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How to get from being a Runner to being an Assistant Director with Emma from Aardman Animations

Meet Emma

Emma has dedicatedly worked her way up the ranks at Aardman Animations.  Emma has progressed from being a runner to the role of junior production assistant, then to a floor assistant to the 2nd assistant director. If anyone knows how to progress, work hard and make it in the industry- It’s Emma! 

How did your career start out?

I knew that I wanted to work in entertainment from the age of 6. I went to see a pantomime of Peter Pan and was hooked into performance and storytelling. I did a degree in filmmaking which covered all areas of media production but in my final year, I  specialised in editing. After uni, I gained a graduate internship as an editor but decided that I missed being on set and in the action so I found work experience on a live-action feature casting extras. It was about a year after that until I found more media work when a runner position came up at Aardman. I started on a three-month probation and have been there now for 5 years.

Could you tell us a little about each of the roles you have done over the years?

I’ve gone from running to pre-production coordinating throughout my time at Aardman. Starting there as a runner on series 4 of Shaun the Sheep was great. It allowed me to get to know the crew and to see how all of the departments work in themselves and together. After that, I moved to production assisting on the Shaun the Sheep movie. This was a little more organisational and taught me how to contract crew, create breakdowns for the film and develop risk assessments amongst other paperwork.

When the film went into production I took on a role as a floor assistant allowing me to work with the assistant directors and floor crew during the shoot. This is where the ability to multitask comes in handy having to need to coordinate up to 80 crew members to keep the shoot running. It also helps if you are a good people person as it involves a lot of motivating and communication. I stepped up into various assistant director roles throughout series 5 of Shaun, a Christmas special called The Farmer’s Llamas and Nick Park’s Early Man. This enabled me to learn more about scheduling and problem solving throughout the shoot. I also took on more responsibilities such as First Aid and health and safety. I was also in charge of training and leading the running team.

After Early Man, I completed a couple of projects as a floor manager for the commercials team making adverts for DFS. This meant that I was responsible for the schedule of the shoot and the day to day running of production. It required a lot of communication with the producer and director and gave me more insight into how they work with an outside agency and client.

I am currently working on Shaun the Sheep the movie 2 as a pre-production coordinator where I get to assist the directors in working with the writer and storyboard team. Throughout my time at Aardman, I’ve wanted to keep my live-action filmmaking practice up and have produced a couple of comedy shorts in my spare time. They have gone on to compete at world famous film festivals, received award nominations and one of them is currently being hosted on Comedy Central’s website. This has helped me to keep a network of the crew and fellow filmmakers outside of Aardman and allowed me to keep my own creativity going when my work is a little more spreadsheet based.

Was there a particular job that was the catalyst for your career?

I think some people’s careers can happen that way but I don’t think mine has. I think I owe my career a little to being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. I think it’s also down to working hard, showing commitment and dedication and being open with producers and HODs about my ambitions and the work that I’d like to do. I’m really lucky to work with a great management team at Aardman who really nurture and push their employees to get to where they want to go. I think also continuing my own projects outside of animation has helped to show that I am driven and have learnt skills that I can bring into my professional work that could be useful.

Could you tell us a bit about what it is like to work for Aardman productions and animation in particular?

Aardman is like its own little world. In the winter, especially if you are working in the studio where there is no natural light, you might not see the sun for months on end. We all joke about getting ‘real’ jobs where we don’t get to spend all day messing around with plasticine and puppets.

The team at Aardman is so experienced and skilled at what they do, they make it look effortless which is incredibly intimidating when you start out. But the more you get to know the group or jokers the more they feel like family. Working in animation can have its stressful times and when you are nearing the end of a long project it can get really exhausting and tough. But then you’ll get to show around some members of the press or public and they are amazed at what they see. It’s very humbling and reminds you of what a privilege it is to work for such a well-loved company.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the film industry?

I’d say don’t stop. Building a career in this industry is exhausting, especially if you are freelancing as you never know where your next contract might be coming from. You have to work hard and push yourself to be constantly learning, making new contacts and developing your creativity. Even if you have a job either with a production company or studio, don’t stop. Find little projects to do in your spare time because what you can learn from them could help you in your next job or bring you a new collaborator. Life is short and you can sleep when you are dead.

What is it that you love about your job?

I love how every day is different. You could be prepping for a big celebrity to be coming in for a voice record session at the start of the week and finish it up by checking continuity notes. No two projects will ever be the same and each comes with its own set of problems to solve and lessons to learn. It can be incredibly daunting when you start a shoot that’s aiming to finish in over a years time but insanely rewarding when you get there.

What’s your favourite memory from your career so far?

My favourite memory would have to be attending the premiere of Shaun the Sheep the Movie in Leicester Square. What we do on a day to day basis isn’t very glamorous. The studio leaks and is filled with dust and chemicals. But it has always been my dream to walk the red carpet at a premiere in London. Although the carpet was green in the end, It didn’t disappoint and we all got to experience the side of the film industry that most people aspire to.

Do you have any technical tips you can give?

I’m not much of a technical person and it depends on what role you are going for. I’d say that if you are going for a role in production, learn the basics for the programmes that the rest of the crew are learning. At Aardman, we use stop-motion software Dragon Frame. It’s incredibly useful to know the ins and outs when on set visits. It also makes you quite employable if you can edit as well as whatever else you do. Premiere is a good programme to learn if you can get a copy. I’d also say I’ve found it useful to have a basic understanding of Photoshop. For production people, become a wizard in Excel and Outlook.

If you could tell yourself one thing about your career to your younger self what would it be?

Take every opportunity that comes your way. Even the unpaid ones can lead to gained knowledge or connections. Don’t think of networking events as job hunting but an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. Above all, don’t let your work stop you from being creative. Absolutely find stable paid work (hopefully in the industry) but keep experimenting and creating in your spare time. That’s where your passion and ideas can thrive and shine most and people will see that.

#AardmanAnimations #AD #AssistantDirector #Runner

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