Directions to Direction: Ivana Bobic

September 24, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

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."

Jumping the Fence: Neal Handley

September 22, 2014 / Features

By Neal Handley

An Englishman in New York.

Neal Handley
Was: Account Director at various advertising agencies
Now: Head of Business Development at Pipe Dreams 

I have a confession to make.
I’m an ex-agency account man.
I don’t know how many of us there are in production land or if there is a stigma attached to it but it sounds like the sort of thing I should confess to. Possibly apologise for?

Perhaps it was 10 years of life in agencies that instilled this sense of unease in me? The years of my agency producer rolling their eyes when I explained the latest insane client request or being held at arm’s length from genius directors and brutally honest location managers etc. etc. but it did feel as though, when I jumped the fence to a production company, I was a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Now I’ve been this side for a while I have started to question something.  Are the production and the account management roles really that different? After all, if they are done properly they are both about (among other things) building relationships, generating trust and ultimately guiding the brand client to the best creative solution possible.

So here’s a slightly fudged and probably more than slightly biased take on what I’ve learned in my decade on the agency side of the fence and my fleeting 12 months on the production side. A view from the other side while I can still remember it and before I get completely assimilated into the production way of thinking.

I have a theory that every great producer is already a good account man but they just don’t know it, or care to acknowledge it.

For instance here are four golden rules of client liaison that get bandied about the average agency account management department, sometimes worded in different ways but all essentially the same and, I would argue, they are all patently obvious and instinctive to the best producers.

1. Detail is king
This is a mantra to most account men, especially in the early years. If you don’t count the number of attendees at a meeting you might run out of biscuits or there might not be enough copies of the document. Harrowing enough, but if producers didn’t adhere to this rule from the outset of their careers, artists would turn up at London Victoria while the crew are ready to shoot in Manchester Victoria, a US casting would happen on  6th July rather than the 7th June and shoots would regularly be drastically over budget.

Detail is the day-to-day currency of the producer and the account manager alike.
It’s just a lot more noticeable and potentially expensive if a producer drops the ball.

2. Under promise, over deliver
Again, this seems almost axiomatic in most agencies and barely a day goes by without hearing it, or at least sensing it being said somewhere in the building by a wise old account handler to their graduate charge.

But it instinctively seems to be at loggerheads with an equally ubiquitous piece of advice; ‘Never say no to a client’ – if client expectations are unreasonably high how can you ever over deliver?

Conversely, there is a widely held belief amongst account men that a producer’s default response is ‘No’. As long as this is the case, and production companies continue to play bad cop to the account management good cop by defending their budgets to the bitter end, the awkward conversations can all happen up front rather than further down the line or even after delivery, and minor production ‘miracles’ can still be pulled out of the hat when possible to surprise and delight the client.

3. Add value
It might be less obvious how this can be the remit of the producer but there are plenty of ways that great producers go above and beyond the call of duty. From knowing the brand inside out so that a mistake on the product shot is picked up before the client or the account team even notice, to remembering that the brand CEO has a phobia of bare feet so ensuring they are cropped out of shot (this one happened on one of the last ads I was involved in from the agency side).

Adding value isn’t a mystical power, it’s about being interested and interesting and anyone who is good at their job should be able to do it and do it often.

4. Be a partner not just a supplier
Account teams are always looking to elevate their relationship with clients to a business partnership where the client will consult them on all manner of business problems in addition to advertising – to become truly indispensible to the marketing team. Knowing the client’s business inside out is integral to this process and that includes their business goals, ways of working and internal politics.

This is instinctive to a good producer. Knowing how certain CDs like their scripts to be visualised, what level of client facing duty different agencies / clients might expect etc. is part of doing a good job and the quickest route to repeat business.
It might have been that back in the day the best way to get in with an agency was to foot the bill for long lunches or other little (less wholesome?) enticements but, in this day of transparency, it is just as likely to be the result of a savvy producer knowing the ins and outs of how the agency works and working with those idiosyncrasies to smooth the process.

I guess what I’m saying is, while the average account manager might be apprehensive of the mysterious world of production, with its brown envelopes stuffed with money and crews of thousands, and it might be tempting for producers to think of account handlers as slack jawed yes men, it might also be useful to recognise the fact that there are parallels in the roles even though the worlds they operate in are very different.

When working at their best the account handler is the practical face of the client and the agency while the producer is the reasoned face of the director and crew.

Neither of them ‘make the stuff’ but they ‘make the stuff happen which makes the stuff’ and while it would be easy to say they are the glue that holds the process together I think it would be more accurate to say they are more like the Velcro that binds the two distinct parts of a production. Briefly. Before they are ripped apart and put back together next time they are needed.

There you go – producers and account managers are the Velcro of adland. Which of them is the rough, spikey side and which is the soft fluffy side you can debate amongst yourselves...

Backing the Underdog

September 4, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Why the Ibiza Music Video Festival is supporting the browbeaten music video industry.

