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Lemonade Spotlight: Meet Armoury’s Mr Yankey - a Story of Creativity and Working Up the Ranks

Production Company
London, UK
Lemonade’s Louis Hudson recently caught up with Mr Yankey to discuss his new work and why it made his Gran fall in love with Grime music

On a typical rainy Sunday afternoon at my gran’s, while hopping between Columbo repeats and old episodes of The Chase when Lemonade Reps stumbled across Mr Yankey's new George at ASDA commercial. My Gran usually dismisses all adverts often muting or switching the TV off, however on this occasion she perked up and when the children started rapping, she slowly started to bop along, eventually bursting out in laughter. Now it's important to know that my Gran is by no means a fan of grime or fact she's probably totally unaware of the genre. But the light-hearted colourful nature of the spot mixed with the children performing so passionately and earnestly hit her right in the feels, and after a year full of doom and gloom it was good to see my Gran smile again. 

The commercial also left a good impression on the Twitterverse with a music producer friend who was taken aback with how talented and confident the children were, jokingly stating they had more talent than a lot of artists who currently occupy the scene, so watch this space with the George at ASDA back 2 school cast because the future looks bright!

So is behind this spot??... Director Ato Yankey comes from humble beginnings... starting out as a runner and production driver, he’s grafted and creatively planned his way through to assistant director.. and now.. he is undeniably not just a Director in his own right, with his own distinctive visual style and influences, but a notable and valuable one. 

Throughout his career, Mr Yankey has worked alongside talents such as Gus Van Sant, Tom Hooper, Nicolas Winding Refn, Daniel Wolfe and Matthew Vaughn; all of whom have created a strong foundation underpinning his filmmaking education.

In fact, it was during his beginnings as a driver that he met Matt Hichens, owner and managing director of Armoury, and basically pitched his way onto the roster - first earning Matt’s interest and then his admiration as the body of work unfolded. 

At that time Ato’s portfolio consisted mainly of Music Videos, allowing his creativity to really shine through. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and while thinking through how to achieve an impactful completion of an idea on a shoestring, Ato Yankey has gotten really good at ideas. This shows tenfold with his Video for Ric Flo ‘Revolt’ and his in camera transitions. 

Surreal and abstract in nature, Mr Yankey’s visual personality bleeds into his storytelling, which although exuberant, mischievous and bizarre, can often reveal an emotive undertone, tackling matters of personal importance; mental health, social perception & environmental issues, through bold colour palettes and his knack for technical filmmaking. 

Here Lemonade's Louis catch up with Ato, post the release of his first big commercial for George at Asda.

From your Instagram, am I right in thinking you also have a background in photography? 

I do photography as a hobby. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer - it’s more like documenting and social photography. I’ve not really worked with lighting set-ups or augmented light. I work well with imagery as opposed to words, so I use it to tell stories - whether it’s through animation or a video or photographs - that’s what I gravitate towards. Even as a kid, instead of doing an essay, if I had the option to do a video project and articulate myself that way, I’d always do that. 

How did you get into filmmaking? And more specifically, directing music videos?

There’s definitely several moments I can pinpoint along the way. I always wanted to work in music videos, I just absolutely loved them as a kid. Growing up we never had Sky, we just had terrestrial TV, so even getting to see music videos was difficult. Everyone else was watching them on MTV and talking about them, but I never got to see them unless they were on Top of the Pops, or the chart show or whatever. And even then, they were only 30 seconds snippets, so when I did get to see them, they were super special. I just wanted to walk in the footsteps of Hype Williams and the Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes videos. Also the Chemical Brothers and Adam Smith - my dream, still now today, is to direct a Chemical Brothers music video. If I could do that, I could die happy… If Adam Smith could step down, then he can let me have a go... *laughs* 

I studied at De Montfort University, went travelling and then got a job in a pub… Then I was kind of just like “what the fuck am I doing?” I lived in Essex, which is the closest you can be to London without living in London, so I started working on some music videos through Mandy. I didn’t get paid much and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to edit or do animation or whatever, but it became really apparent that I liked being on set. So I ended up falling into a production company working on music videos with the same director, which was my introduction into the world of grime - I was working with people like Sway, Kano and Ghetts. I was really fortunate to shoot on Ghetts’ song ‘Sing For Me’ when I was 22 and I got to go out to Prague and work with the local film school. Ghetts is a hero of mine musically, what he’s doing now is insane - he’s like a Godfather in what he does. 

So back to George at ASDA, your first paid commercial. Is this your first experience with directing commercials? 

Sort of. The first project I did with Armoury was when we first came out of lockdown in 2020. Channel 4 did a “covid comeback” takeover during the primetime weekend slots - a stream of adverts for independent, local businesses to catapult their business as things opened up again . Armoury had all of the spots and I did one for an awesome little barber shop in Brixton - Cool Cuts. It was a small project and small budget, but it was great working with a small community client. But ASDA is my first, big brand commercial. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience working on the campaign?

You know what, it was smoother than I could have ever imagined. Even though it was my first big client, I’d already worked with big clients and agencies a lot, as an AD. From the off, our first pitch meeting with Impero felt good - everyone seemed really receptive and I had a really good feeling about it. We got it, they loved the treatment and said it was head and shoulders above everything else they had. It was great to have a decent budget and experience being able to pick the right people for the job, rather than who was available. 

