Setting up a production company in your placement year at Uni
Jackson Davis is a video producer at a company called Wiser – an award-winning creative company that combines culture and performance to change the way people think about work.
In this interview, Jackson shares his experiences from education, freelancing, and starting his own production company with a friend, along with insights and tips for current students and graduates looking to make it in the creative industries.
(The text in this blog has been edited from the video interview below for easier reading)
Can you tell us a little bit about your education experience?
I grew up in a small village in Leicestershire and went to primary school, secondary school, college there. I didn’t properly leave or live anywhere else until I was 18 when I moved away to university in London.
I studied at Brunel University and that was my first experience of moving out and living on my own and going to a different place. I always knew that I wanted to be in London, especially because I’ve heard about all the great creative opportunities and whatnot.
My educational experience has always been kind of creative. I started playing guitar when I was about eight years old. My uncle was a graphic designer, so he kind of inspired me to have a little go at playing around with Photoshop and CorelDRAW when I was a young kid starting, probably like 11, 12 years old.
I started getting into video when I was 15, filming stuff with my friends, making little movies and keeping our selves entertained. And then obviously, you get to the point in your life where you’ve got your GCSEs and your A levels. They come along and you’ve got to make decisions about what it is you want to do for the rest of your life. And for me, I felt quite lucky because I’d already had a play in this area, and I knew that I wanted to be creative
At GCSE I took media and music and went on to do an A level in music technology and media as well. Media was a very broad course, for those people that don’t know, you do a lot of things within print design, logo design, video, podcasting, all that sort of stuff. It didn’t really give me any specific skills or any specific pathways of exactly what I wanted to do. I kind of figured that out myself, and I realised that video was something that I just really enjoyed.
I really enjoyed doing little animation things. I enjoyed picking up a camera and going out and filming. And that led me on to university where I studied visual effects and motion graphics at Brunel. That was great fun, and the projects were great fun. Uni itself was a great experience. I had a great time there just studying and kind of preparing myself for the industry, really.
How do you transition between education and industry?
When I say I got into video quite young and I was doing it at 14/15 years old and was so I was learning a lot from YouTube. At that early stage of my life, I was already in a little community of people that I was learning from and I was putting some of my own tutorials online for things that I knew how to do as well.
Off the back of that, I was doing some free work for a lot of people on YouTube, so a lot of content creators that needed maybe short five-second intros for their YouTube channels or back in the day, it was like channel art and channel background designs and things like that.
I was already kind of in this ecosystem of going back and forth with people and doing work and exchanging favours with people and getting their development feedback. That was my first real bit of experience. I did some work experience when I was 16, working for my uncle’s company. He used to run a company that would buy the rights for old movies and rereleases them onto DVD. I got a little bit of experience there with packaging design and intro design, things like that.
When I went to university the opportunity arose to do a placement year, and instead of going and doing a typical internship, my coursemate, Josh Friends and I decided that we were going to start our own little video production company. We borrowed cameras, sound, and lighting equipment from the university to use with our own computers.
That was probably a very critical point in my career by getting some good experience in the industry. We ran the company throughout the placement year and carried on throughout our final year of university as well.
It was fantastic. We worked on loads and loads of different projects. It was very, very difficult to start with. The first couple of months was very, very hard. Although we had both done some minor freelance work before, neither of us had that much experience and we didn’t really know how to run a business or how to approach clients and talk to them in a professional, effective way. When there’s money on the line it’s a little bit more nerve-wracking.
How did you acquire your first clients when starting your business?
Good question – I still don’t really understand how we did it!
It was a mixture of emailing a lot of people that we knew who had their own businesses and just basically telling them exactly what we’re doing. That we had started this company and we’re providing video production services. We outlined some ideas of what those videos might look like. For example: crowdfunding videos, explainer videos, whatever we thought they might need.
We specifically targeted companies and explained how we could help them out. 99% of those people would either ignore you or just say no, which is absolutely fine. They’re well within their right to do that. And then there’s also lots and lots of places you can look online.
