The Abingdon Film Unit

By Jeremy Taylor and Michael Grigsby


The Abingdon Film Unit is creating the next generation of filmmakers

The Abingdon Film Unit (AFU) is a small organisation that enables secondary school pupils between the ages of 13 and 18 to make their own short documentary or animated films under the guidance of a team of industry professionals led by the renowned documentary maker Michael Grigsby.

Based at Abingdon School, near Oxford, the Unit was formed in 2003 by Grigsby and a teacher at the school, Jeremy Taylor. Together with visiting tutors Jonas Mortensen (cinematography), Mikkel Eriksen (sound design), Arvid Eriksson (editing) and animators Joanna Harrison and Geoff Dunbar, they have developed a way of working with the students that encourages them to adopt the highest standards, and to develop their ideas through a process of research and reflection that seeks to clarify the aims of their films at every stage.

The Unit has so far produced 26 films, three of which have been screened at the NFT and two at the British Film Festival in Dinard, France. AFU films have also won first prize at the Oxdox International Film Festival (2005) and the New Shoots Festival (2006).

In the documentary section, students are encouraged to engage with the world around them for the subjects of their films, to explore what Lindsay Anderson called “the poetry of the everyday” and to be mindful of Grigsby’s own approach to filmmaking as something that has the potential to offer “a voice to the voiceless”, as well as a means of expression to the students themselves.

abingdon-film-unit-2.jpgThe Abingdon Film Unit, 2006

The students apply to join the Unit in September of each year by pitching an idea for a film. Those who are successful learn not only how to shoot images, record sound and edit footage, but above all, how to work as part of a team.

The animation department of the AFU prides itself on producing 'hand made' films, using computers only in the final stages of shooting and editing. The students are taught by Joanna Harrison, who has worked on many books and films including the children's classic, The Snowman. Geoff Dunbar (Ubu, Lautrec, the Cunning Little Vixen) is a visiting consultant. The students are encouraged to explore different styles of animation, from claymation to cut out and hand drawn.

As part of its outward-looking philosophy, the AFU has forged links with individuals and groups in the UK and abroad. It has helped to establish sister Units at the St Marylebone CE School for girls and at Latymer Upper School, both in London. It has developed the New Shoots Festival as a showcase for films made by secondary school pupils in the south east of England, and it is now developing a project that aims to promote dialogue with young people here and in Sweden, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. The AFU teachers are developing a National Youth Film Unit that aims to extend the AFU methodology to as many young people as possible.


I’m now in the third and final year of my AFU career. The last two years have taken up a lot of time and it has been hard to complete the films, but it is has been worth it.

breakfast-alexander-mugnai.jpgBreakfast, 2006

My first year in the Unit was rather a failure in terms of getting things done. I wasn’t the director of a film but worked as the cameraman. Though our group didn’t make the deadline for the film screening I did learn a lot about how to use the equipment and the workings of the Film Unit.

It was in my second year that I really came into my own. I finally had the chance to direct a film. The tutors really try to make our experience as much like the professional film world as possible. Pitching our ideas to the experts and the other members of the Unit creates this feeling. It is nerve-wracking but I think it will be less of a shock when we are eventually let loose on the outside world.

My idea for a film was simple. I wanted something that people could relate to and that would tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end. My idea was called Breakfast. I probably should have chosen another meal rather than breakfast, because it would have meant fewer early mornings.

One of the main things we are taught in the AFU is to forge good relationships with the people you will be filming. This was especially important in my film because I would be intruding into people’s lives.

Filming was a relatively easy part of the process. Once we had all the footage, it was time for the editing – the longest and most demanding part of making a film. We have learned that to make one film, you must in fact make three: the one you first imagine, the one you actually shoot, and then the one you edit. This was certainly the case with my film. The final piece was very unlike the one I’d first imagined, but I was still very happy with it.

I am now moving onto the idea for my second film, which will look at my grandmother’s internment in Italy during the Second World War. This will be a challenge for me because it is a totally different style to my last film – but challenging yourself is part of the fun of the AFU.

TIAN JI, aged 14

Entry to the Film Unit is by interview and by pitching an idea for a short documentary or animation. This is a daunting task for a thirteen-year-old but I think it is very positive because it shows how much enthusiasm and hard work is needed in order to produce a good piece of filmmaking.

identity-crisis-tian-ji.jpgIdentity Crisis, 2006

In my first year I produced an animation called Identity Crisis. This was about a disaffected youth trying to find his place in society. I wanted to make it humorous and quirky without making it too heavy. As the school year progressed I realised how much hard work has to go into making a two-minute animation. My initial drawings were very simple and with the help of Joanna Harrison, my animation tutor, my drawings developed, and slowly my first animation emerged. I was very relieved when I had finished filming but I was still only half way through. I now had to edit my film – a process I did on the computer. With the help of Mr. Nairne, Head of Art, I managed to find sound effects, apply them, separate the scenes and most importantly, make sure that the film flowed and was pleasurable to watch.

Phew! I cannot tell you what a great feeling it is to see your own film on the big screen. At the end of the school year all projects are shown in the school’s theatre. In the audience, there is an eclectic group of people from the film industry, proud parents, pupils and teachers. The lights go down and the film begins. At the end, the applause and cheers are resoundingly loud. I can really say that being a member of the AFU is exciting, innovative and rewarding and I can’t wait for next year to show my new project.


There was a training weekend in Dungeness at the end of the first month, and this was where I discovered sound.

abingdon-film-unit-3.jpgSound recording in Dungeness

We had been asked to make a two-minute film capturing our response to Dungeness in sounds and images. As I set about deciding what sounds to record, I loved the way the microphone allowed you to really focus on one sound with no distractions. It was such fun to experiment with the kit, trying to increase how much you could pick up, and how ghostly you could make the sea sound. This is what attracted me to sound.

There were so many different ways of using sound to conjure up the atmosphere of the place. There was the sea, the wind, the miniature steam train and the washing machine-style sound of the power station. I was really pleased with the sound I recorded. Mind you, I am still useless at using the sound software on the computer!