For two days in October just after the tourist season finishes, as Balearic revellers slink off the island to nurse their party wounds, the Ibiza Music Video Festival appears, bringing with it an altogether more diverse crowd – anyone and everyone with an interest in music videos, from record label commissioners to aspiring young filmmakers. With day tickets only €30 and €50 for the full festival, with offers on accommodation too, it’s a few notches more inclusive than other festivals in the industry.

Now in its second year, it promises to pack as much content as possible into those two days, including workshops on practically every aspect of music video production and promotion from industry leaders, an award ceremony to celebrate the best work in the medium internationally and plenty of room for rubbing shoulders too.

Rupert Bryan, a director who also runs the production company Motion Picture House, and his collaborative partner Elizabeth Fear, launched the festival last year. “It’s not that complicated,” he says. “It’s just getting good, interesting people together and telling them ‘share your knowledge, share your skills, let some other people know about it, give them your time and maybe get a job out of it.’”

But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Rupert’s willing to admit that building a unique global event from the ground up is no easy task. So many different variables have to line up for it to work, he explains, with panels, workshops, submissions, flights and accommodation to organise. “It’s like trying to piece this massive puzzle together,” he says. “You kind of know what the end is going to look like, but all the bits are absolutely everywhere and it’s taking far too long.”

Meanwhile, he’s also trying to run a production company, making the festival organising an uphill struggle, trying to grab moments for it whenever he can. “When something good happens, that motivates you,” he says. “Then you suddenly realise you’ve got all the other 980 things you’ve got to be doing.”

The biggest challenge for the event is funding. As great as the idea is, it won’t get far without some capital behind it. That’s no great surprise though because music videos are hardly the most lucrative medium these days. Decades on from the heyday of MTV, the promo is downtrodden and somewhat sidelined by the production industry.

But that’s sort of the point for Rupert. He relishes the challenge to build something despite this adversity. “Let’s choose a business where there’s no money,” he suggests. “Let’s choose a business where people don’t want to support it because they think there’s no value in it. Brilliant idea.” Despite his sarcasm, he’s genuinely defiant. He’s done crazy things like this before, once organising a concert in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest for no good reason.

It’s not normal for someone to want to do this kind of thing, but the idea of creating something unique that people enjoy exhilarates Rupert. “Every time I catch a glimpse I stop for a second and go ‘we’re actually doing this.’”

In a time when music videos are at a low ebb, both financially and in terms of industry support, Rupert’s attempts to build this festival are simply his expression of love for a medium he’s always had a passion for. His first ventures into filmmaking were putting music to moving image and he still directs videos when he can find the time. “Oddly I think the first music video I did was when I was about 14 or 15 to a John Barry score,” he remembers. “I still enjoy it but it takes so much time and effort that I couldn’t make a living from it.”

People in production have generally still got big love for music videos. If they didn’t none would get made, considering the piles of favours that budgets demand are pulled in for each one, the long hours working in unglamorous locations without the luxuries of a commercial shoot. The contrast is quite stark to Rupert. “Doing a music video it’s 18 hours and you’re on the coast and it’s wet and you’ve just got some biscuits,” he laughs. “And you’ve got to carry on.”

People do though. An animator might dedicate two weeks of his life to a track because they love it so much. “That’s something they’re really proud of,” says Rupert. “In a commercial sense that would have been their wages for three years.” That’s what music videos do to people.

The sheer man-hours put into these projects are remarkable. For a three-minute video it could be 20 or 30 people dedicating a day or two of their life, often for little or no pay, to make something creative and exciting. “How much creative time gets spent that doesn’t get recognised,” he wonders. “If we can recognise a little bit of that, that can only be a good thing.”

It’s incredible that anyone would bother until you remember how fun, creative and cool the medium is. “It’s actually great fun,” Rupert insists. “Ask the costume designer at three o’clock in the morning when she’s been standing in the cold in the woods. But cut to that three-minute version two weeks later and you forget all the pain.” That’s why music video still attracts so much talent.

The music video has been on a tumultuous ride since the age when the Gondrys and Romaneks of the world first ran riot, but despite the decline in budgets, many changes have helped the medium. With the relentless march of technology, access to entry has been made easier. The tools you need to make a music video can be cheap, allowing bedroom auteurs to emerge. “Someone with a 5D, a good set of lenses, understands light, with a little playback system,” suggests Rupert. “Suddenly you can get something good. They can have a go at it.”

And that’s another reason the music video genre is so vibrant these days. With video sharing an integral part of online behaviour, three-minute videos about music are ideally poised to spread. Remember, Gangnam Style – the most popular thing on the internet ever – was a music video.

From this perspective, music video has never been riper for an event like the Ibiza Music Video Festival. The passion is there, along with the talent. The festival has no fee to enter work, so even the smallest-time of directors can get their work considered. But, in part due to that, all that’s missing is the money.

This is mirrored in Rupert’s experience. He and his team have been inundated with entries this year from around the world – almost triple last year’s number. And the quality has blown Rupert away. “This is incredible stuff,” he says.