There are always people on LinkedIn, on Facebook, even on Instagram these days as well as just going around looking for people to make videos for. It doesn’t have to be just videos. It could be a logo, a little animation, a website, whatever it is, there are always people out there looking for someone to do that for them.
There are some great freelance sites like Upwork and People Per Hour, which are great for people just starting out. They are very effective ways of getting a brief, having a fixed price that you’re willing to work for, and deciding, “Yeah, I’ll give that a go”. It gets you into the process of bidding for work and talking to people and positioning yourself in a way that makes you attractive to someone.
Once you kind of get into the rhythm and understand how to communicate properly with people and get them to trust you, I think things start spiraling, and start to get recommendations. Word of mouth is a massive, massive thing.
There’s been a fair, few times where I’ve been hired based on word of mouth and the person who wants the job doing next hasn’t even asked to see my portfolio, because they trust the previous person’s word so much, they just ask you to do the job. They trust you to do it. And that’s it. Or they’ve seen the work that you’ve done for someone else. And that’s enough for them. They’re just like, yeah, okay. That person seems very, very reputable. Let’s get them to do it.
What did you learn from your university and business start-up experience?
First of all, my main takeaway from university is just the friends that you make in that environment. It’s being around like-minded people, especially when you come from a very small town where your peers didn’t really have the same sort of mindset or work ethic or drive in that particular field.
When you’re sitting in a room full of people that have exactly the same mindset as you, you know these are really valuable people to be around. You can learn a lot from them, you can connect with them, even if they’re not the type of person that you would sit in the pub with or you wouldn’t necessarily be friends for life with them. It’s interesting to be in that environment.
Then as you graduate, hopefully you all go off in your own little areas of the industry and you progress in those areas. And it’s good to keep in contact with those sorts of people. There are plenty of people on my course that I think are doing really, really well. And it’s great to see. It’s great to inspire yourself that way.
I think the main takeaway from running the business is it’s that things are pretty hard sometimes, especially when you’re starting out and you’re doing stuff on your own – you’ve got to have some perseverance. Things don’t happen overnight.
Winning clients doesn’t happen overnight. Getting better at learning After Effects doesn’t happen overnight. Getting better at filming doesn’t happen overnight. You have to put consistent effort into stuff day after day, week after week.
You have to keep emailing people and asking for work. You have to keep learning stuff, and eventually you get better. I think that’s the thing, you really have to just keep going.
You don’t necessarily know where that next pay-check is going to come from so it’s important to be consistent and eventually things will get better. You will get better as a person and your clients will get better and your jobs will become more frequent. Eventually, everyone gets to a point where they can turn down opportunities.
So yeah, I think just hanging in there is definitely a big takeaway for me.
Now that I’m employed full-time, I don’t go into every week expecting a promotion. You know that you’ve got to be consistent and you’ve got to prove your worth over a certain period of time. Eventually you get to a point where you get promoted or you get a pay rise, and that’s great. That’s a great feeling.
What software packages and kit do you use in the motion graphics industry?
It changes a little bit depending on where you go, but the Adobe Creative Suite is used by many businesses. After Effects and Premiere Pro are my two most used tools. I wouldn’t really be able to do what I do in the company without those two programs, to be honest.
We also use Audition a lot for our sound engineering. We use Photoshop and Illustrator for illustration work and photo manipulation work. If you’re getting into things like colour grading, DaVinci Resolve is a very good piece of software. For editing, a company may use Avid or Final Cut Pro. Although the buttons and layouts and ways you go about doing things are slightly different the principle stays the same. Try to get some experience in those programs.
In terms of kit, I think having a general knowledge of cameras and equipment is good. Knowing about shutter speeds, angles, F stops, T stops, RSOs, and exposure is great because the principles are effectively the same across most of them. Having a basic understanding of lighting and audio techniques is good, as well as how to mic someone up with a lavaliere or a boom mic. General skills like that will transition quite nicely across the board.
