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The Directors: Sophie Jarvis


Boldly director on a background in production design, first impressions and being drawn to absurd comedy

The Directors: Sophie Jarvis

Sophie Jarvis’ first job was reading fan mail for The L Word. Later, she studied at Simon Fraser University and her short film The Worst Day Ever had its premiere at TIFF in 2012. Sophie now works as a commercial and film director, while living a double life as a production designer on a wide range of projects. Watch her 2018 Pecha Kucha talk here to learn more about how her directing and design practices deeply inform one another. 

Sophie’s work is notable for evocative imagery, high concept visuals, and an absurdist sensibility. Her world building approach focuses on tactile elements: she has a penchant for 16mm film and unique locations. In studio, Sophie has an exacting vision for practical set builds and in-camera effects. Lately, she is immersed in the world of stop motion animation (recent works include commercials for Vancity Bank, and the upcoming short film Zeb’s Spider with the National Film Board). In the summer of 2021, Sophie will shoot her live action feature debut, Invasions, with Experimental Forest Films. She currently resides on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) territories (aka Vancouver), sharing an apartment with her bad cat, Bunny.

Name: Sophie Jarvis

Location: Vancouver

Repped by / in: Boldly / North America

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

Sophie> If a script has a strong handle on tone, my ability to envision it comes naturally. I have a background as a production designer, and am drawn to scripts with unique visual concepts. I see this format as a space to challenge myself creatively, and when a script comes along that offers an opportunity to try out new cinematic techniques I am interested. 


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

Sophie> I write down all my first impressions and what draws me to the spot. What parts inspire and excite me, and get me looking for visual references and jotting down fresh ideas off the bat? These pure instincts can get lost in the muddle of pre-production, and having them available for quick reference helps to ground us back to what matters. This is where my understanding of the tone and my unique take on the spot develops. Putting the actual treatment together is all about telling the story. I want the treatment to support the tone, and for my creative voice to enhance and enrich it. 


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

Sophie> If I had to choose one, I would say the producer. They are the go-between for myself and the agency, and having a strong rapport with them makes the whole thing go smoothly. I love a producer who shares the same priority (which is the creative), and who can balance that with the resourcefulness required to achieve it. It’s a creative job, and they take on a lot of challenges from every side. My favourite producers are ones who prioritize diversity behind the camera. I know too many people who have quit the industry because of toxic and homogenous work environments. A producer who actually acts on their good intentions to create an inclusive workplace results in a better outcome for the ad itself.


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? 

Sophie> I am drawn to absurdist comedy supported by strong visual concepts. If a script comes along with a narrative element, the opportunity to world build and dig into character is exciting.


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

Sophie> I am often sent scripts that involve children or the elderly. The problem isn’t that I don’t like working with these demographics; it’s that it reinforces gender stereotypes of women as caretakers. Often the creative for these spots have nothing to do with my wheelhouse (absurd comedy and design focused). Typically, they come at much lower budget points, which reinforces the gender pay gap. To avoid being pigeon-holed, I have requested for my reps to no longer send me those scripts unless they are suited to my creative voice.

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been? 

Sophie> No I haven’t. I had to Google “cost consultant”.

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

Sophie> I shot my first feature film Invasions this summer. It was a Canadian co-production with Switzerland (produced by Experimental Forest Films, Ceroma Films, Reign Films, and Cinédokké) and naturally the pandemic gave our international team some unexpected hurdles. One of our main supporting actors tested positive right before boarding his flight from Zurich, meaning we had to re-cast. We were obliged to hire a certain number of Swiss crew and cast to make up our cultural points, and the only other Swiss-Canadian on the set besides me was my brother, the boom operator. He was the right age to play the role, so in between takes on set he memorized the lines. At night, we would rehearse in his hotel room. His wife is an actor who helped him over Zoom. While he did a great job, the role really asked for someone with more acting experience. We finally got permission to hire a Canadian due to the extreme circumstances, and found a wonderful Quebecois actor who agreed to drop everything and join us the next day. It was fun to work with my brother that way for a couple intense days, though!

