Close Up: Speaking with Geoff Simms
Behind the scenes of theatre productions are hugely talented individuals who develop worlds often in relation to a text or directly from their imagination. We spoke to Geoff Simms from Propworkshop to find out more about his work.
You currently make mini sculptures, board games as well as work with UWE (University of West of England). How do the different experiences fit together?
With anything creative it's very, very hard to make enough money to live on just doing the things you like. There are always compromises to be made.
I have just started working for the university, previously I was a DT Technician in a high school. Working in a modelmaking field you have to be 'quite good' at lots of things - carpentry, metalwork, sculpting, upholstery, leatherwork, painting, sketching, illustration... it's best to be as all-rounded as you can be and not to be afraid of or pass up any opportunity to learn something new. I'm sure that doesn't just go for modelmaking but that's my experience. that means that a) you're quite useful in a role where you will be required to do lots of different things and b) you're well placed to encourage kids to diversify and try things out.
Too many children (and adults actually) are so scared of failure, particularly in an education system which insists on grading everything, that they are often afraid to even try something in case it goes wrong. As a technician you can be a bit apart from the system and encourage them to try things and as someone with a range of skills and the willingness to learn new things yourself you can stand alongside and help.
Of course, the resources that a university puts at your disposal are very helpful. We've got expert engineers, metal workers, chemists etc. whose expertise is invaluable when you need advice. Plus my job is to oversee the running of laser cutters and moulding equipment so I keep abreast of changes in technology which will affect the industry. Of course, occasional use of a laser and a vacuum tank itself is not something to be sniffed at! It's very expensive to have your own workshop, especially if you need specialist equipment.
Sculpting miniatures is a hobby that has become semi-professional, but there are some top-notch sculptors around and not enough work for me to do it full-time. In any case, if you make a hobby a job you can find quite quickly that you end up sick of it.
How did you get started in this line of work?
I went to Theatre School to study Technical Stage Management in order to get a feel for different areas of Theatre production and be a better Set Designer. I then found that I preferred to be given someone else's designs to make than to produce designs and hand them to someone else so I specialised in Propmaking and Scenic Carpentry.
When I left Theatre School I went freelance because there are very few companies that employ full-time makers. At that time the recession had hit the entertainment industry hard and a lot of very experienced makers were going Freelance so there wasn't much work to be had. I went to work part time in a school and have been balancing the two ever since. A lot of the time it works, but it's always hard turning away work because you don't have time to do it.
I've learnt though that it's far better to do that than to exhaust yourself trying to do everything. I still wear myself down when there are fun things to make though!
How has this changed over time – the website has information on a whole range of amazing things including prop making, sculpting, stage-management,board games and more!
It's all about diversification. If you specialise in one thing and do it really well you may be able to survive on it, but unless you're exceptionally good or very lucky it's better to have several irons in the fire so you can fall back on one when others disappear for a bit.
I also think that when you get really into a hobby that's not so very far away from dedicating yourself to a career. In the UK it's currently very easy to be self-employed and to generate odd bits of income from doing 'hobby' things really well. In fact I think if you're passionate about something you should give it a go.
Just don't be worried if you fail, that's a learning experience, and be realistic about what resources you actually have and what you need to be earning to stay afloat. One thing can quite often lead to another and being willing to venture into new territory is very satisfying as well as intimidating!
What is the most challenging project that you’ve ever worked on?
Getting a board game running is a really long and complicated process. You have to test the rules thoroughly, make changes, test again, get artwork commissioned, talk with manufacturers, publishers, distributors... it's a steep learning curve and Tripods!, my first game, is still only on an initial limited-print-run after three years. It certainly hasn't made any money yet! Hopefully we're getting there though.
Crowd funding is perhaps the single most important tool for entrepreneurs in the last few years. It's getting a bit saturated now so competition is fierce, but it means you don't need a rich backer or corporation behind you to do the projects you want to try out, only a bunch of people who also want you to try that idea. Of course, it's rare to make any money off a crowd funder, especially a first one because you're never sure exactly what all the costs will be, but for getting initial production costs covered they're great.
What work inspires you?
Projects that have just gone with it because the people doing them wanted to see the results.
Originality and crazy mash-up styles and improvised ways of working. I'm particularly fond of group efforts, you can often tell from the richness and depth of a model/background/system that more than one brain has been working on it.
What advice would you pass on to anyone interested in starting out in any of these areas.
Don't expect to make lots of money. It's a difficult field to be in - our societal structure doesn't rewards the arts anything like as well as it does economics and science. You have to receive payment in the pleasure of doing something you enjoy most of the time so if you want to have a comfortable lifestyle, job security and the chance to plan ahead then you'd be better off keeping your creativity as a hobby or at least having a part-time job so you aren't reliant on having creative work.
That doesn't mean don't pursue your passions, of course you should, but don't expect monetary rewards to come of them- then if they do it will be a nice bonus!