Gabriel Robertson wins the 2018 Joe Farley Award at the NFTS

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We’re already storming through 2019 and though last year seems like a distant memory, the Production Design students, and their work for the Joe Farley Award, are still vivid in our minds.

The Joe Farley Award has been running for nearly 30 years and takes place annually at the National Film and Television School. Mark Farley meets with around 8 students each year who are coming to the end of their first year on the Production Design course. For this project, each student selects a book from the available titles and produces a model and accompanying drawings of a scene or element from the book and presents it to Mark, who is assisted each year by a different Production Designer.

Inspecting Steven Xuereb Haber’s optical illusion model

We visited the National Film and Television School on the 28th of November and were joined by Production Designer Andrew McAlpine who offered invaluable industry knowledge and experience when judging the presentations from the applicants. Andrew’s career has spanned over 30 years and includes films such as The Piano, for which he won a Bafta, The Beach, Me Before You, An Education and Serenity amongst many others. Andrew provided constructive criticism and great advice for each applicant. Two words of wisdom that stood out for us were that “one of the signs of a good Production Designer is someone who can practicalise their thoughts, which is often one of the hardest things” and that “you need to understand the grandiosity of your designs to be able to reduce it down when necessary” and we saw wonderful examples of these skills in each of the presentations the students gave.

Every year that we judge the award the standard of work just gets better and better and this year was no exception. Each presentation offered something new and different and many of the students had gone above and beyond with specially composed music, digital storyboards and even VR to immerse us in to their sets.

As always, deciding on the winner was no easy task and Mark and Andrew deliberated for some time over who should get the award and scholarship towards their second-year studies. In the end the student that impressed them the most with their presentation, and showed a solid understanding of Production Design, was Gabriel Robertson.

Gabriel Robertson winner of the 2018 Joe Farley Award

Gabriel’s presentation focused on a scene from ‘The Nowhere Emporium’, a fantastical book about an emporium that appears out of nowhere, promising a world of magic and wonder but at a price. Gabe modelled the emporium on a crumbling bookshop/library with a Librarians desk at its centre. The desk alone was beautifully design and modelled on an ink well for which Gabe had done extensive research.

Gabe’s ink well inspired Librarian’s desk

Every detail had been considered. From the stepping stone books, to the black ink lake surrounding the emporium and our personal favourite, the quills used by the children to ‘windsurf’ to the door of the Emporium. These really came in to their own in the digital storyboard that Gabriel had produced and perfectly illustrated his vision.

Gabe and Andrew discuss the finer points of his model and sketch book

His presenting abilities were also noteworthy and showed that he’d put a lot of thought in to what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He had just the right amount of confidence and conviction in his design choices but seemed open to Andrew and Mark’s critique, though they struggled to find many faults. We’re sure he’d be a welcome addition to any art department and just a thoroughly nice guy to have around.

Despite Gabriel saying that he struggled with the set initially we saw no evidence of this and felt that the design, modelling and accompanying drawings showed an accomplished knowledge of design, camera angles, lighting, and technical elements. When Gabe produced a VR headset and asked us to step in to his set, it was the icing on the cake and sealed his fate as the winner of the 2018 Joe Farley Award. Huge congratulations Gabe, a well-deserved winner, we look forward to watching your career progress.

An interactive tour of Gabriel’s set

Credit must also go to all of the other applicants who made Mark and Andrew’s decision incredibly difficult.

The first student of the day was Tananya Kutzer with her take on ‘The Night Circus’. Tananya set the bar extremely high with her stunning model which expertly fused a simple monochrome colour palette with heavily detailed Moroccan features and peacock dome.

Tananya talks Mark and Andrew through her intricate set model and peacock dome

She had clearly spent a lot of time and effort on her work and presentation (the ‘beaded curtain alone took her a week to make) and it really came across. Her background in interior and product design was apparent throughout but especially when we were handed the most stylish ticket to the circus at the start of the presentation. A great touch.

Tananya Kutzer

Tananya’s characters


Next up was Peter Coulthard who created a scene from ‘Shadow Bridge’. Fusing different designs together across a bridge between worlds is no easy feat, especially when you add in a band of merry performers and the gods of both Sun and Moon, but Peter managed to hold it all together and took us on this wacky journey with him. We particularly liked his design ideas centred around the topical issues regarding plastic waste and his consideration of how his film might be realised with both CGI and mechanical technologies.

Peter Coulthard and that fab shirt!

Peter and Andrew talk technical


Iasonas Houssein put the experience gained during his Architecture degree to good use with his take on ‘The Night Circus’. He focused on the cloud maze from the book, an area of different games and competition arenas, which made for a visually exciting and extremely intricate model.

Iasonas’ model of the Cloud Maze

A self-confessed fan of sci-fi, Iasonas liked the fact that you could go crazy with design on that type of production, which was evident in his ideas for this project.

Iasonas Houssein at the NFTS Joe Farley Award 2018


Another student who decided to take on ‘The Shadow Bridge’ was Richard Henley who presented a very accomplished and well thought out body of work. Richard created a set that made full use of the space on the stage, to be able to shoot an elaborate chase sequence over water and through the town-on-stilts that he’d created.

Richard’s town on ‘stilts’

Richard walks Mark and Andrew through his model

He’d thought of the limitations of the set and how these could be overcome as well as the most suitable camera angles. Despite the project coming with a rare ‘skies the limit’ budget brief, Richard had considered what value for money he’d get out of the set and how much of the film would ultimately be shot on it. Not only did he exhibit excellent creative and design skills but also showed an appreciation of the wider elements of production design.

Richard Henley


A perennial choice ‘Dante’s Inferno’, was up next as chosen by Steven Xuereb Haber. Steven had gone to great effort to depict ‘limbo’ (clearly seen in his stunning illustrations) and had enjoyed exploring faith and death for this project.

Steven’s stunning drawing of Limbo

The complexities of the story made the set, and the chase sequence that Steven had chosen to focus on, quite complicated and contained many different elements. A less skilled student might have been overwhelmed but with Steven’s clear technical drawings, storyboard and cinematic eye he was able to pull everything together successfully.

Character reference for ‘Dante’s Inferno’

Steven Xuereb Haber


Having started the day on such a high, the end was no less enjoyable. Last but by no means least was Andrew Merrison with ‘The Tiger’s Bridge’. We were immediately drawn in to Andrew’s project by his seemingly endless, scroll like sketch ‘book’ which was a work of art in itself and a stunning way to present his flow of work.

Andrew’s fabulous scroll ‘sketch book’

His perfectly executed model centred around nature and had an arcadian feel to it, offset by the palazzo’esque buildings.

He is clearly confident in drawing and produced some lovely detailed studies to accompany his model. Andrew gave a wonderfully clear presentation but had he not, we would have had no trouble understanding his vision from his skilled storyboarding.

Andrew’s technical drawings and story board

Andrew Merrison

Another wonderful batch of students that will without doubt enhance any art department that’s lucky enough to have them. We will follow their careers with interest and wish them all every success.

Huge thanks as always go to Caroline Amies and Michelle Hosier for organising the day’s itinerary and making us all so welcome. Extra special thanks to Andrew McAlpine for being wonderful company and such a stellar judge and for taking so much time and care with each student.

We’re looking forward to the next Joe Farley Award already!