TV and film

Like most bespoke cake makers I run the business from home. As my work largely comes from recommendations, there’s no need for a storefront… but the kitchen is registered and inspected as a commercial kitchen. I have a five-star rating from the Food Standards Authority, and half of the house is now storage for supplies and tools!

My work has been wedding-centred for the past few years, but I also make plenty of celebration cakes, including sculpted (3D/illusion) cakes.

In the past though, I worked in the camera department of film and TV productions and spent three years as a foster carer.

Working as a camera operator

I was always really interested in TV and film so, after a bit of teenage travelling, I did a film degree assuming (as most students do) that would be my ticket into a film job. It wasn’t.

Read more: What it’s like to work in TV as a junior researcher

After university, I begged and begged people for work and got nowhere really. A few weeks of work experience here and there but nothing paid until I randomly met a stranger at a party who knew of a job opening. A few days later I was a trainee at a video facilities house.

My first job in TV

Facilities houses are a kind of lending library for camera, sound, lighting and grip equipment, and they can also provide the staff for shoots. It was low pay, long hours, very hard work and I loved it! It was my fast track to a real job with cameras. They trained us, sent us out to new and exciting places and gave us a real family environment.  We ate together, worked together, laughed and partied together, got rained on together and camped together in the warehouse when we finished work late but had to start early in the morning. Even now, decades on that family is still a tight-knit little network.

Read more: What it’s like being a TV and film editor

At that time most of my work was in factual TV (documentaries, food shows, magazine-style programming, etc.) all shot on video, so when I went freelance I expected to carry on with that really, but one day (by chance again) I was introduced to a film cinematographer (director of photography). He offered me a job on his upcoming TV drama and so began my film and drama career.

Moving into film

I had to retrain with the different equipment, so initially, it seemed like a step backwards to some. But I worked my way through the grades of the camera department and when digital HD video cameras started to be used in drama instead of film I was well-placed for the cross over. Before this people had been very much confined to either film or video so relatively few of us knew both disciplines.

There are various roles within the camera department, as within all departments in film-making, just like any other job. On the film side I was a trainee, then a clapper loader (2nd AC), then a focus puller (1st AC) then a camera operator (who is usually brought in on busy days to operate a second camera). I was just starting the move into being a director of photography (in charge of the camera department) when I went to Liberia for a couple of weeks to work on a  documentary about a maternity unit in Monrovia.

A move into fostering

After seeing the dire situation there, and realising just how extremely lucky we are, my husband and I decided to try and do something to redress the karmic balance a little by fostering children.

We had this idealised plan to split the childcare as we were both freelance, so I could keep my film career ticking over, but as it turned out, one of the children in our care developed profound and life-threatening medical complications. I had to care for him full time as I was the one who’d done the medical training for all his tubes, etc. We also had two other small children in the house so they really were a full-time job for a few years.

When the kids moved on to their forever homes and it was time to return to camera work, it didn’t me long to realise the technology had moved on so rapidly I would have to retrain yet again, another big step back, so we decided it was time to pursue my love of cake as a career instead.

What I loved about TV and film

Honestly, I absolutely loved working in TV and film, especially in drama. I got to travel, visit places no-one else sees, meet amazing people and (for the most part) work with people I really liked spending time with. I’m not saying there weren’t bad days, hard days and sometimes people you could happily dropkick, but (like most things) the better you get the more you get to decide who you work with and what you do.

People assume it’s somehow glamorous – it’s really not.  It’s working in strange places, lugging heavy things around, being too hot or too cold and sometimes it’s pretty repetitive. But at the end of the day, there was almost always something interesting you’d done, or learned, or seen and you had usually laughed a lot.

If you are going into camera work (or sound, or acting, or directing) you have to have a level of obsession about aesthetics and story-telling. You’d never make it through the grades and put up with the hard, long, unsocial hours and being away from home otherwise. So when you’re in the zone, and the lighting is beautiful and the frameworks and you’ve caught a moment of pure humanity on camera, that just feels so, so good.

The day to day job

There really wasn’t an average day, but there’s usually a basic structure you fit your day around. You start very early and prep the equipment.  If it was an ongoing job you would at least know what to expect, and the equipment would be ready to go from the night before, but it may have taken you hours and hours to drive to a location you’ve never seen before. You could be on a mountainside in the rain one day, in a studio the next, at a factory, in a palace, underground, on a plane, in a desert, literally anywhere…

As much as there was no standard day, each part of the process of filming has rules to follow. Like every job, it’s about making sure you’ve ticked all the boxes and anticipating what could be missed.  There are rules to storytelling; eg. set the scene (a wide shot showing context), show the focus of the action (a tighter shot of a couple at table), show us what’s going on (tighter still on each person talking), etc. You can play with these rules for dramatic or stylistic purposes, but the rules are there just like any other language.

Being able to adapt is a massive plus in film and TV as no matter how well you plan, things will almost always not go according to plan somewhere along the line, especially in the UK where the weather can change so quickly!

If you miss something significant, it’s a big deal as it could cost hundreds of thousands to reshoot so coherent planning is a must, being organised even in challenging conditions, understanding deadlines and being honest if there is an issue too.

I think all of this had fed back really positively into what I do now.

