Career Insight - Julie Ritson - BBC Camerawoman

julie portrait Introduction
In June 2018 Julie will celebrate 30 years of working at the BBC. Her career began as an Assistant Film Editor from where she moved on to become an award-winning Camerawoman, travelling the world gathering stories but always with current affairs at the heart of her work. Julie has recently added teaching to her skillset, passing on her camerawork and editing knowledge to the next generation of BBC camera operators and editors. In our interview Julie tells us about her exciting career.

How did your interest in TV and filmmaking begin?
I originally thought I was going to follow a career in art. I went to school (Marr College) in Troon, Ayrshire and applied for a place at Glasgow School of Art. I didn't get in the first time but was told I had potential and that I should apply the next year. The following year I got in but by then I had started to look into other options. The idea of working in the world of film and television seemed a fantasy for someone like me, living in a small seaside town in Scotland. But when I visited my great aunty in London, she told me stories of when she had worked in the Film Office of the Coal Board during the post WWII years. It was then that I thought it might just be possible. So I started applying to Film and Television courses and eventually got a place at Manchester Metropolitan University. I occasionally wonder 'what if' with regards the Art School place but I know I made the right decision. I wanted adventure and travel, and that's exactly what I got when I joined the BBC.

Why did you choose to go to film school?
I felt I needed to go to film school because I had absolutely no idea about what I actually wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to work in that field but doing what, I wasn't sure. The degree course covered a wide range of disciplines so I was able to discover what I enjoyed and what I was good at. I initially thought I would go into the directing or producing side but it turned out I was quite good at camera work and I liked the editing process. So in the summer of my second year I started to do work experience in the BBC Manchester Post Production Dept. It all began with sitting in the back of a film edit suite, hanging trims and making cups of tea for the editor.

julie filming from a landrover in basra How did you land your first role as an assistant film editor at the BBC in Manchester?
As is often the way, it was partially luck. I had been doing the work experience for two summers and Iíd got to know everyone quite well. I also had a student job in the evenings working in an Off Licence. A few weeks before I graduated, a lady who worked in the BBC Post Production Office came into the shop to buy some wine and mentioned that they were looking for assistant film editors, and would I like to come in for a chat with the manager. I did and was offered a one month trial period which I started the very next day after I graduated. 15th June 1988 was my first day at the BBC. I started as an assistant film editor on the final series of Brass Tacks. I then began assisting film editor Richard Fretwell and we worked on many long form documentaries. My next progression happened when editing moved onto U-matic tape. I was an assistant on the Rough Guide series and for fun I edited the Xmas Ďout takesĎ video which apparently Janet Street Porter (Head of BBC Youth programmes at the time) really liked. At that point I was given the chance to edit on the programme for real and this continued for the next few years. My contracts got longer until eventually after five years I was offered a staff post.

Why did you decide to switch from editing to working behind the camera?
I had risen through the ranks of editing over the course of five years. I moved from Manchester to London, edited on the National News bulletins and eventually worked on long form documentaries: Money Programme, Public Eye and Assignment. But they involved long hours, often overnight and I grew tired of spending all my time in a darkened room. In the early 1990ís, BBC News Operations decided to introduce multi-skilling. Some camera crews were trained in editing and some editors in camerawork. I put my hand up and was given the chance to work as a sound recordist. I spent six months working with cameraman Steve Rogers and that was enough for me to be bitten by the camera bug. From then on I pursued every opportunity to work on the road and eventually I was offered a camera course at Evesham (the BBCís main training HQ). This opened up many camera attachment opportunities to me. In 1997 I moved to New York to work in the BBC Business Office with Richard Quest and Paddy OíConnell. I spent three years there, filming and editing everyday. I travelled all over the USA shooting features and then editing them back in New York. It was a brilliant training ground and great fun but eventually I yearned to be back working on hard News stories. In August 1999 I transferred to the BBC Moscow Bureau, just before the Russian war with Chechnya. It was a massive culture shock but I quickly adapted and then spent the next ten years working in various war zones including Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. I was one of the few embedded journalists in Iraq during the 2003 invasion and that is still one of the biggest stories I have ever worked on. We slept in tents in the desert for five weeks with scud missiles flying over our heads. It was an incredible and often scary experience but one that I will remember forever as being the most memorable of my career.

julie setting up to film a report. What qualities do newsgathering Camerawoman need to have a successful 30-year career?
The Camerawomen have the same challenges as the cameramen, we do exactly the same job. The key skill is a natural eye for a good shot, good composition and the ability to use the camera quickly and effectively. Itís an instinct and you either have it or you donít. Everything else you can learn. The other essential quality is a cool head. You can find yourself in some very tense and dangerous situations where your body language or attitude can dictate the outcome. You also need to be a team player. We work in very tight groups of one or two colleagues, sometimes for weeks on end so the ability to get on with everyone and to tolerate difficult working environments or relationships is crucial. Luckily Iíve had very good working relationships with colleagues who often then become very good friends. BBC correspondent Caroline Wyatt and I worked together for many years in Moscow, Afghanistan and Iraq and weíve been good friends ever since. Strong bonds are created when covering tough stories and these inevitably bring you closer together.

