Under the Influence: Brian Williams

June 17, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

What inspires this Irish graphic designer turned director?

Now a director making commercials for major international brands like Adidas, the BBC and Lexus, Bang’s Brian Williams gets his acute visual awareness from his earlier career as a graphic designer. But what sort of experiences and ingredients does it take to make a director like him? We asked him to talk about his five biggest influences to see if we could work it out.

A Playful Upbringing

The atmosphere I was brought up in was amazing. Looking back on my early life and how my mum and dad were into the arts really fed through to every decision I made after that.

Everything was about playtime and imagination for us. We were a very lucky Irish family in that we got to travel a lot as kids. We were basically like gypsies on the road in a tent across Europe for a month, which is very unusual in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There was always that sense of adventure and that fed into the movies we watched.

My mum and dad were massive movie buffs. They just adored cinema. And they were kind of mainstream. I’d love to be able to wax lyrical about watching Fellini and whatever when we were young. We weren’t. It was Clint Eastwood, the Marx Brothers. Ice Station Zebra is a really particularly influential film on me.

The Lord of the Rings was a long time from being out in the cinema, but I’d read the books and loved them, so I made myself a ringwraith costume and I was wandering round the sand dunes in Cork scaring people. It was a fairly scary costume. I’d bought my first Bell and Howell Super 8 camera. I filmed myself murdering my family when I was 10 and we submitted it to BBC Screen Test.

Two months went by and eventually a BBC letter headed envelope came through the letterbox. Obviously, it was a very polite ‘what is wrong with your son?’

I just thought this kind of life was normal. I’d build a robot and enter it into competitions or build a city out of found objects and the whole family would be stepping over it for a month. They just accepted it.

At that time my dad was into amateur dramatics. I got involved in doing the lighting on The Plough and the Stars when I was about 13. This old ‘60s style man with polished shoes and Brylcreemed hair had taught me how to do lighting. It was coming up to the big launch of The Plough and the Stars and he dropped dead. It was a big shock but the show must go on and they turned to me and said ‘you know how to do the lighting board. Will you continue on with it?’ I said ‘OK, but I’d like to make some adjustments.’

There’s a famous battle scene in it and I took a lot of the lights down and put them underneath the grannies’ seats at the front. It had a spectacular effect when the battle scene was raging and the lights were going off in the auditorium. Unfortunately I did manage to melt somebody’s tights to the seat. They went a bit on fire.

When the review of the Amateur Dramatics Society ended up in the Evening Herald a week or two later it never mentioned my name, which I loved, but it did say ‘the lighting was very experimental.’ I was thrilled at that.

That period for me was such a fantastic playground. I was a sponge and I was being given all these amazing things to see and do and play with. Some might say I was indulged, others might say encouraged.


2000 AD

My brothers were reading very normal comics and I remember seeing [2000 AD] on the top shelf. I think Dan Dare was on the cover in the early days. I got into it when it was very young, just as it was moving away from that ‘60s, idealistic science fiction stuff and into stuff like Harlem Heroes – basketball with jetpacks – and Flesh – farming dinosaurs in the future.

I was captivated by the stories at first, but as I grew up the art became far more important to me. That’s when I began to mimic the style. I’m not an expert on the history but I think it was Brian Bolland doing Judge Dredd and a guy called Mike McMahon and I’d never seen anything like it. And I’d never seen anything as violent. I thought that was fantastic.

It’s punk, basically. I was too young to realise it was punk but it was. In a strange way many of the themes and looks that were created for it were cyberpunk before cyberpunk became cool.

The art of 2000 AD was always very considered but it had this very well thought out punk attitude in terms of stylisation of the characters, they could be bald with warts. I’ve always loved that idea of standout faces. If I’m looking at Marvel all the faces are normal, acceptable type people, whereas there were really super ugly heroes in 2000 AD.

There were a slew of characters I thought were amazing. My desktop background is actually still Rogue Trooper. There was Strontium Dog. What really changed things for me was Nemesis the Warlock. I think it was only Kevin O’Neill who did most of the Warlocks.

It was so edgy, so different. It showed a science fiction world in such a completely different way. They shredded the rules, coming out of an era of optimistic science fiction, where aliens were the bad guys and spaceships were rounded and clean. Way before Neill Blomkamp was dirtying up spaceships with graffiti, 2000 AD were doing it in the ‘80s.

