3 March 2022

Image for the news item 'A Career in Film: the skills it takes to succeed' on 3 Mar 2022
Toby Watts (2007)

As part of our Giving Day we're fundraising for the Emma experience programme. In this Q&A, member Toby Watts (2007)—who co–founded film production company Far North Film with his brother—talks to us about his career in film: the challenges he's faced, the skills he's had to learn along the way, and why he thinks establishing a programme like the Emma experience will be so beneficial for Emma students.

Q: You graduated from Emma back in 2010. Can you tell us what you’ve been up to since then?

A: Straight after graduation, I began a 2–month internship with a documentary production company based in New Delhi, India. When I got back to the UK I lived at home and began freelance filmmaking, picking up bits of work making videos for youth clubs, churches, community groups, as well as writing and directing my own fiction films with my brother, who was a few years ahead of me into his filmmaking journey. All the while I was building up more and more equipment and developing camera, editing and other filmmaking skills. Within a year of that, my brother and I joined forces and founded our production company, Far North Film, which we still run today, more than 10 years later. Back when we started we were making corporate videos and films in schools, but after 4 or 5 years of this we took the plunge and set about making our first feature length fiction film. In 2020/21 our thriller/horror film Playhouse was released worldwide after an official premiere at London FrightFest, one of the world’s best horror and fantasy film festivals.

Q: Filmmaking is a huge departure from your degree in Natural Sciences. What led you to it?

A: I’d always had a passion for film as a hobby, having grown up in a creative family with an older brother who was really into film. I used to make films with friends for fun in the holidays during school and then later during my time at Cambridge. In fact, I became a bit of a go-to person in college for filming random things and editing videos together. This was just before DSLRs and decent smartphone cameras were around, so back then you had to have a good video camera and a laptop with editing software to do anything, and I happened to have all that when I started at Cambridge.

During my degree and particularly after a Summer internship I did at a biology lab in Glasgow, I began to realise that I was more passionate about film and writing scripts than I was about science. In fact, in my last year of my course I’m pretty sure I spent more time renting movies from Blockbuster than I did writing essays… And so began my journey towards a career in film—whilst wading through the last year of my NatSci course!

Q: As a filmmaker, what challenges have you had to navigate?

A: There are lots of creative, technical and business skills that you need to learn as a filmmaker so you really have to develop an obsessional mindset and become comfortable with failure. For example, you not only need to learn how to tell a story and communicate in visual and emotionally resonant terms, but you also need to learn about cameras, lighting, editing, directing, sound recording, marketing, networking and so on.

I’ve always believed the best way to learn how to make films is to make them and to get things wrong. However, I’m sure like many of the students coming up through Cambridge, failure is not something I am particularly good at dealing with, and so at times starting out it was very hard to find myself in situations where I didn’t know what I was doing.

Becoming an independent filmmaker who worked for myself was a bit like starting an apprenticeship right at the bottom of the ladder but not having any boss or teacher to train and guide me. It was all on me (and later my brother) to figure things out. Nowadays, YouTube has loads of helpful videos on just about everything, but 10 or 15 years ago it didn’t. The kind of tenacity, determination and experimentation I had to develop to progress has been absolutely vital to surviving a career in film so looking back I’m glad it all happened this way. My degree in Natural Sciences trained me in problem solving and persistence of enquiry, and I think these are also really important traits for anyone starting out on a risky venture such as filmmaking.

Q: What, if anything, do you wish you’d had the opportunity to learn about or gain experience in during your time at Emma, that might have helped you in your career?

A: The areas of insight and experience that came later to me (out of necessity!) were the areas of business and entrepreneurship. I wish I had made the connection between these and filmmaking and then sought out training in these whilst at Emma. An opportunity to learn from other entrepreneurs, business people and pioneers would have been incredibly valuable. Also, learning from great storytellers, writers, directors and producers working in film would have been very inspiring and informative.

Q: Why do you think a programme like the Emma experience would be useful? Do you think looking at the needs of the student as a whole person is important?

A: Sometimes as a student I think it’s easy to fail to understand which skills it will take to succeed in your chosen field. This was certainly true for me.

I was driven by passion and interest when I started making films, but pretty soon after University it was clear that wasn’t enough to sustain and develop a career. I needed other skills in business, marketing, networking and so on. Any programme that can help students gain knowledge, insights and experience in their chosen field whilst they have the safety and structure of their degree would be invaluable.

Experts who’ve been working in the field a long time can have a significant impact on a student by helping them to see which skills and training they will need to work on—or at least anticipate—that they would never have considered particularly relevant.

If students can leave University with a greater awareness of what is to come and how to compete well in their field, aware of their weaker areas and the need to work with others with complementary talents, that is undoubtedly a most invaluable gift that a University can give.

Q: Do you have a top tip for students who either want to start their own company or break into the filmmaking industry?

A: I would say the best tip I can give is… to not ask for anyone’s permission to start making films and setting up your own company. In other words, if you want to become a filmmaker, then just start making films, however humble. Just pick up a camera and shoot with some friends, edit it, do whatever it takes. Form a group of committed allies and call yourself a video production company. Make a website and become visible. This is actually what makes you attractive to potential employers of production companies if you want to work for someone else, too. But it’s very easy to get stuck in the system doing a film-related job you never wanted to really do, all because you’re under the impression that you need someone’s permission to get started.

Funding, equipment, affirmation, professional recognition, all these things are great and can help you progress, but they should always come second to you just making films and putting them out there. The work speaks for itself and is what will get you noticed and help you become a better, more confident filmmaker, not waiting for someone to come along and give you an opportunity to make a film or start a company.

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