“When I’m looking our budget and our deficit sometimes I think ‘why the hell are we doing this?’” admits Rupert “It’s a challenge but I’m determined to make it work. We’ve come so far. It’s a good idea. But sometimes good ideas don’t pay the bills.”

Rupert’s hope isn’t just to put on a good festival for his own satisfaction. With the right people involved he hopes the Ibiza Music Video Festival can drive the medium forward in all sorts of ways. With awards to support people in their careers, the newest talent will be allowed to flow into the industry with greater ease.

And maybe it’s a vain hope, but Rupert suggests it might even bring more interest and thus more cash into the music video. “Ultimately the music video is undervalued,” he believes. “There are lots out there, but the ones that grab your attention and make you want to watch it again – planning and normally a lot of experience goes into those.”

 

Find out more and buy tickets on the Ibiza Music Video Festival website.

The War on the Mundane

August 27, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Johnny Hardstaff’s honourable struggle against unmemorable advertising.

It’s not hard to work out why Johnny Hardstaff got into advertising. Growing up in the midlands, he was banned from watching commercial television as a child, so there was always a mystique around it for him. “I’d find my dad late at night watching ITV and loving it,” he remembers.

Now one of RSA Films’ top class directors, he admits the company’s namesake was also a big contributor to his early fascination with commercial filmmaking. He remembers seeing Chanel’s Share the Fantasy commercials, directed by Ridley Scott. “They came on and you were just sat there looking at these amazing fantasy worlds,” he says. “You don’t know who makes it. I think you think gods make it, or some strange mythical creatures like unicorns.”

Johnny’s sense of wonder for fantasy worlds has its influence on his latest work. His recent ads for Honda, Kenco and the Royal Marines all have an air of the supernatural about them. They’re also all remarkably memorable commercials. For him, saving advertising from the mundane is a war. He’s on the front lines, but he’s been picking his battles carefully, working only on the scripts he can push in the right direction.

“For my part, my plan is always to make advertising that the viewer could not have expected but actively wants to watch,” he explains. “It’s an ad, so it has to more than pay them back for their time invested in watching it. I think it helps that I actively like the advertising forum as much as I do.”

His latest work for Honda, Hot & Cold, is a bizarre jumble of visual ideas, nothing like a stereotypical car ad. “Right now car advertising is mostly generic and sanitised,” he says, pulling no punches. But just to make sure it stands out, this one has skeletons, music played backwards and what Johnny describes as the “stupid and painstaking process” of deep freezing automobiles and burning out cameras trying to constantly record the thawing very, very, slowly.

But that’s not what makes it stands out, according to the director. “I think Hot & Cold has a tone, a feeling that is very different to everything around it. It was born out of fun and play, and a great collaboration between very strong creative directors and creatives at Wieden+Kennedy, a strong client and myself, and that comes through I hope. We all took the pursuit of lightness incredibly seriously.”

It relies heavily on a wider language that the agency have crafted for Honda over the years. “They’ve taught us to read it and speak it,” he says. “It’s playful and assured, hand made and agreeably individual. It’s very human advertising and people like that. And it renders more conventional ‘safe’ advertising wholly impotent.”

The ad he shot for Kenco’s Coffee Vs Gangs campaign is a dreamlike vision of poverty and violence in Central America, overlaid with evocative animated tattoos designed by Rebecca Strickson to add a sense of magic. It’s exactly Johnny thinks advertising should be – captivating, risky and original, and shooting it was a unique experience too.

The film’s purpose is to promote the Coffee Vs Gangs programme, which has taken young Hondurans at risk of getting involved in a life of crime and taught them how to become coffee farmers, along with some basic maths and English.

It’s a welcome initiative. Life in Honduras, where Kenco grow their coffee, can be brutal. “The mortality rate is through the roof,” says Johnny. “Everybody joins [one of] two gangs. It’s ferocious. Google ‘Honduras gangs’ or something and it’s just pictures of heads on bonnets.”

It turns out the commercial had to be shot in Costa Rica rather than Honduras. “It’s impossible to get insured to go to that country,” Johnny says. The guys at RSA tried to call the British consulate there but couldn’t get hold of them, apparently because it had closed down. “It’s a warzone,” he says. It’s too dangerous to have a British consulate or embassy there.

The slums in San Jose, where they shot, weren’t much safer though. Their location manager was robbed at gunpoint and Johnny says they were forbidden to walk down certain streets for fear of straying into dangerous gang territory.

Despite that, he was shocked by how accommodating the locals were. “The people were lovely,” he says. “Even though they’ve got corrugated iron for walls and tea towels for curtains, I swear they’re happier than we are.”

The cast were all local slum-dwellers, which no doubt adds the to the realism of the film. The main kid lives with his mother. His house burnt down around a year ago. “What’s great is the money he gets from doing this ad will probably pay his mum’s rent for like the next three years,” says Johnny.