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

Sophie> I remind myself that we are all working towards the same goal and share the same priority: to create a great ad. The brand client knows their market and audience better than I ever will. Their notes are often an indicator of an overarching problem, and getting to the root of that saves a lot of time. Sometimes they are not familiar with filmmaking, so I make sure that my communication with them meets them where they are at. I will always stand up for my creative instincts; they hired me based on those, and it is my job to deliver. There’s always solutions to be found through effective communication. 


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?

Sophie> There’s plenty of work to go around, and it would benefit from a diversity of perspective in key creative positions. I would love to see more heads of departments putting underrepresented people forward for their own positions. In the meantime, mentorships and apprenticeships are a wonderful way for people to learn through observation and practice. I have been both a mentee and a mentor, and it’s a valuable two-way experience where we both learn a lot. I would also stress that these mentee positions should be paid. Producers need to build those roles into the budget from the start. 

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? 

Sophie> I think that the pandemic has shown us that it is possible to do a lot of work from home, and in some ways it is more effective. Meetings are shorter and more to the point. It’s a balance though; I do miss the energy and creativity that comes from being in person. I will never get used to holding casting sessions on Zoom. The pandemic has opened me up to new collaborative platforms. My favourite is an app called Miro: it’s an infinite whiteboard that is very user-friendly. You can drop images in, make sticky notes, create to-do lists, do video calls on it, and much more. We used it for my feature film this summer, and it was amazing to see how it facilitated communication between different departments.

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working? 

Sophie> I try to acknowledge the needs of each format early in pre-production. How many aspect ratios do we need for each spot? How much time do we have while shooting to ensure we can get each one, without sacrificing the quality of the others? I rely on the DOP, AD, and the script supervisor to support me in this process, because when we are shooting my full focus is on story and performance. It is a group effort to ensure that we are ticking every format and timing box.


LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

Sophie> I am a tactile person, and my style is very based in practical builds and a preference for shooting on film. That said, the future is here and I want to adapt. The new technologies that interest me are visual - I am intrigued by render art and the ability to create CGI backgrounds that can integrate with practical elements. There is huge potential for expanding story worlds using those techniques, and I am looking forward to a project that can allow me to try it out.


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

Sophie> The very first commercial I directed was for an oat milk company called “So Fresh”. I loved the absurdist tone of the spots and the freedom to design a look (the agency was very supportive). We had a teeny budget, and we used it to our advantage - the overall tone and look was shaped by creative resourcefulness. 

The most ambitious and rewarding spot I’ve done to date was a stop motion animation for Vancity, a local credit union. Stop motion comes with a whole set of needs that requires a lot of planning, precision, and pre-vis. I loved the intense collaboration between the art director, the DOP, the animator (who also served as a stop motion consultant), and myself. Every person’s work informed each other and we had a remarkable symbiosis. Stop motion is a patient process, but the outcome is magical. We had a tighter timeline on this one, and ways that we managed to make it work were mixing the 3D set with 2D “paper-doll” style puppets (instead of a traditional puppet which requires an armature and weeks of fabrication).

We used a technique called “replacement animation”, where each puppet was drawn in a different pose, which was designed to shoot on fours (where the puppet is replaced every four frames of a 24 frame second). The result was a playful aesthetic that was in line with the client’s branding. Another way to save time was to use a motion control rig for the continuous moving shot. Once it was programmed, the actual animation time was expedited. In fact, it was during the actual animation that we finally had a chance to catch our breath and reflect on what it took to get us there. I learned so much, and had to challenge myself to learn a lot of new techniques and technology. It was amazing.

I loved working on the Telus Smarthome spots. The creative was really funny, and it was a chance to hone in on narrative pieces grounded in realism. I’m often in studios, and it felt liberating to do something in a different style. We found a fantastic location, and we had six spots to shoot over two days. Our early planning and communication paid off, and we had a great team. 

And my most recent spot was a holiday ad for London Drugs. It was a humorous spot with a strong narrative, which was what drew me in. I had worked with the agency before, but everybody else was new to me. I sometimes fight feelings of impostor syndrome, and this experience gave me a confidence boost. The shoot went very well, and I developed some wonderful new relationships. I credit this to a foundation of intensive preparation and good communication, as well as a respectful work environment.

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Boldly, Fri, 10 Dec 2021 22:44:26 GMT