By Peter Galvin
Leaving study to find work is an exciting and scary moment for any graduate. In film, TV and media the stakes are notoriously high, the competition fierce.
Still, Sydney Film School graduates have experienced a particularly high success rate in making the best of available opportunities.
Eight-five per cent of candidates who have completed their Advanced Diploma at SFS in the last three years are now finding regular work in the media industry – especially film and TV.
Part of what has made this possible say recent graduates like Jonathan Martin, was that SFS offers a strong culture of support where skills are emphasised and collaboration is a core value.
A full-time editor at production house Broken Yellow Martin has had the job since the beginning of 2016 after a short period freelancing. He told me he started thinking out a career pathway strategy from his first day at SFS…and he suggests that current students do the same.
Martin came to SFS with a degree in film and media from Queensland’s Griffith University.
“I was frustrated (with my situation there) because you couldn’t get entry level jobs in the film industry-unless you specialised,” he says.
“As soon as I got to SFS I decided to learn as much as I could – I wanted to specialise in editing,” he says.
“I invested in some gear and built up a portfolio of work.”
Fiona Gillman, originally from Queensland, left school in 2009 and came to SFS last year with a degree in musical theatre.
For her, SFS was a turning point – both personally and professionally. There she formed powerful bonds with teachers and fellow students. These relationships now define her post-grad career.
“The teachers encourage you to be yourself and find your voice,” she said, adding: “I love the place.”
While at SFS Gillman met Holly Fraser, who left high school only four years ago but was already a film industry veteran, since she began her career as a child actor aged 10 and has worked steadily in movies, TV and stage since.
“I think the most rewarding thing about SFS was the trust that were given,” Fraser says.
“We were treated with a lot of respect from the teaching community – they were mentors and gave us a lot of advice.”
Fraser and Gillman and their team completed an ambitious musical comedy short called To the Top at the end of 2015. It caught the attention of SFS tutor, producer Heather Ogilvie (Accidents Happen), who proposed developing a new project.
Now Gillman, Fraser and Ogilvie are preparing a six part web series called The Virgin Intervention. With financial support provided by Screen Australia through the Gender Matters program, the comedy will shoot next year with Gillman starring and writing and Fraser producing. Meanwhile both Gillman and Fraser are preparing new projects as writer-directors.
Advanced Diploma graduate Jovan Atanackovic, now an emerging cinematographer, has already had industry recognition, even if he admits now he did not quite have a precise plan for a career on graduation. Recently he shot a pilot for a web series called Amy Danzig. Written and directed by SFS grad Josh Sambono and featuring Holly Fraser the show has just launched a kickstarter campaign.
Earlier this year the prestigious Australian Cinematographers Society awarded Atanackvovic the prize for best student cinematography for his work on SFS short Harvest (2015).
Written and directed by SFS graduate Amaan Hassen the film has been selected to screen at the Cameraimage film competition in Poland, a festival dedicated to the art and craft of cinematography. Atanackovic, will be travelling to the event. He says its ideal opportunity to build connections.
“There’s no one to one relationship between getting an award and work,” he says. Atanackovic, who moved to Australia a few years ago to study film from his native Ireland, says he is now getting steady freelance work. He recommends new graduates make the effort to connect with professionals though guilds and associations like ACS: it’s a way to learn what is important about the job, and the values of the people who do it every day.
“Doing good work is essential,” he says, “but the important thing – in terms of getting work – is that the professional world needs to be able to trust the new filmmaker.” They need to get to know you so they are certain you share similar values about the art and craft, he says.
Martin agrees: “You have to be able to work with everyone and people have to be comfortable to work with you. Professionals aren’t going to involve you in projects unless they feel you are going to work well together.”
He says graduates need to make the effort to understand the workplace. Don’t over estimate your knowledge but don’t undersell your ability either, Martin suggests.
“I think when you are entering the workforce you need to keep an open mind,” adds recent SFS advanced diploma graduate Stevie McDonald.
After leaving high school in 2008, McDonald studied film and media in Queensland before coming to SFS.
She feels that many undergraduates become fixed on a career in a specific discipline, like say directing.
This focus has its obvious virtues she says but it can be a serious disadvantage when attempting to discover the diversity of jobs on offer in the film and TV industry. A multiple skill set can lead to discovering new creative talents.
“I think it’s important to step out of your comfort zone,” she explains. “I think grads need to try out different skills and disciplines.”
McDonald is speaking from experience. While at SFS she specialised in cinematography. Like Atanackovic McDonald did not have a career pathway worked out once she left SFS.
Now she works full time as an assistant editor on reality TV series Married at First Sight (Nine Network). SFS grad Arnold Perez recommended McDonald to the shows producers Endomol Shine Australia, a significant player in television both here and Europe: a perfect example of the SFS network paying off, she says!
“I think diversification has certainly help me as a pathway into the industry,” adds Johnny Grace who left high school in 2010 and graduated from the advanced diploma at SFS in 2015.
Based in Melbourne, Grace has spent his post-grad life making corporate video, producing shorts at VCA and working in entry-level jobs like production runner.
This job allowed him close up access to the day-to-day subtleties of the camera and art department. This he says is an invaluable experience. Grace learnt what each crew member needed from the other in order to do their best work.
“A top director gave me some good advice recently,” he adds, “she said ‘don’t be in a hurry and spend your first three years out of film school learning as much as you can’…it made me feel good about where I’m at.”
Right now Grace is nearing completion on a new short as writer-director. Called Astronaut the production was developed as the winner of the SFS IAB short film competition. It will screen at the SFS Festival in December.
Grace believes the best advice he can give to graduates entering the freelance market is to use the time between jobs working on their own projects. He wrote Astronaut between writing to every production house in Melbourne.
“I think there will be things that come along that scare you,” says Fraser, who completed an internship at Matchbox Pictures after finishing her diploma last year. “You have to be prepared to take every opportunity, take risks and take all the work you can…and consider that no job is beneath you and at the same never turn down a gig because you think you aren’t good enough!”
Even if all the SFS graduates here have experienced very different pathways in building their careers all of them agree that the school instilled virtues like self-reliance and perseverance: values that have helped them in the hard times.
Still, it’s the network of SFS grads and teachers that they know will always play a significant part in their past and future careers.
“I think when you are talking about pathways,” says Fraser, “I would say to grads: ‘cherish the relationships you have made in the time you have spent at SFS’.”
“The best thing about SFS is the community – it is much easier if you need help to get help,” says McDonald.
Martin adds: “Who really gets to leave SFS? You can walk out of the building…but you never leave…SFS is the people!”