From an advertising perspective, Kenco are pushing things forward exactly how Johnny thinks brands should be. “It’s great that Kenco are having the balls to do this,” he says. “For a coffee brand. It’s not an edgy category by any stretch of the imagination.” This is heavily tattooed gang members, guns and rap music. No pack shot. No squeaky-clean ideal family or well-heeled celebrity reclining in his plush condo sipping coffee. There’s barely even any copy to explain the concept.

“In a landscape where everything is unmemorable, they’ve created something people do remember,” says Johnny. He sees this sort of thing as an antidote to the vast majority of advertising. “The client has become overly conscious and therefore conservative about how they’re perceived, whereas they should be trusting the agencies and directors and listening more and they’ll be in a wholly more thrilling environment.” On top of all that, it’s actually helping people. “If the idea is a benevolent initiative then even better,” he says.

As part of RSA’s newly launched design roster, Johnny hopes that the jobs coming his way will get even more diverse. He originally studied graphic design at St Martins and is all for the melding of styles and mediums.  “It’s really interesting when things become a hybrid or you get sensibilities coming through,” he says.

As someone with a very strong aesthetic style, it was interesting to see Johnny’s recent film for the Royal Marines was fairly light on the animation. While not exactly naturalistic, it was an overall sense of foreboding that made it stand out from the bizarrely friendly tone the military usually takes for recruitment. “There was an even darker cut,” he reveals. We’d love to see that.

In a jaded industry of bitter veterans, Johnny has hope that advertising can still inspire the wonder he felt as a kid in the midlands, watching Ridley Scott’s creations. “People may bemoan this mundane advertising landscape,” he says, “but there are still very smart clients who will actively want to differentiate themselves from all the dross. They come with a very different set of expectations, and that’s exclusively where I like to play. Kenco, I hope, in some way attests to this. In a smaller way, hopefully Honda does too. The Royal Marines film is more traditional on paper, and military recruitment is a tricky forum within which to be progressive, but still we managed to push things a little and speak to its target audience in a language they actually understand and appreciate.”

But no director can rely on daring scripts to land on his lap. The stuff that truly stands out has to be fought for.  “Mostly you have to actively help engender these opportunities by changing the process,” he explains. “Most people and organisations are averse to changing the process, but when you do really interesting things happen. Anything to disrupt the mundanity. So you get involved early. You help develop the creative. Quite often now you help sell the idea to the client. Whatever it takes.”

Jumping the Fence: Nyall Cook

August 20, 2014 / Features

By Nyall Cook

In our new series on poachers-turned-gamekeepers, Nyall Cook reflects on his transition from agency creative to director.

Nyall Cook
Was: Creative at Glue Isobar
Now: Director at Habana Creative

 

I recently completed my first commercial job as a director. It was for Tefal. The film is nice. It’s sweet, charming and even a little funny. Well, I hope so. See that’s what I’ve found the most challenging aspect of directing… actually pulling off your vision. My name is Nyall Cook, ex-agency creative, wannabe director.

I’m by no means the first creative to leave behind the brainstorms, internal politics, and leftover meeting food of agency life to chase a dream. Far from it. But I am the only one I know, out of the ‘recession generation’ of pre-30 year old creatives. So for now I have no one to directly relate to about making the jump from Keynote King to a behind-the-camera maestro.

To be honest, I’ve always been slightly in awe of the directors I’ve worked with. I owe my entire ‘creative reel’ to them. They took my scripts and scamps, and turned them into something magical. You see, being a creative is an awesome job, but also a tough one. You need to be relentless yet diplomatic. Fighting for ideas; yet taking criticism on the chin. The amount of work that goes in before directors are called in is staggering. I’ve always wanted to make ads. I got into advertising to make ads. But little did I know all those years ago, on the placement round, that I’d be assigned to a back row seat.

So, in September last year, I left big agency life to pursue a new path. It’s been hard, and slow to start, but an incredibly rewarding journey. I consider myself very lucky to bag this first commercial job. Any ‘young’ director would.

Interestingly, I’m now actually a partner at a production company, Habana Creative, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee commercial work. First off, I had to build a reel, and that isn’t fast or cheap. Secondly, I’ve never studied filmmaking, and had underestimated the immense technical understanding you need – I’d always had professionals to look after this for me - I had to learn a lot on the spot - thank you, personal projects.

So when the script came in, and the budget was pretty low, I took the opportunity. As helping directors with their treatments is part of my current role, I felt at home writing my own. I love writing treatments – I built a career writing creative presentations, and they’re not too dissimilar.

The tight budget actually became a bit of bonus for me, as it gave me lots of creative freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. I feel setting the tone of your spot, and seeing it through to execution, is one of the most crucial aspects of a director’s responsibilities. And getting agencies and clients to agree to it, and share your vision, can be even harder.  

My first experience of this came when I had to present my treatment to Tefal. As a creative I took pleasure in presenting director’s treatments – as the good ones improve and build upon your idea – so naturally I wanted to present my own to the clients. Luckily the agency agreed. I think my years of presenting concepts were a real benefit here as the whole thing went smoothly.

