6 Reasons to Study Film in London
When you think of an incredible place to shoot a film, do you think of London?
You ought to, because London is an enduringly popular location for filmmakers, and for good reason. Think about Hugh Grant looking lovelorn as he walks along the South Bank of the Thames in Four Weddings and a Funeral, zombies roaming south London suburbs in Shaun of the Dead, down-at-heel actors in a miserable 1960s Camden in Withnail & I, the Beatles bouncing across the city in A Hard Day’s Night, Georgian splendour brought to life in Sense and Sensibility, and the all-important role played by King’s Cross station in the Harry Potter series. What’s clear is not just that London is an amazing location with a long cinematic history; it also inspires, produces and stars in a remarkably diverse range of films.
It’s this, above all, that makes London such a great place to study the art and science of filmmaking. Even if you’re making a short film on a tiny budget, you’ll find that the city is a brilliant setting and a wonderful place to develop your filmmaking skills. If you’re searching for the right place to learn how to make an unforgettable film, here’s why London should be your top pick.
1. It’s full of iconic locations
A high-speed chase down the river Thames, with Tower Bridge barely opening in time to let the boats get through. The Houses of Parliament at night, wreathed in fog. King’s Cross, full of bustling, impatient commuters and gawping tourists. The oldest stations on the Underground, deserted and quiet. Camden market, full of teenagers, hippies, and ageing punks. High-rise blocks with a kid bouncing a basketball off a metal sign that reads “no ball games”. The grand houses of Pimlico at dawn.
Do we need to go on?
London is so full of iconic, instantly recognisable locations that it would be impossible to list them all, and a wander through the city is bound to spark ideas in any creative mind. In London, you don’t need much of an establishing shot to show you where you are; just a glance at the distinctive TfL (Transport for London) logo on every bus stop and tube entrance is enough to locate the viewer in this unique city. And that frees up your time as a filmmaker to do other things; if London does all the hard work of setting the scene for you, you can spend more time introducing your characters and developing your plot.
What’s more, London’s iconic locations can be remarkably versatile. Think about the Houses of Parliament, one of the most recognisable locations in London. With this as your setting, your direction can suggest a multitude of things: a sinister conspiracy of espionage reaching to the highest levels; the comedy pratfalls of bumbling politicians; the remoteness of the beautiful Palace of Westminster buildings from the everyday life of your protagonist; or even the romance of a stroll down the South Bank, with the Houses of Parliament in the background but your romantic lead utterly indifferent to the rest of the world. And that’s the potential of just one London location.
2. British acting traditions make for excellent performers
British actors, and non-British actors who’ve trained in the UK, are typically overrepresented in Hollywood, and that’s with good reason. For one, the UK has some of the best schools of drama in the world. You might well have heard of RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) but if you haven’t, you’ve certainly heard of their alumni: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Sophie Okonedo, Alan Rickman, Diana Rigg and Ben Whishaw all studied there, and that’s just a very small portion of their star-studded list of graduates (you know there are a lot when Wikipedia has to separate the list alphabetically).
It’s not just RADA and other acting schools that make British actors so sought-after. A key difference between actors who have trained in the UK and those who have trained in the US is that it’s usual for British actors to work across different mediums: they’re likely to be equally comfortable with cinema, TV, radio and stage performances. In the US, it’s more usual to pick a medium and stick to it; actors might move between cinema and TV, but the stage is typically separate.
This matters in filmmaking because that overlap makes for versatile and skilled performers, especially (though not exclusively) in character roles. Perhaps the best example is how Patrick Stewart’s training not just for the stage but for Shakespearean roles has led him to brilliant performances as Jean Luc Picard and Professor X; the influence of Shakespearean acting on his interpretation of those roles has often been commented on positively by critics. It also means that most British actors are comfortable with the minimal sets and limited budgets of theatre, which is helpful if you’re producing a film on a shoestring, or if you’re going for a minimalist aesthetic.
3. There are endless opportunities to see great films
One important part of learning to be an outstanding filmmaker is to watch lots of outstanding films – but that can be harder to achieve than it sounds. Outside a film festival, you don’t normally get the chance to watch the kinds of films – typically, low budget and short – that you’ll be making as you learn about the process, at least not on a big screen as they were intended to be seen. Yes, you can definitely learn something from the latest Marvel blockbuster, and as a prospective film student you should be trying to learn from every film that you see. All the same, there’s a limit to what you can learn from a film with a budget of over $150m if you’re going to apply it to a film with a budget that’s a million or even a hundred thousand times smaller.
