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The Directors: Jess Colquhoun



Stept director on why diversity is essential and how the pandemic has challenged her to find creativity in limitations

The Directors: Jess Colquhoun

Jess Colquhoun is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer who splits her time between London and Los Angeles. Colquhoun’s films are told through a documentary approach with an emotive and naturalistic eye that reflects her curious nature and passion for people, music, and culture, with a love of human centered storytelling. Her documentaries Valley Of A Thousand Hills (Best Family Film - San Francisco Film Festival 2017) and The Black Mambas (Winner Glamour Magazine x Girl Gaze #NewView Film Competition 2017) are excellent examples of her attention to heart and detail. She has collaborated with international brands including Apple Music, Dove, Levi’s, Harley Davidson, Airbnb and Times Up Entertainment, and has achieved Vimeo Staff Pick recognition for several of her films. Colquhoun’s work has been featured in Vice, National Geographic, and Glamour. She has also collaborated with numerous musical artists including HAIM and Florence and the Machine. Her Webby nominated documentary Sundays at the Triple Nickel, supported by Crown Royal, won a 2020 Branded Content Gold Telly Award and two Silver awards including craft of directing.

Name: Jess Colquhoun

Location: Los Angeles and London

Repped by/in: US Commericals: Stept Studios 

Awards: Young Guns 18 2020 


LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Jess> I’m always questioning what I can bring to a project, is there room to put my spin on the script and does it align with my values and the voices I like to highlight. I want to walk away from each project learning something new and having added something to my toolbox, so I enjoy the challenge of taking on projects that feel out of my comfort zone. Sometimes the process can be as compelling as the finished film, so if I feel there’s an opportunity to have a life experience or dig deeper into a subject I know little about, I find that really exciting.

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Jess> Rather than be too formulaic, I try to respond with a treatment that I feel is the most engaging and interactive way to present my approach effectively. I try to balance how to outline the more practical and technical sides to an approach whilst keeping it personal and giving the reader an insight into who I am as a filmmaker. Ideas seem to come to me more when I’m away from my desk, so I like to spend some time developing the concept on the move before beginning to sit down and write, which means a lot of long walks and listening to music to create inspiration.

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Jess> Being able to connect to the brand’s spirit or purpose is essential to feeling like I have something to say or that I’m the right voice. I focus on how to humanise the messaging to feel relatable and share a story that aligns with their core ethos authentically. I see value in being an outsider that can bring a fresh perspective but also put a lot of time and research into understanding their audience and message. 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Jess> Every relationship on set is important and I aim to create an environment that’s very open and collaborative, where everyone onboard is invested and feels engaged in the project. Creating a shared language and clear understanding of the end goal with the director of photography is always a really exciting part of the process for me and where I learn the most. That synergy can really push the film's potential and evolve your ideas. In addition to a strong relationship with my production company Stept Studios, which is essential to feeling supported throughout the process and helping you to protect your vision. 

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Jess> I’m driven less by style or genre, but more about character driven stories that resonate and expand my horizon or perspective. The way in which I interpret a story can range from music videos to scripted short films to verite documentaries. I enjoy adapting the form to fit the story and explore how my voice sounds across these different areas. I can’t always pinpoint what is exactly drawing me to a specific subject or idea, I try to follow whatever curiosity is calling next and it’s purpose or truth usually reveals itself in the process of making.


LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Jess> I’m aware of how quickly you can be pigeonholed as a director and have your work placed in categories, so I’m constantly looking to expand and evolve the type of work I’m making. I started making documentaries so I had to really showcase my ability to do commercial productions before I was looked at as just that. Some of the commercial work I am most proud of, like Nike x NFL Lose Count with Stept Studios, utilizes my love of storytelling but also hits the goal of being a commercial piece.

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Jess> There’s always something that surprises you on every project, but a funny one that I can laugh about now is the main cast of a documentary I shot last year decided to walk off set and get a haircut mid shoot, without giving anyone a warning. He left with a very overgrown beard and returned almost unrecognisable, transformed with a slick clean shave, completely disrupting our continuity. Luckily, we had one scene to go where there was some passing of time in the story so we rolled with it and adapted our blocking and lighting approach. 


LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Jess> I see the relationship as a collaboration and try to form a foundation of trust that allows both sides to feel heard and included. Ultimately the agency and client understand the brand best and have a deep knowledge and perspective on how to communicate the ethos of the brand, whilst remembering that you were brought on for a reason, that they saw something in your work that resonated for this project. I’ve found the treatment process can be a great opportunity to be bold and communicate your desires for the project upfront and protect the process later down the line. It’s all about keeping an open-mind and learning which battles are worth fighting for and which ones to let go. 


LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Jess> Diversity across the board is essential, the stories we tell shape our society and our crews and cast should reflect the world we live in. The recent spotlight on our industry to do better has been incredibly necessary and encouraging, and I take the responsibility to do my part very seriously. This industry can be intimidating to know how to get your foot in the door and I’m extremely grateful to the ones who held it open for me, and being able to do the same is what it’s all about. I often get young filmmakers reaching out for advice and love helping to create opportunities and experience wherever I can and being a sounding board for their own projects. 

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Jess> This time has challenged me to find creativity in limitations and work in a very stripped back approach with minimal crews and support, which has been rewarding and a reminder of the core elements. However I’m eager to return to my process of working prior to the pandemic which has always been very immersive. One of the ways I love to discover stories is by practicing street photography where I can interact with people I might not otherwise have the chance to meet and and step into different worlds, so staying at home has challenged the way I usually find inspiration. 


LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Jess> I’m mindful of how the finished piece will be delivered and the various forms it may take on so will prepare for these as much as possible in pre-production. It’s concerning to see how social media has increased our appetite for content and how we have to adapt edits to feel faster and flashier than ever as if it’s the only way to hold attention these days. 


LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Jess> I think it’s important to be adaptable and consider these tools when they feel appropriate and can serve the story best, they can be an exciting opportunity to learn but my method of working usually favors more traditional or human elements, I think I’m slightly more old school at heart. 

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

Jess> ‘Sundays At The Triple Nickel’ a short film I directed commissioned by Crown Royal was a really special project, It’s a very personal and intimate film that took a lot of trust and collaboration to make possible. I’d been fascinated in Majories story since discovering her Jazz parlor, and knew I wanted to make a film that celebrated her legacy but also speaks to the strength of the human spirit and power of community. It initially began as a passion project that evolved when Stept Studios and I presented the idea to Diageo, who came on board after finding a home for the film with Crown Royal. Discovering undocumented stories and being able to connect with extraordinary people such as Majorie, is at the core of what drives me as a filmmaker and brings me great fulfillment. 

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Stept Studios, Fri, 25 Jun 2021 11:15:00 GMT