It seemed incongruent on a breezy autumn October day to be turning up physically to an event. Like all of us, I’d got used to the pixellated rectangle of Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Like a goldfish ends up conforming its swimming pattern to the size of it’s bowl, this seemed a bit disorientating at first. The grand and capacious County Hall overlooking the Thames felt sparsely populated. I’d been invited to sit in the audience for TEDxPCL Pearson College‘s student-driven event. Of the 14 speakers, (who outnumbered the physical socially distant audience bubble) there was one whose story was particularly pertinent to my own students, which is why I wrote this article. Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor is BlueBolt’s Co-Founder and CEO. BlueBolt is a London based and well respected company that punch way above their weight. Founded in 2009, it is telling that we are still in a world where it is unique for a VFX company to be led by two female co-founders.
As such, the story of how Ainsworth-Taylor ended up leading one of London’s top VFX enterprises is worth hearing, especially when she might (thanks to well-meaning parental nudging) have ended up working in a South African Mortuary. Have I got your attention now? Good, here’s the the story.
We live in a world where we creatives are supposed to be fired up with passion and direction from an early age – that’s the theory- driven to be artistic, letting our inner talent find its niche.
The truth is it’s rarely like that. As a youngster in Kimberley, a South African mining town, Lucy didn’t have the sort of all-consuming ambition we’re led to believe CEOs should have. At 14 she thought she might want to be pathologist and when her father suggested she get a summer job in a mortuary cleaning bodies, that seemed to burst the bubble on that ‘Silent Witness’ future. At 16, having drawn the school ‘brick for brick and in proportion’ in her art class, she considered architecture, but that would take seven years of study, so no thanks.
Eventually she left school at 17, and her mum insisted she learn to type and enrolled her in a secretarial course. Thus started a process of ‘career elimination’ that many go through- she tried it and it didn’t feel right. However, she now had some skills to leverage.
Then came the break- a film production company contacted her college looking for an assistant for their director. The only requirement was a driving licence. Lucy loved the vibrancy of the film set and by her third film became a Production Secretary. She’d soon clocked up involvement in 9 films before she was 21. That impetus saw her coming to London to continue what looked like an inexorable trajectory, but the industry at the time seemed closed to newcomers- you needed your Equity or ACTT card to get the work. So back in the typing pool to make ends meet. Snakes and Ladders.
It took 11 months before a chance advert in the London Evening Standard, ‘Chairman of a film company looking for a PA’ landed her a job at ICM led by talent agency Chairman and industry legend Duncan Heath. The way she tells it was Duncan was impressed when his dog took an instant shine to her, but whether this is Ainsworth-Taylor’s self-effacement or part of Heath’s quirky selection process is unclear. The work needed sharp eyes- she was reading 20-30 scripts a month when one in particular stood out. It was Four Weddings And A Funeral and was taken up by one of Heath’s clients, celebrated director Mike Newell.
Next came the almost obligatory 1990s stint at the BBC’s film department before going freelance and international 3 years later, first as a production coordinator and then as a production manager. By 2001 a less itinerant opportunity emerged and Lucy became Head of New Business for MPC in their newly formed film department in London. She became a prime mover in the relatively new field of digital visual effects. There was a new energy and outlook, typified by MPC’s fifth floor Skybar with fancy coffee machines and views of the Soho skyline (rather unique back then), a contrast from the makeshift offices she’d put up with across the world, moving from shoot to shoot as a film nomad. MPC was working on a film about a teenage wizard that sounded interesting. By Harry Potter #3 with over 50% of all effects now done in the UK, the British VFX industry was into it’s stride as second only to the US, driven by the ‘Big 4’ VFX companies of which MPC was a leader. By the time Lucy left the team of 12 had become a department of 500.
Seven years after her first MPC Capuccino, a colleague at the British Film Commission suggested to Lucy that she might start her own company. The original triumvirate of Lucy and MPC VFX Supervisors Angela Barson and Chas Jarett soon consolidated into the first two women led VFX company BlueBolt. With an admittedly brief business plan hastily written at their first meeting, they formed the company with no finance. Armed only with skills and energy their first job from an ex-MPC colleague reconnected Lucy with Mike Newell who was then directing Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010), an early (if uncredited) success.
On another occasion, following a meeting with an HBO executive, the trio self-financed a trip to LA that paid off with all 10 episodes of 2011s Game of Thrones Series 1 in the bag, replete with 600 foot icewall and baby dragons. This proved to be the Emmy-nominated rock which today’s BlueBolt was built on. Ainsworth-Taylor still remembers the learning curve associated with running your own company- the naivety about website design that led to the premature release of their VFX breakdown gaining 1 million hits before they could get permission being a particular heart-stopping episode. They needn’t have worried; they helped fuel a phenomenon. Game of Thrones hit the streets in the same year as BlueBolt’s other work on Fast and Furious 5 and Jane Eyre, quite a mix.
Three episodes of subtle ethereal VFX for BBC’s Great Expectations soon followed (with a cast including Gillian Anderson and Ray Winstone) which received the highest viewing figures in its time slot, garnering 6.6 million viewers and winning BlueBolt a BAFTA.
As comfortable in film and tv, Skyfall, Man from Uncle, The Night Manager, Peaky Blinders, Mission Impossible:Fallout, Taboo, and many others followed reaping BAFTA, AEAF and VES awards and two Emmy Nominations.
In 2018 BlueBolt was firmly part of London’s global VFX powerhouse. Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor and Angela Barson won the Barclays Women in Film & Television Award for Business, an annual celebration of the most talented women in UK film, TV and digital media, and co-founder Barson joined the VFX branch of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Now with a decade long track record behind them, they recently met the new threat of Covid, but pivoted to the online space regrettably but effectively. Like a strong family BlueBolt pulled together as a group of creatives. Their order books are full for 2021, and BlueBolt now need more talent than ever before to help them meet the stay-at-home Netflix revolution.
At 16 she’d wanted to be a pathologist, and now her company digitally generates all the blood and gore any director would need. She’d wanted to be an architect, and now her company makes iconic digital environments the size of cities. 30 years ago she couldn’t get a job in film yet now shes a CEO. Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor hopes the people listening in to the Pearson College TEDx talk will take inspiration from her journey.
Notes: TEDx PCL took place on 9th October at County Hall, London, organised by Pearson College London students Thibeau (T) Grumett (Organiser), with Annie Wisbey, Alex Tang and Gabriel Knowlson (Marketing/Communications), Evamarie Bello (Partnerships/Sponsorship), Joe Clark (Operations) and Sebastian Reca (Curation). You can see the full recording of proceedings here.