Under the Influence: Chris Woods

February 12, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

From scuzzy skaters to philosophical admen.

B-Reel’s Chris Woods has shot some weird commercials. From sugar-crazed cat men to rabbits with a talent for intimidation, he’s built his career directing scripts that raise eyebrows. Also a photographer with a particular knack for portraits, some of this weirdness comes through in his portfolio of stills, but overall he’s a hard one to pigeonhole. That’s what got us excited to have a peer into his mind and work out what’s inspired him and his body of work over the years. In his words, here are five of his biggest inspirations.

Skateboarding

“I was never that good at the actual skateboarding part, but the people, the culture, and the mindset were a draw that was impossible for me to stay away from. My friends, on the other hand, were amazing skateboarders and I stayed involved by photographing them. A few of them ended up getting sponsored, which meant that my photos were beginning to get published in some reputable skate mags (because of who they were and what they were doing).

They were being asked to submit portraits and because I was the only one around with a camera constantly hung around my neck, I became a portrait photographer (which ended up being a stronger facet for me rather then the ‘action’ shots I was trying to pull off.) This led to photo school, which led to a photo career, which led to shooting for Rolling Stone and Spin, which eventually led to directing for B-Reel London.

The skateboarding films were just as responsible… The Search for Animal Chin, Future Primitive, Public Domain and Ban This were on a constant rotation on the VHS player in the basement, mesmerizing us. They all had this amazing sense of rebellion and fun. This is what I wanted to do. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better - Spike came along with the Girl video and it changed everything for me, which leads me to…”

Spike Jonze

“The Girl video was my introduction to Spike, followed by Yeah Right and Fully Flared. Then I found out that this guy was responsible for brilliant Fat Boy Slim, Weezer and Beastie Boys videos - Jackass, Adaptation, Being John Malcovich, and so on and so on. Who the hell directs an amazing Hollywood movie like Adaptation and then goes and does a skate video that is, in my opinion, just as impressive?

Whatever he does has this amazing sense of humanity that makes you truly invest in caring for his characters (even the non-humans ones like the IKEA lamp). And then there’s this sort of softness to the imagery that’s so amazingly appealing to watch. Everything looked so effortless and simple to achieve (which I now know is quite different). Spike made me understand that you can be a chameleon with many different skill sets while others were telling me to ‘stick to one thing’.

I’m not doing him much justice in this piece, but he’s definitely impacted the way I see and approach things. And for me, working with the likes of Halls, Orbit and Skittles I’ve tried to adopt an adaptable approach to some of the ads I’ve worked on.”

Stand-Up Comedians

“I can’t remember where I heard it but someone once said that if we want to know the absolute truth in history, all we need to do is look to the comedians. This is, of course, because all the good ones tell the truth – there’s nothing funnier.

I used to watch a lot of comedians but more recently I’ve found myself almost studying them. The ‘bits’ are the obvious source of comedy but I’ve been obsessing over the transitions they make between bits. How to get from A to B is where the genius lies and I’ve become a bit obsessed with finding these moments in their acts and trying to pay more attention to how transitions can play a huge part in storytelling whether it be comedic or not. I’d be being lazy if I wasn’t to mention a few of the ones that do this so well it almost goes unnoticed – Louis CK, Rickey Gervais, Doug Stanhope (if you haven’t seen beer hall putsch you should), Jim Jefferies and Bill Burr are at the top for me. I’ve tried to take that humour and include it within certain ads, for example there was a Skittles spot a couple of years ago where we got people to hold their finger to a screen for it to later be licked by a guy dressed as cat!”

Saturday Night Live (Bill Murray)

“I remember watching SNL when I was a kid and I didn’t really understand the impression it was having on me at the time. I remember wanting to send in my skit ideas (because that’s how I thought it worked at the time) and thinking that they would KILL.

There was something about these ‘adults’ that just looked like they were having such an amazing time ‘goofing around’ and making people laugh. It was like they’d found this fountain of youth that the other adults simply watched. I never related to other adults the way I did with these people (and kind of still don’t).

Bill Murray stood out amongst these folks to me as he didn’t really seem to be acting that much. This, of course, is because he is so fucking brilliant and he taught me that there is a TON of comedy in subtleties and in the calm. He would go big from time to time when he needed to but I always loved the way his understated demeanor drew a ton of entertainment and comedy.

Even to this day, when I see him in an interview or something, I can never tell if he is messing with the interviewer or not. He is just so calm and calculated that I never know what’s going on, but I could watch that guy read the dictionary and be entertained for hours.”

Paul Arden – Whatever you think, think the opposite

“I wish I found this book earlier in life but whenever I pass by a bookstore I buy every copy they have and give them as gifts to the younger people I come across. You can get through this book in about 20 minutes and for about two years I would set my alarm a little early and read through this book every morning.
It’s essentially a different way of thinking in easily digestible haiku-type reading. It’s more directed to agency folk but, for me, it has a ton of life lessons in it as well. It makes you want to make creative better and to not pass the blame on a shit budget or bad client.

One of my favorites is a page explaining a professor bathing in a river with only a small towel, when a group of his students come floating by; he wraps the towel around his head. I remember the first time I read this it took me a minute to get the point, but when it clicked I thought it was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read.

The book has helped me with treatments and the way I approach creative by at least considering what would happen if I listen to the seemingly ‘bad ideas’ and exploring what would come of something that is the complete opposite that I think might be correct. Its one of those books that made me feel dumb in its seeming simplicity.”


Have a look for these influences on Chris’ reel

The Super Bowl Ad Bonanza: Transatlantic Views

January 30, 2015 / Features

By Sanam Petri and Orlando Wood

Two Americans now working in the London ad world open up on the subject of The Big Game commercial madness.

This Sunday night, far too late for the sane majority on our side of the pond, tens of millions will tune in to watch the USA’s biggest, most all-American sporting event. The Super Bowl is a media circus like no other. The slabs of advertising in between the tiny slivers of sporting action have become the arena for the single biggest pitched battle between brands, with companies paying ludicrous amounts to secure 30 seconds of audiences’ attention.

While the UK has recently nurtured its own ad face-off in over the Christmas period, the Super Bowl stands as the single most high-profile event for advertisers in the world. As Brits we’re largely blissfully ignorant of all this hoo-ha, so we turned to a brace of American ad-people in London and asked them to pass judgement on the phenomenon the Super Bowl has become.

Sanam Petri
“Like most advertising, the Super Bowl has become one massively self-aware, self-congratulatory circle jerk.

The seats at the game are filled with clients instead of fans.

The tailgating parties are now cocktail parties, held in sky boxes rather than parking lots.

The spirit of America’s favorite past time is now brought to you by Staples.

So, this year is no different. A handful of lucky brands will be given the chance to spunk $4.5 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl air time. And what do will they get for the pleasure?

Well, in terms of actual sales, fuck all. (Which I think is usually pronounced “ROI.”) If someone actually did a statistically accurate study about the impact of Super Bowl ads and sales, there would be no direct correlation.

However, the incredible spike in sudden awareness will fool many marketers into thinking their ad was money well spent. Which means it’s easy for agencies to convince their clients that a Super Bowl ad is just what they need. When in fact it’s usually only the agency’s stock that goes up.

