It’s a Dangerous Business

November 26, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Filmmaking in some of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.

Director Jack Dixon in Liberia.

 

The Girl Declaration took director Jack Dixon to some of the least advisable travel destinations on Earth. But it was worth the risk so he and his Producer, Rowland Kimber from Ivory, could make great films for a good cause – helping to improve the lives of girls in developing countries around the world.

When the United Nations made its Millennium Development Goals, issues relating specifically to girls were left out. This year, girls from impoverished communities the world over helped to write The Girl Declaration – a tool to ensure the United Nations include them when they renew their goals.

This is a project from The Girl Effect  – a movement that uses the potential of adolescent girls around the world to end poverty for themselves and others.

As the charity ran workshops with girls in poor communities around the world, Jack’s job was to document these for The Girl Declaration film and a series of documentaries profiling some of the girls that drafted the Declaration. It was Rowland’s job to make sure Jack and the crew were able to tell the most poignant stories possible, and that meant sending them into some pretty punishing environments.

Director: Jack Dixon
Producer: Rowland Kimber
DOP: James Durand
Director: Joe Dixon (Philippines)
DOP: Sara Dean (Philippines)
Production Company: Ivory

Editor: Chris McKay
Producer: Annabelle Dunbar-Whittaker
Offline: Cut + Run

Graphic Design: Smith & Agar
Motion Graphics: Donald Chung

Colourist: Dan Moran
Producer: Andrew Salem
Grade House: Smoke and Mirrors

Mini Doc Music Composer: Dominick Goldsmith
Main Film Music: 
“Clearing The Cobwebs”, Written by Ken McHugh
Performed by We Saw Heaven
Courtesy of Lefthand Records
Courtesy of Elevate Music Ltd
By arrangement with ThinkSync Music

After dismissing Democratic Republic of Congo for being too perilous, the plan was to shoot in five locations: Liberia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil and Nigeria, which meant a lot of work for Rowland. He had to put together risk assessments for each of these, which was interesting, considering the Foreign Office had advised against travel to any of these places unless absolutely necessary.

“You have to have every angle covered,” says Rowland. “If someone had died, the coroner would have to work out why and if there’s anything more that could have been done, so [it needed] a comprehensive – you could argue over-the-top – risk assessment.”

Rowland considered worst-case scenarios, compiling information from various sources around the world to try and gauge the reality of possible dangers. He even did a considerable amount of research into kidnapping in these countries and concluded that as long as they shot quickly they wouldn’t have to worry.

Jack and co. would need security in some of these areas, but despite the violence endemic in these neighbourhoods, they stopped short of armed guards on Rowland’s call.

“If you get armed guards you’re in a different situation, insurance-wise,” he says. “If you should really have an armed guard then you’re on the next level and you have to have hostile environment training,” something the team had neither money nor time for.

While all the locations were a bit dangerous, they each had their own nuances and issues that Jack got to know in the process of making these films. He knew this was going to be an unforgettable experience when he and his DOP, Jamie Durand began in the capital of Liberia – one of the poorest West African states. “We arrived a day early and spent a day wandering around Monrovia, just thinking ‘Jesus Christ! this is weird,’” he remembers. “And it turned out that part of Monrovia was the haven for visiting westerners.”

“It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. There is no money and you can feel it. It’s the most foreign country I’ve been to by a long stretch. And it smelt awful as well because they don’t have a sewage system and we were on the beach, which they generally use as a toilet.”

Meeting the girls who were drafting the Declaration, Jack learnt about the problems the country is facing, still recovering from a 14-year civil war. Like in other such conflicts, rape was used as a weapon. “It just breaks these cultures,” he despairs. “There’s still a huge problem with rape. We were speaking to one of the charity workers there and she was saying that before the civil war rapists were put in front of a firing squad. But now it’s kind of normal for men to rape young girls. That’s part of life there. There were stories of men raping girls, being caught and just being released a couple of days later. And the community knows who they are.”

After that culture shock, briefly returning to London before the next trip was a bizarre experience. “Everything just seemed so tranquil,” says Jack. “Rowland came to pick me and Jamie up from the airport. We were driving back through central London and it seemed weird how calm everything was.” London may be many things, but it’s rarely described as tranquil.

The next trip, to Pakistan, was different again. The constant threat of terrorism has transformed part of Islamabad into a fortified secure zone, with checkpoints everywhere. At one point, Jack ate at a restaurant with snipers stationed on the roof.

