Her films may be cool, but this director’s past has made her a shameless geek.
Ivana Bobic watched Alien when she was about five years old. “My dad explained it was just cheese coming out of the guy,” she says. “I don’t remember being particularly scared so I think my threshold for horror and action was quite high.” From there she grew up with a fervent love for film (particular favourites as a kid were Indiana Jones and Top Gun). It’s put her in good stead. She’s now an award-winning director of short films, music videos and commercials, directing tough, stylish video on both the Park Village and Able & Baker rosters.
Her route to directing wasn’t straightforward (it never is), but she got off to a good start quite early. Aged 18 she became a runner, because that’s what you do when you want to work in film.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” she admits, but she soon learned. Her first shoot was on was for a short film at Pinewood, next to the 007 stage, no less – almost too much for a teenaged action movie admirer.
Her career in filmmaking progressed steadily. She was only running for half a day before she was promoted to video assists. She did well enough to get asked back, so she must have done something right.
As it turns out, the video assist role was a great vantage point from which to learn about filmmaking. Ivana soon became close to the camera department and loved the work she did. “It’s quite demanding and fiddly [but] it’s super geeky,” she says, “and secretly that’s what I’m into. I was really obsessed with knowing how things work.”
Sitting next to the director and quietly watching the process was how she learnt the fundamentals and soon she was working on set for loads of promos and commercials with the camera crew. “I didn’t get paid loads but I did it quite regularly on all sorts of different productions,” she says. She started to do jobs in all corners of production, from art department to production assisting, but it was always video assist she enjoyed the most.
Ivana has no doubt that experience on set was how she learnt enough to become the director she is today. “I have a huge respect for the well-oiled machine of the set with really specific people doing things they’re really talented at,” she says. Having that vast spectrum of specialised talent to go and speak to as a resource wasn’t wasted on her.
Soon after her first forays into film, Ivana had begun a foundation course at Central Saint Martins that led into a graphic design degree at the London College of Communication. She found it interesting and it taught her aesthetic rules which you can see being used and (more interestingly) broken in her films, but her love for moving image was already cemented by then. “I knew I wanted to do film because I didn’t mind waking up at five in the morning and going and doing crazy stuff [for it],” she says. She remembers the horrible hours, menial labour and unglamorous locations as a sort of test. If none of it bothered her then she must be onto something.
By her third year of university, Ivana had worked enough in film to realise she might want to become a director. So she decided to make her own film to see how it went. “It was hugely embarrassing and nobody will ever see it,” she says. “I was just trying to figure things out and you learn a lot by practice.”
Eventually she made a short film that she was happy with. It was called The Priest and was really made as to educate herself in directing. “I was trying to figure out some way of doing something with no dialogue, on landscape, one actor – the most minimalistic thing we could do as an exercise,” she explains.
Ivana managed to convince Rain Li to work as director of photography on the film, despite the fact she had to fly over from LA, where she was shooting a feature. She was shocked that Rain, who’d worked with people like Jim Jarmusch, was interested in collaborating with her, but it worked out immensely well and the pair have in fact worked together on many projects since. “That was the clinching point,” she says. “I [already] knew I wanted to work in film. After making The Priest I knew I wanted to direct. There are so many things you can do in film, but for me the ability to be able to work with every department, everyone, is exciting.”
From that point on Ivana kept a steady stream of directing going, including films and live visuals for a band called S.C.U.M., which was a new challenge. She also started working on fashion films for Stella McCartney. “I had two completely different things going on at the same time,” she says, “but both involved me shooting and editing on my own and being a one-girl band.”
But she missed working with bigger crews when she worked alone. A good director isn’t a dictator, as she sees it. “I think one of the biggest things I’ve learnt through the way that I’ve got my way into making films is to have a clear vision, but to know when to collaborate, let go and trust people. Because they know what they’re doing.”
Stella McCartney was her first foray into directing on commercial briefs, although being a fashion brand, she admits the experience was very free-flowing. “We learnt as we went along,” she says.
One thing that struck her about working in fashion was the breakneck pace. With each collection a brand changes violently in style – “it might be hip hop orientated and then the next season is really floral and feminine,” she says – but she found that to be a good lesson. “I think having all those different views of what a brand or collection can be can be is good for learning how to work in advertising. Fast is not necessarily always good but it can be a good challenge.”
After a period directing in the music and fashion spheres, Ivana was glad to return to short films. She had the chance to shoot one in Belgrade, where she had spent the first five years of her childhood, and was happy to do proper storytelling again. The film was called In the Night, and working with Rain again, shooting on a 4K Epic and with a big crew, Ivana was glad to make this shift in tone.
That film got Ivana some well-deserved attention and she was asked to do a trailer for the London Short Film Festival, as well as an exhibition at the festival itself. The most exciting part was that it was a proper cinema trailer, to be distributed in cinemas all over London for a couple of months. The exposure was too tempting for her.
Working with editor Ben Campbell, she was keen on making sure the film had a strong rhythm and together they became obsessed with getting the most out of sound design. “I’ve found that how you can incorporate sound and image is interesting,” she says “- that you’re not just illustrating the picture with sound; you’re creating a whole different thing. We had so much fun with that, putting in things that weren’t there, making stuff that was fun and humorous and dark and atmospheric all at once.” It ended up winning a Music and Sound award for best sound design in cinema advertising, which Ivana is immensely proud of. “It is so good because it’s a very techy, geeky award,” she says.
The past year or so has been intensive. Having worked with all sorts of clients semi-freelance she ended up realising she’d be stronger with a production company behind her. Her next big film was a project for Russian department store Au Pont Rouge and it was a job that would have been impossible without Able & Baker, who produced it. She describes the brief as “a full-blown car chase thriller running round all over St Petersburg with stunt cars and big units.”
As a female director, Ivana’s keen not to get bundled into the corner so many women do – directing delicate commercials with children and beauty products – and this project was exactly right for proving a sexist industry that she can do tough and high-octane as well as beautiful and human. Her upbringing on action films served her well and it’s left her wanting more of this kind of thing. “I love getting to play with cars,” she says. “I definitely at some point want to do a car ad.”
With those two projects on her reel, Ivana was back in her groove working with big crews, but with no agency, she could exercise more freedom interpreting the brief.
Her most recent commercial project was different. Working with AKQA and Nivea was a great chance for to do something closer to a normal commercial production. Working with the real-life talent of a ballerina was right up her street too, bringing a toughness to an art form that’s traditionally very gentle, playing on the tension between grace and power. Again, she got a bit geeky. “I wanted to have these quite technical match cuts between the two [the tough side and the soft side] so she is always existing on both sides,” she says. With a strong vision from the agency, Ivana didn’t have to worry about the idea, but she enjoyed being able to delve into the details of the lighting, the grade, the sound design and the music.
And she's only getting more technical as she goes on. Her latest music video for The Kooks saw her develop a completely unprecendented technique with DOP Jake Scott, building a giant human zoetrope using a strobe light to act as a shutter.
Ivana’s love for directing comes from her respect for all the other professionals she works with and she’s let this shape her style. Now working on and pitching for more commercial jobs alongside the music and fashion, she’s keen to collaborate with people who really know their trade. "It's all about confidence and knowing what you want," she's learned, "but also learning when to let go."