7 mins read

#DNBusinessTalks – Alistair Maclean-Clark (CEO Lightforge Academy)

Appreciate the Journey


This is a series of stories told by leaders in the Doncaster area (City of). These stories have been curated by me (Kurt Ewald Lindley) as part of a collaboration between Doncaster CouncilDoncaster Chamber of Commerce and other Team Doncaster members to showcase, not just the best of Doncaster, but to inform the development of Doncaster’s Economic Strategy and

“make it the best place to do business.”

Housed in the old Church View Art College (or C-view as it has become known), beneath the shadows of Doncaster Minster is the ‘Lightforge Academy’. A dedicated learning provider for those in search of a career in the creative industries.

I took the following text directly from their website, as I think it quite quickly debunks an assumption many of us make when it comes to the phrase ‘creative industries’ …

“Did you know that the Creative industries aren’t just about Film Directors, Actors and Games Designers?  There are hundreds of different roles, which suit an even wider range of skills, disciplines and backgrounds.  For example, there are fulfilling careers in business disciplines like accountancy and law, management roles for producers and project managers as well as roles where creativity and technology collide like coding for VFX, game cinematics, motion graphics and mixed reality (XR) as well as careers in trades like ‘Carpentry and Electrical’.”

 And Alistair Maclean-Clarks CEO firmly believes in raising our attention to this. Lightforge Academy provides people with what he referred to as ‘last mile vocational training’ for many of these roles. Offering industry relevant learning through short courses, for those needing help to step into employment, by tutors actively working IN the industry today. Lightforge not only trains but also provides pathways into industry and helps students get that all important first job.

“A mantra we like to instill is ‘Imagine, Dream and Inspire’ if Lightforge can offer this then there is no limit to what our students can achieve.”

The Journey – 130 letters later and still it’s a no

Like all our stories I wanted to learn and share more about the leader behind the business. And it was a joy to listen to Alistair. The interview started with a meander through our thoughts on ‘philosophy’ and life, it was at this point he dropped this pearl:

“Let life evolve, let life influence you”

When we spoke about career, Alistair said quite confidently “I was blessed”, he was referring to the fact that at age 7 he already knew what he wanted to be – a ‘film producer’. As early as then he was writing stories, developing his craft. However, he was to learn in his mid-teens, it wasn’t good enough to have a passion for this field of work.

In search of his first role in the creative industry, he wrote approximately 130 letters to possible employers and had 20 plus meetings. All leading to a ‘thanks, but no thanks’. What he learnt from this experience was..

“sadly if you didn’t come from wealth or have relatives in the industry it was a closed shop”

Maybe this is where Alistair’s frustration with ‘injustice’ was born. And maybe why we have Lightforge Academy today, a place where anyone, regardless of social standing or family connections can have an opportunity to step into the industry with a little more ease.

It was the happy accident of seating arrangements that lead to his first role in the film industry. Alistair had been paired with the partner of a film producer whilst studying ‘Western’s’ on a film studies course. An assignment that forced him to immerse himself in his least favourite genre of film. Off the back of shared conversations came the offer to be a ‘trainee clapper loader’ (the person responsible for operating the clapper board on set). This paid the massive sum of £25 per week, not much I know. But what it did give him was opportunity to work on films like the Pink Panther, Superman and Bond movie Octopussy at the legendary Pinewood Studios.

Between this point and now, Alistair has navigated the following industry experiences – from TV Commercial Producer at Ogilvy & Mather, to producing for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and seven years at the Walt Disney Company as MD of Buena Vista Productions (overseeing Disney’s production slate in Europe and the GMTV breakfast franchise). Alistair has also produced nine feature films and one television series over the past 18 years with his tenth to be produced next year in Liverpool and Taiwan. Not bad going I’d say.

So why Doncaster I asked…. His response was somewhat poetic in a sense as he mentioned the natural beauty of the area and the potential of the people. But like most business there needs to be a financial value, it seems Doncaster has this to offer as well. But also I think this may have been a timing thing. The right people happened to be in the right place at the right time and C-View offers a great base for the work they do. Great rail and road links help too. 

Challenges in Business – Funding

getting any funding outside of private investment has been hard”

What would have really helped in these early days of starting and running the business is ‘seed funding’. “Something to help get the momentum going and keep it going especially as we started in a pandemic”. Alistair was very complimentary regarding the people that have helped him locally, but at times its money that’s needed not just handshakes and introductions. To date this venture has been entirely privately funded other than an investment of equipment by the Sheffield City Region, which has been very helpful.