He describes the process of getting into his hotel there. “There was an armed guard you drove past, [then] a gate with a couple of armed guards where they check your car for bombs. You go through that and there’s another gate where an armed guard lets you through. Then you have to slalom your way up through all these concrete obstacles to get to the hotel front, where they X-ray all your bags and you have to go through a metal detector.”

“Tricky if you just want to pop out,” Rowland quips.

While Jack was in Pakistan, his brother Joe was directing the footage in the Philippines, which Jack explains posed a different kind of challenge. They went to visit one group of girls helping with the Declaration. “They were very young,” says Jack, “and found it hard to talk about issues, so there was a lot of crying whenever anything sensitive came up, unfortunately for Joe.” They came out with footage for the main film, but none of the compelling stories that made the documentaries.

Next up was Brazil, which looked the least dangerous on paper. It was the only shoot Rowland managed to make it out to himself, and it ended up being potentially the most risky.

Two weeks before the shoot they were told the risk level in that area was increasing. “That was when the community centre a couple of doors down from one of the girls we did a documentary about was held up at gunpoint,” says Rowland.

It seemed safe enough at first. “It was just like a holiday town in Spain or Portugal,” says Jack, “but everyone there was incredibly paranoid. They wouldn’t let us walk down the street in pairs, we had to be in big groups and things like this. We thought they we were being silly, but gradually we realised they weren’t when we heard the stories of kidnappings and decapitations.”

They met Andressa at the workshop and instantly wanted to make a film about her. Naturally, her neighbourhood was one of the sketchiest in town. “We weren’t supposed to be going to this favela,” says Jack. “The day before we went there had been a gunfight out in the street all day so people couldn’t leave their houses. None of the local charity workers had ever been in there. The woman who was taking us in didn’t sleep the night before because she was so nervous about going in.”

Two local men went into the favela with them as security and the team came out with a brilliant mini-doc and all their limbs intact. It wasn’t until later that they found out the local charity had tried to get a proper security company to protect them but were refused because they couldn’t guarantee the team’s safety.

By the time and Jack and Jamie got to Nigeria, their last location, they were completely unfazed by the drama. Jack recounts how a man with a machine gun shouted at them on their first day there. “We were walking down the street and this guy emerged from a camouflaged hut with a machine gun,” he says. He was shouting something, but they couldn’t work out it if it was “go” or “come”. They edged towards him and were told that if they walked into the square of tiles they were heading for they would be shot.

“I’m pretty sure they don’t just shoot tourists who walk into tiled squares through,” says Jack. That aside, it was plain sailing. “By the time we were in Nigeria we knew what to expect and I think that’s where the work came easiest to us.” They ended up shooting some of their best stuff there.

The danger of these situations meant the team didn’t have the luxury of time. “We didn’t have much time to choose who we wanted to visit and we didn’t have much time once we went to visit them,” says Rowland, “mainly for security reasons, because the longer you’re there the more the word gets out and people arrive with guns and things. We had maybe two to three hours with [each girl] to make the film.”

There were a lot of cultural challenges too. “It was quite tricky because you don’t really understand the cultural nuances,” says Jack. “So you want them to understand that you’re there to tell the story but you want to make them feel open – that you’re a safe person to talk to.”

Jack’s ability to make the girls comfortable within this limited time was vital, but he handled it admirably. One trick to get the girls to open up was allowing them to film themselves with a flip camera. “It cost about 50 quid,” says Rowland, “this little thing [with a] terrible sensor, but you could just give her the camera and let her do her own thing.”

It worked a treat, particularly with Hannatu in Nigeria, as you can see in her film. “As soon as we gave her that flip camera, she was off for ages,” says Jack.

Jack was surprised at how friendly and helpful the girls were, “amazingly so, considering a stranger from another country was asking what the worst parts of their lives are like.”

This optimism was a relief because he didn’t want to make a classic flies-around-the-mouth charity campaign. It needed to be uplifting. “The girls are generally so positive,” says Jack. “A lot of them are working harder than anyone I’ve met to try and better themselves. Looking after ten siblings, working so the family can eat and finding time to get an education as well because they don’t want to just be a housewife in the future.”

For all the danger and difficulties that went into making these films, these hardships are nothing compared to what girls in these communities face every day. But as The Girl Effect documentaries show, that’s not going to break their determination.

Signed: Glen Milner

November 25, 2013 / Signed/Unsigned

By The Beak Street Bugle

Independent and Indy8’s new director specialises in making poignant, concise documentaries.

