After winning first prize for his charity short at the YDA in 2013 Ben Liam Jones’ career has gone from strength-to-strength. He discusses the perks of winning and dispenses six tips for new directors looking to break into advertising.
You picked up a First Prize in the European Short Film category at the YDA in 2013; what do you remember most about that year’s ceremony and your success at it?
2013! I vividly remember some winners giving speeches like they’d won an Oscar. Seriously, there was free champagne waiting outside and we had to wait while someone was thanking their dog! But I also remember there being a real buzz in the room. For us filmmakers this was a new exciting experience, for others there was some serious business to be had. As I walked off stage with the award, before I could get back to my seat, I had two producers grab my arm wanting to arrange a meeting after. That was good for the ego.
How hopeful were you that your film, It Follows Me Around [below], might come out of the YDA with some form of recognition?
Umm… I’m my own harshest critic, but I knew that it was good. It’s still, today, the best thing my name is attached to and the thing that I’m most proud of. I would have caused a scene if it didn’t win.
“Moving from a film about child abuse to selling a yogurt or insurance isn’t the easiest transition.”
What effect did the win have on your burgeoning directing career?
It was huge! One of the producers who grabbed my arm that day was an EP at Moonwalk Films, who still rep me in France today. There are lots of talented directors out there, but in this risk-averse culture having that recognition convinced the hesitant ECD, account man or client to give me a shot. It gave me a short cut.
What made you want to get into directing in the first place?
The honest answer: I didn’t want to get a real job. I fucking love what I do. As I’ve learnt the craft my ambitions have become more intellectual, but that’s how it started.
“Without [the YDA] the old guard will be directing into their 80s. That’s not good for anyone.”
Your work, including It Follows Me Around, often tells very emotive stories; is that something you’ve always gravitated towards and, if so, why?
Moving from a film about child abuse to selling a yogurt or insurance isn’t the easiest transition, so it was more by accident than design. We focused on the strengths of It Follows Me Around, which I like to think are the storytelling, casting and naturalistic tone. Then we tried to find scripts that had those requirements.
It just so happened to be the same year Dougal Wilson made the brilliant John Lewis The Long Wait spot, so everyone gravitated towards that kind of advertising. After you make something you get pigeon-holed, as clients and agencies always want to see that you’ve done it before. So, here I am.
The more work you do, the more opportunities you get to sneak in a comic moment or a visually tricky moment. I’ve had the chance to do some animation, which I loved. So naturally, your reel evolves. If I wanted to do something radically different I should get off my arse and make a music video or comic short to show what else I can do.
Do you think it’s become more or less difficult for new talent to break through in the world of commercials?
Harder. Lots of young filmmakers get a chance to make documentary style pieces for brands. But the opportunity to craft a commercial in a traditional sense? You normally have to have a big award or a music video that has 100 million views. Even then, it’s tough. Looking at it from a client’s perspective: why take a risk when you can have a safe pair of hands available? It’s a risk-averse culture now.
“Approach charities about making stuff for them. Unless you want to make comedy… that would be weird.”
How important do you think competitions and events such as the YDA are for allowing new directing talent to get noticed?
The exposure is amazing. Producers at production companies and now in-house agency production are all over it trying to find new talent. Without it the old guard will be directing into their 80s. That’s not good for anyone.
“Don’t waste your time obsessing about anamorphic lenses or shooting 16mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio when you haven’t even got your cast and story sorted.”
What advice would you give to any director looking to carve out a career in advertising?
1. Make sure you know how you’re selling yourself. Are you a comedy director? Visual? Narrative? Production companies have to package you up and sell you to agencies and target work for you.
2. Less is more on your reel. Only put on the type of work you want to make.
3. Try to find image research or treatment writing freelance work. This is the best apprenticeship for learning about the pitch process. I believe Sam Brown started this way and he ain’t half bad.
4. Ask to shadow or assist a director. I kind of faked it, till I made it, but I wish I’d done this.
5. Approach charities about making stuff for them. Unless you want to make comedy… that would be weird.
6. Don’t waste your time obsessing about anamorphic lenses or shooting 16mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio when you haven’t even got your cast and story sorted. I obsess over this now, but I have no idea what lenses or camera I used on It Follows Me Around.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m about to shoot my first short film, which has been two years in the making. I’m also pitching on two summer campaigns to pay for the short film.
Ben Liam Jones is represented by the following companies;
France: Moonwalk Films
UK and US: StrangeLove
Canada: Sparks Productions