Onto production… One of the aspects of my new job that I love the most is how collaborative it is. As an agency creative it’s easy to sometimes feel like the world is against you. But with directing it seems people always want to help you out - your producer, your casting director, your DoP, all the way through to your talent on the day. Brilliant. I also love the attention to detail as a director; I’m really keen on art direction and styling (I actually styled the spot) and loved creating my own little world. I found it all incredibly creatively fulfilling. 

Looking back on it now, I never fully appreciated the diverse skill sets a director needs. You have to be a good writer, a visual storyteller, direct acting, spot talent, lead a crew, collaborate with agencies and clients, and then there’s all your post-production responsibilities. It’s like piecing together a complicated puzzle, and if one piece doesn’t fit – you’re screwed. Directing is one of the most hands-on yet visionary jobs I can think of. Any good creative is a visionary, but making the jump to director involves technical understanding and craftsmanship. This can be tricky to grasp at first, but having the right people around you helps massively.

I loved the pace of my first commercial job, compared to slogging it out for 5 months on one campaign as a creative. But with pace comes an end. And now it’s all over. Although I help run Habana Creative, I don’t know exactly where my next commercial gig might come from. Opportunities don’t land on my desk daily anymore. It’s all about fighting for each and everyone one now. But if they’re anywhere near as rewarding as my first ad, I’m happy to fight for them all.

Essentially I think are pros and cons to working as a creative before directing. I fully understand the process of advertising; which agencies love. I get new trends, technologies and of course concepts, which I hope to add to. I grew up in this industry, but this could also be seen as a negative. Creatives love directors that will add an unexpected brilliance to their work, perhaps learnt from other industries; shooting promos, films, documentaries, and art installations – you name it. But then again I’ve got time to try my hand at all of these. And look forward to doing so.

Don’t Borrow Music Culture. Nurture It.

August 15, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Brands have always rented cool from the music world. It’s time they started building it.

The relationship brands and their agencies have with music is usually simple: find the perfect song to set off a commercial and get a licence for it. That’s the bread-and-butter of Chris Clark’s job. As Senior Music Producer at Leo Burnett in Chicago, it’s his responsibility to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and negotiate with record labels to get tracks licenced. When it works, it’s great. But Chris, along with many more people in the borderlands between brands and music, wants more than just licensing.

The far more exciting proposition is for brands and musical artists to partner and build relationships – to create something together way more powerful than just playing some music over some pictures. As he put it when I met him in Cannes, too much interaction between brands and music is “borrowing interest rather than participating in culture. It’s two totally different things.” This comment mirrors the title of the workshop he was a part of, which championed the latter for the good of the advertising and music industries alike. 

Thankfully for people like Chris, this is the kind of thing agencies and brands are beginning to explore and he admits they’re getting better. But having seen it done well, he has a lot of ideas on how to make it work. And the key, he says, is getting a balance between a brand’s business interests and the personal interests of the artist.

One North Star the advertising world can look to for guidance is Pharrell Williams – somewhat of an icon of the moment. He recently struck a deal with Adidas that ticks all the boxes. With his links to fashion, street culture and skate culture he’s exactly the sort of ambassador the sports brand drool over. Equally, Adidas have their own associations to music style that runs all the way back to Run DMC. Pharrell is personally passionate about environmental sustainability and has his own company called Bionic Yarn, who turn recyclable materials in to thread to make clothes from. The recent partnership consists of Bionic Yarn making the clothes for Pharrell’s Adidas Originals line – what a perfect fit.

In the Venn diagram of the brand’s values and the artist’s values, the aim is to find a match like this with as much overlap as possible. It may seem obvious, but an organic, two-way relationship of mutual benefit is the goal. That way it seems genuine and avoids that awkward feel of an artist being given a wheelbarrow of cash to promote a brand they don’t care about.

Of course a brand can simply to take a ride on an artist’s social metrics and influence. It’s tempting to go for the big numbers, but this is advertising – it’s an arcane and subtle art – it’s hard to make a simple case for the most efficient technique.

“People have to evaluate things that way and they’re going to,” admits Chris, “but that said there are still opportunities and artists or styles of music out there that may reflect what your brand is actually about. It’s looking at what your brand’s story is, what it stands for and then figuring out what out there in the culture – what thing, genre, or artist – is the right one to potentially partner with, collaborate and create something.”

Chris’ job is to make sure brands are paired with the right artists, not only the most famous ones. It’s about knowing the principles and tastes of these people and what their artistic contributions represent. “Depending on who is approaching an artist, sometimes people haven’t done their homework,” he says. “Sometimes people are literally just saying ‘what are their social metrics? They’re in the top five. Let’s go to them.’ That’s a human being! An artist. They stand for something. Their music stands for something. It’s not the right way to approach it.”

