With parents who were a Graphic Designer and an IT Manager it's no surprise that Alice had an interest in creative digital design from a young age. Alice has built upon that early interest in technology and creativity, studying art and learning many digital skills such as web design, video production and editing along the way. All of these skills helped shape her career which ultimately led to the role of Digital Senior Producer on one of the world's most famous science-fiction shows, Doctor Who. Here Alice tells us how her career began and about the work of a Digital Senior Producer for TV.
How did your interest in digital media begin?
My interest in digital arts and media started at a very early age. My mother was a Graphic Designer and my father an IT Manager. I inherited my mum’s passion for visual arts, in particular painting and photography and because of my father’s interest in computers I grew up with access to computers and software from the very early days of home computing in the 1980s. I remember creating pictures on the computer using a light pen that you would hold up to the monitor - this was in the days before the invention of the mouse! I then went on to start building very basic websites whilst still in school in the 1990s - I’d draw artwork by hand, scan it into the computer and use it for the company logo and website design.
Did you have a formal education based around digital media?
In school I studied Art A Level and I considered going to Art College, but then came across a Film & Literature Degree course at Warwick University that I thought would be perfect for me. It was a fantastic degree course, but very academically focussed so it didn’t equip me with any vocational training in film and media production. After I graduated, like so many recent graduates, I really struggled to break into the film & television industry. I ended up working in a call centre as an underwriter for a bank so I could pay my rent, but working in finance was never a career I wanted to pursue! I reduced my hours to part-time so that I could start some voluntary work experience to help build up my digital media experience and attended an evening course in web design.
I then had a stroke of good luck – an organisation called Cyfle (the Welsh word for ‘opportunity’) were advertising a year-long vocational course in Digital Media for Film & TV. Crucially, the course was also fully-funded with a training allowance paid each month that was roughly equivalent to the minimum wage. I was incredibly lucky to be selected as one of just four trainees accepted onto the scheme. The course included training in video production for the web, Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, HTML, CSS and Flash coding (at the time Flash was ubiquitous in the digital media world). We also spent a month on placements and training at a University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia which was an incredible experience – we even coded a game in Flash that would play out on television there where people would take part by texting-in grid references from their mobile phones! Towards the end of the year, we were each assigned industry placements with various independent production companies based in Wales. All four of us on the course went on to gain jobs in the digital media industry - one of them even works in the same team as me now. It’s a real shame that unfortunately Cyfle is no longer around and I think it’s a lot more difficult to find funded vocational training and industry work placements now.
How did you get your first job?
Towards the end of my industry placements as part of the Cyfle trainee scheme, I spent some time working in the Digital Media department at BBC Cymru Wales. Again, I had a stroke of luck as the team was expanding at the time, the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood had just begun and they were looking for an Assistant Producer to help with the digital content and website. I applied and was successful and that was my first real break into the industry.
Can you tell us about your early career?
During my early career I worked on the digital offering for a variety of dramas such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Life on Mars and even Pobol y Cwm (the long-running Welsh language soap). Working in digital media, you get used to changes happening very fast as technology progresses – this really helps to keep the job very varied and exciting. When I started, we had to update websites ‘by hand’ using HTML and Flash code and it was before the days of iPlayer so any video content had to be manually encoded to different levels of compression to allow for people’s varied internet connections. I also worked on ‘Red Button’ interactive television applications and a variety of different games and digital experiences. Every day was different with a new challenge.
How do you transition from Assistant Producer to Producer to Senior Producer?
The Digital Drama team was expanding during my time at BBC Cymru Wales so I was lucky to progress to a Producer position within two years as new opportunities were coming up often. I developed my experience as a Producer for a number of years and then decided to take a sabbatical with my partner in New York for a year. Luckily the BBC agreed I could take this as unpaid time-off and then return to my role afterwards. My time in New York gave me a fresh perspective and really helped to boost my self-confidence, something New Yorkers have in abundance!
After returning to the UK, we decided to move to London and I started looking for new opportunities. I was successful in applying for a Senior Producer role working in the BBC Music team for Radio 2 and 6 Music – this was a great new opportunity for me to develop my skills as a manager and also work in a very different part of the organisation – timescales working with live radio production couldn’t be more different from those in drama production when it can take years to get from script to screen! I really enjoyed my time working in Radio & Music especially working on live events such as Glastonbury, Radio 1’s Big Weekend, 6 Music Live and Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park. After a fantastic few years, my husband and I decided we’d like to move back to Cardiff – London was becoming very unaffordable, we were expecting a child and didn’t want to have to move out to the suburbs with a long commute each day. I had another stroke of good luck as a Senior Producer role was advertised back in the Digital Drama team in Cardiff which I started after my maternity leave. It was great to return to the team with new insight and experiences from my time in New York and London.
