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5 Minutes with… Johnny Hardstaff



On joining forces with Stink, his glorious sketchbooks and being a ‘terrible advertising slut’

5 Minutes with… Johnny Hardstaff

Johnny Hardstaff is one of the most interesting directors around. Since bursting onto the advertising scene in 2001, when he was featured in the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase, he’s been creating entertaining, visually delightful and technically ambitious ads and shorts. In recent years his work for Honda, Kenco, Philips, Tropicana and the new Hovis campaign have showcased his versatility and attention to detail. But maybe the most interesting thing about Johnny is the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. He’s a prolific writer on the subject of film craft, he’s meticulous when it comes to production design and immerses himself in the world-building aspect of his projects, and oh-my-word, his sketchbooks are things of intricate beauty.

He recently joined forces with Stink for representation in the UK. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Johnny to find out more and to have a flick through his drawings…

LBB> How did the relationship with Stink come about?

JH> Stink feel like a very natural fit. It’s born out of years of admiration on my part. After a gentle departure from RSA (who I had spent many years with and very much admire) in the summer, I’ve simply been looking to refresh with truly energized and lovely people who really get the work and who totally share the ambition. In that sense I guess Stink is a delightful inevitability.

LBB> And what is it about Daniel and the rest of the Stink team that made you think that they would be great collaborators for you?

JH> Stink have not only been making consistently killer work for many years now, but diverse killer work. They’re not just mining a look. They’re smashing it in very different ways and in different media. Stinkdigital is world leading. For a director who’s come from a design background and is excited by many ways of working, the opportunities at Stink feel unique.

But it’s not so much the organisation as the people behind it that nails it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked directly with some serious advertising luminaries in the past (Ridley and Kai to name just two) and in Blake, Tor, Jon and of course Daniel Bergmann there is the opportunity to do so once again and in a very different way. Their reputations precede them.

LBB> You recently directed the big new Hovis campaign from Mother London – it really made me think about the classic kid’s adventure films from the ‘80s and I loved the sense of menace that you managed to imbue into something as innocuous as bricks and mortar! How did you go about building up that menace and what sort of references or influences did you draw from? Did you find yourself tapping into your own childhood memories or experiences?

JH> Unashamedly so. Goonies was pretty much our main reference. Super 8 is in there. Even E.T. We wanted to evoke those memories for the adults, but also try and speak to kids in their own language. That’s why everything is seen from the kids’ perspective. The house really does chase them, and the result is real jeopardy.

But inevitably, in designing this house’s character and the world around it, we found ourselves reliving our own childhoods. The blue and yellow Tuff Burner is the bike I had always wanted as a kid. The plastic on the sofa is a throwback to friends we all can remember whose parents liked to keep everything ‘nice’. The whole thing is an amalgam of the Mother team’s childhoods and a little of my own. The theme is universal, and the message is simple: now more than ever, kids need to get out and have fun.

LBB> Another project that we really enjoyed was the Kenco Coffee vs. Gangs campaign from 2014. It’s fair to say that it’s unlike any coffee ad I’ve seen before! What were your thoughts when you first saw the brief for that? And the moving tattoos are so eerie – how did you manage to bring them to life in a way which was quite subtle and not cartoonish?

JH> I’m one of those directors that likes to interpret a script, not simply regurgitate what’s on paper. The Kenco project was great creative from the start but the story was originally written as pure animation. I wanted to shoot it much more live action and more real precisely to avoid it ever feeling literally ‘cartoonish’ or light, and Jess, Matt and Carly completely got behind that. It wasn’t always easy to keep it from becoming a more traditional coffee ad but we all managed it (for now – I’m still waiting for it to appear with a cup of coffee tacked on the end) and the result is pretty striking I hope. We had a ball making it in the favela with the community starring in it, it market researched brilliantly and the client loved the result. It’s a useful reminder of how any sector can be reimagined and have a greater impact.

LBB> I guess one of the calling cards of your work is the rich world building that goes on and I know that you’re someone who takes the production design process quite seriously. When you get a brief that catches your eye, what are your typical first steps when developing the world and characters? Are you someone who stocks up ideas to draw from or do you like to approach every project with fresh eyes and ideas?

JH> Fresh eyes every time. It’s the design background. Every project is a problem to solve and an opportunity for something new. Every project has its own rules and its own visual language, and hopefully this becomes a brand new visual language that hasn’t quite been seen before.

It’s the story that I always fixate on first. The story has to be rewarding. It’s a big ask, 30 or 60 seconds of the viewers time. You have to deliver. Our Smirnoff ‘AppleBite Red’ ad delivers a fairly big story in a very short time span, but it doesn’t feel at all rushed. Hovis takes you on quite a trip. Philips ‘DarkRoom’ takes you on a somewhat familiar journey through physics. Brief but full immersion is the intention. Making ads that make you forget everything else you’re so engaged.