Were you heavily involved in the casting? 

Yeah. We worked with an amazing casting director, Selma Nicholls who is part of a community I’m involved with - POCC (People of Culture & Creativity). She worked on Beyonce’s Black Is King and also works with Jenn Nkiru who is one of my favourite directors out there at the moment. I’d never worked with her before but she absolutely slayed it. We were so blessed with the kids - they were not only super talented, but really interesting. All the casting was done over Zoom due to covid. 

When the brief came in it was essentially for a grime or drill music video essentially, but with kids - and three of the roles were for kids who could rap. So it was important for me from the beginning that we did things properly and made it authentic. Especially after the last year, and how it’s been highlighted heavily the way black culture works within our industry, and the way it’s been appropriated so heavily. Culture is used, but quite often with disregard for origins of music or fashion or people. So we didn’t just wanna go in there and get some actors who have never rapped before. And we wanted to introduce that authenticity across the whole commercial - so we had other roles like “science kid”, “maths kid” and “business kid” (business kid never made it) and even though you may not see it on camera, we wanted to cast kids that actually loved maths or business or science. You can obviously get actors that embody that but if you’re casting kids that are already that way inclined, you’re already starting off in a great place and elevating that. 

Onyx was seven and she did her own rap, and even though we gave people a script, she just did her own rap and used her own words and just absolutely oozed character. She was a no brainer. Then we had Victoria who played 'maths kid' - she was a finalist on The Voice and we asked if she’d ever rapped before and she said “well, I’ve been on a studio session with before.” She was nuts, she took direction so well and just nailed it. With the business kid role, we had one girl who had three businesses and she was nine! One of the roles we really worked hard on, within the script was a wheelchair basketball player - we started auditioning people who used a wheelchair but from the off I was really conscious that we weren’t playing a token card.. and as with any marginalised group, I’m always very conscious that the inclusion is authentic and celebratory and not just crowbarred into the script. So I started to DM every wheelchair basketball club in the country and we were really fortunate to get hold of Maddie who played for Team GB at the age of 14 and is pitted to be one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the world. I think those castings really set a standard which made this project so much more than a commercial, and really gave it authenticity. I also wanted to present the Children as our best hopes for the future, and make something aspirational, we wanted to find people who were better than us, seeing as we’re f*cking everything up. 

Obviously the music was a huge part of the brief for this project, can you tell us more about creating the track? 

I was lucky enough to work with Kwame aka KZ and he works with some of my favourite UK artists like Wretch 32, Stormzy and The Prodigy. He’s got a Masters in Ethnomusicology and is quite a spiritual person - as soon as I saw the brief he popped into my mind. He lives and breathes music and the way he works with artists, I knew he’d work well with the children. I wanted to make sure it was the real deal and actually sounded like a drill track. Although initially we didn’t know whether we were gonna go down the grime or drill route. We were worried if we went down the drill route, it would be too dark, but what we realised was we had these kids, which juxtapose the mood with their vibrancy and it makes a really brilliant contrast. We wanted to also be aware that even though it’s a drill track, everyone was still authentic. There could have been a push towards making it all about what we commonly associate with grime or drill music, but with Max for example, we made sure he was rapping the same way he talks. Whereas Onyx is from East London born and bred and her Mum and Uncle are both in music and rap etc. 

What inspiration did you use for the style of the commercial? 

We looked at what drill music videos looked like. The classic ones are set on estates and it’s all quite saturated and a little bit grim, but for me it reflects what they’re talking about. But with ASDA, even though it's drill music, with these kids - even though I know kids don’t always have great lives - we wanted to make it positive and reflect what their stories are about. We played with bringing more colours into it, and talked about how we could maintain the drill aesthetic. We decided to shoot everything on wider angle lenses and from low angles - which allows the children to look empowered. Like the opening shot of Onyx looking down on you. You’re in their school playground, it’s their domain and where they thrive. 

A big approach to the video was making sure everything had a rhythm to it, everything was on the beat, it’s subtle but it adds to the texture of it. The animated elements were done agency side by their in-house graphic designer and animator, he was great. 

What can we expect next from Mr Yankey? 

I’ve got another project working with Kwame and my directing partner Jack Carr as part of our duo MrMr - the working title is Music Gods - and it’s basically a serial music show which does a deep, forensic dive into artists’ inspiration in their music. Our aim is to use Kwame’s way of working with people to get into the heart of people’s creative essence. The idea is that hopefully we can create a space where artists can be a bit more honest and personal about the vulnerabilities that come through the music making process. Whilst also helping people understand where the music comes from, I think some artists find it hard to articulate where their music comes from on a deeper level. Also my sister Miss Yankey is a spoken word artist so we’re gonna do a music video together. We’re also planning to do a short film based in Ghana on the birth of our Dad through the eyes of my Grandmother who hid her pregnancy due to how illegitimacy was viewed back then, whilst also touching on the music and fashion that existed in late 1940s Ghana. Too much to cram into a year, but I want to make more of the work that I feel connected to, and explore the history of my family. 

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