Assistant art director May Davies on a ScreenSkills bursary and mentoring help

Assistant art director May Davies has already worked on leading shows such as Channel 4’s comedy Stath Lets Flats and the BBC’s mockumentary People Just Do Nothing in the five years since moving into television.

She credits some of her rise to ScreenSkills, having had help with bursaries and a mentorship.

“ScreenSkills has been very helpful in helping me learn about the industry side of things, which has helped me progress,” says May, who has a degree in fine art.

She began her career working for a film-making charity in Cumbria for six years.

It was there that she first came across ScreenSkills and began making shorts. After moving to London to do an MA in theatre design and then to Chelmsford to run a pub with her partner, May made some low budget shorts and short feature films.

“The film industry can feel difficult to get into, to make contacts. The ScreenSkills website is great for that and they fund lots of things such as Talking Point in Brighton. I’ve been to their how to be a successful standby art director and art directing for green screen sessions and they invite people working in big budget feature films to share their knowledge.”

“Over the years doing things like that I’ve learned how to operate, who’s who and what skills to learn to help my portfolio,” says May.

“It feels like in the film industry that you have to take responsibility for your own training programme, so you have to do research on what’s best for you to upskill to take you to the next level.”

Her breakthrough credit was on Christopher Eccleston drama Safe House doing standby props, followed shortly after by a stint dressing props on the 2016 film adaptation of the classic sailing adventure Swallows and Amazons.

Over the last few years, in addition to taking part in the ScreenSkills Mentoring Programme in 2020 that matched her with a supervising art director to help her learn technical drawings, May has had some help with bursaries for travel and for design software.

“I received a few hundred pounds sometimes - in the past I’ve had small amounts to help travel for example to Talking Point - so I’ve had little bits like that before. I had a big one for a scenic painting course…but the last one for software was £1200.”

She explains: “ScreenSkills offer 80% of the cost of something like that up to a certain amount of money in your experience range. They put you in entry, early or experienced progression lines then you have a certain amount of money each financial year. It’s not definite but available to apply to. I think I can apply to up to £2000.”

She said the money arrived quickly after a few weeks,.  “You get an upfront amount and then you have to submit receipts for the end amount then you get the final 10 per cent or whatever.”

All May’s hard work has paid off and she is currently working as an assistant art director on Sky and HBO drama Landscapers, made by Sister Pictures and starring Olivia Colman.

According to May, who would like to become an art director, ScreenSkills helps make the industry more diverse. As she points out for many people just “travelling on a train that costs over £100…from somewhere like Cumbria, those softer things some people don’t think about”. So what appears modest support can make a huge difference to those from less well-off backgrounds.

“It is very difficult to equip yourself with all this stuff. The uncertainty of work etc all contributes to the lack of diversity, so basically it’s a really great thing that ScreenSkills exists. I’m always telling people about ScreenSkills - people don’t know enough about it - and to apply for its support all the time.”

ScreenSkills bursaries are supported by BFI-awarded National Lottery funds, by industry contributions to the Film, High-end TV, Children’s TV and Animation Skills Funds and through money from the Television Skills Fund targeted at improving diversity and inclusivity

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