'Spotlight' is a new Talent Manager blog series where we have a chat with some of our very own members about their career in TV.
For our very first 'Spotlight' interview, we chat with TM Pro member Marieke Barker-Benfield
. Marieke has been working as a Gallery Director and Camera Operator for over 13 years, and has worked on a diverse range of programmes from BBC News Arabic to Big Brother.
Read her interview with The Talent Manager below to find out how she made her start in TV, how she transitioned from Camera Operator to Gallery Director, and what advice she would give to freelancers looking to follow a similar path.
TM: You were interested in TV from early on, graduating from University with a BA in TV Production; how and when did you realise this was the career path you wanted to pursue?
Marieke: When I was at sixth form college, I was told that I was failing one of my subjects, so I picked up a Media Studies A Level half way through the year and found my feet again. We covered a mixture of 'media', but I found shooting and editing my own little narratives the best part. It's all very cliché! My brother was studying a very practical BA degree in Media Production at Lincoln Uni during my A Level years, and one day I popped in to see their TV studio and how things worked. And that was it. I wanted to work in TV. I took a gap year after A Levels, and then decided to go to Middlesex University to learn the various genres within TV, and to see what I liked. There is that argument that you don't need to go to University to get a job in TV, but I felt that it gave me a great knowledge and learning as a basis for what I know today. There were also tutors and lecturers who were current in the industry, and juggling being freelance and teaching. To actually be taught by someone who works in the industry! And they have proved to be good contacts too down the line.
A lot of it is networking and being in the right place at the right time, especially if you're just starting out.
TM: What was your first job in TV and how did you get it?
Marieke: After graduating from Uni, I sent a lot of emails out to companies with very disappointing results. I was applying for runner jobs and getting turned down for not having any real industry experience. But everyone has to start somewhere! A lot of it is networking and being in the right place at the right time, especially if you're just starting out. Having just ONE contact really helps out.
My husband had a connection at a well known shopping channel and put in a good word. The next thing I know I get a call to come in for a chat about becoming one of their newest camera ops! I was familiar with the cameras, and knew that if I did ok on the training day then I would be in for a good thing here. Even though it was shopping tele, it was a great place to start, and to continue learning. I worked there full time for two years before deciding I needed to go freelance and get more experience. Plus the continuous shift work and unsociable hours for two years wasn't great! I wanted to be in more control of when I worked, and to be working on more interesting shows!
It's a bit of a mission with childcare […] It's extremely handy having a grandparent nearby and a flexible childminder, helpful friends, and a (sometimes) understanding husband.
TM: You’ve worked mainly on Reality, Obs Doc, and Music programmes; what type of programme is your favourite to work on and why?
Marieke: I love camera operating on scripted and busked music, and directing obs doc or reality equally reminds me why I love working in TV. It's a real buzz. I think when you start to lose that buzz, then you know it's time to try something different. I just love working! I really missed working in TV when I had my kids. It was really hard to balance it at first, and it still is a challenge. I was back directing three months after both children were born. As much as I love being a mum, I try and strike a good balance for my own sanity. It's nice to have conversations with adults that don't involve conversations around teething, playgroups, poonamis (look it up). When I work now, I tend to go away for a few days to the location (like One Born), so it's a nice little break away from the family to get immersed in all things work. Then I feel refreshed to come back home and be a full time mum again for a bit until the next gig. It's a bit of a mission with childcare, but I'm in a good place with it now. It's extremely handy having a grandparent near by and a flexible childminder, helpful friends, and a (sometimes) understanding husband. I feel lucky and blessed that at the moment I have those things in place to be able to pursue my career. It wasn't the case when I had my first child, and it's certainly more challenging with two, but we're getting there.
TM: You’ve worked as both Camera Operator and Gallery Director on Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother, what advice would you give to freelancers that want to go up the ladder within one programme?
