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A change in direction

With nearly a decade in the British Army, Lee Kemp (Film with Television Studies, 2007) had an unusual path to his degree. But it was a simple truth that made his decision.

“I was more of a nerd about movies than anything else! I read a book by Richard Dyer, who then worked in the department, about the film Se7en and remember thinking ‘this guy has seen a different film to me’. That’s one of the reasons I was interested in film at Warwick.

“I completed my UCAS application on a very ropey internet connection from the British Embassy in Kabul. I’d always felt like a degree was both important to me and a solid first step to move into a completely new industry.”

As a local student, Lee had an early commute from Northampton to Coventry every day, with limited time for socialising with his course mates. But there were similarities between student and military life.

“The likeness between the two surprised me: young people, away from home for the first time, living largely independently in a shared experience, having to manage finances, schedules and life generally. You’re effectively ‘adulting’ in a closeted environment, and sometimes behave in the same questionable ways.

“The experience was good for me because I've always been a last-minute person, scraping through by the skin of my teeth. But I wanted to do my degree well.”

When Lee graduated, his eyes were opened to new possibilities by some of his course mates.

“Some students a year ahead of me had started a film production company making corporate videos for charities and government. After some early success, they decided to bring more people on board in exchange for equity.

“It was a different world for me. As a working-class kid, I just didn’t know people who started companies.”

Lee spent the next few years working in digital film production before starting his own company, Vermillion Films, which has now been running successfully for 12 years.

But it’s not the opportunity to work with global brands and shoot in locations like San Francisco, Portland and Cape Town that’s made working in film and production so special for Lee. That comes down to the people.

“It’s genuinely enjoyable, which I think is rarer than many people assume. It’s hard work but skilled professionals arriving on set ready for a shared endeavour is a thrilling experience.

“At Vermillion, it’s me plus six at the moment and we’re growing. This financial year we’ve completed more than 70 projects. But it’s a tough industry and the work is changing. TikTok is film in the same way Avatar is film, but the budgets are very different.

And Lee’s advice for setting up your own business? “If you’re a one-person business, literally everything is your job. When you bring on your first member of staff, your job is Everything minus their job description and so on.

“I see a lot of students wanting to start production companies so they can make films. It’s a viable avenue but it does require a rare form of split-brain thinking. The skills required to run a successful company are different to those required to being a successful filmmaker.”

Lee’s top tips:

  • The most successful companies are those that respond well to both good and bad luck. Landing good clients is often right place, right time, and you need to capitalise on opportunities when they present themselves
  • Make the most of your unique skillset. Coming from a military background, structure and systems were two tools in my arsenal. In Afghanistan, we would run through things at the start of every day. We do the same every morning at Vermillion. It’s just 20/25 minutes, but it means nothing gets forgotten.
  • Find systems that make your life easier. At Vermillion we're pretty good with how we incorporate software into everyday work. For example, everything we do is on G Suite so it’s searchable and accessible, and new, sophisticated software like Lucidlink allowed us to adapt into being a fully remote company. That being said, remember not every problem should be fixed with a better process.