Glen Milner, who just signed Independent and Indy8 for representation, isn’t a traditional commercial director, but with the explosion of branded video content in recent years, his short documentary style is particularly relevant.

The London-based director started his journey into filmmaking in the camera department on films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, learning from crew who worked on Oscar-winning movies.

He later became a director in his own right, building his distinctive style of documentary film portraiture for media organisations including Channel 4, The Guardian, The Telegraph and Nowness.

He’s already worked with several brands and with new representation it’s worth keeping an eye out for more quality work coming soon.

Watch some of his work here:

Riding the (Human) Tide

November 22, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

What happens when advertising people get together to create art that doesn’t sell anything?

Testing Paul Hartnoll's tide-depth-recording contraption on Herne Bay beach.

 

It’s one of the strangest Friday nights I’ve had for a while. I spend most of the evening carrying a length of wood with two LED lights stuck to it, powerwalking up and down a sandy beach in the dark as part of a convoy of twenty total strangers while soggy, borrowed wellies chafe my ankles. It’s my own stupid fault really. I was asked to bring my own boots. But I wasn’t warned that we’d be racing against Mother Nature herself, trying to outrun the tide as it crushes us against the underside of Herne Bay Pier alarmingly quickly.

Still, it’s worth the blisters to be part of the Human Tide – the kind of rare project that genuinely invigorates everyone involved in it, even jaded advertising people, worn down by years of using their creative talents to sell beans, house insurance and spray tan.

An art event staged and filmed in Herne Bay, Human Tide commemorates the centenary of Marcel Duchamp’s visit to the Kentish seaside town, where he famously protested “I am not dead. I am in Herne Bay.” It is the realisation of a work the artist had made notes on but never produced.

The basic idea is to trace the movement of the tide with three lines of light. Using people carrying light sticks (the human part of the tide), repeatedly walking a kilometre along the tide’s edge after nightfall, the work captures the course of the tide in a beautiful and unfamiliar way.

There’s a lot more to it than that though, with ‘data walkers’ drawing that same tide using GPS, a score composed by Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll using that data, a teaser spot documenting the characters and personality of Herne Bay directed by Park Village’s Guy Soulsby, as well as a behind the scenes making of documentary.

The Human Tide Teaser film, directed by Guy Soulsby.

 

Upon my arrival in Herne Bay I’m introduced to the project’s Creative Director, Rob Lawrence from Here There Everywhere and ask him about the project. He starts with the moment that the idea crystallised for him – when he realised he could create an undiscovered work of art.

Rob explains that he was speaking to his friend Flo Heiss (Executive Creative Director at Dare London), who showed him a book he’d just bought at a second-hand book market in Norfolk. It was by Duchamp, signed by him and dedicated to Man Ray’s daughter and after some research they found out there are only two in existence. Quite a find.

“We started looking through it,” says Rob, buzzing with the excitement of his discovery, “and we found a study for Three Standard Stoppages, which he did here [in Herne Bay – or so some experts believe.] It was a bunch of sketches called La Marée Humaine and what does that translate as? The Human Tide. So it’s actually a piece of work that he came up with that has never been made.”

Rob couldn’t resist the idea of actualising Duchamp’s plans and soon began frantically planning the project, working out how best to do something that was true to the playful, early Modern Art of the French legend.

Three Standard Stoppages represented a shift in Duchamp’s career. Planned while he was in Herne Bay, it consisted of three meter-long lengths of string, dropped onto three pieces of wood and varnished into place where they landed. Apparently, it asks the question of whether our rules of measurement are completely arbitrary by distorting what a meter is.

One of the long-exposure photographs that form the three 'stoppages'.

 

“It’s a lie from beginning to end,” says Rob. “People tried to recreate his experiment with string and nobody could do it for years.” People repeatedly asked Duchamp how he did it and his perennial answer was that the clue is in the title, explains Rob. “He said this for years until they took it apart and it turns out the lines weren’t a meter long, that he hadn’t thrown them down. He’d glued them into place so they look nice and he’d stitched them into the back of the wood so they were held in.” The clue was in the title all along – stoppage also translates as ‘invisible sewing.’

Rob knew he wanted to explore distances in a similar way and Herne Bay was the perfect place to do it. He wanted to explore the concept of the tide creating the work itself and using a combination of two stills cameras and a 3D camera rig he is following in Duchamp’s cutting-edge footsteps. One camera captures the trails of light using long-exposure, while the second takes a series of stills to create a time-lapse film. “At their time [Duchamp and his peers] were right at the forefront of technology and inventiveness,” says Rob. The Frenchman allegedly once used the most powerful electric light he could get his hands on to project a green beam of light along the horizon – the “infrathin” barrier between the sea and the sky that is mirrored by the tide’s edge, where the land meets the sea.

