Shooting Producer/Director James Hill (Psychology, 2011) took the skills he learned from his Psychology degree to make his dream job a reality. Here James steps out from behind the camera to tell us a story he knows very well; his own one.
Can you tell me about your time at City?
I loved my time at City. I struggled through school, but when I started taking psychology at A-level I found a subject that I really enjoyed. I worked incredibly hard and was able to scrape together the grades to get into City. Once there, learning no longer became a chore; something I had to do, but was something I was actively pursuing.
Psychology fuelled my fascination with people, helped me become more empathetic, and in turn allowed me to create a more authentic connection with people. It taught me the importance of airing out issues, the importance of follow-up care and support, and how a person’s past will shape their future; all lessons I use in my career daily.
I not only learned about Psychology but was also introduced to Philosophy and Sociology, two subjects that I’m still fascinated with.
My degree also helped me understand how my dyslexia could be an advantage, rather than the burden I had always viewed it as. For my dissertation, I was able to investigate the effects of stress on the symptoms of dyslexia. With the support of my supervisor and Peter Barr (who created a computer program for me), I made an unpredicted finding; dyslexic participants were better at creative tasks than non-dyslexic participants, during both stressed and non-stress conditions.
This has always stuck with me and during my career, I’ve noticed that when the pressure is on and things get stressful, I’m very adaptable and my ability to work is not hindered.
Whilst at City my friends and I also created a snow sports society; we were able to enjoy trips to indoor ski slopes and met many like-minded people. The experience of being a student in London was too good to describe. So much to see and do while forming some of the most important friendships that I have today.
What happened after you graduated?
After I graduated I did a ski season in Austria, did some charity work in Uganda and went traveling before returning to London. I started working for free at a few television companies, crashing on friends couches and eating a lot of pasta, which led to an entry level paid position as a runner.
One day I was assisting a shooting producer and director – driving, carrying kit, getting tea and lunch, packing away equipment. During some downtime, he kindly showed me how a broadcast camera worked. I practiced whenever I could and gradually learned to shoot for broadcast. As I continued with the show, they allowed me to ‘recce’ potential contributors, which meant interviewing them on camera and editing the footage.
As I already had experience with camera and editing I learned a lot very quickly. This was recognised early on and I was given the opportunity to produce, direct and shoot my own stories. This lead to becoming a Shooting Producer/Director which I have been doing for a number of years now.
Through my work, I have found myself on construction sites, eco retreats to be demolished by the council, live studios, gold mines in the Yukon and homesteads in North Carolina. I’ve also been welcomed into the homes of countless people and feel truly blessed that every day I get to tell other people’s stories.
When did your interest in filming and story-telling start?
I grew up with two brothers who are seven and eleven years older than me. One of the benefits was that they would sneak me into films I was too young for, introducing me to amazing films from a very early age. I fell in love with movies and was fascinated with how they were made. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn’t say a rock star or a cowboy; I’d say a director.
As I got older I started messing around with the family camcorder, making videos with my friends and editing little movies. I had to play the camcorder through the TV and quickly pressing record and stop on a VHS player! This carried on and developed to more sophisticated equipment as I grew older. I learned more about cameras and editing; how an idea becomes footage and how that is put together. I loved it and started looking into how I would be able to use this to tell the stories of real people. I discovered the television industry and haven’t looked back.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Actually getting into the industry. Like most industries, you have to start out as an intern and work your way up, however, to get an internship (or become a ‘runner’) you need to get experience in the field – also known as working for free. Luckily I had kind and amenable friends from City who let me crash on their couches during these days.
What has been the most rewarding experience?
The most rewarding experience I have had in my career was probably when I was in a honky-tonk bar in the USA during some down time on location. The bar had a TV and was showing an episode of a show that I had worked on. A row of people were sat at the bar watching. When they started cheering and discussing a scene that I had shot and directed it struck me how crazy the situation was. I couldn’t have imagined when I was making stupid videos with my friends that it would have ever lead to a situation like that. I realised that I was doing my childhood dream job…
That or when I got to do a lame ‘cool guy’ handshake with Coolio and made Kenan and Kel references during a celebrity game show.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Get stuck in. Message every company you can and ask if you could help out for a week or two. If no one is replying to your emails, call. If no one is returning your call, turn up to the office with your CV.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is sometimes the feeling that you need to fake it till you make it, but I would say the opposite. If you would like some advice and someone has the time, ask for it. You may worry that this will make you look bad, but there is no point in progressing to a senior position if you haven’t learned the foundations of what that role is.
Finally, realise the potential your degree gives you. Don’t be constrained by what career most people who study your degree have, but realise how it can be applied to other fields.
Finally, it’s the quick-fire question round!
Favourite place in London: Clissold Park on a sunny day
Favourite holiday destination: Hokkaido, Japan
Must-check every day website: Reddit
Dream travel destination: A secret surfing spot on the equator, so secret I don’t even know where it is!
Cheese or chocolate: Cheese. Everything is better with cheese; except lactose intolerance.
If you would like to check out some of James’ show reels or any of his work, please visit: jamesolavhill.com
You can also contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org