Bill Thomas shared his wealth of experience in the art department with mentee Nagea Rose
Bill’s list of credits working in the art department is impressive, including The Harry Potter films, The Dark Knight Rises and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So, it made sense to impart some of his knowledge and experience to the next generation.
“I’ve actually mentored three or four people over the last few years in an unofficial capacity and quite enjoyed it. It is nice to give people a leg up. So, I decided to sign up to the ScreenSkills mentorship programme and do it in an official capacity,” Bill said.
He had worked as a construction manager, prop maker and sculptor on many movies, before switching from the art department to directing about six or seven years ago.
His assigned mentee, Nagea Rose, who is working her way up through the art department to become an art director, was hugely grateful to have him as mentor, describing his input as “life-changing”.
Bill and Nagea had lengthy conversations and email exchanges about their respective careers and what Nagea wanted to get out of the mentoring scheme. “When you work in the industry, you start at one place with the intention of getting to another and there are about 400 ways of doing it. So, I helped her break it down into manageable chunks,” he said.
“For example, if she wanted to be a set dresser, it would be good to get more experience on her portfolio in that, follow set dressers online, look for tutorials, and instead of ringing people up to ask for work, ask for advice. They tend to be more engaged that way, as it’s flattering to be asked for advice, whereas asking for a job is pretty much the end of the conversation.”
They also worked through her CV, so that it was more tailored to her ambitions. The ultimate goal for Nagea was art directing, but getting more experience as a set dresser and prop maker seemed a good route to take.
Nagea is based in Bristol, so Bill suggested it made sense for her to aim to work primarily in TV and advertising rather than film where is less work in the city. He was able to provide her with some useful local contacts.
Bill himself has been a “tiny cog in huge machines”, enacting other people’s designs, whether it was creating daggers for Prince of Persia, guns for Star Wars or body armour for Batman’s attack helicopter.
His speciality was miniature models, including helping create Hogwarts castle for the Harry Potter films. “For the first five films it was a miniature effect,” he said. “It was painstaking work, but great.” For Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, he helped build a miniature version of the Batwing using black fibreglass armour and MDF patterns over an aluminium frame as well as a lightweight full-size version. He also had creative input in the art department on smaller films and TV projects such as construction manager on Asylum, starring Natasha Richardson.
However, he eventually decided to pursue what had always really excited him - directing. So, he bought a camera, made what he described as “terrible shorts” and a low budget feature, Fallen Soldiers, and then turned to directing the dramatic reconstruction parts of historical and true crime documentaries.
“It’s mostly American Discovery channel murder shows, true crime, with the occasional interlude of Nazis and Romans,” he laughs. “Some of the stuff I’ve done more recently, the total budget is probably the same as the coffee budget on Star Wars.”
His goal is to direct dramas so he approached one of the directors of the hospital drama Casualty to gain work experience. He ended up working alongside Nagea as a fellow rookie, having given her the contact details of the show’s production designer.
He wants to continue helping others starting out and creating opportunities for others – including those who, like himself, want to change direction. For example, he has brought Christopher Puttock on board his team on documentaries and on his own 80-minute sci-fi comedy feature film Lockdown Kings. “Christopher started in stunts, but wanted to work in directing, so I helped him out, and now he’s a director in his own right. Looking ahead, I’m happy to do more mentoring for ScreenSkills,” he said.
Nagea Rose is determined to be the best possible art director she can be, which is why she turned to the ScreenSkills Mentoring Network for a little guidance after finding it tough to break back in after a career break.
She had studied art at university and gone to art school, so the art department drew her interest. After testing the water in theatre, she soon moved into television.
Her list of credits in the art department as an assistant and prop dresser included some smaller projects like Body in Numbers, Turn Back Time: The High Street Trollied and Bottom Knocker Street, as well as a stint on the big Aardman Animation Studios film The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
The difficulty was she was finding it hard to decide what to specialise in. Also, she could not take everything she was offered because she did not drive.
“That really stunted my growth in the industry, so I took time out to learn, but it ended up being a three-year gap,” Nagea said. “When I tried to get back into the industry, I found it difficult to get anywhere because I didn’t have any recent credits or a portfolio because when I started out I didn’t take any pictures.”
She decided she needed a mentor to help which was when she turned to ScreenSkills. She was matched in September 2019 with former art director and production designer, Bill Thomas, now a director in his own right.
“From day one Bill has been incredibly giving - sharing his advice, contacts, ideas and general good support,” she said.
“I have been able to share with Bill my weaknesses and barriers that held me back from pursuing more senior roles. What I discovered is I am not alone, everyone has weaknesses and some people like myself feel overwhelmed with the many strategies of finding the next job, developing my skills and keeping up with how fast opportunities present themselves. Bill encouraged me that when I have intentions I should follow through with them right away, contact the relevant people, even just to get their advice.”
As a result, her confidence has grown and so has her portfolio. Since last year, she has worked on three music videos with James Haskins. (They had been following each other on social media.) She was in the art department on the first and production manager on the second. Filming at Band Studios in Bristol, Nagea’s hometown, meant she got to know the owners, Pete and Tom Martin, who asked her to work on some commercials. She also worked with the production company Hurricane Media as an art department assistant on their adverts.
Bill also put her in touch with one of his contacts, an art director called Badger (real name Richard Touch) who works on historic documentaries and period films and gave her a chance to assist on one.
She was back in business. “I certainly feel more confident in myself and also have a better understanding of the role of art directors and designers now than I did when I started in the industry. I don't want to make any big mistakes, so I don't intend to jump any steps in getting to where I want to be as an art director. I want to be a good art director not just a lucky one.”
One step suggested by Bill was to contact universities and film schools and offer to art direct some student films to build relationships for the future. She also secured a stint shadowing the art director on the TV series Casualty, after Bill was able to share contact details for the production designer. Bill himself was gaining experience working on the show, as he is moving into directing dramas.
After working on Casualty, the production designer on the show offered to give Nagea a block to art direct but she decided it was not yet the right time to accept. “I think it's best for me to gain more experience first on similar productions before jumping in,” she said.
But she is grateful to ScreenSkills and Bill for giving her the boost and experiences she needed. “It's been a great pleasure to be part of this scheme, it has been life-changing for me. It was something I have always dreamed of having since I started freelancing. I am amazed at what a difference it has made in my drive, development and opportunities. I look ahead with confidence.”
The ScreenSkills Mentoring Network is supported by the BFI, awarding National Lottery funds as part of the Future Film Skills strategy.
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