Infrathin was one of Duchamp’s greatest pieces of playful jargon. He used it to describe something impossible to define that can only be demonstrated. “I would call what we’re doing an example of something that can’t be seen but can only be made,” says Rob. “The way we’re playing with light here is very much in the context of what he would like because it’s completely down to chance what we get. It describes something that’s only ever going to happen once. It uses cutting edge technology to do something impossible. And the light forms the barrier between the sea and the sand. It’s a wall of infrathin.”

One of the many Herne Bay residents captured in the teaser film.

 

It’s all very clever, but a part of me still feels cynical. Why would these mercenaries of the ad industry want to make something for no money? I spoke to Mark Ellis, Managing Director of sponsors SYZYGY to find out why his agency and its sister, Unique, decided to put their money behind such an unprofitable idea. “Rob started talking about the pressure on brands to create interest out of thin air, so to speak,” he explains. “He was talking about what happens if we have an idea on a completely blank sheet of paper. We come up with an idea, we turn it into a beautiful piece of content and we see how big we can stir an interest in it. Then he mentioned what the idea actually was and it was just… wow. Immediately you start getting images in your head of how beautiful that could be.”

The pure beauty of the idea seems to have served as a magnet for creative people. With Rob overseeing, SYZYGY and Unique providing funding and PR, Park Village producing the project’s various films and ENVY working on the extensive post production work it needs, a lot of people seem willing to lend their time, money and equipment.

But is it really for the love? I ask Rob about this too and he doesn’t mind my suspicions. He makes it clear that this was never going to make any money. “We were doing a ready reckon on what it’s actually going to cost to do all this,” he volunteers, “and it’s verging on half a million quid if we hadn’t pulled all the favours.”

Then he gets personal. “I’ve been a commercial creative director for 15 years. I’ve worked at, owned and run big agencies and I’ve always done it for the dollar. And this is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life because I am in total control and I have to make all my own decisions. And I’m not that interested in people wanting to do it for the money.”

Maunsell Sea-Forts off the coast of Herne Bay

 

In fact, he tells me that they turned down some potential clients who were willing to back the project on the basis of their wanting to plaster their brand all over it. Rob is adamant it’s not about that.

But while he has big ideas, the Creative Director knows he can’t be the boss of everyone here. And it wouldn’t be very Duchampian to tell everyone what to do anyway. “The thing I said to everybody who came along is make of it what you will,” he says.

This applies particularly to SYZYGY and Unique. When he originally pitched the idea he told them “here’s an idea that you have no control over. But what you do have control over is the ecosystem into which you put it and make it live, which is an interesting thing from a media perspective – how you operate the switches, pulleys and levers of taste and opinion – how you spread something. Actually it’s a really hard challenge because it’s art. It’s not a fucking cat on roller skates.”

The same goes for Paul Hartnoll – famously half of the legendary rave duo Orbital. Rob asked him to provide sound for the project. He loved the idea, but asked Rob “do I have to make music, because everyone always wants me to make music.” Rob said he could do his own thing and so now the Human Tide involves an insane contraption made from a bicycle wheel and a set of electronics in a biscuit tin that measures the depth of the water so the walkers can track the edge of the tide in the dark. He’s also made three non-musical soundtracks that only make sense when they combine in the final combination film.

Rob knows that his control over the project is limited, but he’s not alone. Everyone involved is at the mercy of chance. “The hardest thing for most of the creative people involved in this is the degree to which they don’t have control,” he says. “Duchamp was very much about setting up the conditions to make something, but then letting it make itself. Our conditions are: the frame is a kilometre. What happens within that happens. We capture what we capture. And it’s actually quite scary. The lines we make will never be made again.”

The gps data that was usd to create the Human Tide soundtrack.

 

Guy, the director of the films, agrees that this lack of control is scary, but he hints that they might be cheating a bit somewhere. “With Duchamp there was a lot of lies and trickery,” he says, “so we have a bit of artistic licence. Even though there are rules which you have to stick to, within those you can play.”

And while everything was captured in one evening, Guy and ENVY have since worked on putting the time-lapse and the long-exposure components of the film together in post, using all manner of trickery to make the most beautiful film possible.