You are often working in extreme conditions like war zones. How do you keep a cool head and get on with the job?
The main thing to remember when working in any extreme location, be it a war zone or minus 42 degrees in temperature is that everyone else around you is in the same boat. Everyone is potentially suffering in their own way and thereís nothing to be gained by losing your cool. In fact it can be a huge problem if you canít cope in a stressful or difficult environment. For me the key was to be totally focused on the job, be it getting exclusive Ďactioní shots or trying to access an area that other broadcasters havenít managed to get to. This concentrates the mind and helps you dampen the feelings of fear. I remember going into Kunduz, Afghanistan just after the Taliban had fled and feeling incredibly vulnerable. I was with Caroline Wyatt and the whole town centre was crowded with Afghan men who hadnít seen an uncovered female face in years, let alone a western one. As dusk fell the atmosphere turned nasty and we both knew we had to get out of thereÖand quickly! But the more you work in war zones, the more you become attuned to the tell tale signs of imminent trouble. Itís like a sixth sense and itís helped me on quite a few occasions.

Do you have any favourite memories from your 30-year career? Itís difficult to pick just one because my career has been so varied and there have been lots of memorable moments. I loved my time working in the New York Business Office because it was in such a tight unit of colleagues who were really more like friends. Richard Quest, Paddy OíConnell and myself travelled all over the USA/Canada covering a huge range of business stories and we had so much fun. Also living in New York had been a childhood dream ever since watching ĎCagney & Laceyí on the telly so the whole experience was just wonderful. And being able to film interviews with some amazing people is another great perk of the job. The most memorable were President Obama, Leonardo Dicaprio, George Clooney and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

"Being able to film interviews with some amazing people is another great perk of the job." What are the tech and personal items you canít live without when youíre working away from home?
It seems an obvious one but my iPhone is the most important item both professionally and personally. Weíre so reliant on the internet for feeding our News stories back to London and the iPhone can provide a hotspot if the hotel wifi isnít working. Also having cheap and easy contact with home via an app is useful and itís a great camera, it just does so much. And I always have a swimsuit with me. If thereís a pool at the hotel and I have time, I love to swim.

What are the highs and lows of your work?
I suppose the highs are all the things Iíve already described. Getting to travel to places that many others donít have access to, for example Afghanistan and Iíve had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people along the way. Also itís been a huge honour to have worked with some of the best journalists and producers in BBC News whilst covering some of the biggest stories for our time.

But there are downsides as well. Being away from home so much means that relationships and social life can suffer. And the amount of equipment we have to carry means that back issues are a big problem for camera crews. Iíve had a slipped disc so I now have to be very careful about what kind of assignments I take on.

Shooting wildlife is very different to current affairs, how did you get in to nature work?
The only nature filming I have done was for my own pleasure. After a BBC News trip to the Falkland Islands, I had a spare day to go and see a penguin colony. I took a camera to film but it was just for fun. Iím also a scuba diver (and was briefly a Dive Master many years ago) so I always film my dives. I recently visited Osprey Reef, Coral Sea just off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and it was one of the best dives of my life. The film can be viewed on my Vimeo channel

Do you produce your own films?
When I was working in the New York Business Office, it was such a small team that I was able to produce and report my own stories. I did a few but really I prefer to stay behind the camera. Whilst working on Newsnight for seven years, I occasionally produced, filmed and edited my own story ideas which was hard work but very satisfying.

julie with sir ranulph fiennes How do you keep up with ever-evolving media technology?
With great difficultly is the honest answer because it changes so quickly in so many areas. No sooner have I learnt a new camera, then another version of the editing software gets released. Then thereís all the mobile technology which is being used more and more within News. Thatís constantly changing so it really is tough to stay ahead of the curve. But Iím lucky that I work with a great group of colleagues and we all share information on the latest technological changes.

What did it mean to win the Panalux Craft award at the prestigious Women in Film and Television Awards?
It was great to be finally recognised for all the hard work I had put in over the years, especially in difficult and demanding environments. But it was bitter sweet because I wished my mum could have been with me at the awards ceremony. She died the year before but I know she would have been very proud.

filming penguins in the Falklands Why did you add teaching to your skillset?
Itís mainly because I enjoy it and have received a lot of positive feedback for online tutorials. Itís good to be able to pass on my years of experience to a younger generation. Also BBC World Service is going through a huge recruitment process and so my recruitment and training skills are in great demand right now. But the training is only temporary; I will eventually go back to doing rather than teaching.

Do you have any ambitions for your filmmaking or career?
I have some ideas for documentaries I would like to make but itís finding the time. If I had the chance I would probably direct, shoot and edit them myself, maybe when I retire from News.

What was the best career advice you were ever given?
I was never really given any specific career advice but I learnt quickly that itís very important to be a team player and to get on with everyone. You can be the best cameraperson in the world, but if you are difficult or grumpy to work with, then you wonít get the best assignments. Also you really need to know your craft, you need to be able to shoot excellent pictures all the time. Be consistently good and reliable at your job. Thatís what will get you noticed.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to make it as a cameraperson?
Well, nowadays itís not enough to be just good at camerawork. You need a lot more strings to your bow. There is a trend now in News towards hiring Video Journalists' who can do everything; report, produce, shoot and edit. They might not need to do all four at once but multi-skilling to this level is becoming the norm. Also the technology is changing and Iím not sure that the job I do now will even exist in 5-10 years time. Thereís a definite move away from the traditional shoot/edit role with mobile technology leading the way.

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All images © Julie Ritson
Article Date - February 2018
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