How did you transition from running your own business to being an employee?
Very, very good question. It got to the point where we were coming up to graduation and we were still borrowing the university equipment but couldn’t really afford to buy our own. We were using two FS7 cameras that, at the time were about £6,000-£7,000 pounds each, plus all the lens kits which start at around £1,000. So, we had to make the decision – do get a loan or ask family members for money? Or do we revise what we’re going to do and come up with a different plan?
I know that entrepreneurial spirit is still in the back of my mind and I would like to go out and start my own thing again one day. But at the time we decided we had had a really good run with it and we did pretty well with it, but we kind of appreciated that we didn’t really know that much about what we were doing. We were kind of just coasting along. I mean, we were doing a good job and we were surviving, but we could have done things better.
We basically looked at each other one day and said, “Look, let’s just give it a go. Let’s just go out into the industry. Let’s be employed by someone else. Let’s have a fixed pay packet at the end of each month.”
Now we can pay our rent and bills without all the stresses that come along with running a business. Now we can be consistent and learn to be the best of our ability in the creative video field.
We decided to go our separate ways to try and do something that was a little bit more ordinary and get an actual job. To be honest with you, it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s allowed me to really focus on my skills and improve my skills as opposed to being stressed about running a business. But yeah, I definitely want to go back at some point and do that again. It was definitely a great time.
Have you experienced any particular barriers to employment?
Yeah, self-employment barriers are definitely, definitely cost-related for sure. I think the biggest thing that struck me when transitioning from running my own business to being employed by someone else, is that when you run your own business you can do what you want (within reason). Obviously, you’ve got clients to please and whatnot, but effectively your work hours can be whatever you want them to be. You make all the decisions. You have the last eyes on a project before it goes out the door.
When you’re employed by someone that completely changes. You have people higher up whom you report to. You have managers that effectively tell you what to do. The idea is that they don’t look directly over your shoulder. Sometimes they do. But you have to be prepared for that change in the process. You have other people to please, not just outside of the company, but within the company as well.
Is there anything you wish you'd known about the video industry before graduating?
I don’t think there is, to be honest with you. I wish I’d probably spent a bit more time in that self-employed business environment, trying to increase my own skillset. A lot of the focus for me was on getting jobs in and out of the door, pleasing clients, and working to quick timeframes. I wish I had taken more time within that to do less business development and client relationship stuff and work on my own skills as a creative.
I think people get very used to being in a particular position and just kind of stay there. I wish I had pushed myself to be a little bit more adventurous with my own skills and push myself to learn a bit more while I was running the business, for sure. It’s one of the reasons why Josh and I went off to be employed by someone. Now I realise how beneficial learning off of other people actually is, how important it is to have that as part of your day to day.
Time escapes you as well. You get to the end of the day and think, “Do I sit down and actually get some sleep tonight? Or do I open up the laptop again and do two hours of revision on After Effects and learn how to do some more stuff?”
It’s important to take rest and breaks, and all the rest of it. But yeah, I do regret sometimes not learning more to make myself a little bit better in a shorter space of time, but that’s all right.
What is a typical working week like for a video producer?
One key thing that we do as a company, is that we have a ‘stand up’ meeting every morning. Everyone talks about what they are currently working on and what they are going to do that day. I think it’s a really key part of the day – just to communicate with the rest of the team so that everyone knows what is happening across the business. The ’Stand-ups’ also give people an opportunity to offer their help to busier team members, so it’s a great use of time.
At the start of the week, we get a number of jobs that we have to do throughout that week, and they get dished out amongst the team. People will be put into different sized teams, depending on the project. A lot of team projects involve filming, so there might be a three-day shoot where three people have to go up to Manchester and stay there for three days to film and then come back.
The team then has to deposit all the footage and start the editing process. After that, you kind of decide who’s doing what. My specialty is motion graphics, so I am usually given the majority of the motion graphics project briefs. Sometimes there’s a script or a storyboard to do as well. Storyboard is quite a loose term – It’s usually just some ideas on a page written down as opposed to actual visual drawings.