It is tempting though, isn’t it? The only moment in American culture where people actually want to watch advertising. So it feels like a great opportunity – an audience that is actually receptive to your message, and will talk about your ad the next day.

But wouldn’t it be a great world if people asked themselves instead, why are we making the kind of advertising no one wants to watch in the first place?

The best work travels, with or without Super Bowl-sized budgets. And the very best work actually solves a problem. How many Super Bowl ads have you seen that solve an actual problem a consumer is having? “What should I watch while shoving Doritos down my gullet” is not a problem.

So why do they keep doing it? Possibly because it’s now become headline news when a big brand isn’t buying airtime, and no one wants the bad publicity.

Or possibly because for ad guys, their brand is like their team. A successful ad is like a touchdown. Which means a Super Bowl ad is like a Super Bowl touchdown. And who wouldn’t want to be the star quarterback of JWT!?

But I suppose if we didn’t make ego-driven decisions, would we all be in advertising in the first place?

Maybe next time, a well-timed email marketing campaign is the way forward.”

Sanam Petri is Creative Director for Nike at Wieden + Kennedy London.

 

Orlando Wood
“I was a fat little kid growing up in South Florida.

I wasn’t exactly “sporty”. I went swimming in T-shirts to hide my particularly rotund physique. My family were all English and moved to the states when I was five.

My dad was an academic and writer, so not the type to chuck a ball around with me. His sport of choice was cricket. I know the rules to cricket. I did NOT know the rules to football.

So, growing up in the states at a physical disadvantage and at an additional disadvantage borne out of ignorance, football represented nothing more than an opportunity for epic humiliation among my classmates.

Super Bowl Sunday was also often dangerously close to my birthday, so mass refusals to my party were often a matter of course.

But in America, you simply couldn’t avoid it. So, I watched it.

And this little fatty LOVED the ads! Thanked GOD for the ads!

The ads gave me something to talk about, some way to enter into discussion in-between the ball moving from one end of the field to the other. Possession changing from the blue-and-white team to the green-and-blue dudes. And, more importantly, other people cared about them as well.

Yes, Super Bowl Sunday is frivolous. To imbue it with undue meaning is pointless. We’re watching a game. A good game. A game that’s taken two teams a season to get to and a game that a nation cares about. Do ads during this time really have to do much more than get eyeballs on them and try to excite, interest, and fire the synapses behind those eyeballs? I don’t think so.

The rest of the year, our work interrupts other people’s enjoyment and asks them to change their buying habits when they next open up Amazon or leave their house. On Super Bowl Sunday, our work elevates to the level of entertainment. Clients are suddenly audacious on Super Bowl Sunday. They bother to think of the consumer first. Not the consumer of their product, mind you, but the consumer of that single 30-60” ad.

How often do clients forget to actually entertain those who accidentally watch our work? Less often than they think they do, I suspect. The majority of client’s jobs are to try to avoid offending the broadest group of people rather than highly entertaining them. They often shy away from a risqué joke because it may, actually, be funny? It’s our perennial struggle with them, but for the Super Bowl, we’re all on the same side.

Super Bowl Sunday raises the stakes. And you know what? Even when an ad is a little ‘off’, I’m still just impressed that they tried.

I get bummed out when ad people’s cynicism gets the better of them and they end up shirking the largest, most bombastic example of what we do. It’s a game, and during that game, people like our ads.

Good for them.

Good for us.

For one day, we become closer to entertainers than we ever usually are. People look forward to an ad break… Don’t I wish that happened more?!?

I’ve had one ad in the Super Bowl. It wasn’t terribly well received. But you best believe I want another crack at it.

To use a brilliant American turn of phrase from an even more brilliant American movie…

‘Bring it on!’

Go Seahawks!”

Orlando Wood is Executive Producer of Biscuit UK.

NB: Orlando now knows the rules of football. Special thanks to MADDEN NFL: 2005-2014.

 

Here are his top five Super Bowl ads of all time:

TV Advertising Wrapped in Mystery

January 23, 2015 / Features

By Jacqueline Holmes

Advertisers 60 years ago were really thinking outside the box.

Mixed emotions of anticipation, wonder, nerves, excitement and challenge were washing through the advertising world this time 60 years ago. The agencies and brands were gearing up for the advent of commercial TV in this country which would take to the air later in the year. The event would have a major impact on the established industry.

Poster advertisers were already declaring they were here to stay and facing the competition head on with the promotion of Teleposters. In January of 1955 they told the trade: “Advertising on TV [is] still wrapped in mystery, but advertising next to TV is here – and here to stay!”

Teleposters were the new thing – printed panels measuring 10in by 8in to be placed around TV sets.
“The public aren’t (sic) waiting for commercial TV with bated breath. They’re looking at it now, and wise advertisers are going to make use of their steady gaze” claimed an advertisement in the trade press for Teleposters.

It was envisaged that viewing habits would be changing and televisions would appear in bars and clubs, canteens and waiting lounges. This view did not foresee the television set becoming a part of everyday domestic furniture, watched by millions daily in their homes and that it would take decades to become a regular feature of public venues.

Chloe Veale, director of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT) said:
“The idea of Teleposters very much reflected the innocent, probably naïve, period before TV commercials became part of the domestic scene. They missed the point that the advertising would be on the screen, not around it! It is somewhat bizarre that community screens are now so commonplace in public spaces.”

The main agencies and the big companies faced up to the new medium, preparing for the arrival of commercial TV and its attendant problems and challenges. After all, filmed commercials had only been seen in this country in cinemas, a totally different environment to the cosy family living room and attracting a different demographic of viewer.

Meanwhile the British Transport Commission upped its campaigns to attract advertisers to its poster sites on the Underground and buses. The ‘advantages’ of poster advertising were further professed by the British Poster Advertising Authority. It took out a page in Advertiser’s Weekly in January 1955 advising clients to: “Put the case” (in newspaper or on TV) and “Drive it home”. The tag line was “Posters complete the campaign with repetition in colour”. It has to be remembered that colour would not replace black & white on ITV until 1969. During the1950s, poster advertising was an integral part of the street scene. Corners devastated by the Blitz had become poster oases screening the dereliction from view with colourful hoardings.

Packaging was another area of production recognition causing problems for the modern advertiser moving to TV.  Product packaging was designed to be colourful and catch the eye of the shopper. Now well-known brands would be seen in black and white – some of the bright colours translating on film to murky grey.

The ads that appeared in the January 1955 edition of Advertiser’s Weekly, two of which are illustrated here, reveal extraordinary responses to the the changes and challenges that the established advertising industry faced 60 years ago as the nation prepared for the arrival of commercial television. These ones were discovered tucked away within an original edition of this now very rare journal preserved on HAT’s library shelves.

Through HAT’s unique advertising archive collections the full story of the development and impact of the new advertising medium can be tracked, pieced together and told in this special 60th anniversary year. With over 100,000 TV commercials dating from 1955 to 2015 complemented by original documents, ad agency records, contemporary data and publications, the contents of HAT Archive are a national treasure trove.

