Keelan McRoberts on a ScreenSkills bursary and training

Two different interventions from ScreenSkills have helped transform Keelan McRoberts freelance career as an art director.

The Northern Irishman is the primary carer for his disabled mother and the primary bread winner in his household and found himself in a difficult situation at the end of last year. Struggling with only old hand-me-down tools from his dad, he had no laptop to carry out graphic design or invoicing.

“I was panicking over Christmas,” he admits. “But then I applied for the ScreenSkills bursary, which I was awarded not long after, and it’s made a massive difference. I was able to set up a full workshop at home and get myself a laptop, which has been great for keeping the business going, creating a website and advertising myself.”

To further build his capabilities, he applied for the Signal Film & Media Stepping up to Art Director programme, which is supported by ScreenSkills using National Lottery funds awarded by the BFI as part of the Future Film Skills programme.

The five-day continuing professional development (CPD) course is for people already working in the art department as art directors, or as experienced art department assistants looking to progress into art directing larger productions.

Keelan, who lives in a small town just outside Belfast, thought it would be just right for boosting his fledgling career as an art director in TV.

He had spent 10 years in the music industry, working his way up from stagehand at concerts to production assistant, and then provided assistant project management for a few of the larger festivals. Alongside that, he worked in lighting and set design for a touring theatre group in Ireland called the Hollywood Players, as well as design and construction work on his own short film projects with friends.

Then three years ago, he decided to pursue his options in TV through a friend who worked as a producer at the Sony-owned independent, Stellify Media. “They needed someone last-minute to design and build a set for a cookery show, so I jumped on board. That then led to working with the games development team at Stellify for a Netflix game show called Flinch, and before long I had become a permanent art director for the company,” Keelan explained.

He eventually left last September and went freelance, quickly picking up two jobs, as an art director on the BBC Northern Ireland series’ Pretty Single and on the reality show Tricked Out Tractors. But he was keen for further guidance in the tough world of art directing; hence his decision to take the Stepping Up to Art Director course in January this year.

“Colleagues who had done courses with ScreenSkills told me how helpful they were. If nothing else, the networks of contacts you can make are worth having,” Keelan said. “This was, and proved to be, a key driver as the industry in Northern Ireland can be quite closed off. Few want to share their skills or guide you in the right direction for how to find an AD job. That is exactly what this course did.”

He told how course leader, Katie Macgregor (Sex Education and Watchmen), explained all the different responsibilities of an art director and what the job entails, and answered all the participants’ questions.

“It became an open discussion format where we could all share our experiences, concerns and insights,” Keelan said. “The CV breakdown session, for example, consisted of us each sticking our resumes on the projector and then everyone providing constructive criticism, which was brilliant. It was great to get so many perspectives on what a CV should be and what they look for when receiving them. This then led to discussions about where people can look for jobs and create ways of getting them.”

The course also helped with issues such as scheduling, budgeting, how to do rigging and everything from the moment you are hired to the last days of production. There were also valuable tips from experienced hands in the guest panel sessions.

“What the course seemed to be was getting all the secrets you pick up in a 30-year career over a week, as we got to talk to and listen to people with that much experience,” Keelan said. “The networking was incredible and we’re all still in touch via WhatsApp and email. I highly recommend people go on this course.”

Keelan’s tip for those starting out…

Work hard and be committed. The motivation of the people at the top of the art department is very high. I came from the music industry, where the work is intense, sometimes performing 24-hour shifts, but the people I’ve come across in TV have shown new levels of dedication to their craft.

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