At the Southbank Centre, the BFI (the British Film Institute) provides constant opportunities to see cinema classics, independent films and foreign-language films on the big screen, which wouldn’t usually be shown in mainstream British cinemas. It’s hard to think of many other places where there would be a festival focused around, say, Japanese melodrama. The Southbank Centre also gives you other opportunities to experience films in new ways. Along with the Royal Albert Hall, they regularly screen films that are famous for their soundtracks, where the soundtrack is played by a live orchestra, bringing to life a part of the film that you might otherwise hear only in isolation, or overlook entirely. There are multiple London-based short film festivals as well, and it’s worth trying to see short films to get an idea of how to make the most of this distinctive means of telling a story.
4. People in London are used to seeing film crews
Film in the middle of nowhere – or even in a large city that isn’t often used as the setting for films – and you’ll soon be surrounded by a crowd of people who might try to distract your camera, stare at your actors to see where they recognise them from, or stand in the shot and wave to their mums. You can spend a lot of time trying to corral people who think that your camera really ought to be pointed at them, rather than at whatever you’re actually trying to film.
In London, you’ll have no such difficulties. From roads being closed and street markings repainted by feature film crews, to roving news broadcasts, the people of London are used to seeing film cameras on their streets and they typically have neither time nor energy to be annoying to you. Instead, they’re likely to walk past you as quickly as they can rather than getting in the way, which is great if having a typical London scene in the background of your shot is what you’re aiming for. Nor is it hard to get other typical London shots – tourists looking with confusion at maps and phones outside famous monuments; glamorous queues at Leicester Square; red buses crossing Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament.
Similarly, if your film requires distinctive costumes – whether it’s set in Regency England, the Stone Age or the 24th century – then it’s unlikely anyone’s going to look twice. The city sees enough strange fancy dress parties, foxes sneaking onto the night tube, flash mobs to keep students amused, flash mobs to market newly released products, protests about very niche issues and colourful parades that whatever you’re filming is unlikely to stand out, no matter how strange it is.
5. London suits any genre
One of the best things about filming in London is – as we noted above – its sheer versatility. If you played a game of word association with the concept of Hollywood, or Los Angeles more generally, you’ll probably get a consistent set of associations: bright sunshine, blue skies, palm trees, big cars, swimming pools, all imbued with a touch of glamour. It’s definitely a compelling set of associations that expresses itself in some amazing movies, but ultimately it’s all of a piece – many genres and moods simply don’t fit with that collection of associations.
Play a word association game around London and the answers you’ll get will be much more diverse. London can be like a picture on a souvenir box of chocolates, full of landmarks, black cabs and red buses – to a certain extent, that’s the London you see in the Harry Potter movies, and in some James Bond films too, not to mention Richard Curtis’s romantic comedies like Notting Hill or Love Actually. It’s also the London you see in films like V for Vendetta, which deliberately riffs off the tourist image of London to build its dystopian setting. Or it can be inherently darker and more sinister, whether that’s a foggy and dangerous Victorian London in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, or a drab grey London in the recent adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There’s the gritty urban London of Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood, suburban London in Bend It Like Beckham, and so many more.
This is great if you’re learning how to make films in London because the city lends itself naturally to creative expression and experimentation. You won’t struggle to find the right setting as you try out different approaches and techniques. When you’re still finding your voice as a filmmaker, that’s exactly what you’ll want, rather than being in a setting that naturally pins you down to one style. What’s more, when you’re trying out something new, you won’t be fighting your surroundings in order to make it work; you’ll be able to find a setting that complements your ideas rather than clashing with them.
6. You can study with Oxford Royale Summer Schools
For the first time this year, Oxford Royale Summer Schools’s Film Academy course for students aged 16 to 18 will be available to study in the heart of London. It’s a course that teaches the specific skills needed to be a director, producer, director of photography or editor. If you want, you’ll also get the chance to act in other students’ films, letting you find out what it’s like to take direction as well as give it. You’ll also have the opportunity to work with professional actors, who can give feedback on your direction as well as making sure that your ideas are brought fully to life.
The course prioritises two things: collaboration, and gaining practical skills. Collaboration is all-important because hardly anyone makes films on their own. As a professional filmmaker, in whatever capacity you choose, you’ll be working with a wide variety of other professionals whose perspectives you’ll have to take into account. You’ll need to know when to respect their expertise and when their opinions would be best challenged. Those are skills that aren’t easy to come by; starting off by making films collaboratively means that you’ll learn how to work well in a team right from the start. The reasons for prioritising practical skills are obvious, but the course isn’t without opportunities to learn about the theoretical side of filmmaking. It includes talks with industry professional guest speakers, who will give you an insider’s perspective on working in film. And you get to do all of this in one of the best cities for filmmaking in the world.
Images: Houses of Parliament; RADA; BFI; Poirot; pigeons; black and white London; London street