For further information see www.hatads.org.uk

The Virtual Reality Gold Rush

January 19, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Framestore and UNIT9’s VR experts on how brands can secure a future in VR advertising.

In the 1930s science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum dreamt up the possibility of “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” – a set of goggles that put the wearer inside a fictional reality with all five senses. This is the first time anyone had considered the possibility of virtual reality. Since then it’s enchanted us in our future ponderings, from the Star Trek holodeck to the Cyberspace of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

But VR remained in the domain of science fiction for almost 80 years. That is until the Oculus Rift slammed into the tech scene in 2012. Crowdfunded to the tune of $2.4million by almost 10,000 geeks around the world, the Oculus Rift Development Kit 1 marked the moment when the new medium jolted to life. 

A headset that immerses its wearer in a 3D virtual world, it's clear to anyone who’s tried it on that this technology will have a profound effect on visual media. We may even be witnessing the dawn of a new medium, some believe.

Since the famous crowdfunding campaign Facebook has acquired Oculus Rift for $2billion and all the big tech companies have been brewing up their own consumer headsets to put on the market. With various releases promised, 2015 looks to be the year normal people, not just tech geeks, start owning VR headsets.

Of course the advertising industry has been watching this new field closely and many of the techier companies have been experimenting with every new bit of hardware and software they can. Post production and VFX giants Framestore and future-facing production company UNIT9 are two such entities, and have even been bold enough to each launch dedicated VR departments.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says Karl Woolley, of Framestore Digital, VR & Immersive Content Studio. “As soon as someone hacks the Kinect you get one. As soon as Lead Motion comes out you get one. You play with it.”

It’s the responsibility of companies like Framestore to get to know the tech because so many brands are now coming to them to jump on the VR bandwagon. And it’s still pretty fair to call it that. “They’ve jumped on this like nothing else,” says Karl. “I think there are some brands that it naturally fits with and some you have to work harder to have an experience that works.”

Henry Cowling, Head of UNIT9 VR, agrees that the medium’s still a got a whiff of gimmickry about it. “At the moment a lot of interest from brands [comes from a desire] to do the first, the biggest or the best work in this space,” he says. Although it’s understandable, this attitude is disappointing to people like him and Karl, who believe VR is destined for much more. “It’s this kind of Wild West territory where you can go in and make big claims and do defining projects,” says Henry. Karl calls it a “gold rush.”

And it seems there really will be gold once brands find the right use for VR. “It’s going to be big enough, rich enough and varied enough that it’s going to stand up in its own right,” predicts Henry. “We’ll be reaching a time very soon where brands aren’t just doing VR for VR’s sake. Right now the killer application of VR is up for grabs. There’s some really good work but the genre defining thing that’s going to set the bar hasn’t been done yet.”

Production Company: Framestore
Creative Director: Mike Woods
Senior Producer: Christine Cattano
Lead Developer: Michael Cable
Production Co-ordinator: Meg Diamond
Software Developer: Nick Fox-Gieg
Open Frameworks Development: Ryan Wilkinson
CG Supervisor: Ben Fox and Andy Rowan-Robinson
Technical Director: John Montefusco, Minchung Cho and Nate Diehl
Modelling: Michi Inoue
Matte Painting: Callum McKeveny
Production Runner: Kent Rausch
Sound Design: Nick Fox-Gieg

That’s no great surprise. Most VR departments have only existed for a year or so. And it’ll take some time to create the structures that will build this new medium. Companies need to assemble teams to help them reach that post-gimmickry golden age. And recruiting isn’t straightforward. You can’t go out and find a VR Game Developer with substantial experience because nobody does that job yet.

Telling a story in VR takes a new blend of skills. “It’s taking filmmaking’s lights, camera and sound,” explains Karl, “but combining it with storytelling in the way that game designers have been doing it for 20 or 30 years.” For example, you can’t frame up a shot in an all-encompassing environment, so no close-ups to draw the audience’s attention. In VR you must use the visual and audio cues of game design to guide audiences.

Clearly, the medium is still in its infancy and Karl and Henry would be the first to agree there’s a long way to go. With the major headsets yet to hit the consumer market, let alone at an affordable price, it isn’t exactly far reaching.

“The market’s quite tiny,” says Karl. From a brand perspective, where their primary interest is numbers of eyeballs, its appeal is limited. “At the moment they’re getting the eyeballs because of the press around this work that we’re doing.” For now, it’s confined to installations with powerful computers and 4D experiences. In the future, this is likely to change.

 

Production Company: UNIT9 VR
Agency: BBDO Düsseldorf
Director: Robert Bader
Executive Producer: Ben Young
Project Manager: Pierre Trochu
Local Producer: Stefan Bader
Local Events Producer: Nicolas Jenkin Mönch
Technical Director: Yates Buckley
Tech Lead: Laurentiu Fenes, Kamil Cholewinski, Dimitris Doukas, Silvio Paganini
Lead VR Developer: Dmytry Lavrov
VR Developer: David Li, Karol Sobiesiak
Hardware Engineer: Mateusz Marchwicki, Christian Bianchini
Interactive Developer: Andre Venancio, Joao Sousa
Lead Back End Developer: Kamil Cholewinski
Back End Developer: Piotr Zalewski
Mobile Front End Developer: Krzysztof Lipiec
Sound Engineer: Axel Wagner
VR Design: Gabor Ekes, Sophie Langohr, Markos Kay, Sean Hobman, Julien Simshäuser
VFX: Tom Waterhouse, Realisestudio, EightVFX Studio
UI Design: Jarrod Castaing, Steven Mengin, Karol Goreczny
Design: Steve McGeorge
UX: Laura Cortes, Dirk van Ginkel
Editor: Samuel De Ceccatty, Jakub Wesolowski
Quality Assurance: Peter Law
Stunt Coordinator: Marc Cass
Stunt Rigger: Simon Whyman, Gary Arthurs, Daryl Andrews
Art Director - Construction/Container branding: Owen Gundry
Construction Lead (Illusion Design & Construct LTD): Rory Evans
Spark: George Baker
Helmet design (Artem): Andrew Freeman
Design Supervisor (Artem): Colin Foster
Production Assistant: Martha Ross
Location Scout: Martin Zillger
Runner: Lorenzo Vivoli
Product Design Intern: Yifei Chai, Felix Yarwood

“The best case scenario is that we have a big market penetration of [VR] and consumers are using this stuff,” says Henry. “And developers and makers in general have their hands on it and are able to tinker with the software.” He thinks that ultimately the most exciting developments are likely to come from bedroom enthusiasts. “We’re at the forefront of it right now, but still the most interesting stuff is going to happen when it’s out there in the hands of the masses. There are going to be applications that we can’t even conceive right now.”

The role brands will play in VR breaking through will be secondary to this, as Henry sees it. “I think what brands are particularly adept at doing, when they behave boldly, is taking stuff that’s culturally relevant, looking at indie examples and saying ‘how do we bring our money and resources to this? How do we make this better and amplify it?’”

To get there, people who know VR will first have to educate brands and agencies. And that’s exactly what Framestore and UNIT9 are doing.