I then go away and interpret the storyboard into some sort of moving animation piece. If the project needs a voiceover, we will either get somebody to come in and record it, or I will do it myself.
So yeah, every day consists of planning or working on projects and (this is gonna sound really boring), but doing the same repetitive tasks each week, like sitting on After Effects, which I love personally, and working on continuous animation pieces.
A lot of what we do is two-minute or three-minute animations. The premise behind Wiser is all about employer branding. We create videos to inform our client’s current employees and to help them attract new ones. We work on projects such as quarterly wrap-up videos that communicate how well the company has done over the last quarter, or videos explaining changes within the company itself. One video could take up my entire week.
I had a fantastic opportunity last year to go out to India. I was there for two weeks filming for the Colt. They’re a big telecommunications company. I wouldn’t say that’s a typical week, but it changes all the time, and that’s why I love doing what I do, because it does change quite a lot.
Before lockdown, we were out doing a lot of shooting and obviously that’s not possible at the moment, so a lot of that has transitioned into more motion graphics work. Josh and I have been helping the film team to upskill in this area, sitting in on calls with them and giving them feedback on their work as well.
What soft skills do juniors need to have when entering into a studio environment?
I think confidence is a big thing – and I’m not talking about overriding confidence where you can host a whole meeting on your own or anything like that. But I think just general confidence in yourself so you’re not doubting yourself constantly. Knowing that you have the confidence to improve.
Knowing that you are not where you want to be at the moment and that you’re not the most skilled person in the job but having the confidence to ask managers what you can do to improve.
Organisation is another one. No one likes a messy worker, especially in the design industry where you are probably going to hand files over to other people. We never ever wanna be on the receiving end of a folder that’s just a mess, so keeping yourself organized, keeping your files organized, and keeping your calendar organized, is a very, very, very, very key soft skill, for sure.
Organisation kind of fits into that communication aspect of working in a team. Letting your team know what you’re doing, or if you need help with stuff, or if you’re running behind on certain things and you need a little bit longer on a project.
When I get a deadline, I really like to stick to it, and I hate pushing it any further than it needs to be. But if that’s the case and I need to put a little bit of extra work in beforehand, I’ll do a little bit of a late-night to get it done. That’s just the person I am. But typically, you should communicate things well in advance. It’s a lot better to say you need more time three days before the deadline, rather than on the day of the deadline. That’s never a welcome message for a client handler or project manager to receive. So, yeah, communication’s another very, very key one.
What makes a good portfolio or showreel?
I think, first of all, show off your most impressive work. That seems like a given. Obviously, everyone wants to see the best of what you can do, but also be sure to showcase a range of different skills, practices, techniques, and effects that you might be asked to use in that specific sector or company.
If you’re really happy with five pieces of work, but they’re all incredibly similar, it doesn’t really show the diversity of what you can do that well.
I think it’s really key to show commercial work if you have it as it shows you have communicated with a company who wants some specific work from you and you’ve actually been able to fulfill that brief. It also demonstrates that you’ve got experience working with different people on live briefs and timeframes that represent real work environments.
I know personally for me, the biggest thing that university doesn’t particularly prepare you for (although some places will be better at doing this than others), is working to realistic deadlines. Sometimes you get a project and you’ve got three or four months to do it! That’s just not realistic in an industry environment.
On an average week, I go in on a Monday morning and get given a script and a storyboard, and the first draft is needed by Friday. That’s a lot of work and not very much time, but you’ve got to make it happen. So try and show off that you’ve done some stuff in the real industry if you’ve got it because I feel that that goes a long way.
When you see junior job Ads requiring two years’ experience, do you think people with less should still apply?
Yes, I do think people should still apply, first and foremost. Why not? I think experience is a very subjective thing. You can sit in a company as a graphic designer, changing templates for two years and that’s technically ‘two years’ experience’. Or you could be a graphic designer at a very fast-paced Ad agency and you’re getting throw on loads of different projects. So the difference in those two years’ experience is a very different thing.