Lessons for others – help yourself

“Perseverance and determination are key”….”you get bruised along the way” – after 130 letters saying NO and 20 plus meetings of rejection there is still more you can do to help yourself.

“Build good relationships with everyone and network, make yourself invaluable in whatever role you do” – this signals the value of your reach, who can you reach into and be reached by over the life of your career.

“Take opportunities when they arise even if they don’t necessarily fit your planned career path” – this wasn’t about saying yes to everything but not missing a chance to say yes when there was something there for you.

Advice to a younger you (and the ones who didn’t choose so well)

“Really enjoy the moment you are in, understand your journey and learn all you can from the people you work with and never stop learning”

Alistair referred to the fact that we may focus too hard on the destination, but life changes and with it the end point. Don’t miss out on the joy of the journey in favour of the hopeful outcome.

The Legacy – a sustainable industry by the region for the region 

What I didn’t share above was, that Lightforge Academy is part of a chain reaction of growth under the umbrella of a number of companies focused in this sector. They each provide jobs in Doncaster for those taking the last mile training courses at LightForge. Launched in January 2019 it has fuelled further relationships and with-it businesses.

Alistair along with business partner Martin Taylor (COO) launched Prox and Reverie in September 2019 a Virtual Production company housed just down the corridor at C-view. It specialises in mixed reality, fusing physical and digital experience, now employing 8 people with major clients such as Warner Media.

Then in July of 2021 Alistair and his colleagues David Pitman and Sophie Trainor created Firebrand VFX. A VFX Roto and Paint team undertaking Visual FX work for major London VFX houses, and brand agencies looking for extra capacity, now employing 17 people. (David Pitman is also Chairman of Kudos QA, a games testing business in Doncaster that employs more than 70 people). All of which has been achieved in less than 3 years.

What does this all mean for legacy, well the hope is that as Lightforge trains more students and these companies grow, more digital businesses will be drawn to the area to fuel the creative industry – growing both existing business and create a demand for more.

There is a vision for the future within the group, with 360 Degrees Media (a partnership between Alistair and banker/media entrepreneur Mark Beilby), which includes a purpose-built studio facility – housing 4 sound studios, production office (World Engine Studios) and an immersive Research and Development lab with additional accommodation and facilities. All in Doncaster just a stones throw from their current home.

The Call to Action – Join up the dots

When I asked what would be your call to action for businesses in Doncaster, Alistair said firmly “communication”. He went on to ask me “why the creative sector in Doncaster, South Yorkshire and the wider Yorkshire are not more joined up in their work, as it has the potential to be a much greater powerhouse”. We both acknowledged that Doncaster has a rich (in skill but not number maybe) ‘creative sector’ but we don’t know where each other are or what they are doing, so maybe we need a convener (and a reason to convene) in a specific space to build on this.

Your one ask of ‘Team Doncaster’

“People first” were the words Alistair offered. He added there has been a leaning by the region toward “infrastructure over people”. Perhaps more could be done to develop and build the creative digital sector, and the people within it. Rather than see it as ‘nice to have’ it needs to be funded and nurtured so that it can grow (after all it is the fastest growing sector of the UK economy and Doncaster should benefit from that).

The formation of these businesses in Doncaster, combined with all the excellent work that is being done in the region should create the opportunity for the digital industries to come together in the region. Ideally creating a dedicated space in Doncaster to convene and build this skills base through training and incubating companies.

This could help develop a further depth of skills and opportunity and attract further investment and, as importantly, major players in the industry to set up productions here in Doncaster.

In closing

If you don’t know it’s there you can’t do anything about it, with it, for it… too often has Alistair heard the words “I had no idea that was going on in Doncaster”, even after 3 years of building these businesses! This needs to change, we need to shout louder or whisper quieter to the right people at the right time for our stories to be heard and listened and to reach those people we want to meet. So people can find each other and work together towards their ambitions and dreams……..enjoying the journey on the way.

Alistair is one of the many people who are making Doncaster the best place to do business. And it’s from this story and the stories of others that ‘Team Doncaster’ hope to create a robust, prosperous Economic Strategy for our City.

Do you have a story or know of a Doncaster Leader with a story to share for #DNBusinessTalks? Get in touch here.