“It’s getting this stuff in the hands of creatives and brands,” says Henry, “so that they can figure it out and the limitations are apparent.” Once people know the borders they can work within them. But the only practical way is to get headsets on people and demonstrate the technology. “Showing people a case study video of VR always looks and feels flat. The experience is so much more dynamic when you’re in it.”

For brands who want to be the first to nail VR content, there are a few points they should be aware of. For now, the central limitation is the disconnect between what you see and what you feel. “The paradox of VR,” says Henry, “is that you put a headset on and then you’re in an environment [where] everything looks real, so you expect to be able to interact with it in a real way.” As of yet, you usually can’t.

When Henry showed the Occulus Rift to his mother she immediately got up and started walking around. Of course, she stayed still in the virtual environment and was confused. He had to hand her a joystick to move around. This is awkward, and in many situations VR creatives have to work around worse - some experiences can cause terrible motion sickness.

Production Company: Framestore:
Agency: Relevent
Executive Creative Director: Mike Woods
Creative Director: David Mellor
Senior Producer: Christine Cattano (VR), Leah Garner (VFX)
Production Co-ordinator: Meg Diamond
Lead Developer: Michael Cable
VFX Supervisor: Mike Bain and Ben Fox
Compositing Lead: Matt Pascuzzi
Developer: Nick Fox-Gieg
2D: Euna Kho
3D:Patrick Ross, Michi Inoue, Oscar Tan, Xiaolai Zheng, Yun Chen, Jack Caron, Joseph Szokoli and Ryan Chong.

The natural tensions in VR mostly come down to the question of how to interact with a virtual experience in a more physical way. But there are answers to this.

Firstly, you can limit VR to a purely passive, visual experience. Henry admits that while 4D experiences with vibrating floors, controlled temperatures and the like are great, “even if you strip all that stuff away, the core experience of just having a headset on and being in a place is such a powerful way to do storytelling. Even if you’re not moving around in that environment – it’s just a story unfolding around you – it already really excites me and everything else is just gravy.”

Karl cites Felix & Paul Studios’ work on the introduction experience packaged with Samsung’s Gear VR, where you simply sit in a Mongolian yurt. “In some ways it’s much better than any of the other work we’ve done, because it’s believable.”

On paper this may sound dull, he admits, but he’s confident that if clients could experience it with the headset on they’d understand. Again, it’s just getting headsets on heads.

Another tack clients could take is the exhilarating stuff – driving fast cars, running through futuristic environments, flying through the sky. Those are harder because of the physical aspect requiring additional technology. It’s all about delivering ‘haptic feedback’ – some kind of physical experience to compliment the visual.

There are many ways to approach this. Moving floors, mist, smells pumped in an temperature control can be used to great effect, as both companies’ work has proved. “The thing is to try and make [sure] that anything your brain thinks you’re doing, your body feels it’s doing as well,” says Karl.

Production Company: UNIT9 VR
Agency: DigitasLBi
Producer: Richard Rowe
Tech Lead: Maciej Zasada
Project Manager: Josselin Milon, Tomasz Skalski
Game Developer: Pawel Miniszewski
Unity Developer: Adam Lesniak, Lukasz Karasowski, Andrew Oaten
3D Development - Concept Design: Gadget Bot
3D Development - City Design: Triada Studio
3D Development - Art Director: Robert Simons, Peggy Chung
3D Development – Producer: Ara Aghamyan
Art Director/Designer: Hasmik Mkhchyan,  Artashes Stamboltsyan
3D Modeling and Texturing: David Andreasyan, Shavo Kandalyan
Animation: Riccardo Giuggioli
Character Modeling: Sophie Langohr, Karol Goreczny
3D Optimisation: Kate Lynham
Storyboards & Set Visualization: Henry Christian-Slane
UI Design: Melanie Hubert
Motion Design: Jakub Wesolowski, Maxime Bigot
Support Frames: Artem: Ken White, Simon Taylor
WizDish Locomotion Platform: Julian Williams, Charles King
Sound Design & Music: Box Of Toys Audio

Depending on budget and the technology available, all of these can be very effective because the sense of presence they provide is unparalleled by any other medium.

To achieve the immersion clients want, every sense can be simulated with the right tech, and arguably the most vital sense, after vision, is sound. “Because what you’re seeing looks real, you expect other stuff to be real,” says Henry. “If the sound is not behaving in a real way you get a disconnection that just deflates the experience.”

The final tip for making VR work is a golden rule – make it larger than life.  “If you can do it for real, whatever you’re doing in VR’s got to be a step beyond,” says Karl, “Otherwise what’s the point?” Nobody wants to create an experience of test-driving a car when for the same budget you could do it for real.

In 2015 we’re likely to get much more familiar with VR, and maybe it will stop being a tech gimmick. When it does, Henry and Karl agree that it will be down to storytelling. “How it performs as a storytelling medium defines whether it’s going to live or die,” says Henry. And if VR suddenly jolts to life in the next few years, companies like Framestore and UNIT9 will be part of it.

Under the Influence: Ben Campbell

January 15, 2015 / Features

By Ben Campbell

Cut+Run Editor Ben Campbell takes a hard look at the things that creatively shaped him.

When you really look at where you've got to today, professionally and personally, and start to muse on how it happened, there are some things that begin to stand out. Little patterns that now make it fairly obvious why you do what you do.

I've been working my way to being an editor since I was 22, but before that I had no real concept of what the job could be. It certainly was not an option our careers advisor gave us at school.

Heather Campbell

My great great great aunt was painted by Sergeant. Her niece E.A.S. Agnew was a painter and my mum followed in her footsteps. She is an artist and is full to bursting with energy and love for everything she does.

She would pick us up from little school in Wales on stormy days in her Talbot Mantra Rancho and drive us to the coast, where she would park as close to the sea as possible so the waves would crash over my brothers and me in our little Aluminium box. North Wales is full of interesting characterful places; private model villages, lighthouses, all-night singalongs at The Black Lion, and the magical Portmeirion.

I remember a school trip to London aged 13 and a visit to see the Hokusai exhibition. Our teachers thought the it was all about his idiosyncratic Japanese landscapes and waves. They forgot that he was also responsible for many hardcore pornographic images; man and woman, woman and woman, woman and octopus. "Holy f**k" I can still hear Mr Hartley say, wide eyed! We fell about laughing. See Tampopo where Hokusai's sexual imagery must have had an influence on Itame's great film.

My mum was majorly into Bonnard, Hockney and Paul Klee and was also instrumental in introducing me to the great masters. I always loved the drama of Caravaggio's painted scenes with their rich colours and dramatic framing, Turner with his incredible use of light, and Francis Bacon's beautifully discordant portraits, and Ralph Steadman's wicked, staccato drawings.

As an editor it is crucial to understand good framing, light and colour, essentially what makes a frame work in context. Although the great artists can give you a lot of guidance, it was really my mum's strong tutorship from very early on that tuned my eye in this respect.

The Drums

My brothers and I boarded at a small school in North Wales so we were tied to the various activities they laid on for us; Tennis, Ping Pong, Judo, Rugby, dry slope skiing, choral singing and perhaps more significantly, the drums, taught by the eccentric Maddigan and Mr Davies!

