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The Work That Made Me: Dave Ma

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From drumming gorillas to Australian apples, Ruffian's Dave Ma shares some of the work that has influenced his career

The Work That Made Me: Dave Ma

Dave is a visual storyteller who creates unique, impassioned films with a view towards the exploration of the varying depths of the human condition. He sets his imagery in an elevated world, dusted with a gritty realism that celebrates everyday people, and relishes the moments on screen that bring a cinematic eye to beauty in the mundane.


The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…

Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box (dir. Anton Corbijn)

There are a lot of reasons this video means a lot to me, but as a young teen it had a really big impact on me visually. The vivid colours (which I later discovered were created by individually hand colouring each frame to replicate the technicolour look in The Wizard of Oz), the striking balance between beauty and darkness, and the use of medical and anatomical imagery all resonated with me. A lot of the visual and thematic sensibilities I have as a director were formed while connecting with this video. I was in awe when, years later, I found myself at a London film festival listening to Anton Corbijn talk about his body of work and the experiences he had making Heart-Shaped Box. Masterful. 

Two ads always come to mind from my early childhood…

AD: Australian Apples Commercial (not the computer brand!)

I loved this ad from the first time I saw it. It felt gritty, musically creative, and fun. Whoever dreamt this up for “The Horticultural Corporation of Australia” (I know, right?) as a way to get kids to eat apples was a genius. 

AD: British Airways - Face Commercial 1989

This truly captivated me when I saw it.  I didn’t know what it meant, I just knew it was epic and felt like a unique event being captured on film. 


The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…

The Photography of Steve Gullick

My path to directing and into the visual arts began with band photography so it would be criminal not to mention the work of British photographer Steve Gullick. His photos of the indie music scene from the late 80s, early 90s, and 2000s (Nirvana, PJ Harvey, The Fall, Nick Cave) should be preserved on the next probe we send into outer space. As a teen, I would gawk at Steve’s work in import issues of Melody Maker and other mags, and dream about doing what he did. When I got to London I bought every issue of his magazine Loose Lips Sink Ships and still have them on the shelf next to me. So much of how I approached band photography came down to ‘attempting’ to emulate Steve’s mind-blowing eye for great live shots and band portraits. Another pinch yourself moment happened when I met Steve while filming Foals Live at the Royal Albert Hall (they’re his photos on the cover of the DVD!!). It was a joy to discover that one of my childhood heroes is also an absolute legend. 

FILM: BARAKA (& Koyaanisqatsi)

I saw Baraka on 65mm in high school. I knew nothing about it going in, sat there bemused but captivated, and walked out of the cinema forever changed. It was the first time I realised film could be truly powerful and meaningful on a deeper level than I was accustomed to. I wanted to know who made it and how? I started reading about Ron Fricke and what a cinematographer was, and started paying attention to how films were made. Film and moving image felt like a world I wanted to be part of after seeing Baraka (and shortly after Koyaanisqatsi). There are countless obvious Baraka references littered throughout my work and I openly referenced the work of Ron Fricke heavily while making the Delphic music video we filmed in Chernobyl.


The creative work that I keep revisiting…

ART: Alchemy by Brett Whiteley (Brett Whiteley Studio)

Everything above would make this list but the one thing I actively go out of my way to physically revisit time and time again is a painting called “Alchemy,” which lives at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surrey Hills, Sydney. Living on the other side of the world, I rarely get to see it but It’s the first thing I seek out when I’m back in Sydney with a day off (along with a sausage roll and flat white from the Bourke St Bakery Round the corner!). 

“Alchemy” spans two walls of the studio across 11 panels and there isn’t a time I stand in front of it that I don’t discover something new or exciting that I haven’t seen before. I first saw “Alchemy” in high school at a retrospective of Whiteley’s work and it’s definitely become a pilgrimage of sorts for me. I love that it can be viewed from across the studio or right up close and have always strived to apply that approach to my work by thinking about how something works at a glance the first time versus what gets discovered on repeat viewings. The details and surprises in a piece like “Alchemy” can be so rewarding when you get to spend repeated time with it.

Whiteley talking about “Alchemy”

FILM: My Best Fiend by Werner Herzog

This film deserves a mention as something I always go back to. It totally inspired an obsession with total immersion filmmaking (or at least the romantic idea of it). The spectacle of Herzog and Kinski in far-flung places, and the drama in front of and behind the camera is both jaw-dropping and entertaining. There were definitely times making some of the early Foals videos when we took the long way round with a location because of my love for Herzog’s commitment to extreme locations. I’m fairly certain Yannis and I referenced our love of Fitzcarraldo multiple times while filming the “Spanish Sahara” video. It was in part a tongue-in-cheek homage, albeit on a much smaller level.

MUSIC: PJ Harvey’s entire back catalogue. 

I can’t get enough of it! Every album, every word, and especially all the amazing sleeve photography by Maria Mochnacz. The Rid of Me album cover has to be the best cover shot of any artist ever, no?


