Apprentice-turned-assistant producer Dion Hesson makes long-form documentaries for BBC Studios
Within the BBC, Dion Hesson has navigated his way through both different cities and departments throughout the UK. Starting off as a digital journalism apprentice in Bristol, he’s now based in London as an assistant producer for BBC Studios’ array of long-form documentaries after having been accepted to BBC Studios’ prestigious Assistant Producer Accelerator Programme. Still considering himself a journalist to an extent, he’s dipped his toe into front-of-camera work for BBC Three, on current affairs topics including the rise of Instagram traders of foreign exchange. Here, Dion chats about the power of communicating ideas clearly, why journalism is an important skill to have in the TV industry, as well as what good can come from deleting Deliveroo off your phone.
What I do
How would you describe what you do as an assistant producer for BBC Studios?
Typically, an assistant producer [AP] works closely with the producer and director and helps put a TV show or film together. There are loads of variables dependent on the budget and roles within your team, but you may find the size of editorial responsibility varies on the production. (Editorial refers to the actual content of the show and what happens in it.)
As an AP at BBC Studios, there’s a wide variety of tasks which you could do, which is what makes the role so fun. One day I could be archive producing, which means sourcing relevant historical material for a film you’re working on. Material includes documents, video footage, images, books and newspapers. I could be looking after contributors, which involves having research conversations. I could also be finding out who they are – which can include setting up times to meet them in person. The dialogue between an AP and a contributor is ongoing, depending on their involvement. It’s kind of like making a new friend as you get to know them, but this helps inform the narrative structure of the film.
I’ve also been lucky to be able to shoot on-location, which means that I would operate a camera and capture sequence – a collection of shots and scenes which, together, tell a story of an event that’s a piece of the bigger story.
The make up of a team varies by the production company and the genre of TV you are working in. Normally, as an assistant producer in documentaries, you work with the producer, director, production manager and executive.
“As an assistant producer [AP] at BBC Studios, there’s a wide variety of tasks which you could do – which is what makes being an AP so fun.”
What recent project at BBC Studios are you most proud of?
Currently, both the documentaries I’m working on are embargoed, but I’d say they are something I’m most proud of as they’re both important subjects. To me, they symbolise my career’s progression from when I started out as an apprentice journalist in Bristol, to now making the move to London and making long-form documentaries.
How I got here
What kind of skills are needed to do your role? And would you say you need any specific training to do what you do?
I would say the main skill is communication; it’s so important to be able to clearly convey ideas and suggestions to your team. But also, when contacting contributors, you need to be able to adapt to any kind of situation they may present you with. I think with communication, too, we often forget to listen – despite it probably being the most crucial thing. A lot of TV-making is being able to provide reassurance to your contributors and keeping them properly informed about the production, as it may be their first time working with a filming crew and cameras.
It’s important to be organised and proactive. Try and think about what will make your producer or director’s job easier, and what questions they may want you to ask contributors. I would suggest working a customer service-based job [before entering the industry] as it exposes you to so many different types of people. I had two retail roles before I started working in broadcasting and I developed so many soft skills from that. I would also recommend journalism training – I have a background in journalism originally and that has informed how I operate in TV.
“The main skill is communication – it’s so important to be able to clearly convey ideas and suggestions to your team”
How did you land the job at BBC Studios?
I got accepted on the highly competitive Assistant Producer Accelerator Programme at BBC Studios. It takes a small number of researchers and trains them up. As soon as you start, you’re an AP and there is a significant difference in responsibility from when you were a researcher. Having recently graduated from the scheme, I can’t recommend it enough – I was part of an incredible cohort receiving top-notch training.
My advice, if you would take that same route, would be to recognise what type of genre of TV you enjoy watching and would like to work on. You should think critically about TV and the narrative – how a programme has decided to present something, the music choice they use and what improvements a programme could make. Find someone who is willing to read through your application, as you may be underselling your skills and talents, so it’s good to have someone to point out that stuff – but to also check for grammar.
“Find someone who is willing to read your application, as you may be underselling your skills and talents. It’s good to have someone to point out that stuff – but also to check for grammar!”
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
Before I was an AP, I was a journalist, and kind of still am. I’ve been lucky to work with – and learn from – people who tell stories every day in the form of radio, writing and short-form videos. I think having that foundation really prepared me for documentary making, as it wasn’t too far from the world I was working in before, so naturally I found my feet fairly quickly. I also did some presenting for an investigative BBC Three documentary, which introduced me to long-form documentary making.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring in your work, what would they be and why?
I would say that the work of the director Ben Proudfoot, who made the brilliant documentary series Almost Famous on The New York Times YouTube channel. His work amplifies unsung voices, and his films are beautiful.
I’ve started using a book for reference about documentary making. It’s called Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen by [filmmaker] Sheila Curran Bernard. The book uses case studies and references and covers the whole process of documentary filmmaking. It’s helpful to use at any point in the process when creating a film.
The final thing I’ve found useful is having a mentor of some sort. Having someone I can go to in the same industry as me and receive advice, guidance and insight has been super helpful in terms of finding out how to navigate the industry and the AP role itself. It’s also important to note that mentors don't have to traditionally be someone ‘above you’; it can be someone on the same level as you, but who has encountered the same thing you may have, or is perhaps currently going through a similar situation.
Is there a place in your city that you’ve found helpful or inspiring to your practice?
I think the London Underground inspires me. I could get the same Tube at the same time every day, and I always see a new group of people – everyone is going to where they need to be and have their own tasks at hand. It makes me realise that everyone has their own story and journey.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge has been not to overthink too much. This can be with what someone may have said or requested of me, or it could just be about an important filming day and wanting it to all run smoothly. I’m finding it a lot easier now to just trust the process and making sure I’m organised enough for me to not overthink.
“I’m finding it a lot easier now to just trust the process and making sure I’m organised enough for me to not overthink.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Set up a standing order on payday to make sure you’re putting money aside!
Delete Deliveroo off your phone.
Bring in your own packed lunch if you have to go into an office because home cooked food will always be better than any meal deal.
Have there been any courses, programmes or access schemes you have found helpful?
Apart from the assistant producer accelerator programme at BBC Studios, I’ve found the National Film and Television School helpful – they offer a wide range of informative courses, with some of them being free, too.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Always prepare your camera kit the night before a shoot if you can. Go through all the settings and get as familiar as you can with the camera before you first start shooting – especially if it’s your first time using it. And stay curious and confident!
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Work out what type of genre of TV you enjoy and work in the space to see if you enjoy how it’s made. Look at the credits and find out who makes the programmes you like and reach out to them. If you do, and you meet them in person or have a call, be prepared with ideas. Research their past projects to get an idea of who you are speaking to and where they are in their career.
Look out for programmes or courses that can provide or develop your skills. Those opportunities may put you in rooms with teachers who might be willing to put you in contact with someone helpful to your goals. Be brave enough to start an initial conversation with someone, as most people are willing to help when they have the time, so never be afraid to reach out.
Mention Dion Hesson
Interview by Lyla Maeve