But yes, I like to personally design these worlds very carefully and yes, I can’t deny it, that’s where the real pleasure lies in it for me, making new worlds and doing so differently every time but where everything is just so, even if ‘just so’ means looking like it hasn’t been designed at all.

LBB> I was really drawn in by the meticulous sketchbooks you showcase on your personal website. In the age of digital tools, it can seem that the simplicity and creative power of sitting down with a pen and some paper can be overlooked… What are your thoughts on this? Do you still keep physical sketchbooks or do you find yourself using different means of storing your ideas? Do you find the process of sitting down drawing helps you organise your thoughts?

JH> I’m with you. I love to draw. There’s research on this that is pretty conclusive. The physical act of writing and drawing is creatively liberating, whether it’s on paper or tablet or whatever. I keep paper sketchbooks compulsively. I have a big stack of them now going back years. I never look back through them but somehow I think they help me develop in some sense and if nothing else, what they do is help satisfy my constant desire to make. 

LBB> Looking back over your career, which projects (commercials or otherwise) are you proudest of and why?

JH> I’m never overly satisfied with anything I make because I think I’ve programmed myself not to be. I want to do better each time, so I approach everything with the same level of enthusiasm and drive. But looking back, I guess I do have a soft spot for ‘DAVID’. I like the tone and the mood of it. There’s a feeling about it that was absolutely intended and it reminds me how something so specific can be crafted so knowingly. And I do have a slight thing for ‘DarkRoom’ just in the sense of how complete it is and how it transports you. But haven’t I made ‘it’ yet, that one killer ad that satisfies my every advertising dream and that is SO hot that it could go out at night and pull? Not yet. But I think I’m close and I’m constantly thinking about it.

Prometheus Viral 'David' from Joe Mount on Vimeo.

LBB> You’ve written a lot about film, animation and graphic design over the years, interestingly for textbooks and journals. I was wondering whether you’ve found that looking at your discipline through a more academic ‘lens’ has helped you in your day-to-day work in any way? 

JH> Well, I have been an academic in the distant past, although my former colleagues would tell you that I was a terrible and irresponsible academic with a shocking health and safety record. But I did love the teaching, and a big part of that involved learning to be more articulate and explain things simply and clearly. This has definitely helped in meetings. I think that’s why I love a PPM, weird as that is. And of course, it also taught me words that I’m very unlikely to ever make use of in all except the trickiest PPM’s. 

LBB> You studied Graphic Design at CSM – do you feel that this background influences how you approach your directing work? If so, how?

JH> It’s had an enormous impact. It didn’t feel like I was being taught as such back in the day, but they were teaching albeit by stealth. We learnt to be confident and brave. We learnt (for good or bad) that only the best was good enough. We learnt to be very resourceful, which at the time meant steal everything, and above all we learnt how to problem solve. Everything was a design problem that needed fixing, and I find myself taking this approach with every single project: What are the bullets to duck? What’s good and what’s bad about it? What are the objectives? They taught us to play a game, and to love playing it.

LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?

JH> I’d like to think that I taught myself long ago never to have heroes. Or at least to kill them as in ‘The Golden Bough’. But the truth of it is, it’s impossible not to have heroes. I still love the old school French image makers like Guy Bourdin and Jean Paul Goude no matter how they come in and out of fashion and the controversy they court now. And I guess that it was Ridley’s ‘Share the Fantasy’ Chanel spots that first got me hot for advertising as a small child precisely because they conjured a fantasy world that I wanted to immerse myself in. This is what I chase now.

LBB> What advice would you give to aspiring directors trying to break into the world of commercials?

JH> The advice is really simple: Set yourself a high creative standard and stick to it. It’s a tough route and a long game to play. It’s not for everyone. But what advertising needs is the exceptional, not the mundane. So if you’re going for glory, then aim high and accept nothing else.

LBB> As a director, I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on virtual reality. Is it something that you’re interested in exploring or not? I guess it could be a great medium for exploring world building..?

JH> Totally. I know everyone is tiring of talk of VR, and I know that of late certain directors have voiced their doubts as to VR’s merits for storytelling full stop, but my feeling is that we need to stop thinking like ‘directors’ and design a new definition of ‘director’ for VR. The storytelling opportunities in VR are immense, you just have to accept that there are other and new ways of ‘manipulating’ your audience that ultimately may surrender most of the processes and some of the control that conventional filmmaking enjoys, but to the most spectacular ends. 

This is precisely why Stink are such an exciting company. New ways of working creating new experiences. In every sense this is what I and pretty much every creative individual I know crave. New game changing experiences.

LBB> What kinds of projects are you looking to get involved in in 2016?

JH> Like the terrible advertising slut that Saint Martins somehow created, I find myself loving literally all kinds of projects, just so long as they have the capacity, no matter how nascent, to be wonderful, and involve working with lovely human beings.

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Stink Films, Wed, 25 Nov 2015 18:22:38 GMT