One of the obvious things that unite us editors is music and more specifically an unusually high percentage of us seem to be drummers. Maybe it's because we are drawn to the control this gives us. I loved listening to the greats: John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and Buddy Rich. Editing is all about control - the control and manipulation of your footage and sound. The drums give us a good grounding in musicality, which is essential when editing. We are constantly cutting up bits of tracks from Mozart to Lil Wayne.

Rhythm is essential too. But it's not just about beats and rhythmic cutting. It can be more about the rhythm of the way people and things interact. There is always a rhythm in conversations and language in general, see Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, Kramer Vs Kramer and In The Loop. The rhythm helps us comprehend. Make a shot the wrong length for an action and you can disrupt the viewer's ability to comprehend. The sound designer and film editor Walter Murch explains how humans understand things in the excellent In the Blink of an Eye where he writes about blinking as a way for us to process information.

Prince Rogers Nelson

The music I listened to growing up has been very important in my development. Thanks to my cousin Hugo's influence, I went to see Prince and the Revolution at Main Road in Manchester aged 13.

Prince Rogers Nelson is the best pop musician of all time. He diversified into the film world too with Purple Rain and the bizarre Under the Cherry Moon but it was his truly individual musical style that I love. On Dirty Mind Prince played all the instruments (bar a few riffs from Dr Fink), wrote and produced himself in his own studio. My brothers and I had all his albums from For You to Diamonds & Pearls and could sing all the words. I think knowing that he had so much control over his craft made me think that it was possible at all.

Music producer is one of the few comparable jobs to an editor and I am always fascinated by the producer's role in the music making process. Prince was my first experience of this.

I was lucky enough to have had an eclectic musical upbringing. Our music teachers would one day have us writing elementary madrigals and discordant classical modern and the next bashing out rhythms on one, two or three drum kits. Our choir master, Rhiannon Davies had tiny hands and banged away at her grand piano barely able to stretch one octave. She taught us discipline, musical structure and the importance of listening.

Music and sound design have a huge impact on the picture and can break or elevate it, see the brilliant Berberian Sound Studio. There are some tracks I am desperate to lay to picture. When you hear it it just screams to be juxtaposed to something! I am currently loving listening to the rhythmic developments of Brandt Brauer Frick. A good musical education whether that's from the street or the classroom cannot be overrated.

Lawrence

When I walk out of a great movie, I feel like the stars have realigned, like a reset button. Chronologically I would have to cite: My seventh birthday party at Threatre Clwyd's tiny cinema watching The Dark Chrystal. The spooky images of Oz and Henson's creatures have stayed with me.

I also saw An American Werewolf in London at a friend's house aged 10, some of us were younger. A brilliant and disturbing mix of comedy and horror with the awesome metamorphosis happening to Bad Moon Rising by Credence Clearwater Revival. We had to walk home across the bay in Anglesey but someone got scared and ran, leaving my little brother stuck in the boggy stream. The sounds of his screams still haunt me to this day.

But it was Lawrence of Arabia that had a huge effect on me. I love Lawrence's refusal to toe the line, and his staunch loyalty to his "native" friends. David Lean is the best, and, of course, an ex-editor. He started his work life at Gaumont as a tea boy (didn't we all?!) and moved on to cutting news reels and then movies before he began co-directing with Noel Coward. I love the epic scale of A Passage to India and Dr Zhivago full of intense passion and disaster. Melodrama, music and drama!

The Church Mice

To me, it is the earliest influences that have had the most obvious and dramatic effect on me professionally. There's honesty in the way you react to things as a child and I try to remember this in my professional life by relying on gut instinct where possible. My favourite children's book was The Church Mice by Graham Oakley. There is always the main plot line happening in the foreground: The main protagonists are kidnapped by some scientists to be sent to the Moon in a spaceship, but for me the real enjoyment came in the background of some of the larger illustrations; some mice were flirting, mini mice played tricks on each other, some were doing headstands, playing chess etc. I think this has had a lot of influence on my childish sense of humour, it taught me that it was ok to be silly.

I was drumming in a Hip Hop band when I was at Goldsmiths and the rappers would occasionally end up back at our Camberwell house. I remember them reading these books then laughing out loud, "I'm feelin' it man, I'm feelin' it!" This reveals the serious attention to detail needed to really grab hold of your imagination effectively. As an editor, you want the viewer to feel it but not necessarily notice it. The same level of detail is required in filmmaking and editing.

More recently I loved Desert Queen by Janet Wallach based on the letters of Gertrude Bell. I love her sacrifice and strength of character against the odds. I can not cite this as an editing influence but more an attitude to life and work: Where there's a will, there's a way.

 

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

Do we need to cry before we buy at Christmas?

December 18, 2014 / Features

By David Beattie

Brands have made a tradition of making people cry at Christmas, notices VCCP Creative Director David Beattie.

Every year I dabble with trying something new for Christmas. Maybe I’ll ditch the turkey in favour of another dry roasted meat. Maybe I’ll get all my shopping done early and avoid the last minute dash around Oxford Street. Maybe I’ll pace myself and not drink myself into a coma at every Christmas party. Maybe I’ll go somewhere hot and pretend that Christmas doesn’t even exist. But every year I have the same answer… I love my Christmas and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the traditions I have built up over the years. And for me, that includes the annual competition from advertisers to make the nation cry. And this year’s annual dropping of the ‘feelings bomb’ has been no different.

 
So, with the party season already taking its toll, the last minute shopping panic already setting in, and as I begin to prepare for a day of reindeer jumpers, copious amounts of food and drink and a snoozy Christmas afternoon – I asked myself do we need to cry to buy this Christmas.

Once again I looked to John Lewis to kick off the tear fest and they didn’t disappoint. Monty the Penguin’s heartfelt story of companionship hit the top of my cry-o-meter (sad soppy git that I am) and the production value was nothing short of what I have come to expect from a John Lewis Christmas ad. The warm and cosy feeling I expected was achieved. However, unlike last year’s Bear and the Hare story, it lacked the element of the unexpected that I was craving. Greedy, I know. And normally that wouldn’t matter, especially over Christmas where change for me is usually sacrilege. But I felt myself wanting more.

And ‘more’ for me was what Sainsbury’s delivered. Their tribute to fallen soldiers was both emotional and unexpected. The story was beautifully brought to life and - maybe because of my love for the beautiful game - hit me in the heart like a tonne of bricks. On first viewing I was a little taken aback. A famous but untold WW1 war story being used by a supermarket to sell its brand over Christmas… I wasn’t sure if it felt right at first. But on second, third, tenth viewing it was perfect. The story needed to be told and I for one thank Sainsbury’s for telling it. It was handled with the care, attention and all the love it deserved.

And the tear fest kept on coming. Boots has pulled on the heartstrings also, showing a family waking up in the early hours of Boxing Day so that they can celebrate it with their mum, a nurse who comes back from her night shift. A lovely story that brings to life the fact that people are the most important aspect of any Christmas. With many years of having to share my mum with her work on Christmas day, it really hit home.