So it’s going to be very pretty, but Rob and his team have had one problem nagging at them. It’s the curse of doing creative stuff for a living. “We’ve been struggling whether this is art or whether it’s a fancy bunch of tossy creative people doing something for a laugh because they can,” he admits. “But we’re firmly on the side of it being art now because it’s a real thing. It’s taken a lot of smart people a really long time to figure out and people love it because we are genuinely on the edge of making it up. [We’re] being really scientific with our instruments because long exposure stuff is hard.”

Guy explains that it was the creativity and the enthusiasm of everyone working on it that drew him in. “There were a lot of favours but everyone could see that it wasn’t just a normal job,” he says. “It wasn’t a 30-second ad for a client. It was a behind-the-scenes documentary about it, the data walkers, the legacy film, the main Human Tide film, everything on the website and the blog. It was a really collective effort.”

“This isn’t selling anything,” insists Rob. “And the reason so many people are involved and giving their time is that it’s quite rare: A really nice idea where there’s a degree of freedom in it to create something beautiful that isn’t about panty liners or cat food or whatever the product happens to be.”


The Human Tide film launched at Park Village on Wednesday 4th December and will be online soon.

Weird Ad of the Month

November 22, 2013 / Humour

By The Beak Street Bugle

You can always rely on Russian advertising to make you completely reassess your perception of the world.

This might look a bit NSFW at first, but trust us. It's safe to watch at work. You shouldn't get fired for watching it, anyway, but if you show it to anyone else we can't guarantee they will hold you in the same esteem as before. Only in Russia...

Under the Influence: Richard Hickey

November 18, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The Not to Scale director gives us an insight into the raw materials that form his creative outlook.

Still taken from Richard Hickey's Red Hot 7 film.

It was the great Anton Chekhov who said “there is nothing new in art except talent.” Which is apt, because he was paraphrasing the Bible when he said that. We don’t think originality is dead, but of course everyone has influences. This new series will explore those, finding the sparks that lit the flames under directors’ careers.

Richard Hickey started out as an illustrator, but has since become a bright talent in 2D and 3D animation, as well as more than dabbling in live action. Often mixing CGI with live action, he earned the trust of agencies in the USA as an oddball craftsman. Now represented by Not to Scale across Europe, we asked him to shine a light on the dark corners of creativity where he finds inspiration.

 

German Expressionism

“At 19 I came across Nosferatu. All these [inspirations in this list] are little moments that blew me away, when I’ve realised I’m witnessing something really quite bizarre and, in that case, super scary.

He’s possibly the most phenomenal character ever devised. As soon as he appears round the corner. That character stayed with me for a long time. I think maybe he was the first character that resonated as a full character that was unsettling somewhere in my deep subconscious.

After that I started to look at the way that movement made film – the way they created techniques that didn’t exist prior to that. That was probably the most innovative time in filmmaking because they really were just making it up as they go along. It looks hammy now but imagine seeing that at a theatre in the 1910s. I’d have been terrified to walk down an Edwardian street.

I searched out as much of that as I could and The Golem was the second one I saw. For me they’re like early CG characters. They could remake both of them as CG characters, which could be quite interesting.

A lot of CG characters don’t have much depth when it comes to their personality, or any weight physically, so they don’t feel like they’re present in the scene. You can see that on a lot of big budget movies, like Harry Potter, where there’ll be an amazing character and then something where they’ve run out of time or money and there’s this will-o-the-wisp thing that you could just run your hand through.

Building narrative with ideas is one side of my personality and the other side would be building characters. So whether it’s live action or animation, it’s how you build a character that’s interesting; that will make people want to watch it again, that they can empathise with, love, loathe, make a connection with.

I think that’s where German Expressionism comes in. There’s always a central character that’s super scary, weird, and it’s even weirder because it’s shot on a hand-cranked camera.”

 

Jan Svankmajer

“I’m not a massive Jan Svankmajer expert, by any means, but what was interesting about him is just one of those films that just blew me away – Alice, his take on Alice in Wonderland. It’s bonkers. I think the fact that it’s that story, his take on it, that’s it’s Claymation and that it’s so surreal – it just completely blew me away. I don’t care for the characters, stylistically I don’t even really like it, it’s just so unique.

It’s a touchstone for how far to take things. So if someone gives you an idea, how far do you want to go with it? For me it’s trying to push it out as far out as you can, trying to shine light into every little dark corner – that I’ve thought about every possible execution of how you’d do it. And he epitomises that. That’s the inspiration I draw from him, like, ‘I need to go Svankmajer on it.’

