Michelle was clear her interests lay in film and psychology when she applied to Queen’s University Belfast to do her undergraduate degree. So she did both together, and let her experience steer decisions about her future. She quickly realised that it was film and TV that excited her. The practical assignments – making and creating films – and the organisation behind them, was what she wanted to be a part of.
Michelle says, “Until that point, I hadn’t been aware of how many people are involved in making a production happen. The more I learnt, the more I knew that’s where I wanted to be. It’s the problem solving that I love. It didn’t bother me that the hours are long and I had to start right at the bottom.”
Michelle adds, “At the beginning, I was a little apprehensive that I’d have to relocate to England for work, but the industry in Belfast has literally grown and grown and grown. When I was studying I did a lot of work experience during the weekends, the holidays and even between lectures. So I met a lot of people in the industry – and that helped me walk into a job immediately after I graduated. Knowing people and what opportunities are out there is just so important in this industry. I’m really lucky that I’ve been constantly in work. I haven’t had the long gaps that freelancers often have.”
Michelle’s first job was as a trainee production runner on the feature film crime drama, Johnny Was. “That’s where I met Lisa Byrne, who became the production manager on Game of Thrones. Before that though, we worked together many times with me as her trainee in various roles - the romantic drama, Closing the Ring, the adventure fantasy, City of Ember, and Your Highness. Being a production trainee gives you an insight into all departments because you’re the distribution hub and you’re filtering information and equipment. When Lisa told me about Game of Thrones, I jumped at the chance to be part of it. I’ve been working on the show since the pilot.”
What Michelle likes so much about production is that you’re involved from the very beginning right through to the end, so you see the project in its entirety. “It’s been an amazing experience. I was aware of ScreenSkills’ Trainee Finder but until Sabrina approached me, I didn’t know it supported training for the next step up in your career. Sabrina and Lisa thought it would be a really positive thing to help me move up to be a production coordinator. I didn’t need any convincing. I knew quite a bit about what Lisa did when she was in that role – so we had a basis to work out our objectives, and areas where I needed to develop my knowledge and get more experience. Week on week we reviewed things and she mentored me, taking time to go through things like progress reports, call sheets and equipment.”
Michelle learnt a lot. The practicalities of all the equipment was fascinating - not necessarily knowing all their names, let alone their sizes. “Logistically, do you ship something in a small box or do you need a 40 foot artic truck? That’s something you can only really learn on the job.” The experience was what Michelle needed to take on a production coordinator role. “It gave me a better insight into how to manage a team of people. There were eight of us in the production office, and up until then, I would have been helping out the coordinator with issues that arose. Now, I’m the person who has to come up with the solutions. I love those challenges and I love managing a team.”
Michelle will be one of the last to wrap up on Game of Thrones. “It’s been an epic journey. I’ve learnt so much. ScreenSkills’ Stepping Up scheme raised my game to production coordinator, and I was lucky enough to work in that role on Game of Thrones until the final shoot. I’m incredibly grateful. I’ll miss the show so much and the people I’ve worked with, but the future is exciting. I want to remain in the industry – and there are a lot of projects going on in Belfast with which I’d love to be involved. We have an amazing infrastructure in Northern Ireland now - I’m looking forward to working with old friends again.”
Make a Move encourages and promotes professional development. The aim is to enable those on the scheme to apply for work at the more senior grade they are targeting, by the end of their participation. All job roles on a production are currently eligible, but the scheme is not intended for entry-level positions.
Potential 'move ups' can include almost anything - location assistant to unit manager, make-up artist to make-up supervisor, production secretary to production coordinator. The roles supported by the scheme so far show the diverse range of possibilities: costume designers, art directors, assistant production accountants, script editors, location managers and production managers. Individuals can only participate in Make a Move after being put forward by their employer. The candidate can be a completely new person to the selected team and department or an individual that has already worked with the team.