Alumni Spotlight: Millie Ashdown

Millie Ashdown graduated from BA Technical Production Arts in 2017. She has contributed to scenery at the V&A and the British Library and machined the scenery for TV. Millie now works for Tomorrowland, the world-famous music festival on their technical drawing team.

How did you get into scenery?

Millie Ashdown

Before coming to Mountview I wanted to be an architect, or design cars, something to do with how machines work. Then, in sixth form I decided to do an extended project on set design, because my Mum bought me Lord of the Rings extended edition. I watched all the extras and I just thought ‘I have to do my project on this’. That was also when the Harry Potter Studios Tour opened up. I remember the exact spot where I stood, and I turned to my brother and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ And he said ‘well do it’. So, I changed my plan completely and I found Mountview.

How was the training and why did you choose Mountview?

Training at Mountview was great because it was an all-rounder, I originally came in with particular ideas like ‘I want to be a prop designer, or a set designer’. Then it was about just trying everything, and realised I like making stuff. Even now I started as a carpenter and metal worker, and then I went down the machining and programming, and then drawing and project managing, and now I’m drawing. I think it’s important to try lots of different things, because who knows where you’re going to end up. I am that person, I’m like ‘that looks good, that looks shiny, let’s go over there’. I will say that if you do want to do drawing, or design even – experience the making side. If you want to be a lighting designer, experience the operating side before so you understand what they’re doing as well.

What are your favourite memories from your time at Mountview?

That’s a good question, we did a scrap heap challenge which was so much fun. In the first couple of weeks, we got into small groups and were given a brief; ours was to make a chicken and it had to go through all these tasks. I think ours was a robot chicken. But we had free reign of carpentry, props, everything. Then, after a day or two, you come together and it has to go in a catapult, it has to survive a fall. At the end you won a trophy and you put your name on it, and this trophy was handed down the years. It was really nice; I hope they still do that. (Note from editor: They do indeed!)

What advice would you give your younger self?

If I was to give advice to myself at Mountview it would be, don’t be afraid to talk to people. In the environment I grew up in, I never really learnt about burnout, mental health and things like that. So, when I came to Mountview it was constant activity seven days a week. I experienced such burnout, but I didn’t understand what that was, and I didn’t understand that talking to people helped with that. Teachers and staff, they’ve experienced burnout, they would have been able to help me, so learn just to talk to people. It’s scary as hell, but you’ll find that there are millions of people who have experienced what you have experienced, and they’ll be able to give you help, support, whatever it is.

How was the transition from training to professional work?

I think because the course included a lot of work experience, and I went out and found experience myself I was prepared in some ways. So, for example, I went to Elstree Studios and the Royal Opera House. However, when I went from Mountview to full time work I had this idea that I was the best and I could do everything, and I didn’t need any help. I broke my nose once because I refused to ask for help. Be aware that you’re not going to be the best. Be keen to learn stuff, be a sponge, soak up as much as you can. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. You will make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes, even the people who have done this for 40 years make mistakes. Just own it and move on to how you can fix it. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt.

When I started working, we were doing a lot of work for museums. That was new experience for me because there’s a certain way that you build for theatre. In museums, because people are so close to the items, the construction has to be perfect, the paint has to be perfect; for example, you can’t have brush marks on the paint. I remember doing sets for Alice in Wonderland at the V&A, that was a cool one, because the set was wild, the building elements had to twist and turn. But generally, each project dictates what we made. But most of the time it was plinths. I’d be like, ‘Dad come see what I’ve made’. This! And he was like ‘great, looks great’.

What is it like working for Tomorrowland?

Insane, so it’s in Belgium, and because I’m drawing, I can work remotely, which means I spend two weeks in Belgium every month, and two weeks in the UK, and it is so cool. We work on the scenery, so if you’re in museums it’s plinths, displaying the artefacts. I did a little bit of TV, so again it’s scenery in the background. Then there’s interactive things, so I did Swingers Golf, and Peaky Blinders at the Stables, so very interactive. Tomorrowland is mostly the scenery, drawing the scenery, drawing how it’s built, sometimes mechanics. So, with festivals you’ve got all the scaffolding, and you have to put that into a drawing before you can actually draw.

Are there any set pieces that really stand out to you in your work with Tomorrowland?

It’s so mental, this past year it was a fairytale castle, it was incredible. It was in six sections, and we had to draw each tiny section, and there’s three of us drawing it, and then three people creating the technical side of it. There was one person who did the big towers, one person who did the foliage and that side of things. And I did all the houses and the additional stuff. That was pretty nuts.

Who has been your biggest mentor?

There is one person, we had a system where a second year [student] would ‘adopt’ a first year [student] and if you had any issues or anything, you could go to them, and they kind of helped you out. Mine was a guy called Michael Humphries, and we’re close friends. He was just incredible at making things. I think from a young age he knew he wanted to work in theatre; he would make puppets, and model boxes, just in his spare time, he still makes stuff for fun. I think he is an inspiration, if you love something, just do it.

What would be your dream project?

Film, definitely, film, it’s what made me want to go in the industry, so I’d love to do a big film like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, where it’s an extravagant set. Actually, by a really off chance I was at my gym and chatting to someone. He said he owns a company that builds sets for film. I told him I had applied to that company previously. Then as he left, he said he’d look for my CV. He found it, got back to me the next day with a job offer for the latter half of this year. So, working on films is just around the corner, I think in terms of finding work, you really have to put yourself out there and make connections where you can.