A world away from Hollywood glitz and glamour, in dilapidated buildings occupying a sleepy corner of Buckinghamshire, some of Britain’s most promising future film-makers build sets, bring puppets to life and create a world of make-believe as students of the National Film and Television School (NFTS). This week, in a remarkable testament to their talent and expertise, they will be saluted as the best young film-makers in the world.
The school has already produced Oscar-winning alumni such as animator Nick Park and director Michael Radford. Now the Beaconsfield-based institution has been voted the world’s best film school in an international poll of the major film training institutions around the globe.
In an unprecedented clean sweep, three students have been singled out for the film-school equivalent of the Oscars, it will be announced on Monday.
They have been chosen by members of around 160 institutions from 60 countries, all of which belong to CILECT (the International Association of Film and Television Schools). For 58 years the association has staged an annual competition to find the world’s best student films.
Members voted overwhelmingly for NFTS films in all three categories – fiction, documentary and animation, directed by Gabriel Gauchet, Lukasz Konopa and Timothy Reckart respectively.
Stanislav Semerdjiev, the association’s executive director, said of the achievement: “I am astonished … We have a situation that until now was considered only a theoretical possibility.”
Nik Powell, one of the UK’s leading producers – whose films includeMona Lisa and the Oscar-winning The Crying Game – heads the NFTS. He said the awards were the icing on the cake in a “rock’n’roll year for us”. The school’s graduates also won prizes at this year’s Cannes film festival.
The awards are all the more impressive considering the quality of the competition. Renowned rivals to the NFTS include the University of Southern California, heavily supported by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whose backing has run to “a $100m building”, Powell said.
In contrast, the NFTS is desperately seeking £13m to renovate buildings, although it boasts state-of-the-art equipment. Since 1971, its home has been the former Beaconsfield Film Studios, where Britain’s first all-talking feature – The Clue of the New Pin – was made in 1929. The final feature shot there was Norman Wisdom’s Press For Time in 1966.
For Reckart, the latest award for his film Head Over Heels follows its unique student film nomination for an Oscar this year. The charming 10-minute silent short – made with foam latex puppets and using stop-motion animation – portrays a couple who have drifted apart over the years, with the husband living on the floor and the wife upside down on the ceiling. Powell described it as “a very original and fresh” human story: “It’s beautifully done. The story translates into any language.”
American-born Reckart, whose parents are both engineers, said: “There was a really strong community at the school, and I feel that this is a recognition of that.” Asked why he decided to train at the school rather than in the US, he said: “I wanted to work in stop-frame animation and England really is the heart of that tradition. What really grabbed me was that animation directors are really treated as directors. We work with a crew. Most animation programmes put the animator in a dark room by himself to give birth to a film straight from his brain, but I was very interested in the collaborative process.”
Last week he went to Hollywood with plans for television and feature animation. History could now repeat itself. Park, who found Oscar success with Wallace and Gromit and other animated characters, has not forgotten the school, giving it some of his drawings to auction, while its students have just done an animation course with his company, Aardman Animations.
The school receives 1,200 applications a year for 120 places. Its graduates have gone on to work on major commercial productions such as the Harry Potter films and television dramas including Downton Abbey. Courses are taught by leading professionals, including director Stephen Frears.
On Friday, the studios were a hive of activity. Among a maze of false walls, scenery, tangles of wires and filming paraphernalia, students were shooting two films, with a further 16 in post-production. Projects are, to say the least, varied. One plot concerns a woman who “discovers her sensuality” when she stops off at a hotel. In another area, Rebecca Archer was preparing an animation film starring a bear accused of murder. A week is needed to film 30 seconds’ worth of the bear’s movements.
The other films honoured this week include After, a seven-minute documentary about visitors to Auschwitz, which Powell described as “completely moving”. Its director, Konopa, is now working on a multimillion-pound Russian project in London.
Gauchet’s The Mass of Men is a fictional, 17-minute film about an unemployed man driven to desperate measures. Inspired by the 2011 London riots, its director wanted to portray “the dangers of repression, disillusionment and apathy”. He added: “My film is based on friends and family who were also jobseekers, like the main character, and experienced similar humiliations.”
Powell said of the three films: “As a film producer, only occasionally do you get to make a film that really resonates with your audience.”