Having written and directed a collection of award-winning short films shown at festivals across the UK, director James Cookson is now an established in-house talent at Affixxius. With a highly flexible approach, he works across a range of genres for commercials, shorts, sports promos and more. But one constant that unites his work is his skill for telling authentic stories that huge audiences can relate to.
James’s 2016 short ‘Panic’ featuring Tom Rhys Harries and Owen Teale was produced through the BFI Beacons Scheme. It played at multiple film festivals including the London Short Film Festival and Aesthetic and picked up two award wins: the Audience Choice Award at Sunderland Film Festival 2017, and Best Short Film at Carmarthen Bay Film Festival.
Drawing on real-life events, James is able to bring out real emotion on set which is instrumental to the education and awareness projects the team are commended for. Working with a whole spectrum of kids across the UK including those with special needs, James is experienced in knowing how to bring the best out of his cast and crew.
In this interview, we speak to James about his passion for storytelling, his inspirations, and how he approaches such a variety of different briefs.
Q> Tell us a bit about your journey into filmmaking.
James Cookson> I was fascinated by cinema when I was a kid and I studied film and video at Newport University. A lot of my success actually came from making short films off my own back. Then one of my shorts got funded by the BFI and with that kind of budget I was able to attract some good talent which became my calling card and got me to Affixxius.
Q> How does your early work compare to some of the more commercial work you’ve been doing recently?
James> My early stuff was experimental as it was about learning the craft. I started off as a very genre heavy director and as I’ve grown I’ve changed things up. I’m really interested in drama and pared back character pieces. Commercially, the work I enjoy the most leans into that kind of style. Stuff that’s emotive and deals with poignant issues like the work we do with the police.
With commercials it’s about knowing that you cannot waste a second, everything counts. You have to reiterate the point with every shot in every scene. We have fairly small budgets and part of my job is being creative enough to deliver the highest quality work within the budget.
In his festive spot, ‘Family’ for Leicester City F.C., James weaves together the elements that bring the club’s fans together, no matter how different and diverse each individual is. Successfully portraying that sense of strong community, his spot brilliantly ties the uplifting feeling of being part of a huge fanbase with the community spirit of Christmas.
Q> What about your approach to sports promos?
James> They are opposite ends of the spectrum but both very enjoyable. With sports you really need to lean into the camera department. It is so much about the visuals and the energy. With sports I tend to go for a slightly more gritty, energetic and moody vibe.
Q> What project are you most proud of to date?
James> I loved working on Dragons Rubgy ‘Bring Your Fire’ - it captures the slick and energetic elements of sports but is also emotive and slow in places where we see all the fans in situ looking at the camera. I like that balance. It’s got a bit of everything in it in under two minutes.
I also enjoyed the Eagle Hill school project because it dealt with real world problems such as dyslexia and ADHD. I like the pace and energy we infused it with - it’s really uplifting.
Q> With projects that deal with real issues, do you need certain skills as a director to be able to bring out authentic emotion from the cast?
James> You have to understand what you’re talking about and do your research. And of course, you have to be able to talk to people. Everyone on set from cast to crew is unique and they often need different direction. A lot of the time directing is just about stepping out the way of the idea because by the time you get on set, everyone is right for the part and you should be able to sit back and let it happen to a certain extent. The biggest thing the director has on set is understanding what the final piece needs.
Q> What’s it like working as an in-house director?
James> The great thing about working at Affixxius is that the work is constant and I get to direct a bit of everything. I really do love that. And the ability to talk to Dave and the in-house editors on a regular basis for instant feedback means we grow at an incredible pace.
Q> How would you like to see your work develop over the next few years?
James> Bigger projects, bigger clients, bigger concepts. I like the challenge and the pressure of a big project and the freedom to be creative. Under Armour do some great gritty work so I’d love to work with them.
Q> What advice do you have for upcoming directors?
James> If you’ve done the prep work, don’t worry. There are a million things that could go wrong but if you’ve done your research you’ll be able to deal with any hurdles with the team. You don’t need to get too stressed. Also, don’t be afraid to ask anyone on set for advice. I’d also say make sure you constantly study other ads to work out what you like about them and how they achieved what they did. Then try out different styles and techniques of your own.