Post-Summer School Chat: An Interview with Beth Armstrong, GMAC Film Creative Director

“What we try to create at

GMAC Film are pathways.”

Following a bustling period for GMAC Film, which included delivering our first Summer School in three years, launching our new website and embarking on a fresh fundraising campaign, we managed to sit down with Creative Director Beth Armstrong for a fascinating in-depth chat. 

With decades of experience in the film industry and the third sector, Beth looks back at the origins of the Summer School programme, gives her take on the new generation of filmmakers and weighs-in on how organisations like GMAC Film make all the difference in cultivating young talent.


Can you talk to us about your involvement with Summer School here at GMAC?

Yes – when I came to GMAC in 2006, I was the Youth Coordinator. I think they already did one Summer School in 2005, which was quite a small one, and then we started building it from there.

Can you describe what your more recent role within the Summer School was? Were you a mentor?

We had a new team running summer school this year, so my role developed to support the staff. Also, within the Production department, I was supporting some of the young people – I delivered a couple of masterclasses. We did a table read and we showed people how to break down the script. I also did a game on learning about all the different roles that are available in the film industry when you’re making a film. Then, once the young people got their roles, I worked most closely with the second AD (assistant director – ed.) to help her understand what her job was.

Do you know why there was a three-year gap between the last two editions of Summer School?

Funding. We didn’t have funding.

So, mainly funding…

All funding. It was the only reason. In 2012, once Creative Scotland was formed, we got some money through a project called CashBack for Creativity, which was taking money from the proceeds of crimeand putting it back into the community for young people to do creative activities. That’s when we launched the programme “Mad About Movies” and started the Summer School as we know it today.

From 2012 to 2016 I was the Summer School coordinator and it had a different remit than it had had before – it was very clearly about reaching young people that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to make films. We had a very clear target that 75% of those young people should come from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds. Our philosophy with Summer School and with all of our youth programmes now is to focus on our target groups, which are young people that come from areas of deprivation, young people from the BAME communities, young people with disabilities, young people from the LGBTQ communities and care-experienced young people (either young people that live in care or young people who are carers). In addition to these five target groups, we always have a gender balance on everything that we do, we support young women to be successful in technical roles and in leadership roles. 

So really, it’s all about connecting with people at a young age and showing them that they too can make films, it’s not just for people that have money, it’s not just for people that have their own camera or whose parents might make films. Our belief is that everybody should be able to watch and make films. Through having a wide-open door and welcoming everybody through that door you then start to see where the talent is, to see that young people are actually extremely talented in this area or that area.

What we try to create at GMAC Film are pathways. If a young person has come to Summer School and they’ve ended up, for example, in the editing department, have enjoyed the experience and are good at it, we will continue to help them develop that talent.

For example, this year we have about eight people from our Summer School who have gone on to apply and have been successful in getting into our BFI Film Academy that will start in September.

Back to the funding issue for a second. As Summer School is free for students, could you tell me about GMAC Film’s need for funding?

We really struggled for funding. The work we do is expensive. That’s because we take an approach that every young person deserves to have a high-quality experience, have access to industry-standard equipment, and industry mentors. We have a growing industry in Scotland that has a great need for new people at junior level. 

It costs us approximately £1,000/person to run Summer School, around £37,000 to run a two-week course- to a lot of funders that sounds too expensive. It’s very difficult to find funders that are prepared to pay that kind of money, who understand how important it is to deliver professional training for young people.

In 2015, CashBack for Creativity, our main funder, changed their guidelines, so we were no longer eligible to apply for Summer School. So, we spent the next couple of years doing lots of funding applications to lots of other places- we were unsuccessful. And then, last year, we received two-year funding from Screen Scotland, a new screen-dedicated organisation that is part of Creative Scotland. So, we were able to take some of the money for Summer School from that fund. That made it easier for us to find additional funding, because we already had some money in place.

Our Summer School was also supported by the Robertson Trust, who have given us money for the last three years to support our staff and the running of the programme. And this year we got a new funder on board, which is the Garfield Weston Foundation. With this combined support, we were able to bring back Summer School this year.

Can you tell me a bit about the new fundraising campaign that is being implemented?

As part of our fundraising campaign we are looking for people that might be able to contribute to keeping Summer School free to attend. Maybe there’s an organisation or an individual that could sponsor a young person to go to Summer School. Even a partial contribution could help a young person go to Summer School. 

Is there going to be a Summer School next year?

Yes!

Since you’ve been working in the film sector for many years and you’ve been involved in Summer School for most of its editions – do you feel like there’s more interest towards film from young people these days than in previous decades? Do you see an evolution or a change of perspective in that sense?

Absolutely! I think digital technology has completely transformed it for young people… Even five years ago it wouldn’t be true to say that most young people had a smartphone or a laptop. Literally this August, Glasgow City Council committed to every school child in Glasgow having an iPad; that is completely going to transform young people’s access to making, editing and uploading films.

A lot of young people are already watching content over a wide range of platforms, YouTube being one of the biggest. But to say that you’re a filmmaker because you have a smartphone or an iPad… I think that’s the same as saying ‘because I have a pen, I’m a writer’. There’s obviously a lot of skills and talent development that needs to take place in order to support somebody to be a good writer. Same now with making and watching digital content. 

The role that we can play for young people who are interested in filmmaking is in helping them to learn the skills of storytelling and editing, to show them how to plan a shoot, to make them think aboutthe language of film, shot sizes and angles, and telling stories in a more visual way. There’s now a bigger demand for learning and developing these skills in an artistic way, so that the content is visually exciting and interesting.

What do young people tend to care about most within film?

Young people love horror, zombies… But, in my experience, young people also want to make issue-based films. When we put out open calls for scripts, apart from getting a lot of horror and zombie films, we also tend to get a lot of scripts about issues like bullying, homophobia, poverty, homelessness… 

I think people really underestimate the extent to which young people care about the world and the issues around them. So, I think it’s also that element of young people having a voice to express the issues. We can really see that with the climate crisis – it’s young people that have picked up on it. I think organisations like GMAC Film have a huge role to play in helping young people get their message across.

What do you think are the benefits of being involved in such a project? I’m wondering about both students and professional mentors.

I think there are lots of benefits. 

For example, on our BFI Film Academy our cinematography tutor is a Glasgow-based female cinematographer. For young women to see that there’s a local woman earning her living out of being in cinematography is not only hugely inspiring, but it makes them go ‘Oh, my God! I could do this too!’. I think that relationship works both ways, our mentors are inspired by the young people that come through… And mentors are always talent spotting. It has happened in the past; I’ll give you a very good example.

In the 2016 Summer School , our sound mentor was a very well-established sound recordist called Cameron Mercer. He came in and worked with one of our participants, Aidan. Last year, I went to visit a feature film set where Cameron was a sound recordist and… there was Aidan, working with him! And this year, Aidan was our industry mentor! A very clear progression there… Not only did Aidan learn his craft from Cameron, he then gained employmentcame back and passed on those skills to other young people. Now Aidan is very interested in doing the same thing for a young person who did sound in Summer School this year. Also, Cameron will always be looking for new trainees, to train up as boom operators – he also benefits out of that experience…

Is there anything else that you would like to add that wasn’t covered?

The only thing I would add is that the films we make at Summer School are very high-quality. They’re not the same as films made at after-school clubs, where everybody just joins in and shares on the jobs. The young people here learn how professional films are made, they are given a particular role and they are trained in that role. I believe that you can see the difference with that method of working and the quality of work that the young people produce.