Marieke: I'd say that this is the perfect ground to do so. I was working as a camera operator on Big Brother for several years, and really got to know the format, the people, the way things work. I guess you could say I was ready for a new challenge.... and I decided to enquire to the Series Director at the time if there was space on the directing team for me in the forthcoming series. I was ready. Your familiarity with the format, the communication within the departments, the way things work, will be more advantageous to you and the company than someone wanting to go up the ladder but who has not worked on that programme.
The company knows you, they know how you work, and they trust you... they just need to put faith in you. And you need to time it well. So if you know there is a position open, then put yourself confidently forward for the job. It may or may not be your time to move up THIS series, and if not (because Jo Bloggs comes along with an amazing CV and fab personality and enthusiasm and pips you to the post) you'll be on the company's radar for the next series (especially if Jo Bloggs decides to move on to something else). A lot of the time it's about the right timing.
TM: What is a typical day like for you as a Gallery Director?
Marieke: Most recently I have had the pleasure of being in a Series Gallery Director partnership with Vikki Goodenough, for Electric Ray for their new show Alone at Home (working title). Prior to the shoot we would recce all of the locations and construct a camera plan based on the recce. This would also raise other technical issues such as lighting and sound. We would discuss the technicalities and possibilities with the unit manager and then put a plan in place. There's a lot of negotiating, even on a financial level. Every location was different.
If we're shooting over 24 hours or more (usually the case in programmes like Big Brother, One Born, 24 Hours in A&E etc) then you'll have another director on shift before or after you on the shoot days. You'll get briefed as to what's happened within the narrative, from a story point of view, who is the focus for the story, and you'll also get briefed if there have been any technical changes or issues. Then you'll sit at the helm and introduce yourself to the other departments (who you may or may not have already been formally introduced to) over talkback. This may be sound, lighting, cameras, producers, loggers, vision engineers etc. Then you start to follow the story you're watching. It may be an expectant mother on One Born Every Minute - you follow the action, and the reactions of the mother, the father and the midwife. You may have three births to follow and record on six streams, or there may be no births for hours and hours. There will be midwife conversations to follow, GV's to get, etc etc. The exciting thing about directing an Obs Doc is that you never know what is about to happen, but you have to make sure that you and all departments are READY for what might happen! And when it does all kick off you have to remain calm, confident, and go with your decision. Always think about what is next - where will they walk to? Where are they going? What's happening? Anticipate it and be as creative as possible in the midst of it all.
TM: In what ways have you used The Talent Manager to pursue/further your career?
Marieke: The Talent Manager has been a bit of an eye opener. Prior to joining it, I was relying on word of mouth for jobs, or making contacts. Being a Pro member has allowed me to also see who or what company has viewed my profile. I may then do a bit of detective work and find out what they've just got commissioned, and what they've done in the past, to see if it tally's with what I do, and whether I can meet someone from the company to have a chat. I've had a few informal chats with companies since joining, and have got work through it. Even if I don't get a job, I'm on the radar, and have made contact - which can only be a good thing.
Having a general all round knowledge of departments and how things work is a must.
TM: What advice would you give to other freelancers looking to pursue a career TV?
Marieke: Try to network as much as you can and work on as many things as you can, even if it's on shows or formats that you may not initially think about working on. I would say think small lesser known shows to start with and work your way up to bigger more well known things. Try different things as they may lead to something else. Try and meet execs and companies and make yourself known, get on the radar!
WATCH TV! Knowing what's hot and what's not is crucial. As well as knowing technologies and techniques. Having a general all round knowledge of departments and how things work is a must. So if you start as a runner and want to be a director, don't just hang out with the directors as making a jump from running to directing is a bit ambitious! Hang out with the Soundies, the loggers, Vision. Get to know what you like and learn the tools whilst on that job - take advantage of the fact that there are a lot of people working on that show that you could talk to and who might be happy to teach you a snippet of their trade to get you started. And join the Talent Manager of course! If you'd like to take part in our 'Spotlight' series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org