How did you get your start as a flame operator? Was it love at first go?
I've only ever had one job, apart from the usual array of crazy student jobs. I started at The Mill, as a runner 3 days after I finished art college, way back in 1992. Getting into the digital FX industry, pretty much at the beginning, meant that my early career developed alongside the massive changes in technology. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do, so yes it was love at first go.
You get some amazing jobs and win a lot of awards. You also have long term relationships with directors. How does a relationship with someone start?? How do you maintain such a relationship while also forging new ones?
There are dozens of reasons and factors which, when combined together, make it possible to forge a working relationship with great directors and thus work on high profile projects. Working at a company like The Mill, which truly does have a worldwide reputation for excellence and creativity, certainly helps. A very high proportion of the best scripts and treatments are at the very least discussed [with the Mill], whether or not we eventually work on them. I like to think that I have had some part in building that reputation. Secondly, I think because top directors and creatives are all very different, certain personalities suit certain people. I try hard to be very down to earth, and take the mystic out of what we do. Obviously I work very hard and care (almost to a point of obsession) about everything I work on. I try to have a laugh along the way, which is perhaps the most import factor of all. On the flip side I am very aware that I can come across as a bit blunt as I always speak my mind (hopefully in a reasonably polite manner) to which I make no apologies whatsoever. I guess that honest approach suits some directors and clients and, of course, not others.
How much of the work you do starts its life on telly? (vs online, for instance)
Personally, almost all the projects I am directly involved in, are perceived as primarily TV commercials. That said, given that everything we have done in the last 4-5 years has been finished in full HD, it does translate easily across all other media directly, particularly cinema, online, in store and across digital poster sites. And we are often involved in subsidiary projects alongside the TV commercial. Annoyingly, particularly in the UK, all HD TV commercials are downgraded to PAL for delivery even if they are later broadcast on HD Channels, like SkyHD, Channel 4 HD, and ITV HD. In my opinion, this is nothing short of scandalous. I find it impossible to believe that the all weight of the multi-million pound British advertising industry can't get their act together, and insist the broadcast channels raise their games. It's just pitiful. Ironically, the best place to see British TV ads in their full glory is online, particularly Youtube HD. A lesson for ITV, suffering with their dwindling advertising revenue and pumping out shite TV programmes.
Since technology has changed so much in the last ten years (and speeded up some of the production process) do you feel you are asked to deliver your end product in less time??
Yes, sort of. I think that a better way to describe the change is that as kit gets quicker, cheaper and more advanced, production values also rise, as do client/viewer expectations. Or, in other words, a lot of projects we worked on in the past look quite dated now. In the good old days we worked just as hard, but did far less, much slower and our clients were more impressed, even blown away by the novelty. We still worked just as hard, possibly harder. I think the real "wow factor", from the early days of digital post production is long gone. It's certainly become much more competitive in the market place, even cut-throat. Personally I think that most of the change is very healthy, and we all need to fully embrace new technology with open arms. Most of it is fun.
Funniest thing you have ever seen in a flame suite?
I've become quite cynical in my old age, but I have always found it quite interesting how people who work in the advertising or creative industries become very stereotypical of their kind. Indeed, caricatures of themselves. When I started out in the early nineties, it was incredibly common for clients, particularly junior producers and PAs to order sushi the moment they arrived in the suite, often before sitting down, or removing their coats, and certainly before saying hello. This would happen with frightening regularity, often during a half hour booking, or first thing in the morning. Later in the mid-nineties, with the arrival of the High Street coffee chain, or "costa-packet". Sushi was replaced by outlandish coffee orders. "Frapper Cappa Mocha Chocca, and it must be from Caffeine Couch". Or "Skinny Latte Expresso with ice, but with soya milk, and it must be from a small shop the other side of Soho". Of course everyone ordered a different variation and someone would undoubtedly be upset when their order was not quite as nice as last time. And so it continues, with new fads as time moves on. "Have you tasted the excellent smoothies from Veganworld? The Oranges are transported on
horseback across the planet", or "you must try wheat grass, it's fabulous and your body just doesn't function properly without one portion a day". "Have you discovered the organic bacon sandwiches, from the Soho Mug? It's from the finest Wiltshire pig, fed on acorns and truffles, you know". In fact, there is a direct inverse correlation between outlandish food and drink orders and quality of the final commercial. People who are really talented haven't got a spare second to faff around ordering shite. They are happy with a mug of tea and a digestive.
What tips have you got for people who want to become operators?
I think that it's like most things in life, you simply need to apply common sense. Starting reasonably young certainly helps, as it can be extremely hard work and long hours, particularly in the early years, which doesn't mix well with family life. A good understanding of design packages such as, Illustrator, Photoshop, Final Cut, Combustion, Shake, etc. is very helpful, as is a good eye and being design aware. Again it helps if you can draw, use a camera, and have a decent knowledge of film history, as well as keeping abreast with popular culture. We tend to find that having an interesting personality is probably the most essential thing, as this is a people industry, where we work in teams, usually under reasonably stressful deadlines, for demanding clients. If someone has all these qualities, and is prepared to work very hard, they will probably find themselves on the first rung on the ladder of a highly competitive industry, reasonably quickly. After which, a combination of hard work, raw talent, and experience usually sees people moving through the ranks until they reach "their level". I do think that everyone does have an individual ceiling, which they very rarely break through. I've seen dozens of people in the past get very frustrated, when they can't seem to get any further. I suppose the secret to a happy life is identifying this level, and making the best of it or moving on and finding a new angle.
You support Barnsley FC? Why are they crap?