From education to employment

Costume graduate goes ‘back to the future’ with career at Twins FX

Miki Neal, a BA (Hons) Costume Production graduate from Arts University Plymouth (@artsuniplym), has established a successful career for herself with Dorset based Twins FX (@theillusionists), a leader in theatre production special effects. Originally from Cambridge and now residing in Bournemouth, Miki’s pivotal journey as seamstress, model maker and prop maker at the company began when she took part in work experience at the company after graduating in 2019.

Miki said, “I first worked for Twins FX in 2019 doing a work placement after I finished university. I was also working at Hobbycraft in Plymouth at the time, so I took holiday leave in order to work at Twins FX for a week in July and another week in September. Those two weeks were eye-opening; I learned so much and found it to be brilliant. Paul, one of the twins, mentioned it was a shame that I didn’t live closer. For six months, I juggled my time between Hobbycraft and Twins FX, commuting between Plymouth and Bournemouth. Unfortunately though, the pandemic hit, and since I wasn’t a full time employee at Twins FX, they had to let me go.”

“When I returned in 2022, my role extended far beyond what I was initially hired for. Officially, I’m on contract as a model maker, but I do a lot more in reality. I’m the only one who sews, making me the head seamstress, but I also do plastazote modelling work, foam work and we’ve recently started doing 3D printing. Anything digital too, from social media to vinyl cutting, that’s me. I’m also involved in painting and casting – pretty much everything! We’re a small team so we need to be able to do a bit of everything, electronics and wiring included. My title might be model maker, but it’s so much more than that.”

Twins FX, founded by twins Gary and Paul Hardy-Brown in Dorset, create breathtaking visual special effects, illusions and animatronics for global theatre productions, films and TV. Boasting creations such as flying dragons, towering gorillas and levitating sleighs and with a dynamic team of 30 specialist makers, they developed a unique ‘flying without wires’ system, adding to the magic of these dynamic live performances. The twins’ journey from Bluecoats to market leaders in theatrical effects have seen them contribute to major arena shows, West End musicals, and even Hollywood movies, providing effects across the world from Australia to Japan.

Miki said, “There’s a lot going on at Twins FX that I can’t discuss, but one of the projects I can talk about involves our SFX work on ‘Back to the Future: The Musical’ for a run in Japan which is set to launch next April. I’ve actually started learning Japanese in preparation! We do a lot of special effects for pantomimes, during my work experience, we created a giant animatronic elephant for Julien Clary’s ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. That’s what’s great about Twins FX, the work experience is very hands-on, you’re literally working on live projects as soon as you get there.”

“Besides pantomimes, we’re involved in a myriad of projects. We’ve contributed to ‘Queens for the Night’, a reality drag show on ITV, worked on effects for ‘Sooty and Sweep’ and we’ve even provided effects for Olly Alexander’s tour a couple years ago. More recently, one of our effects ended up featuring on ITV’s ‘Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway’.”

“Each project is so different, bringing its own set of challenges and opportunities to learn. The variety of work is incredible, and while I’ve had the chance to work on some costumes recently, I can’t mention them as they’re for a BBC show that’s under wraps at the moment!”

BA (Hons) Costume Production at Arts University Plymouth is unique in combining a technical focus with firsthand industry experience, providing a comprehensive education in costume for performance. This academically robust and creatively stimulating program offers students access to a wide array of processes and media, setting a vibrant stage for learning. With an emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration, especially with peers in film and other media productions, students are encouraged to broaden their creative horizons. The course facilitates unrivalled access to digital processes, textile printing, and 3D-making, fostering a dynamic environment for script analysis and character realisation. Through this unique blend of technical rigour and practical experience, students graduating from the University are primed for success in the diverse and challenging world of costume production.

Miki said, “I got a great impression of Arts University Plymouth when I visited. I visited some other universities and they didn’t feel right to me. That vibe was a stark contrast to what I felt at Arts University Plymouth, where the environment and facilities matched what I was looking for. It felt like the right size too – not too big, not too small, and importantly it was where my future husband was. They offered me an unconditional place, which sealed the deal!”

“I absolutely loved the Fab Lab at Arts University Plymouth; it’s such a treasure trove of resources. The creative atmosphere was genuine and down-to-earth, without being pretentious. University life taught me that education isn’t just about the coursework; the life lessons are equally important, if not more so. I learned so much and made friendships that last a lifetime, some of my cohort were even part of my wedding as bridesmaids and groomsmen!”

Twins FX offer work experience at all levels, from secondary school to higher education. Over the years, they have had many students with a varying level of skill sets and previous experience, with some staying for just a week and some as long as a year. Students are included in nearly every aspect of the work conducted at Twins FX and are encouraged to get involved and learn new skills.

Miki said, “I can’t stress enough how valuable work experience is for students. Twins FX are open to work experience throughout the year. Being involved in live projects as a work experience placement is a rare opportunity that not many places offer. I feel so lucky to have stumbled into this, but it’s also taught me the importance of continuously developing your skills, especially in areas such as digital computer aided design (CAD), which isn’t always widely taught but so crucial”

“Freelancing isn’t the only option in this industry. There are companies like Twins FX all over the country and the world who offer stable opportunities. Freelancing does have its perks, like having your name attached to your work, but being part of a team has given me some incredible memorable experiences that give me such a sense of pride. Working at Twins FX has allowed me to think long-term, including securing my mortgage. Arts University Plymouth definitely prepared me well for industry too, from CV building to learning how to price our work and build portfolios.”

“Twins FX is always nurturing talent, and being part of the Twins FX team, immersed in creating effects that awe and inspire, is undeniably where I belong.”

From script analysis to character realisation, BA (Hons) Costume Production students at Arts University Plymouth develop practical and design skills for costume in performance. The unique strength of this course lies in its combination of technical focus with opportunities to experience the performance industry first-hand.

To find out more about BA (Hons) Costume Production at Arts University Plymouth, attend an Open Day, with opportunities to meet expert academics, speak to current students and get a taste for life at an award-winning independent arts university.

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