I would be doing paintings of Nemesis the Warlock and hanging it on the wall at school. And bear in mind this is the ‘80s and it’s a Christian Brothers school. It was very unusual. 2000 AD wasn’t pop culture at that stage. Nobody realised what was hanging on the wall at the Christian Brothers school.


Syd Mead and Blade Runner

I saw the film and was obviously blown away. I couldn’t believe it. I started buying all the books and magazines, everything I could possibly buy. I remember coming across Cinefex magazine, buying a subscription and coming across the drawings of Syd Mead.

I absolutely adored his style because he had this quite architectural style, which is beautiful to look at, and fine pen work with those beautiful markers. It was super futuristic just in the way he drew and, having come from 2000 AD, it was something completely different again.

I got into the films on a totally different level then, even further, because of his work, buying books and drawings of his.

I began to do paintings and drawings of Dublin retrofitted like he’d done in Blade Runner. That’s what my portfolio was full of when I went to art college. I remember redesigning the Evening Press in a future Irish setting, because he had done USA Today for the film. I was just consumed by the world.

I loved the lighting and the cinematography. I didn’t even know I was looking at cinematography. I just knew that light is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was only really years later that I honed in on Jordan [Cronenweth] and his work. Sure, Ridley Scott is a master, he was the ringleader, but those two particular guys, Jordan and Syd, and [special effects supervisor] Douglas Trumbull. Lets face it: they’re the triplet that were utterly key in making something that was so unique.

Ridley Scott was from an advertising background as well and to actually include advertising in the film as a huge component, that was utterly unique as well.

It was the everyday that we see around us. He didn’t change everything like science fiction had been doing. It was just taking the everyday and pushing it forward slightly and that was what Syd Mead’s job as a futurist was. He was grounded as being an industrial designer. It was a stroke of genius.


Vaughan Oliver Vs. Peter Saville

The two influences from that period for me would be Vaughan Oliver at 4AD versus Peter Saville at Factory Records. Two very different aesthetics.

Vaughan Oliver for me is kind of summed up by the music, whoever it may be on 4AD. I just found those album covers wonderful. And this is before Photoshop. By the time I was doing work like this as design or as a live-action director, I had the ability to do incredibly layered textural pieces, so it was a massive influence for me.

But then you look at Peter Saville and his restraint, his minimalism, his attention to detail and type and it was just a completely different story.

Basically my early career was very Vaughan Oliver, very OTT, very textural, then later in life I worked with another designer who was very minimal and I began to be influenced a lot more by his design style and that would be the Peter Saville style.

I found that the results were a hint of chaos and a hint of restraint. My work improved. And that fed straight into how I direct and what I like still to this day.

I was shooting something the other day and thinking ‘that is very, very busy coming through the lens to my eye. How do I frame up so that I’m not being greedy here?’ And that means sacrificing somebody’s work. Maybe your own. But the result is often more satisfying.


Dark 80s Music

My early taste was somewhat dubious. When I was very young I was given Cliff Richard to listen to. So my first record was Cliff Richard. My second record, however, was Kraftwerk - Autobahn.

It all ties in that we would be driving with our tent and a little trailer behind us on the Autobahn in Germany, listening to Autobahn on the cassette recorder, with my mum going ‘It’s a little bit monotonous, but I kinda like it.’

That then fed into all the other things I loved. I never went the rock route. It was always this electronica-influenced stuff. Caberet Voltaire was hugely influential, both visually and their whole attitude seemed to be quite unique.

Dif Juz – one of the loudest bands I’ve ever heard. They were like a heavy metal Cocteau Twins. Obviously Dead Can Dance, D.A.F., Shreikback, the list could go on and on.

All of those were the soundtrack to that period. There was a darkness to all of that. And there was a darkness to the films and the stuff I watched. I guess it’s the same as why the Swedish and Danes are so good at dark noir – they would always say they have a really happy life so they don’t mind looking at the dark. I think there’s something in that, without getting too wanky.

I was able to indulge all those things and have a great time doing it, but I felt very comfortable around music that was dissonant and dark. I think there’s a big streak of melancholy that goes through me and in a strange way that atmosphere informs the kind of commercials I like to make. I always like light and shade in film and I love a sense of warmth, but put it in jeopardy and you maybe have some magic.

Have a look for these influences on Brian’s reel.

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