Personally, I don’t think it’s that great of a gauge of how experienced or how good someone is at their job. So, give it a go, and apply for it, and ultimately, it’s there as a guide. The employer will just be looking for examples of how you work in an industry setting. But what ultimately shows how good of a fit you’ll be or how good you will be at that job – is your portfolio.
Your showreel, your website, or your portfolio, is typically what will sell you. Things like your levels of experience, your portfolio, and your degree accreditation, will get you in the door, but what actually sells you into a role is you – as a person.
So yes, apply anyway. What’s to lose? At the end of the day, all it’s going to be is a no. And how scary is that in the midst of things? I think you should get very, very used to a no. I think it does you a lot of good.
What do you look for in a junior creative at Wiser?
This is actually quite a funny question for us because the average age in Wiser is about 26. We’re a very young company and a lot of the guys on my team are very young. I think the oldest in our team is like 28 and there isn’t any particular seniority. We’re all pretty junior.
What we look for in a junior or someone who’s probably starting out at the lower end of that level, is someone that’s confident and driven with good communication skills. Someone who wants some responsibility and who will step-up and do stuff.
We’re quite a small team of six: four of us are practical, hands-on filmmakers. Then there’s my manager, who’s sometimes hands-on but a lot of the time he’s managing people, and then there’s Izzy, who’s our project manager. She’s our specific film project manager.
I think you need to be able to do quite a lot of things. For instance, if all of us are busy editing one day and someone comes into the office to do a voiceover, you need to learn how to set up the vocal booth, the microphone, your levels and then record it into Audition.
You may also be asked to go out and get some footage of a work event.
If you don’t know how to do all of that, still apply – but you need to at least show and have the drive to ‘want’ to learn how to do it. That’s the main thing we look for, for sure.
Showing a spark outside of the ordinary is another thing. Just something in your portfolio that’s a little bit different. I don’t really know what that is and it’s different from person to person. You might be really good at a specific type of animation or a specific type of editing. Your flare is your flare. We can’t necessarily tell you what that might look like, just something to make you a little bit different.
What could be done to make students and graduates more employable?
I think helping students to interact with industry professionals from junior to very senior levels is very, very important. Placement years are also an incredibly important way to get people into the industry too.
Conferences, where graduates or students can showcase their work to industry professionals, talk to them, and gain some insight into jobs, is also really important.
I think a lot of it falls on the students themselves. I think you really need to be proactive yourself and understand what you want. A lot of my friends have been to university, they did a course, and then they thought “Right, I’ve done this course now. I’ve done all my exams. I’ve got a 2:1…where’s my job?”. It doesn’t just land on your feet, especially in the creative industries.
You’ve got to be networking and making your portfolio. Like I said earlier, your degree will get you in the door, but it’s you and your portfolio which will land you the job. I think it’s very, very important that you are going out and making those opportunities for yourself because no one’s going to be there to hold your hand the entire way.
I had the pleasure of working with and learning from fantastic lecturers, but never once did I expect them to get me a job or get me a foot in the door somewhere. It was down to me to do that. It’s important for you to understand that very early on because the second you accept that responsibility, the second you realise that you hold your future in your own hands – which is quite an empowering feeling, I think!
What can students and graduates do to enhance their chances of getting a job?
Network and get out there.
Be proactive and be confident in yourself.
Don’t be scared to give things a go. ‘No’ is just a word. Failure is your biggest learning curve. And as cliche and as boring as it is, it is true. People say it for a reason.
You never stop learning. Like a lot of industries, we get trends and certain styles of things. We had a phase where clients wanted 2D flat animations and we needed to learn how to do that. So, keep an eye on what is happening in the industry, and don’t stop learning. Don’t think you know it all, because I don’t think anyone really does.
💬 If you would love to share some of your wisdom, insights, or learning curves to help others, please comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We would love to hear from juniors, current creative students, students on their first placement, or recent graduates. Share your story and enlighten others!