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James Milner-Smyth biography

About

I’m someone who has just always been involved using the latest technology to tell stories in sound and image. When I was a child I made movies with an 8mm film camera and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

At 17 I was working for the Horse Racing Technical Services in Kwazulu Natal while studying at Uni. This went from a Saturday job camera operating to directing and vision mixing their weekly national live TV outside broadcasts for the SABC and M-Net.

I set up an independent production company, Moving Image cc, to produce inserts for the South African TV magazine shows at the time, 50/50 and Silhouette. Over the next few years I produced and directed some of the largest live racing events in South Africa including the July. I also worked on the low budget “four-waller” 16mm Zulu movies that were hugely popular, learning how to shoot an entire action-packed karate film in just seven days.

With the advent of MIDI music computers I also composed soundtracks for those films and then jingles for some of the largest South African brands.

Arriving in London in the early 1990s in a bleak January, the colder weather prompted me to seek indoor only work and concentrate on post-production. I worked in news editing for the next few years for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 News and GMTV, editing, writing and voicing news inserts.

I then spent a couple of years with Reuters in a production unit where a small team of us produced a weekly documentary profile, an entertainment news show and a world news magazine show:  three half hour shows a week, 52 weeks a year.

When the unit’s supply contract ended I went on a few tours of duty in the various Balkan conflicts for the European Broadcasting Union, setting up satellite links, camera positions and field editing for all the EBU clients just behind the front lines.

Recovering from the war experiences I moved into calmer, long-form documentaries as Avid and other desktop tools started to revolutionise post-production. I was drafted in to help out at the infamous TV station startups, Live TV and Channel One for London that provided interesting insights into how badly things can go wrong in television: institutionally, structurally, technically and editorially.

After cutting pilots for many UK factual shows such as Escape to the Country, I was a founding partner of The Post Factory, London, set up to bring the lower cost of digital tools to high volume UK television. Since then I’ve got many shows to air for FremantleMedia’s Talkback Thames, Endemol, Zodiak, Shine and RDF Media.

As soon as digital cinematography became a possibility, we were the first adopters of Red cameras in the UK and worked out 4K workflows in the confines of our UK TV budgets. Over the last ten years we’ve helped low and high budget film-makers, including the first major studio film on Red, The Social Network, as well as innumerable promos, music videos, commercials and thousands of fashion e-commerce videos.

Right now I find I spend a lot of time thinking more about story, and the technology is just the tool we use to tell it. It is too easy to get hung up on a resolution chart while someone else is getting on with making a compelling story on an Iphone.

But part of my job is to try out everything new that comes our way, and so here is where I’ll talk about it.