My first professional project…

FOALS - Balloons

I say professional because there was a record label involved and I remember shitting myself as I read through and signed the contract under the moniker of a fake production company name I’d just made up - but it was still a really DIY operation for me back then. Classic no film school stuff. I rented an old warehouse space off a guy in Peckham who used it to store imported Ghanaian snails(?), I stole fire extinguishers from the bar I worked in knowing we would be ‘trying’ to set Yannis’ hand on fire (some great outtakes from that setup…yikes), built the set by hand with some close friends over a weekend, and rehearsed dancers with a choreographer I worked with at a bar in Hoxton. But it was the first time there was actual outside pressure to deliver and I was hooked after that. The video seems quaint by today’s standards and there’s so much I’d do differently these days but it’s where directing became a real thing for me. Balloons was the first time I was introduced to the idea of grading a video and where I met junior colourist James Tillett (now a made man at MPC NY) and post-producer Dionne Archibald, who kindly didn’t laugh me out of the Prime Focus foyer when I turned up with pound notes of cash to pay for the midnight colour session! 


The piece of work that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that*…

Probably anytime I’ve seen footage of myself talking on camera I vow never to make anything like that ever again! 

But in terms of work that’s out there…I guess anytime I see some kind of obtuse political ad or propaganda that’s a bit shallow and cynical I vow never to do anything of the sort. The directors and projects I really respect all at least attempt to make people laugh or visually illuminate something universal and powerful. It’s not always possible, but I like the idea that we can at least try to find something in each project that connects with the collective experience we all have going through life. That’s where it’s at. 


The piece of work that still makes me jealous…

I wouldn’t use the word ‘jealous’ - but ‘in awe of’ or ‘fuck me I wish I’d made that!’ would be more appropriate. Here are a few amazing pieces of work that still make me shake my head at how amazing they are… 

Cadbury Gorilla Ad

I mean, who doesn’t wish they’d thought of this. Genius and hilarious in every way. And as someone who used to sit at parties air drumming with friends in high school…I feel it. 

The Blaze - Territory (music video)

The real world emotions and issues present in this piece and how they’ve been blended so perfectly into music video abstraction packs a visual punch for me like no other. I love the portrayal of maleness in this video. It’s just perfection and one of my favourite videos of recent years. 

Jamie XX - Gosh (music video)

I watch this all the time, it’s so uplifting. The track is incredible. The scope of vision is astounding. Anything director Romain Gavras does makes me feel alive. The making of the Gosh video is worth a watch if you dig it. 


The creative project that changed my career…

It’s hard to choose between any of the Foals videos I got to make with those guys. I felt so much pride and admiration for the music they were making and getting to be part of it in any way. From early press photos to my first music videos to a feature-length live film at Royal Albert Hall. 

But the Olympic Airways music video holds a special place…

FOALS - Olympic Airways (music video)

In many ways, this was just a beautiful documentation of a great day out with friends. We had FUN making this video! It got a decent amount of attention and it began my amazing working relationship with everyone at Pulse Films London (my first production company…thanks Jamie Clark for taking a chance on me!). It was definitely the first time I was able to achieve something close to what I had in my head. And that came down to great collaborators. Making this video made me understand how important great working relationships with like-minded people are to any project. 

It’s also where I met cinematographer Ross McLennan - who remains a close friend and collaborator today. Ross’ attention to detail and commitment to getting the most out of every frame was instrumental to this video, and his love of the craft and cameras, in general, are astounding. You should check out the wet plate colloidal portraits littered throughout his Instagram feed - a true student and master of light. Without Olympic Airways I wouldn’t have a career and I revel in having such a nice looking document of that time and place and some great friendships that are still dear to me today. 


The work that I’m proudest of…

Talk about having to pick your favourite child! Obviously, the entire body of work I got to make with Foals goes here, and getting to make a video inside Chernobyl, but if I had to pick a singular narrative-driven piece it would be the Clair de Lune video…

Flight Facilities - Clair de Lune (music video)

As a single piece that feels complete and exactly what I envisioned in my head, this would be it. I started dreaming this film up when I first moved to Los Angeles and found myself driving around the valley at night, just exploring and thinking about two characters feeling disconnected from society and escaping into their own world together. People will still mention it out of the blue, and I’ve received some amazing emails with interpretations and people’s connections to it over the years. All insightful and eye opening and I’m always amazed by how much people pick up on small visual details that were important to the story but ended up somewhat fleeting on screen. The fact it has been seen by millions on YouTube still blows my mind (and highlights how awesome the track is). 


I was involved in this and it makes me cringe…

Ooof…Battle of the Bands. High School. Wearing a girl’s uniform. Performing Pixies “Where Is My Mind?”. Forgive me Frank Black. I’ve destroyed the VHS. 


The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most…

Rebel Sport Ad with Sophie Pascoe

It’s not often you get to do something really emotional about a real person with an incredible but sensitive story. This was one of those occasions and I took it very seriously. Working with Sophie was amazing, equal parts strength and sensitivity. To get to tell her story was an honour and a huge challenge. It’s hard enough conveying a message in 30-90 secs let alone a life story, but we had a nice script built around key moments that made Sophie who she is today, and then set about working with Sophie to visualise them. There were several moments on set that got quite emotional and I was in awe of how Sophie handled herself, it really strengthened the responsibility I felt to tell her story with honesty and sensitivity and I feel proud to have had the opportunity. It was amazing to see Sophie took home two gold medals at the Tokyo Paralympics last month! The fact I can turn on the TV and see a Paralympian like Sophie Pascoe on the medal podium and get to say I got to work with that person is mind-blowing and one of the best things about what we get to do - all those unique experiences I would never have had otherwise. Pretty awesome.


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Ruffian, Fri, 10 Sep 2021 08:40:20 GMT