The Promo Director

Having fucked about after leaving art college and not knowing what to do, I initially tried to get a job as a creative at several ad agencies, which after a successful run culminated in me getting ripped off by one of the big ad agencies over a cat food poster.

So I gave that up and waited for my fingers to heal. It then occurred to me that I like music and films, and you can get paid to make short films to music, which I thought was brilliant.

Music videos had always been sneered at by my college and so they had also been disregarded by myself for a while. The college itself suffered from a background of self-inflicted righteous artsy-intellectual poverty, which I have battled ever since!

Having decided on my next career attempt, I spent over a year or so pounding pavements, knocking on doors of both production companies and record labels while making a show reel of videos shot on video, for various mates and mates of mates bands.

They were of varying quality from cool – ‘Smell Funky Beast,’ to quirky - ‘The Merry Babes’, later to become ‘Salad’ and Christmas cheesy crap, ‘Peter and the Test Tube Babies’!!!

They were all shot on a video 8 camera and edited by myself using borrowed edit time at a small post company. Everything was borrowed; it is amazing what you will get if you ask.

Eventually through my girlfriend at the time, I met a fashion photographer and promo director who had a production company. He kindly let me use his gear, but never took me into the fold.

I basically was knocked back repeatedly by production companies who insisted that I had to shoot something on film or the ideas basically didn't count.

At the same time I went to record companies to see if anyone had a new act with a tiny budget that they might let me make a video for. Savage records had a white rap act called 'Cut to Kill' and gave me £5000. I still find it amazing that they were prepared to give me the job. Around that time, I had got an experienced producer interested who agreed to produce the video (and spend all the money on the film) and take me on if it was good. It WAS! And he did. I did find out a while later he actually made 15% off it though…

My next job was a weird tie in of a remix of Bowie's 'Changes' by Tears For Fears producer Ian Stanley that was being used on a Twix commercial in Europe. We got to use the sets from the commercial and had a fake girl singer doing the female vocals (she was conspicuously white for an obviously black vocal!) and the real rapper called Valentino! So, off to a huge studio in Paris for my first 'proper' job, which turned out to be a fucking car crash!!

Then David Balfe, co-owner of Food Records, took a shine to my ‘Cut to Kill’ video and asked me to do 'Popscene' for Blur, which is still possibly my favorite video. So that covers the early years....

Many people invest a lot of time and money on media courses and going to film schools. Is directing an art that can be learnt through theory and practice? Or does the ability to direct come from a more organic place do you think?

I have no idea of whether you can teach directing. I think directing has technique(s) that can be learnt without a doubt. But it is what you do with them that does or doesn't impress.

You can't tell someone how to talk / relate to an artist for example, you can't tell someone what lighting to ask his DOP for, you can't teach original ideas; you can only describe a framework in which they might happen.

Any learning comes from an environment of encouragement and there is no reason not to go to college if you can. There would be little point in intentionally avoiding available education. But I believe a lot of successful directors come from obscure/not film educated backgrounds.

I learnt to drum listening to records and hitting cushions, I learnt to direct by watching TV and films and knowing what I liked and why. If you can 'see' direction in TV and films in the same way as being able to pick out a drum track on a record, then you have a route in. (There is, as a result, a lot of copyism of which I am as variously guilty as the next person. The thing about directing is almost everyone watches the same TV and films, as there are only so many).

This then brings me back to, yes, you can teach it but you will be learning the same thing as the next person so originality will suffer. I am supposing that originality / original thought matters in education.... I think you could teach someone to direct like Jonathan Glazer, but not like Michel Gondry.

Do you think running would be a good place to start for aspiring directors?

It is as good a place as any. However, I don't think it is the best. It is better for a route into production.

I only know of two runners who went onto direct. I don't think the knowledge you gain as a runner is essential in any way. It is a job that keeps you near film production not direction.

If I was working as a runner and I wanted to be a promo director, what should I be doing to better my chances of being successful? 

I think as a runner who wants to be a director your desire to direct needs to be highly visible.