It’s also important to remember that despite living in an age of manufactured fame built on uncertain talent, real creativity is still, thankfully, vital to music. Artists are creatives, so why shouldn’t agencies include them in the creative process? “An artist can collaborate just like your art director and copywriter, sitting at a desk hitting their heads against it,” Chris asserts. “Artists are willing to sit down and try to do something cool, because that’s all they do. They’re just trying to stay relevant, stay artistic, stay true to themselves.”

After all, they have built brands for themselves already.  Their musical output, their media profile, their appearance – all these things contribute to a public idea of what they represent – and in this age of social media many of them have built this completely independently of record labels or managers. To rise to prominence in today’s musical landscape takes an acute awareness of brand marketing.

Ne-Yo, who Chris shared the stage with at this year’s Cannes Lions, is a personal embodiment of a brand. Chris explains the brand the pop singer has built: “whenever anyone says his name it’s style, sophistication, sexy, well-dressed, a casual demeanour, humble but the right amount of flash. That’s what I think immediately when I think of him. That’s a brand. He created that. His music and art follow suit. But based on what he’s built he has to choose the right marketing for his product.”

One way to make sure a partnership is genuine is to find an artist who genuinely already supports the brand. This may seem to fit in the traditional celebrity endorsement category, which is cheesy on Bruce Forsythe levels, but done right it can be a strong foundation for a genuine collaboration with that artist – a conversation they are happy to have.

Cosmetics company Mac have worked with Kiwi singer-songwriter sensation Lorde recently, building on the helpful fact that Lorde absolutely loves Mac cosmetics. She’s just developed and launched a new range with them, taking the partnership much further than straight endorsement. It’s smart – while film stars and models have traditionally graced billboards, advertisers have recently started to figure out that music artists have more dedicated fans, even tribes like Directioners, Little Monsters, the Beygency.

The job of people like Chris is to find these authentic partnerships and let everyone know who would be willing to work with what brand.

One point that may not seem obvious here is that working between the spaces of brands and music doesn’t have to be about harnessing the power of A-listers. Converse is an example Chris gives to illustrate a brand that has an honest place in music culture without the need for big names. It’s not all about numbers of fans, as hard as it may be to convince clients of that.

It all started for Converse back in the ‘70s. Scuzzy New York punks – the Ramones and co – wore their affordable shoes because they were broke. Since then they’ve been on the feet of every scuzzy rock band from AC/DC to Nirvana. It took a while for the brand to catch on, but their history validates them as participants in music culture – not only a brand trying to borrow its aura of cool.

“That’s the nice thing about it,” says Chris. “To try to participate as a brand in music culture doesn’t have to be with an A-list artist. It could be embracing a genre or a scene. It could be embracing a group of artists who are all doing something similar.”

For brands to become part of the music world is easier today. With it becoming increasingly hard to make money out of music, there’s space for that deficit to be filled by money from business. But straight sponsorship should be avoided, suggests Chris. What he’s after is heartfelt support of an artistic industry that needs the help.

If a product is allowing people to experience music, collaborating and nurturing creativity, that’s how a brand can earn the respect of music fans. Converse run Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn, New York, where emerging bands can come and record for free – something extremely valuable to the music community that has made Converse the brand it is today. Similarly Red Bull have the Red Bull Music Academy, schools teaching people who want to make an impact on the music industry. The coolest brands are already doing it, but there’s space for much more. 

“You have to create something outside of just a message,” says Chris. “And if you are creating something that can be experienced within a certain culture and you understand the culture, good for you, you’re a braver brand than most.”

Under the Influence: Charlie Crane

July 29, 2014 / Features

By Izzie Weller & Alex Reeves

Knucklehead’s photographically minded director talks us through the muses that shaped and inspired him.

Like trees growing around manmade structures, people are shaped according to the things they encounter. Directors are no different. No matter how unique their style, the people, places and art they encounter influence their work.

Charlie Crane, one of Knucklehead’s sharpest directors, came to directing through a passion for photography. We asked him about the people and creations that helped turn him from a young man with only one GCSE who can’t swim into a filmmaker who makes things look effortlessly cool and chooses to spend his spare time wandering around North Korea.

Bill Rowlinson

“Before I was a photographer I was a photographer’s assistant and before that I was a general mess. I was doing a part-time job with someone. He was doing an interview for a magazine and he said ‘you should come and see this guy with me, he’s a black-and-white printer’ and he was just this amazing dude.

He was probably the best black-and-white printer in the country. He was printing a lot of advertising work but he also did a lot of great non-commissioned black-and-white photography, for [people like] Sarah Moon and Bill Brandt.

His house was just filled with prints all over the walls, all stained with nicotine because he smoked so heavily. In his kitchen there were developing trays and empty 7Up bottles that had been filled with different developers and toners and he had prints slapped up against the wall – when a print’s wet you can chuck it against the wall and it sticks there and you can assess it.

He would tone and work in his kitchen and his darkroom was in the basement. The only person that has ever been in his basement is his electrician (but I’m not sure that’s true). He just lived and breathed what he did and he was amazing at it, incredibly creative, incredibly different.

