Tell us about your career as a director so far
It’ll be 19 years this August that I joined The Mill. Leaving art school, I began in the London office and worked in 3D – the very early days of Mill 3D. Stephen Venning (Executive Director at The Mill) can probably tell you my entire career, as I started when he came in to run the 3D team. I’ve always loved art, design and making pictures. I was part of the original crew that eventually became Mill+ (now Mill Direction). This was a key group of creative 3D people who took on more creative responsibility on projects and ultimately directed them. I think I always knew I wanted to be a director. What I find interesting is how varied the routes are to this goal. I guess I was part of the digital revolution of film and image making. A home computer was a new tool to create stories and design worlds.
You’re currently based in LA, where have you lived and worked previously?
As I said, I’ve been at The Mill since art school. I moved from Mill London to Mill NYC when the office opened and spent about 6 years living there. The city was a huge influence on me and I still love it today. I’ve been in LA now for about 9 years and fully feel like I’m at home here. The offices all share a culture and a vibe – passionate people and a pride about the work, but each office is unique and has its own way of doing things.
Lots of your projects are with the auto industry, when did you begin working in this sector?
Pretty much as soon as I joined The Mill. I think my aesthetic suits the car world. I love lighting and cinematography and I think the auto industry, more than other sectors, use beautiful imagery as a key way to sell their products. I also do like cars a lot. But I’d say it’s more about the design and aesthetic of them I like rather than me being a gearhead and tinkering under the hood.
What do you like most about working creatively in the auto industry?
As mentioned above, it’s really the art, design and cinematography that the auto industry draws on that I love. I also love technology, the future and science fiction, which car companies are very much aligned with. Each car manufacturer is trying to sell a high-tech piece of the future. I also really love shooting cars. The adrenaline of racing in a camera car, hanging on, as we tear passed the picture car at 60mph in a stunning location and seeing magic happen in the monitor. It’s hard to beat.
To make these adverts, cars are often crafted in CG. Why is this?
CG is great for cars as it can handle hard surfaces really well. Metals, plastics and glass can look very real. Also all cars are designed in CAD so we can get the actual raw asset of the cars. Often car ads ask for something fictional and fantastical too, and so CG is the answer. More mundanely, cars are expensive and so not always available to shoot, so CG is often the answer.
What are the downfalls of using a CG car?
It takes time to get right. Subtle fine details that are hard to match. Also, real driving motion is harder to get than you imagine. The weight, suspension, vibrations, roll – so many things going on. It’s tough to get CG feeling like a solid ton of metal.
How are you able to ensure the cars are realistic?
There’s a million little things going on so we’re always pushing to create more and more realistic CGI. The Mill has developed lots of tools over the years, most notably the blackbird, in order to digitally recreate cars. In terms of look, a car is a mirror so HDRI lighting was a key breakthrough for us. That, along with custom car paint and metal shaders helps us make cars look real. Personally, for me, it’s been years of experience in filming, lighting and understanding not only what makes a car look real, but what makes a car look good. That is the key.
You’ve also directed title sequences, music videos and commercials for brands such as Pepsi, Adidas and Nintendo. How would you describe your style?
Yeah, I’m not just a car guy. Even though I love them, it’s the art, design, stories and worldbuilding car advertising allows me to tap into that I like. Audi Birth was a highlight not because it was advertising a car, but that it was a whole journey of sci-fi design, invention and just creating crazy things. A ‘what if’ idea that we ran with. I also think of myself as a cinematographer, obsessed with light, composition and color. This goes back to my art school days where I worked with oil paint, creating large abstract compositions. I love ‘light’ itself. Space, shadow depth, form: these things I can obsess over. As I develop in my career, I’m trying to do bigger things, longer pieces and bring more humanity into my work. I love sci-fi ideas and weird existential concepts – again, the ‘what if’ scenario excites me. At the top of my many goals is creating a feature film that can sit alongside my favorite masterpieces – Blade Runner, Alien, Akira and 2001 A space Odyssey. It’s a tall order I know, so I say that with a smile on my face. But you gotta dream big!
What is a key learning the current lock-down situation has taught you about how you work?
Currently, I’m digging back into my CGI roots. Being trapped at home doesn’t stop you exploring your ideas inside the computer. I love the fact that I have a skill set to make things! Just like when I was a kid with LEGO. If I have an idea, I can jump onto a machine and start creating. The current situation has shown us that we can network from home and all collaborate just as easily. I’m eager to see what we can create.