Not all of this year’s ads needed to be new. The sound of Coca-Cola’s ‘Holidays are Coming’ and Toy’s R Us’ ‘Magical Place’ adverts being re-run are also a tradition I couldn’t live without. They have been a big part of growing up for me and every time I see them, or more specifically hear the music, it always reminds me of the excitement I felt around Christmas as a child. For me, it also proves that not everything has to be a heartwarming story and that a classic can create the same emotion - as long as you have a relationship with it previously.

But is all this crying really necessary? Sparkle, glitz and celebration are also powerful tools to use over the Christmas period. Marks and Spencer’s ‘Follow the Fairies’ and Argos’ ‘Get set for Advent’ are both great examples of how you can create excitement around a brand over Christmas without having to pull on people’s heartstrings.

Beautifully put together, Marks and Spencer’s ‘Follow the Fairies’ was pure sparkle - reminding me that luxury is a huge part of gift giving for Christmas.

And Argos’ ‘Get Set for Advent’ was a great example of how advertising can help people reappraise a brand through injecting a little energy and fun into its communications - even if I do miss their laminated book of dreams during the festive season. 

With all that said… talkability - or populating culture as we call it at VCCP - is a great indicator of how effective any advert is. So for me the ads that have created the most buzz – be it your parents discussing it over dinner, or friends chatting about it down the pub, people sharing it on Facebook or even the news and TV programmes referencing it as a feature story – are the ones that have succeeded, and the tearjerkers get the most coverage all the time.  Do we need to cry before we buy? Well, only time will tell, but if people are talking about it it’s cut through and thus half the job is done. I for one have made our annual dropping of the ‘feelings bomb’ a part of my Christmas tradition, and hope that advertisers’ competiveness to make the nation cry the hardest lasts for a very long time to come.     


David Beattie
Creative Director at VCCP - and Christmas softy

Do You Need a Penis to Direct Ads?

December 15, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The Swedish One of Three initiative reminds us of the terrible gender imbalance in the global ad industry.

The Swedish advertising industry recently made a bold move for equality. Five years ago a survey found that out of 130 commercials directors in Sweden only six were women. By 2014 little progress had been made. The industry has responded by introducing the En av Tre (One of Three) initiative, which states that for each pitch between an advertising agency and production companies, at least one in three directors should be a woman. This was written into the Swedish production and agency associations’ joint pitch guidelines in October, setting a new standard.

In exploring the issue it feels like I’ve spoken to half the London advertising industry and I’ve encountered every opinion from “fucking brilliant” to “the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard.” Thankfully, while Sweden’s choice of solution divides opinion, everyone recognises the problem the ad industry faces.

The Swedish guideline is a radical reaction, but in the face of the inequality it’s hardly surprising. While advertising is a business that prides itself in being trendy and creative, its demographics tell a different story.

Joi Persson runs Swedish production company Folke Film and recently signed a second female director to his roster. He supports the initiative. “I think it’s good,” he says, “and, sadly enough, needed because it will be very hard to change, especially when the commercials industry is pretty conservative. You pretty much need to be a guy [who is] a friend of some other guy who works as a copywriter or art director.”

This boys’ club culture is global and the UK is no exception. Out of all the directors listed on the rosters of Advertising Producers Association member production companies just nine per cent are female. That's pathetic.

Toby Moore, a Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy London, has only worked with one female director in his ten years in advertising. “That’s just strange,” he says. “But not so strange when I’ve never worked for a female ECD. And when our houses of parliament, sporting fields and boardroom tables are dominated by men.”

Feminism has taken some blows recently, resulting in a worrying trend for people starting sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”. But even the misogynists of Adland should be able to support One of Three’s sentiment because diversity is good for advertising. “Film, which relies on diversity of vision to keep the medium vibrant, needs more women directing that vision,” says Toby. “Without female directors, the medium suffers.”

Lindsey Clay, Chief Executive of Thinkbox, think it’s slightly more nuanced. “It’s not saying that just because you have a male director you will get a skewed, misogynistic view of women,” she says, “because that plainly isn’t true. But variety and diversity of point of view is a good thing and you get insights and reflections that you wouldn’t get from men.”

Of course directors should be selected on merit. A creative agency should choose the best director from the options available to bring their script to life. But when you look at the numbers, it seems impossible that this is the simple reality of how things currently work. Are nine out of ten scripts really best served by a male director?

The advertising industry is in some respects very meritocratic. Kai-Lu Hsiung, Managing Director of Ridley Scott Associates estimates that their runners are 50/50 male and female. “Ridley jokes that it’s like film school here sometimes because you find out quite early on what [aspect of filmmaking] they like. More of the women this time around want to start directing. So that’s a healthy thing, rather than going into wardrobe or something.” With no formal training required for many positions, the doors are open to anyone with the passion and intelligence for it. And the female voice is being heard in advertising, with women succeeding at every level – just not enough of them.

“We have to be very mindful to make sure we get a variety of people in [the ad industry] from different backgrounds,” says Kai. “It’s not just people you know. We’re trying to look for talent from all walks of life. That’s what keeps the business interesting and varied.”

Deputy Executive Creative Director at Grey London, Vicki Maguire, is familiar with the well-rehearsed arguments of this discussion. “Every time we have this debate in our office everybody trots out ‘it doesn’t matter who does the work as long as it’s good,’” she says, “but studies have proven like employs like. If you recognise what’s good within your department and you employ like then you are just going to dilute that influence pool.” She remembers when she first started at an agency “it was full of Oxbridge blokes and Northern men made good. So it wasn’t just gender. It was geographical as well.” We’ve made some progress since then, at least.

In a rational world, advertising would have no diversity issues. But people aren’t rational. Neuroscience has shown us that decisions are made on more of gut feeling and, since we are naturally clannish in nature, an industry built in sexist times by men selects men to continue the sexist business. This makes it tough for women at various levels. Firstly, in finding representation, secondly, in being chosen to pitch on scripts, and, thirdly, in winning those jobs.

To be clear, this is not the overt sexism of the Mad Men era, and we can be thankful for that. Much of it is subconscious. We have a set of norms that inform our decisions; ideas in our head of what a director (or copywriter, editor etc.) looks like. It seems likely that this influences how we evaluate people. Unfortunately this means everyone adds to the problem, even female creative directors who want to end sexism in advertising.

Another obstacle for women in advertising is the way their behaviour is perceived. To succeed as a commercials director you have to have a lot of meetings, which require confidence and leadership skills. Some people I spoke to suggested that traits that would be respected in a man are met with disapproval in a woman. It’s become a cliché that women with powerful roles are cast as “bossy” where no man would receive that label, but there’s truth to it. The way our gendered society creates men and women shapes our personalities.

Maybe girls don’t aspire to become directors, some of my interviewees suggested. “There’s a lack of ambition,” says Joanna Bailey, a director at Bare Films, “because maybe they’ve been brought up to believe that that could never be theirs.”

