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A Small Fish Splashes into a Big Old Pond

Production Company
London, UK
Helen Hadfield explains the philosophy behind her new production company, Snapper
“I think we have to tear things up,” says Helen Hadfield. It’s taken a lot of thought to reach that certainty, but she now says it without doubt. And it’s the sentiment that gave birth to her new joint venture with director Joanna Bailey, Snapper. 

In the 14 years since Helen set up Bare Films as joint MD with Clare Timms, she’s seen the advertising production landscape change starkly. Together, they’d grown Bare into a sizeable company. 2017 had been its busiest year. “That’s been wonderful, but I want a different future,” she says of one of her life’s most significant decisions. “There was a sadness in saying goodbye to Bare. It was a huge decision. It meant an awful lot.” But the end of the company meant the beginning of two new ones - while Helen started Snapper, Claire created Darling, becoming a division of RSA Films.

Helen gives credence to all the air time the ad industry gives to bravery. “I think the entire world, not just advertising, has been quite fear-driven,” she says. No greatness comes from that kind of sentiment. “You have to encourage people to be brave. Because great ideas are generally brave ideas. I thought ‘how can you ask people to do that unless you’re being brave yourself?’

“I suppose the scary thing is I’ve taken everything I’ve earned for 14 years and put it into a new company. And it might not work. I might be wrong. I have to be honest; it’s terrifying. I feel like I’ve jumped off the edge of a cliff and I’m waiting for the wings to sprout. But I had to give it a go. It’s exhilarating and exciting. I feel like you live every single minute of every day.”

It’s a chance to consider what a production company should look like in 2018. The first point of difference Helen wants to Snapper around is simply its size. The word ‘boutique’ isn’t new to this landscape, but it’s a philosophy Helen wants to take to its utmost conclusion. “Most production companies are getting bigger. And we’re David in a world of Goliaths,” she says.

Helen’s not going it alone, of course. She’s jumped off the cliff with Joanna - a director who she’s worked with since the early days of Bare. She has an extraordinary respect for Joanna. “When I first saw her work I had this moment thinking I couldn’t bear anyone else to produce for her,” she remembers. 

The first time Helen saw Joanna’s work it was a documentary called Geisha. Helen even remembers the specific shot that most ignited her admiration: “It’s amazing these two worlds that live side by side. It’s a shot of this little geisha coming towards you on those little platform shoes - very delicate, beautifully balanced, completely serene - and Tokyo, with all these commuters tearing past on the other side. What a great visual insight.”

Her ident for the BBC, ‘Helicopter’, is another of Joanna’s films that has resonated with Helen over the years. “It’s got this elegance, grace, it’s own language.”

“She’s quite different to many directors,” says Helen. “I think partly it’s her documentary experience. Her casting is forensic. Her directing is almost invisible. She has this very empathetic set. When you’re asking people to connect to something you need them to connect through humanity. She also has a very strong visual aesthetic. It’s an incredible combination.”

When Helen saw James Lawes’ filmmaking for the first time she felt the same. It was ‘Nathan’, his unflinchingly brutal film for Network Rail. “It was such a visceral piece of work that you were absolutely drawn into it. I can still see it now.”

His film for Meningitis Now reflects James’ technical ability. “I love it because James got the motion control unit to do something it had never done before,” says Helen. “It was that fearlessness that James had. That ability to see that vision. To know that that would be the technique that would make that story much more effective.”

James’ latest film for Stop Ivory, launched just a few days ago, is equally visceral

Helen’s affection for her third director, Luke Roulstone, is tangible. She recalls how he came to work for Bare as a runner/receptionist years ago. “If I’m really honest he was a pretty terrible receptionist,” she laughs. “I remember once he rang me and said ‘There’s someone here for you, Hel.’ I said ‘That’s brilliant. Do you have any idea who it is?’ He said ‘Er, no, not really.’... ‘Don’t worry! I’ll come down.’”

But one day the team at Bare needed a mood film for a piece of work. “The treatment wasn’t going to explain how the director really wanted to do the film,” says Helen. “We had an hour and a half.” What Luke together revealed his true talent and they won the job. Then Helen realised that “of course, Luke had been making films since he was 11, has always wanted to be a director. He writes ideas all the time.”

In particular, Helen loves  his film for Médecins Sans Frontières. “I took it home and showed it to my mum. “I don’t show much work to my mum,” she says.

Snapper won’t grow its roster much more than this, Helen promises. “They’re the three directors that I had a real connection with. And that connection is very precious to me. If I can feel that connection then I can develop that talent.”

Helen commends her directors for agreeing to be part of a roster of three. As she puts it: “There’s nowhere to hide.”

True to Snapper’s name, the company also represents a stills photographer - Jeremy Pollard, who also works as a documentary DOP. Helen’s equally passionate about developing his talent. She loves his “wonderful stills of caught moments, but beautifully composed - that lovely feeling of spontaneity where you see someone’s personality.” 

The team is completed by Rosie Pike, “My right hand,” as Helen puts it. “I always hire people who can do the job better than me.”

Then there’s Jessica Turner - a producer who Helen found in a features company. “One of the things that interested me about Jess is that she held down a busy full-time job and still managed to produce short films in her spare time. That’s someone who’s passionate.”

Finally there’s Debbie Turner, who joins Snapper in a consulting role, who’s worked as Head of TV at BBH, MD at the Artistes Company, MD at MJZ and most recently a partner at Novo. “It’s so cool!” enthuses Helen. “She’s a fantastic person. She’s had an extraordinary career in advertising. And the fact that she likes the vision of what we’re doing… How lucky am I!? She’s a great person to bounce ideas off, stategise with.”

Helen’s deep-rooted relationships with the team at Snapper are what she hopes will give the company sturdy foundations. And with a small roster and team, conventional wisdom says the company will be nimble, agile, able to respond to changes in the market. It also allows for due care to be paid to creative development of the roster - something producers are invariably passionate about, but an important priority that’s often displaced by the more urgent.

Snapper aims to be a proactive company. Not waiting for the scripts to fall into their laps. “It’s not about servicing an industry. It’s about collaborating with an industry,” says Helen. “Creating opportunities, not just waiting for opportunities to come to you.”

She assures us they will be “making stuff” - feature films, short films, passion projects.

Helen’s passion for production extends way beyond her day job. For several years she’s been a key tutor on the APA’s Masterclass for young producers. The students there always ask her for her definition of a great producer. She’s confident in her response: “You’re someone who makes it happen. But you’re responsible for HOW it happens.”

It takes a lot of people to create and produce a great piece of work. “I think on all those pieces of work, all the time, all of those people are incredibly important. For a great piece of work you need a great idea, you need a client to come on that journey with you, you need the creatives to be open to it, the producers to be behind it. The whole thing comes together as a collective force or positive energy.”

It’s this belief in trust and aligned ambition that Helen hopes to instil into the heart of her new company. “It’s that will to make it fantastic. And everyone is responsible for creating that.”

“I want to over-deliver,” she says. “I want to take every opportunity and make it the best it can be.”
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