This in itself will engage director's more, ask questions, talk. In particular be interested in why you have been sent out for that book or film. Be first to offer to film castings... From my point of view I would be constantly looking to use whatever equipment is available, cameras, computer edit suites etc. ask to sit in on edits, telecines etc. Display drive.

Always do your job as quickly as possible and never behave like any task is beneath you.

Promo’s are notoriously long shoot days, and a great deal is demanded from everyone involved. What expectations do you have of your runners and how important are they in the overall success of a shoot?

If you don't have something to do, find something. There is never nothing to do on a shoot. Always ask if there is anything you can do. If you see that the camera or art or sparks or wardrobe are busy, then ask if you can help.

If there really is nothing to do, then make tea or dish out water. A bit of personal attention never goes amiss and you will be associated with it in a positive way. Never turn your nose up at a task; you have to earn your right to an ego. It is donkeywork, but your choice. If your ego won’t take it, don't do it.

The most important thing as a runner on a shoot is to service it. The only thing that matters is the film because until it is made you can't go home. As a runner you need to be aware of what it takes to make a shoot happen from the runners all the way up to the director.

Try to be available at all times - I frequently find myself looking around for a runner and not seeing one. Good runners keep people happy and are essentially selfless. Happy crews work faster. It is not brain surgery. Bad runners can piss crews off and slow shoots down, sometimes dramatically. (French runners just stand around and smoke. If you don't want to work, go run in France!)

You can watch and learn on a shoot but I don't think it will teach you how to direct. Again, it teaches you how things work, not necessarily how to work them.

Directing a promo is obviously very different to other kinds of directing work. When on a shoot do you have to put on different directing hat for each job you do or is your approach to directing the same regardless?

The primary difference of promo directing is that to win the job you come up with the idea. It is like being a writer / director - you are directing you own product and ideas. So you are closer to it than when you are executing other people’s writing / ideas. You alone are responsible for everything in front of the camera; full stop (except the weather of course).

Within promos the directing doesn't really change from job to job, for me it is always the same, it is like herding sheep. The sheep are the various elements; artist / crew departments / location etc and I have to guide them into the enclosure. A location shoot has different elements to a studio shoot. A special effects shoot is different to a simple set shoot, a shoot with cranes or motion control is obviously a more complex wrangle - extras are a whole other thing! But the task is always the same, getting the elements under control, then in position, and then rolling the camera... 

I think hat changing is swapping between promos, commercials, films and TV. But the hats are for the difference in the type / style of productions. 

Directing is the same once you are behind the camera or in front of the monitor, basically controlling the images. Really, what changes on different jobs is the crew you put around yourself. For example, certain assistant directors are good with people, whilst others are good with getting their head around special effects. Some cameramen do good green screen, whereas some are good hand-held and so on. You pick your team for the match. And you will more often than not have to deal with 'injuries' as it is actually quite hard to book who you want, as a good new DOP will soon be busy.

What challenges do you think new directors face in the industry as it currently stands?

Money matters aside, my opinion of the industry at the moment are that creativity it is at a very low ebb and risk-taking is virtually non-existent.

For promos, the requirements are increasingly simple; get it on TV in the least offensive way possible. The only people who can adventure are artists who have final say and want to do something different. These artists are generally well established and have earned money and or respect, so have sway at their labels. The challenge is to produce promos that are memorable or display effective integrity without ruffling the increasingly and strangely prim feathers of the music industry. It now feels like it is more about craft than art, finish not substance.

Personally I now view directing promos as more of a great job, not an outlet for my creativity but a way to fund it and explore other avenues.

Money-wise, budgets have dropped both here and in America. But record companies still want the same product, which again adds to the squeeze on creativity.

Interestingly, there is now a sub-culture of videos shot cheaply on video that are now 'allowed' on music TV channels, like MTV2. This I think is a result of reality TV in it's many and various forms and their commonality in the use of cheap looking video. It means new (potentially adventurous) bands know they don't really need to pay for a 'breakthrough' video to get on TV anymore and those were often the more interesting ones.


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