Why did you choose to become a Producer?
I really enjoy the varied challenges and skillset involved in being a Digital Producer. Every aspect of it is exciting, from coming up with a new creative idea, pitching the idea to get it commissioned, through to the production stage. I particularly enjoy working as part of a larger team to turn an idea into reality and communication with all the other relevant teams such as commissioning, production, marketing, press & communications, pictures, graphic design, video and social media teams.
Can you describe the type of work you do?
It’s incredibly varied. Everything from coming up with the concept and overseeing the video production for behind-the-scenes drama content, establishing digital and social media strategies for a show, developing ideas and producing interactive experiences and games such as VR and AR experiences, managing the production budget and stakeholder approvals and seeing the idea through to the end of the production process.
What’s it like to work on a popular production like Sherlock?
Working on popular drama shows such as Sherlock and Doctor Who is a fantastic opportunity, particularly as they have such engaged existing fan-bases online. It can also be quite a high-pressure role at times though as audience expectations are very high around these brands and you want to ensure any digital content is of the best possible standard. When we created the Sherlock Live social media event on Twitter, we didn’t anticipate quite how big the reaction would be! It’s incredibly exciting to work on live productions like this with the writers and creators of the show and the audience really enjoyed Sherlock’s tweets and replies to them that were part of the real-time experience.
"The biggest pressure is ensuring deadlines are met on time and that productions come in within budget." What do you enjoy most?
My favourite aspect of the role is the development stage, there is a great sense of freedom in being able to come up with creative ideas and concepts. I find that although the starting point for an idea is often initiated by an individual, it’s really when we come together as a team that we strengthen these ideas and come up with a really exciting proposition. I am also a trained Facilitator and particularly enjoy facilitating creative workshops to help to generate and develop ideas.
Describe a typical day.
Most of the time my work is office based, rather than on-set or location. Due to the nature of the work and interaction with so many different production teams and departments, I do spend a lot of the day in meetings! A lot of these are via conference call or Skype as we work with teams across the UK and also international broadcast partners. Our core digital production team are all based in Cardiff though, so we get-together regularly face-to-face for production meetings and creative development meetings. I’m often very busy rushing from one meeting to another; I will also spend time in the edit reviewing our latest behind-the-scenes videos or with the graphics department reviewing new artwork and graphics for social channels. I normally tick-off about 5 things from my to-do list and add another 10!
What excites you about your work?
I get really excited when working on live events as there is always a very special buzz and excitement around everyone pulling together on a live production. I also get excited by the constantly evolving potential of digital media technology, and the creative experiences and opportunities it offers. At the moment we have a number of virtual and augmented reality projects in development and I think this is a really exciting area that will evolve further over the coming years especially around big drama shows.
What are the pressures of being a Senior Producer?
The biggest pressure is ensuring deadlines are met on time and that productions come in within budget. One of the tricky things we have to work with is the ever-changing nature of drama production schedules that are beyond our team’s control, and having to adapt and resource our staffing accordingly when there are last minute changes. There is also pressure around being responsible and accountable for the editorial output and ensuring all the team are working as safely as possible and have the right support around them.
What special qualities do you bring to your team?
I enjoy helping others in the team to develop their careers and offering them opportunities to strengthen their experience. I also hope I help to create a collaborative working culture that helps to generate great creative ideas and good teamwork.
Professionally where does a Senior Producer go next?
In terms of career progression the logical next steps are Executive Producer, Head of Digital or working as a freelance Digital Strategist or Consultant.
What was the best professional advice you were ever given?
I can’t recollect one stand-out piece of advice, but I’ve been very fortunate to have great line managers who have given me positive feedback and helped me to build my self-confidence and resilience. When I first started in the industry, I remember feeling quite nervous if I had a meeting with a senior manager or exec producer and I would take any criticism very personally. After many years of working in the industry I’ve learnt to be much more resilient and able to cope with the high-pressure nature of the role.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to break in to working behind the camera?
Build up your experience as much as you can, try to get industry work placements and equip yourself with as many skills as possible. These days there is an expectation to be multi-skilled when working in television and digital production – for a lot of roles you need to have at least basic skills in using cameras, editing and using digital software such as Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects etc. Above all though, what will help you to stand out from the crowd is showing a passion for what you do, being flexible and willing to help out with a variety of different tasks and demonstrating good communication and team-working skills. I think it’s really important to get on well with others and build good working relationships – if people enjoy working with you, they’ll want to hire you again.
Alice on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/alicerothwell
Alice on Twitter: twitter.com/ajrothwell
All images © Alice Rothwell and used with permission.
Article Date - October 2018
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