Is it night? Is it day? Is it CG? Is it stop-motion? Is it live action? I think he opens that up. Subconsciously, I think ‘should it be Svankmajer?’ and 99.9 per cent of the time it isn’t, but you come back in degrees from that, according to what’s palatable or correct or what fits the tone.”

 

Flann O'Brien

“My dad’s Irish, so I was brought up with a lot of Irish literature in the house. I picked up Ulysses at an early age… and put it down again. I think a lot of people try. And picked it up again five years later and put it down again. I’ve never actually finished Ulysses. I found The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien and instantly fell in love with it.

It’s kind of absurdist, surreal and packed full of ideas. I think that’s what I love about all of these points of inspiration and his are phenomenal. It’s just a stream of one amazing idea after the next. I don’t know if it makes a great novel, but this journey this guy goes on is incredibly surprising and original. To give you an example, there’s a colour that hasn’t been invented yet and it turns people blind if you ever see it. That’s one snippet. I think he’s incredibly inventive and I don’t think anyone can touch him.

For me characters need to live on paper. If they work on paper you know you’ve done your job properly. To create a CG character without writing any backstory or detail – you can see through those characters straight away. You won’t engage with them. That’s what I like about Flann O’Brien’s characters and that inventiveness of his work.

I think it’s that moment lying on the pillow trying to fall asleep – that’s where I operate. Where things become loose and a little bit surreal. I like that. Flann O’Biren is definitely like that. With my glasses off and one eye open, is that a face in the curtains or not? I think when it comes to sitting down and drawing or thinking about characters, I write a lot just before going to sleep. In my head that’s the visual equivalent to Flann O’Brien’s writing.

The Third Policeman is the kind of film I really want to make. It’s my ideal screenplay.”

 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

“His work is similar [to O’Brien] in that it’s packed full of ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jean-Pierre Jeunet had read some Flann O’Brien. Something like Amelie, when she’s lying on the side of the bed and these pictures come to life. Those little moments – little self-contained vignettes – that’s kind of what I’m all about. I guess it’s like commercials, you’re given 30 seconds to try and mine some nugget of gold, trying to find that moment.

Delicatessen was my first [Jeunet film]. It was one of the light-bulb moments where I thought ‘oh my God, he’s doing everything I wish I was doing.’ He used to direct animation and now he’s brought all his crazy ideas to live action.

 

The narrative always draws me in to start with, but he creates incredible characters. It’s kind of cartoonic. It’s just idea after idea. Even the opening credits [of Delicatessen], where there’s a camera tracking through a sort of bric-a-brac and all the credits are built into a scene. It completely blew me away.

All of his movies, but that and Amelie. Amelie, for me, is unashamedly heart-on-its-sleeve romance, which doesn’t [usually] float my boat. It’s a horrible expression but with his movies there’s a level of charm. His is just seeping in it.

Characters, inventiveness and narrative. They’re things that I carry with me. He just laid it out, doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do (apart from his colour grades, they’re always horrible).”

The Coen Brothers

“They are, I think, my favourite character builders. Those guys nail every movie. Their process is that they write for the actors – they know they can get them – which helps the tone. Even without dialogue, their characters are full-bodied and rounded.

The more you scratch at the Coen Brothers the better it gets. Everything about them. Their whole process. The way they write (I’d like to have a brother I could write with but my brother who used to kneel on my chest and force-feed me Yorkies – that’s not a good basis for a writing relationship). So they have that, they write their characters for actors, they finance their own movies. Everybody wants to work with them.

It’s funny, when you boil it down, their stories can be quite formulaic within their genre. But their dialogue is to die for. It’s interesting because it’s sort of an animation trick. If you can present something in animation that you’ve seen a hundred times, it feels new because you’ve never seen it animated. And they do that with film. They’re clichés but the dialogue is so fresh.

I think the most inspirational point for me with the Coen Brothers was when I saw Miller’s Crossing, which wasn’t a favourite, really. But I heard they took a break during writing Miller’s Crossing because they had writers’ block. They took two weeks off and they wrote Barton Fink, which is my favourite Coen brothers film. It’s phenomenal.

I just think stop making excuses and procrastinating. Just get on and fucking do it. I’m a horrible procrastinator.  So I do think about that a lot. Pull your finger out.

But ultimately the most important thing is their characters and that’s something that’s inspiring. When it comes to taking a very ordinary situation with a couple that don’t have much to say in Fargo. It’s so sparse and the sparseness is the thing that makes it incredible. It says more about the characters and their relationship in that than in six pages of dialogue. It’s super daring and confident.

