies, working closely with Creative Skillset, Creative England, Creative Scotland, Northern Ireland Screen and the BFI, as well as companies such as Angels Costumes, Banbury Postiche and PS Composites, who all are collaborating on training. Developing relationships with companies that understand what CMS is doing as it allows them to make training as targeted and impactful as possible.
In April 2017 CMS will be launching Film Apprenticeships in the following areas – Art Department; Make-up, Hair and Prosthetics; Assistant Directing; Production; Costume; SFX. It is early days in this process and they’re bringing together the production companies that make many of the largest scale projects being shot at Pinewood and in the UK, working hard to make these the best opportunities for those looking to begin a successful career in the business. The apprenticeships will consist of mainly on-the-job training in the form of placements with these production companies, as well as some classroom training that will happen at CMS.
And it’s not just make-up and hair pros from within the film industry who use CMS to upskill and add extra strings to their bows. All Pro Masterclasses are developed specifically to cover the key areas that will help existing professionals stand out from the crowd, add strings to their bow and develop confidence. CMS works very closely with the industry to work out where the skills gaps lie and what key areas are going to have the biggest impact on a budding career. Whether it is knowing how to knot facial hair or re-front a wig, having the confidence for if you get thrown a wig in a crowd room to know you can apply it perfectly and quickly will help you stand out. The masterclasses cover those kind of areas; there are so many skills that make-up artists and hairdressers in film are expected to pull out of a hat at any given moment, in any given location. It is impossible to be at the top of your game in all of them at the same time, so whether you have done mainly make-up and need to boost your hair and wig skills, or there might be a specific period hair or make-up you feel weak on, or wanting to develop your SFX knowledge – CMS has the course for you and if they don’t have it, just let them know because they’re always working to develop new courses and make the training work for their participants.
The biggest challenge when starting out was to get people to understand what they do, why they do it and how beneficial CMS could be. In the past, professional development training in film has been frowned upon as no-one wanted to be seen to admit weakness or that they didn’t know everything. CMS has slowly been working to change that, and have seen that more and more crews are now understanding that investing in continued professional development is a strength; that by continuing to improve they are sustaining the skills and traditions that make the UK crews stand out.
While there may not be a typical CMS student, graduates are successful in their chosen fields. Since incorporation in 2012, the company has provided over 1600 Film and TV professionals with targeted CPD training and seen over half of them go onto work at the top level on over 47 of the largest scale films made in the UK, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Spectre, Pan, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Mission Impossible. A lot of participants pop in between jobs and the majority come back regularly to upskill for a specific project. Most of the Under 18 participants go on to study film or make-up and hair, and Ailie hopes that once they have completed their initial bedrock training they will come back for advice on developing their career.
And what’s next for CMS?
“We have a lot coming up,” Ailie laughs, “Investing in new space, the development of our hub in Wales and a possible new hub in Scotland – and of course plenty of new courses all the time… all we can say is watch this space!”