I think that inspired me to become a photographer – what he did, the way he lived and the way he did it. He was completely immersed in it. That taught me you can do something and it doesn’t have to be a job - it’s just what you do. Just immerse yourself completely in it. I tried to hold that inside me as a work ethic, and I’ve always liked going to work since.”

Thomas Struth

“I’ve never met him, it’s just his work and I find it completely beguiling. I can just sit and stare at his photographs. Their composition, their steadiness and their calmness have an incredible power on me. I think that he’s a very intelligent photographer.

He’s a German art photographer and studied the Düsseldorf Academy at a time when photography was evolving into what everybody recognizes it as now. There was a whole load of stuff going on in America with [William] Eggleston and all those sorts of people. And there was also this thing going on in this Germanic school and I love both schools.

I think if there’s work I go back to again and again and I can sit with and sit with forever, it’s Thomas Struth’s work, both his portraiture and his landscapes, but particularly his cityscapes. I can just live in those pictures. I adore them.

What I really love about moving imagery is you can change things and move from one place to another. But I also love a still, beautifully composed frame. And for me to be able to have all those things in moving image storytelling and then to be able to hold on a still frame – I want those still frames to be like his still frames. They’re so considered, the composition is so lovely that you can just sit and absorb them and they kind of wash over you. That is something that I find really inspiring.

It has a really direct impact on my work. Interestingly I rarely put his pictures into treatments because sometimes they don’t necessarily suit a particular job, but in my mind some of his imagery will always find it’s way into things.”

Fight Club

“I find his [David Fincher’s] other work really engaging, very emotional, very clever and very sophisticated but when I went to South America on holiday Fight Club was on in the cinema. I watched it and I walked out and I was like ‘fucking hell. You can’t do that. You can’t do that with a photograph. You just can’t. You can’t make someone feel like that, not like I felt from watching that.’

I was a photographer’s assistant then so I thought ‘how do you do that?’ I walked round in this country, in this city I had never been to before. There were loads of new things to look at, but I just couldn’t get out of the film. That’s really amazing.

I’ve watched a lot of films but I’ve never really watched them with that confidence and maybe that’s being somewhere else or whatever, but it just made a massive impact on me. I think that the way he tells the story is so complex and intelligent and yet he deals with emotionally challenging subjects. That was a very defining and inspiring moment.”

Malcolm Venville

“When I was a photographer’s assistant I worked for a guy called Malcolm Venville who’s a director but also a photographer and he influenced the way I worked, defiantly. He was just a real eye opener to the way that a director works compared to a lot of photographers.

I’d assisted quite a lot of photographers but I’d never assisted someone that also worked as a director and the different way that they collaborate with people. He was very trusting of me to do things. It was much more overarching directing –not micromanaging – a lot of directors micromanage.

His influence on me is about collaboration, with the crew and the agency; about making work with other people and seeing a much broader picture and not being so narrowly focused on this tiny thing but taking an overview.
It was such a different experience to work with someone like that. It has influenced me an awful lot, in the same way that Bill Rowlinson did.

To see a photographer that can translate their work into moving imagery and do it really well was very inspiring too. To see that there is a path that has already been trodden was a massive eye opener for me, for someone who has come from assisting and starting with wedding photographers and moving up the ranks.”

Multifaceted Artists

“One of the things I love about Takeshi Katano is he’s got this bloody awful thing that he does – Takeshi’s Castle. So he’s a really wacky comedian and does these game shows. He writes, he paints and he makes these arty, emotional, thoughtful movies and I think that’s fascinating.

I don’t know much about his filming processes but I do like that it’s really rough around the edges. He doesn’t do loads of takes; he keeps it quite simple. There’s an edge to it, a rawness so you get an emotional story.

It’s just so different from someone like Fincher in that he can just go ‘right ok we’ve got two takes, ok lets move on’. It’s just about getting the story across and then he’s going to go and do something else. And I love the lack of polish and the variety of movies that he makes. I don’t necessarily like all of them but I have some favourites, like Sonatine, which is a really beautiful movie, and his version of [The Blind Swordsman:] Zatoichi, which is amazing. There’s just a sort of silence to it.

Again, he has a contemplative nature to his work. He’s got this weird, wacky thing that he does and he acts sometimes and he directs and he’s, again, immersing himself in what he loves. I love cross-pollination. I think that’s fascinating and such a wonderful thing about making moving imagery.

I think that [Werner] Hertzog can do the same thing, not in the same way but he can move around so much. I haven’t studied film, I wasn’t some clever film bod and a friend of mine told me to watch Grizzly Man. It’s all found footage and I was like ‘that’s so against my aesthetic. I don’t like that at all.’ Then I watched that movie and I think it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life. It just showed me how important it is not to have pre-conceived ideas. I thought that was just insane, such an incredible look at our relationship with animals. It blew my mind.

Herzog can do these crazy projects and go ‘that’s what I want to do right now’ and I think that’s what a lot of really good artists do. They’re not just stuck in one medium. They move around. They can paint, they can make a film and then they can draw, then they can sculpt and I see that as a very similar sort of thing with both Hertzog and Katano.”