If I made an animated feature film, it would be my film, but I would like it to feel like a Coen Brothers film.”

Have a look for these influences on Richard's reel.

High Five: November

November 5, 2013 / High Five

By Alex Reeves

Close your other tabs, sit back and watch our pick of the month’s best ads.

The ad industry has been working hard this month. It was tough whittling the submissions down to just five great films, but we’ve managed the mammoth task. In advertising terms, we’ve got a couple of true blockbusters here, as well as some more surprising offerings. Have a gander.

Brand: Diehard
Title: The Getaway
Production Company: Tool
Director: Tom Routson
Production Company Producer: Cindy Becker
Ad Agency: Young & Rubicam
Creative Directors: Pam Mufson, Jeremy Smallwood
Agency Producer: Laurie Adrianapoli
Editing Company: The Whitehouse
Editor: Matthew Wood
Post Production Company: The Mill

Diehard - The Getaway

Zombies are cool at the moment. No longer confined to low-budget B-movies used to fill late-night October TV schedules, they’re actually pretty mainstream now. Ask any man under 40 what his zombie apocalypse contingency plan is and you’ll likely get an impressive answer. This film demonstrates how you can make an exciting ad for even the most uninspiring products. It’s 108 seconds of professionally realised action drama that’s earned over 1.6 million hits on YouTube.

Brand: Eurostar
Title: Stories are Waiting in Paris
Production Company: HLA
Director: Simon Ratigan
Production Company Producer: Mike Wells
Director of Photography: Martin Hill
Ad Agency: AMV BBDO
Creative Directors:  Adrian Rossi, Alex Grieve
Agency Producer: Anita Sasdy
Editing Company: The Play Room
Editor: Adam Spivey
Sound Company: Wave
Post Production Company: The Mill

Eurostar – Stories are Waiting in Paris

This is further evidence to support Simon Ratigan’s reputation as a director to make you smile. The portraiture is lovely and interspersing touristy photos with video works well stylistically. The idea’s strong too. It’s not all about the French capital’s good points, which only strengthens its argument. A nice, warm piece of advertising to remind us how easy it is to get to the most romantic city in the world.

Brand: Honda
Title: An Impossible Made Possible
Production Company: Gorgeous
Director: Chris Palmer
Production Company Producer: Emma Butterworth
Director of Photography: Daniel Landin
Ad Agency: McGarryBowen
Creative Directors: Paul Jordan, Angus Macadam
Creatives: Richard Holmes, Remco Graham
Agency Producer: Richard Firminger
Editing Company: The Quarry
Editor: Paul Watts
Post Production Company: The Mill

Honda – An Impossible Made Possible

OK, it’s a little bit clever cloggs. But then again, Honda has always managed to pull this kind of thing off without sounding too precocious. There’s something in their brand’s tone that seems friendly and intelligent at the same time, like Stephen Fry. You could argue that the point about the car isn’t hammered home particularly hard, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Honda have always been good at brand advertising and this works just fine as an example of that.

Brand: Sony
Title: Volcano
Production Company: Smuggler
Director: Jaron Albertin
Production Company Producer: Nick Fewtrell
Ad Agency: McCann London
Creative Directors: Rob Doubal, Laurence Thomson
Art Directors: Arman Naji, Javier Gomez, Michael Thomason
Copywriter: Arman Naji
Agency Producers: Paula Mackersey, Anita Osborne, Charlie Macpherson
Editing Company: Trim
Editor: Paul Hardcastle
Post Production Company: Framestore

Sony - Volcano

We’ve been waiting for this one. Sony Bravia’s excellent Bouncy Balls and Paint commercials blew us away back in 2005 and 2006 and this is the long-awaited sequel. The idea is to make something beautiful – there’s not a lot more to it than that. But the actual execution must have been torturous to pull off. The production used an estimated 8 million real petals. Isn’t that the sort of fact you just want to tell everyone?

Brand: Specsavers
Title: Workout
Production Company: Hungry Man
Director: Tim Bullock
Production Company Producer: Matt Jones
Ad Agency: Specsavers Creative
Creative Director: Graham Daldry
Creatives: Neil Brush, Simon Bougourd
Agency Producer: Sam Lock
Editing Company: The Whitehouse
Editor: John Smith
Post Production Company: MPC

Specsavers – Workout

Specsavers have been running variations on this joke for donkeys’ years, but there’s a good reason for that – it still makes people laugh. Recruiting comedy expert Tim Bullock to direct it has paid off, putting this incarnation of the classic gag up there with some of their best. Like so many of their ads, this one could run for years.