Lay on top of this the fact that female directors are often pigeonholed into a softer style and end up shooting ads for domestic and beauty brands – a force that’s hard to resist. “I did a lot of beauty advertising when I was younger,” remembers Sara Dunlop, a director at Rattling Stick, “and the odd ad comes through that’s great, fresh and new, but in that world it’s very difficult to do creative advertising. It’s too specific, like ‘what does this cream do?’ It hasn’t developed at all. For me it’s the scale of idea I want. And if you look at my reel it isn’t girly.” That involves saying no a lot, which she admits is hard. “Once you start saying no it’s like 21s. You keep turning over the cards and if the next card isn’t as good you’ve got to keep going.”

None of these obstacles are great for gender diversity in advertising. And, as the Swedes have concluded, the balance seems unlikely to tip on its own. Their answer has been the One of Three initiative, encouraging advertising agencies to at least consider female directors. “It gives them a way to change their bad habits and traditional ways of working,” says Henrik Eriksson, Chairman of Commercial Producers for the Swedish Film & TV Producers Association, who brought in the initiative.

Nothing like One of Three has been attempted in the advertising industry before, but similar examples of affirmative action are worth looking at. The Rooney Rule, introduced in 2003 to America’s National Football League, made it obligatory for teams to interview ethnic minority candidates for head coaching and senior roles. Within three years, the proportion of African American coaches had jumped from six to 22 per cent. 

Sweden have a track record for this kind of approach. Four of their major political parties have gender quotas to make sure men and women are represented equally. And they’re almost there on that front, with 45 per cent of seats in their parliament occupied by women.

Whether this is the right course of action for advertising remains to be seen. “It’s different with politicians,” says Kai. “You understand the fact that it’s reflecting society and therefore their opinions are important, whereas when you’re talking about creativity, it shouldn’t be about your sex. It should be about whether you’re a creative person.” Piling regulation onto the industry is a blunt instrument, and opinion is fiercely divided on the subject of positive discrimination. It’s suddenly a disadvantage to be a male director.

Some suggest a more subtle approach, based on encouraging and educating people on gender and celebrating the best female directors as role models. Daniel Bergmann, Chairman and EP of production company Stink, says he would love to see the outcome of One of Three, but he wants more initiatives in education and business to support female directors too. More female voices on award juries, opinion columns and at conferences. “There is a lot of positive focus on female business leadership,” he says, “but I feel there is definitely a gap for more contribution in these areas from female minds.”

No director would want to be given a script to pitch for on the basis of her gender. Benefiting from sexism is isn’t satisfying. “In pitching, [female directors] have got a better chance than a male, just by their sex. Is that fair?” asks Matthew Fone, President of Riff Raff. “Not really. But how else do you kickstart this? You have to go to this extreme level to make people aware. Natural progression just doesn’t happen. Why is that? It’s stupid.”

Unfortunately it’s easy to foresee some women being brought in on pitches as tokens now this new initiative is in effect. “If you feel like you’re just pitching and pitching, never in with a chance and just there because you’re the token woman, I think you’d feel pretty bad,” says Kai. Most of my interviewees agree. It’s a situation sure to leave a bad taste for all.

“I want to be there because my showreel’s good,” says Joanna. “I really don’t want to be there because of my gender. But on the other hand I absolutely recognise that it’s an issue. I love it when women come into the office and are good and I really want to see women do well.”

From a business perspective, some have speculated it could end up wasting production companies a lot of time, effort and money if their female directors keep pitching without converting those chances into work. And since directors’ treatments became the behemoth they are today, that could be a significant blow.

Another worry I heard from several my interviewees was that there wouldn’t be enough supply for the demand One of Three creates. They say the top flight of female directors are already working hard. Sara already spends a lot of time treating on scripts. “There’s definitely pitch fatigue if you’re doing treatment after treatment. And not being genuinely considered after that would be worse.” How will they find time to fit any more pitching into their schedule?

The hope is that production companies will stock this new market by finding and signing new female talent. With more chances to get on pitches, a more diverse roster has business advantages. We’re already seeing this take effect in Swedish production companies, who have known about the guideline’s introduction for months and responded by signing women to their directing rosters. “It’s a good opportunity to secure producers’ position of investing in talent,” says Henrik. “Suddenly producers are thinking ‘if I don’t have a female on my roster I won’t see some of the work in the business.’”

The obvious criticism here is that, again, those women are just tokens, signed on the basis of their gender rather than on merit. That’s true, and many of them will lack the talent to win jobs. As a production company owner, Joi accepts this risk. “That’s a responsibility that the production companies and agencies have to take,” he says. “We have to do it, as I see it.” Some producers will learn the hard way that quality still counts.

“Personally I wouldn’t want to be the nominal women that gets the job just because she’s a woman,” says director at Teepee Productions Nicole Volavka. “But putting someone on a pitch isn’t giving them the job. It’s just giving them a chance. A lot of the time I don’t think women are getting those chances.

“I think if you started to allow more women onto the pitches through positive discrimination, you might find that there’s a whole army of women who want that job very much more than the guys and will go all out and deliver a phenomenal pitch.” It feels likely that the quality will eventually come through as the new system stabilises.

Eventually. That’s the key to the One of Three philosophy. The change will cause problems and difficulties, but the need for gender equality is so deep that the Swedish ad industry is willing to work with them. These are all short-term problems set against a sexist tradition that predates advertising and a more equal, stimulating future.

Vicki recognises the trouble of strong-arming equality, but believes it will ultimately achieve a new, better equilibrium. “Once you’ve forced women into those jobs or at least got that balance right, then like any industry the good stay and the bad drop out. So first of all it’s good for gender and then it’s good for the industry.”

Once a proper gender balance is achieved we shouldn’t need guidelines like this. By the law of averages, more women pitching should translate into more directing ads. And not only for tampons and dresses, but for sports brands, cars and alcohol. “There will be a number of jobs where it was always going to go to Ringan [Ledwidge] and the other people are just pitch fodder,” Lindsey admits. “But there are the ones where they totally expect it to go to Ringan, but then suddenly they get a leftfield, completely different treatment that they weren’t expecting and it really suits them. They get a really good vibe from that partnership and [the female director will] get it.” That should help women build more interesting reels, which will bring them further success. And eventually, eventually, we should have prominent female role models for aspiring directors to admire. Then there should be more female directors.

Of course all this is hypothetical. My interviewees consistently expressed an interest in what kind of effect this change will have. Advertising will be watching the Swedish market closely, because whatever happens, the industry can learn from it.

Daniel is fascinated to see the outcome. “If exposed well and supported by agencies accepting scripts – from sport, automotive, and alcoholic beverages to fashion, music and luxury – then there is no reason why the balance between male and female directors going for roles for any brand cannot be achieved. If it is going to help drive change and impact on a global level, the initiative needs high exposure.”

Henrik believes this could be the beginning of a global shift towards equality in advertising. “If it becomes bigger than this, I think it can start a change, he says. “Not only in Sweden. I think we can improve other countries.”

A short recommendation in a regulatory document isn’t a revolution by itself, and the ad industry won’t reach its gender diversity promised land for many years. But having spoken to a cross-section of its professional population, one thing is clear – everyone is glad we’re talking about female directors. And they’re keen to make sure the conversation continues. After all, as one (obviously male) copywriter once wrote for his client, it’s good to talk.