 

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

A Double-Barrelled Music Video Assault

July 24, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Just a year old, Able&Baker have made a big dent in the promo scene.

This year’s CFP-E & Shots Young Director Award served up some interesting results, while Kibwe Tavares cleaned up with his short film Jonah, all the glory of the European Music Video category flowed in one direction – to Park Village’s new promo company, Able&Baker. Videos from their directors Rémy Cayuela and Jim Demuth picked up first and second prize respectively – quite a feat considering that was within one of the most hotly contended categories.

It’s a great result for Park Village. Founded in the 1970s, one of the most well established of London’s production companies, this impact on the music video landscape proves that it pays to be brave. Traditional companies are often afraid to step into the unknown, but Able&Baker have entered this market and carved out a space for themselves. It sets a great example for how to launch a sub-brand.

We asked the company’s Executive Producer Joe Walker for his thoughts.

Director: Rémy Cayuela
Production Company: Able & Baker
Producer: Joe Walker
1st Assistant Director: Jules Higgs
Director of Photography: Jake Scott
Gaffer: Mark Holownia
Art Director: Sets Appeal
Wardrobe: Cesca Salter Dvorak
Make-Up: Sian Duke
Editor: Ellie Johnson
VFX Company: Burning Reel
Animators: Chloe Haywood, David Phaelon
VFX Producer: Cal Gordon
Colourist: Muriel Archambaud
Director’s Representation: Marisa Garner
Commissioner: James Hackett
Labels: Ram Records, Virgin EMI

The Beak Street Bugle: What do your Young Director Award wins mean to you guys?
Joe Walker:
It means an enormous amount! The YDA awards have an amazing reputation as talent spotters so to have not one but two our directors awarded by them is a massive honour.

BSB: Why do you think you won?
JW:
I think the reason why Remy and Jim did so well with these two particular projects is that in both cases they're trying to come up with fresh approaches to the whole music video format, which turned out to be a really good fit to the YDA's remit to celebrate originality and creative bravery. 

In Remy's case he took a fairly familiar music video trope – the lifespan of a relationship – but by breaking this arc down in a series of statistical snapshots he found a new and funny way for people to connect with this idea that I don't think we've seen before. James Hackett the commissioner fought really hard for the idea and I think we ended up with something really striking.

Jim's video for Django Django (which was produced through Vice before Jim joined us – big up Vice!) on the other hand is a straight up ob. doc. There's been a massive boom in reality-based videos that seemed to come off the back of Bob Harlow's amazing Feel The Love for Rudimental a few years ago but I think pieces like this that are genuinely observational and unreconstructed are still pretty rare. In this one I think Jim made something really special. It's way more than just a visually exciting spectacle; it's a really human portrait of a subculture that we don't normally get to access. I think they're both really exciting new directorial voices, we're massively proud of them.

BSB: Can you describe the journey of Able&Baker up to this point?
JW:
It's quite a short story really, Able&Baker just celebrated its first birthday. The company was set up as a kind of incubator for new talent for our parent company Park Village.

Initially I think we conceived as ourselves as a music video imprint but pretty quickly the type of work we were able to sell our guys in broadened right out and we've come to overlap with Park Village on content.

I feel like we get to operate at a kind of sweet spot in that we have the freedom to define our own identity but on the other hand we have really strong and long-lasting relationships to with agencies and clients Park Village has developed over years to draw upon in developing our directors. We're trying to keep the roster small and diverse, we're got a couple of new signings to announce over the coming months we're really excited about.

Executive Producer: Jane Third
Producer: Posy Dixon
Director: Jim Demuth
Editor: Iain Pettifer
Colourist: Chris Rodgers (Splice Post Production)
Production Manager: Bree Horn

BSB: What’s been most difficult?
JW:
Coming up with a production company name is pretty dry. I chanced across Able and Baker (the first two monkeys to be launched into space by the Americans in the 50s) in an inflight magazine on the way out to our first LA job with Remy and breathed a massive sigh of relief.

BSB: What’s been most surprising?
JW:
Uncontroversially, I think the most surprising thing has been the double award win at the YDAs! The timing was amazing, we were literally sending out the invites to the first birthday party when first one then a second email from the YDAs came through to let us know we'd won a prize. It's been an incredible year for us, we're really excited to see what our directors will do next.

BSB: What have you got your eyes set on next that you’re not doing right now?
JW:
The next big thing for us is long form factual content for broadcast. We've got a slate of projects being worked up for commission, there's one in particular we're really excited about which we've just attached Wellcome trust development finance to, hopefully coming soon to a small screen near you.

We've also been developing a digital strategy campaign with Ivana Bobic for a Russian couture department store we made a fashion film for last year. As film-makers this is a totally new way of working for us and while we'd be lying if we said there were times we didn't miss the mediating influence of an agency the scope to develop something bigger than a single stand alone film right from the ground up is pretty fantastic.