My highlight

My highlights are mental snapshots, mostly of laughing with my friends, but on the list has to be sunset at the pyramids, chasing after a man who was dressed as a panda, doing yoga with Sigourney Weaver, sitting in the cockpit of a jumbo jet over Athens, Green Wing generally, Eartha Kitt high kicking at 80, crying with a holocaust survivor, drinking champagne on the London Eye at the millennium, seeing a premature baby had made it through the night in Liberia, fixing a broken camera on the beach in Blackpool, giving Paul Weller a lift, night shoots on Exmoor with Doc Martin, old men playing chess on the waterfront in Jaffa … oh and meeting Duran Duran who I adored as a child.

Challenges and obstacles

When you start out it’s the hours and lack of wages that are challenging, later the responsibility of managing a team and not letting down a crew of 60+. Having good people around you and a really strong work ethic is always your best weapon though. Most of your day you are mentally troubleshooting potential problems, but that’s ok. You get really good at it.

While I value my degree and my teenage travels for other reasons, it meant I didn’t start my TV traineeship until I was 27, making me seven to 10 years older than most of my contemporaries.  It effectively shortens the amount of time you have to train before you get too old to be an obvious choice as a junior on the team… and young directors like having young cameramen.

Women in TV and film

It sounds like a trope, but being female was (and still is to an extent I suspect) an obstacle in other people’s minds. I remember someone once appearing in the warehouse to ‘look at the girl trainee’ because when my boss took me on it was still pretty unheard of in video circles. I was repeatedly told I wouldn’t be able to do the job ‘because women aren’t up to it’. At the time I assumed they meant physically, although I noticed that these were the same men generally who made a show of ‘helping me’ by carrying the smallest and lightest possible pieces of equipment while I was left with the batteries and the massive lighting boxes… go figure. When I moved into film circles, there were more female technicians.

Weirdly, the main opposition I faced in terms of sexism was from female production staff who very often felt that a male cameraman would be a safer pair of hands. They were fine with me being support staff, but not in charge so I did hit a bit of a ceiling, but it didn’t generally come from the men. I know other women technicians have had similar experiences. I think it’s an unconscious bias that’s hard to shift.

Being away from home for long periods of time on a drama doesn’t suit everyone. Movies are long shooting schedules and so often mean many months away on location. Some families manage this very well, but it’s not easy. I found location sitcoms and short-run TV drama gave me a better balance on the whole, and I enjoyed the pace of shooting.  You were generally not away for too long, and often within a drivable distance from home.

My advice

It’s hard to get your first job. Don’t be surprised if it takes you a long time. You may well have to take unpaid work at first (but don’t stay too long if they’re not prepared to pay you). At all times be helpful, be humble, put in the extra hours and don’t moan!

From the outside, it looks like a closed shop. It’s not, but once you’re in you really only have so many opportunities to bring others in after you. If you recommend someone for a job and they turn out to be inept, unwilling to work the hours needed, unpleasant to be around, unable to work in a team or dishonest, they don’t get hired again and it reflects badly on you so you don’t get to open that door again for a long time. That’s why we’re careful to only bring in people who really want it and are prepared to work for it.

Life after TV and film

I’ve basically been freelance my whole life, so have always been able to choose my own projects and how to approach them. I like being my own boss, I’m used to it, I find it easier.

Although I worked as a part of a team in my old job, and there is a hierarchy, we were all freelance so contracts are short and you really are your own boss in that respect. For the most part, the working environment in a camera dept is a very supportive one and if you don’t enjoy that particular working environment, you only have to do it for a few days or weeks, then never again.

You do also have to be very self-reliant and good at managing tasks though as really everyone’s very busy so you need to be able to get on with your job, troubleshoot effectively and have a good knowledge of when to flag something as an issue. Although it may seem like a leap to go out on my own as a small business, it doesn’t feel much different, except that I get to spend much more time at home these days!

Transferable skills

So many of the skills I learned from my time in the camera department directly transfer through to what I do now, the planning, the time demands, the troubleshooting, the story telling, the research, the constant learning of new skills.

Just like the process of making drama, cake designing is about making something aesthetically pleasing and telling the story of someone’s vision by rendering all the physical obstacles to that invisible.

Working with cake, buttercream, chocolate and sugar pastes, these are not easy mediums.  Combine that with how a random combination of hot weather, humidity, rain, wind, movement and gravity are usually all working against you… there’s a lot to learn to minimise the risks. My job is to make it seem effortless.

Making cakes

My mum used to make cakes and treats for sale when I was a kid, so I grew up with a basic understanding of the skills. She later bought a shop that sells cake decorating supplies so for years I had been learning about the materials and tools and going on decorating courses to help her out with that side of her business too.

When it became clear that going back into camerawork wasn’t really going to be an option, I decided maybe decorating cakes was the way to go.

On top of the courses I’d been to, I had already made a couple of wedding cakes and lots of birthday cakes for the family, so I approached a friend of my brother’s who had a cake shop in Brighton and got my first cake decorating job.  I’ve been operating as Kasserina Cakes for about seven years now.

In all honesty, the obsession I used to feel for camerawork has completely moved over into cake making. My husband calls it my addiction, I think most cake designers would recognise that.

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