20 Years Strong

November 5, 2013 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Picasso Pictures, Est. 1993, reflect on how their world has changed since they set up shop.

Two decades is a lot longer than it used to be. Thanks to Moore’s law, we are hurtling towards an inconceivable future at a rate that’s becoming increasingly hard to keep up with. This is an age where the world’s most powerful business empires were barely a twinkle in their teenage founders’ eyes ten years ago, which makes it all the more impressive when a pre-digital company manages to evolve its way through the revolution and stay in control.

Picasso Pictures is one such company. Born in 1993, they have kept up with the pace and, after 20 years, come out as relevant an animation house as ever. We spoke to them about the journey they have travelled through the years.

Originally born out of post-production giants MPC, Picasso set out as a premier animation studio from the start. They bought themselves out in 2007 with the aim to continue to build a diverse roster and make high-quality animation and mixed media productions.

British Airways – Jouster (1995)

Throughout the 1990s Picasso carved out their name, working on some enviable jobs. From their early work for British Airways – one of M&C Saatchi’s first campaigns – to NatWest’s huge 1997 animated campaign with TBWA and some very experimental work for Boots. But while the 1990s doesn’t sound that long ago, it was a completely different world back then.

“The big difference from our side of things in production is technology and the techniques used to create animation,” says Managing Director Richard Price. “Back then it was very much about craft, creating everything by hand. I think the colour photocopier was about as cutting edge as the kit got in the studio. And everything was shot on 35mm film.

“Take for example the Boots campaign, to achieve the abstract imagery and textures, we went out and shot on 35mm, shooting leaves, streams, ink in water tanks and different lights and reflections because no software existed that we could use to create them any other way. Back in 1997 it was pretty ground breaking and experimental, and I suppose it still is, but the difference today is that we could probably achieve the entire look digitally.”

Richard’s describes a 1993 animation studio. “The scene was one of scores of animators’ and artists’ heads bent over lightboxes, flipping paper or cel back and forth to check their work against the previous frame, often late into the night.” Whilst these techniques are still very much in use in the studio today, the difference is the addition of CGI and all the digital and post production wizardry now available. And those are some pretty huge additions.

Péter Vácz – Rabbit and Deer (2013)

Sam Hope, Executive Producer at Picasso says “it’s quite a testament to still be around, having started in a world that was technically quite basic. You either turned on a camera and moved stuff around or you turned on a camera and took a photo of a piece of paper.”

But she’s keen to point out how drastically these technological advances have changed life in animation production companies, and made many aspects of it much easier. “Today you can make a lot more animation,” she says. “You can take on a lot more jobs; you can turn over more every year; you can employ more crew. I think you can have a bigger stake in the market as an animation company just because the technology makes the market accessible.”

These changes to the way the industry works have affected the way a company builds and maintains its roster too. “You have a different mind-set on what talent you need,” says Richard. “Today you need a far bigger mix and choice of genres.” These days there are directors that specialise in augmented reality or arcane coding languages – things you wouldn’t be able to explain to a production company 20 years ago.

NuFormer – Interactive Window Projection (2013)

To deal with this, Picasso’s recent venture was to launch two new divisions to offer more choice to the industry. The Playroom is where all the experiential and interactive work lives, and The Pod is where new directing talent is nurtured and evolved.

Finding new talent and giving directors a chance to build a career has always been part of Picasso, but with the upheaval the digital revolution has brought there’s more choice and diversity than ever. Thanks to YouTube, people can learn a huge variety of skills without formal training.

Aakash Nihalani’s distinctive street art.

Aakash Nihalani, one of Picasso’s Playroom directors, usually creates street art from card and tape, but with the help of the internet he taught himself programming. Now he has a mesmeric interactive side to his artwork, where the shapes he creates react to your mouse’s movements.

Having reacted to the seismic shifts in the industry and stabilised, Picasso’s little corner of Soho is still successfully turning out quality animation, filled with a core staff who clearly love what they do and are very proud of what they’ve grown into. Once a traditional animation house, you’re now far more likely to see banks of iMacs than lightboxes and cel, but the fundamental crafts are the same as ever.

Holland & Barrett – Autumn (2013)

“I think we have as strong a roster as we have ever had,” Richard tells me. “From traditional animation to street art, it’s truly inspiring to watch. These are some seriously talented people, and if I reflect back over 20 years one conclusion must be that, just as back then we were honoured to work with some great artists, the same is true today.”