Blurred Lines: The Designer-Director

December 4, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Tom Hingston talks us through his unique flavour of graphic-influenced directing.

We hear it all the time: a new epoch is dawning. With the advent of the Information Age, everyone has had to re-evaluate their position in the world. Roles and priorities have shifted so drastically that many of our old definitions seem futile. The labels we put on people seem limiting in the face of the range of tasks we now perform in our working roles.

Tom Hingston is the embodiment of these blurring lines. The foundation of his career was as a graphic designer, but in recent years his work has spilled over into what we used to call directing. With his studio behind him (aptly dubbed Tom Hingston Studio), he’s represented on RSA Films’ Design roster. His position raises the question – what do we call his job?

The reality of today’s multimedia, multiplatform world is that creative briefs are never as simple as the posters, print campaigns and TVCs of the past. “There are so many other channels that need to be considered,” says Tom. With RSA – a company with a strong filmmaking pedigree – recently launching a dedicated roster of graphic designers, including Tom, it’s easy to see how these worlds are colliding.

So where does designing end and directing begin? Tom doesn’t bother making this distinction between visual channels. “For me, a contemporary visual designer is someone that can work in both print, digital and moving image. I think anyone working in this kind of area and taking a contemporary approach should be able to transfer their skillset and visual sensibilities to any one of those areas.”

Tom’s keen to stress that being able to work across media is nothing new. His design heroes – people like Robert Brownjohn and Saul Bass – were some of the graphic design greats, but they worked across disciplines too, working on projects from film to furniture.

Robert Brownjohn’s title sequence for From Russia with Love

 

The key difference is peoples’ attitudes to this jack-of-all-trades approach. Technology and converging media have gotten us used to people with multiple talents. It’s easier to learn various skills now and the equipment is not nearly so prohibitively priced. Creative hardware and software isn’t exclusive to individuals or organisations with deep pockets anymore, meaning normal people can make professional quality film, design or music from their bedrooms.

One effect of this democratising change is that clients have opened their minds too. “In the early years it took quite a lot of persuasion for clients to accept that you could do a bit of digital, or more moving image, even though your background is predominantly print,” remembers Tom. “I think that’s changing. Clients are much more open to the idea that one agency has the skillset to look after all aspects of a project.”

Tom didn’t grow up with ambitions to direct film, but was always interested in the visual arts. “For as long as I remember I’ve always wanted to do something visual. I think when you get to your early teens you realise that you’re not going to be able to have a job just drawing stuff, so the next best thing is graphic design.”

He studied graphic design at St Martins and when he left he went to work for Neville Brody, the original art director of The Face and Arena magazines, where he stayed for three years. Designing for clients from Sony Playstation to Deutsche Bank and working on film titles for Michael Mann, he describes it as a sort of pupillage. And it was the ideal place to learn. “It was really mixed and diverse projects and that definitely had a massive influence on me. You should strive not to be pigeonholed. Creatively it’s so much more interesting and rewarding to work across very different areas. And what you find is that if the breadth is that wide then all those things feed into one another.”

Saul Bass’ title sequence for Casino

 

When Tom got around to setting up his own studio 18 years ago, the backbone of his professional beliefs and ambitions had been formed. Diversity of styles and mediums became a central tenet of his work.

He produced some applauded work for prominent clients, but wasn’t content with always keeping his design static. “I always felt that there were certain projects where you’d have an idea and when you saw it in print it was frozen in this moment in time. You had aspirations for it to be more than that and moving image allows you to do that because you’re dealing in time as well. There’re more possibilities, greater depth.”

Title sequences were his first step in his transition from static design to moving imagery. Tom agrees it certainly didn’t count as proper directing, but it was certainly a stepping stone. “If you’re a graphic designer with a typographic strength, which I always was, the idea of that leaping off the page and moving is really exciting.”

It was also helpful due to the fact that it meant working with directors, often for months on end. Collaborating with people like Anthony Minghella, Joe Wright and Anton Corbijn, Tom gradually gained an understanding of filmmaking. This was one of the vital periods in giving him the confidence to make himself into a director. “You get more and more comfortable with the idea that maybe that’s something you could experiment [with] or try,” he says.

Having art directed stills for many years, collaborating with photographers to create visual worlds and campaigns, Tom’s foundation of skills was already strong before he first got behind a video camera. “I definitely see directing moving image as an evolution of that process in many ways,” he says. “A lot of the aspects of collaborating with a photographer or DOP to create something visual are incredibly similar.”

His first time working on film was for two Dior commercials in 2004, working with photographer Nick Knight. “That was the first time I was sat behind a camera, albeit with someone else.” He remembers the confidence he gained by being privy to the whole process during and after a live action shoot like that. “Your confidence grows, your ambition grows and the next stage is doing that on your own.”

That moment eventually came around in the form of a unique project for Nokia. They wanted films to display on the interior walls of their flagship stores around the world. “Each store had a kind of inner skin that was pixel based. They commissioned a whole series of image-makers and young filmmakers to create ambient content that would go onto these screens. It was a great project because it didn’t need to be branded, just whatever you produced needed to encapsulate the values of the brand.”

Tom and the studio produced three films – two live action and one animated. He didn’t see himself as a true director yet, but he was building confidence.

Since then Tom Hingston Studio has worked on more title sequences, campaign films for Farrell, Mappin & Webb, and three music videos – one for Robbie Williams and two for David Bowie. Tom really went in at the top when it came to his music video career.

The studio also worked on a huge project for British audio brand Naim that encapsulates everything this hybrid of designer-director promises. The brief was to bring their branding up to date and to create a dynamic, cross-platform launch for Naim’s first wireless system, mu-so. This included the brand website as well as a campaign film – the biggest commercial film project Tom’s worked on to date.

It was a massive job, entailing six months of development from the studio, working in collaboration with Davy Evans, the designer behind the most recent campaign for the xx. “It’s developing a really distinct, strong and contemporary visual language for a brand,” says Tom. The film is halfway between a music video and a graphic design project, “performance but with a strong graphic sensibility. Even the way the dancers were lit was very graphic, treating the form as a piece of design.”

The designer-director fusion is a welcome asset to the diverse landscape of commercial filmmaking, and Tom feels there’s a unique contribution to be made by filmmakers like himself. “Whatever I do will always have a really strong language and look. Colour and composition are both inherent in design and it’s a sensibility that you definitely take into filmmaking. I guess the difference between me and someone who’s come straight out of film school is that they would do something much more narrative based and the focus would be much more about the characters and dialogue and all of those strengths.”

That said, Tom’s keen to expand those parts of his work too. From his Farrell film to his work for Naim, he’s enjoyed working with performance. And says he’d like to do more storytelling with his films, rather than the pure aestheticism he often gets commissioned to do.

The vision of graphic design has often produced work that we’re happy to gaze at in awe, and while designers turning a hand to filmmaking may not be new, we should celebrate that it’s becoming more common in advertising. With companies like RSA opening dedicated design rosters and visual communication flowing more freely between platforms, we’re likely to see a lot more designer-directors like Tom.