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The Work That Made Me: Jonathan Jones

The Work That Made Me 310 Add to collection

Chuck Studios London, HunkyDory Films and Ember Films Jonathan takes a look back at some of the work that's shaped his career

The Work That Made Me: Jonathan Jones

Jonathan Jones is a multi Emmy award-winning, British cinematographer and director with twenty years of experience working globally within commercials, factual television, documentaries and feature films. Jonathan is known for both his advanced technical knowledge and his unique creative approach which have allowed him to continue to push the boundaries of narrative storytelling. 

In addition to collaborating with major studios, television networks, streaming platforms and independent producers, Jonathan runs award winning production studio Ember Films with acclaimed producer Emma Jones. His combined knowledge of both technical post-production and advanced cinematography has allowed him to move seamlessly into direction. Bringing both a detailed eye and understanding of complex workflows that aid his visual storytelling approach. His most recent work combines his specialism in natural history and writing dramatic narratives – the result being a new eight part Netflix Original series Tiny Creatures which launched globally on the platform August 2020. 

As an established director of photography, his award-winning cinematography has been globally recognised, winning him Emmys for his work on BBC’s global phenomenon Planet Earth 2, Disney's Nature’s Elephant and National Geographic’s One Strange Rock to name a few. 

Jonathan has also successfully brought to life short form projects for household names such as; Jaguar Land Rover, Dyson and Canon. 

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

I’ve really thought about this and, growing up in the golden age of advertising (the 80’s, of course), all the adverts were the same. It was all sell, sell, sell, sometimes with funny jingles. All advertising was very product heavy and to me as a boy growing up, just a lot of background noise. However, the ads that really stuck with me were for Guinness in the 90s. They were so engaging from start to finish with a strong narrative (although you weren’t entirely sure what it was about or what it was for until the end) but it was so memorable. 

And this really sparked an interest for me and encouraged me to think differently.

I remember seeing the classic one with the surfer and the horses in waves (directed by Jonathan Glazer) and I thought what has this to do with Guinness? It stopped me in my tracks and I really thought about it. I still remember the music vividly. It had such an impact on me with powerful, visual imagery and an intriguing story. It was the first thing that made me think that you could turn something on its head and make something so very different which has always sparked an interest in me. Anything that features a challenging or technical element draws me in. And Johnny Green’s Bring to Life for Guinness also created the same impact, I just loved them and got excited when they came on. 

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

There wasn’t any platform in particular that made me want to start filmmaking. It really started when a film crew came into my primary school to make a documentary. They were all really down to earth and let us play with their cameras and microphones - it was fascinating! And from that point on I developed an interest that never really stopped. As I clearly showed a passion to learn all about film, I eventually was given a village grant to buy a 35mm stills camera - which was pretty amazing as a young kid. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in film somehow. My aunt already had a job at ITV and my mum’s cousin was a film director, so I was constantly surrounded by it. I ended up working as a runner on Morning Worship on Sundays. The glamour! I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it ended up being a bit of a circus, but I loved it! I loved the fact that in the film industry, no two days are the same. Actually I tell a lie. I always wanted to be a Top Gun pilot, but I wasn’t clever enough. There’s still time... 

How did you develop as a filmmaker? Was there anyone who guided you? 

I thought my life in film would be as an editor and I managed to sweet talk my way into a job in editing where I progressed for several years. I was doing pretty well out of it, but the reality of being stuck in a dark room all day and night just wasn’t for me. I was too adventurous and loved the great outdoors, so I made a strategic decision at that moment to enter the world of natural history filmmaking. I decided to forge my own path to make this happen. I went to a talk “HD is coming” from a guy who spoke about high definition. As it turned out this guy was a wildlife cameraman called Martin Dohrn known as “The Wizard” by David Attenborough. I emailed him every day for 6 months asking for him to meet with me with no reply. I kept emailing telling him I was still keen and wanted this more than anything but to no avail. Turns out he’d been on a longform shoot and returned home to hundreds of emails from me! How annoying! He took me on though in the end . Just goes to show, if you want it bad enough you have to show it. 

He was a fascinating guy. He used to build his own lenses, shoot on high-speed film, develop camera systems, a real technical master. He was tough though and told me I had to study film and learn my craft just like a doctor who trains for 5 years, which I did. Working with him was so illuminating. We pushed the boundaries of technology. We were once even able to develop a camera that was so sensitive you could light a football stadium with a cigarette. We developed the thermal camera that you see a lot in natural history shows these days. His technical brain was incredible. My apprenticeship was spent learning how to do impossible things - which has followed me through my career. 

My first professional foray into natural history… 

It was an animal series called “Life in the Undergrowth”. I took a cut in wages and went from being an editor to a camera assistant. Our next project was very different, a spin off series aimed at children which we nicknamed a “Laugh in the Undergrowth”. I was a huge fantasy adventure film buff and grew up with Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones and this passion spilled over into my work. I loved making worlds, learning how to light and create depth and contrast using custom-made lenses and now we were filming things on a microscopic scale.. 2mm in scale in fact! I wanted to show things that no one had ever seen before. All the insects became characters with their own unique voices and idiosyncrasies. This was the first time we did everything in-house. We made an HD series; all the edit, VFX, everything, made in Martin’s home without a massive post facility. It was quite ground breaking at the time. 

After this came “Great Migrations” with National Geographic which won my first Emmy. It ended up being the biggest show they’d ever done! 

Next came the BBC “Swarms” series which was no mean feat. Armed with technical knowledge and being confident with high-speed digital, I was often the guy they’d call who would turn up with 40 cases of equipment and was solely responsible for loading, tracking, rigging and managing the data... I was the proverbial ‘one stop shop’. It wasn’t long after that that our creative studio Ember was born with my wife Emma. I had gathered a reputation for solving tricky, complex shoots and Emma was the producer who kept me grounded! Working on studio sets is a different kettle of fish to working in the wild. You don’t have all the luxuries when you’re on the Delta, you look outside your tent, see what the weather is doing and figure out how you’re going to approach the day. You really have to understand the world you are in and tackle any challenge head on. Also, animals don’t stand still. It’s been a brilliant way to climb up the ladder. 

The piece of work that still makes me jealous… 

I think I am essentially a frustrated creative, and I’ve never been pleased with stuff I’ve done. I’m a huge critic of my own work. I am actually jealous of everyone’s work. I love clever, creative work with a narrative. I loved that The Sunday Times commercial which was all one shot, very clever and different for the time. Lacoste was another commercial that was stunning and told a story. And it wasn’t too advertising focused. I also love music videos. I love it if bands create their own story - it always frustrates me when they turn up in it! 

The work that I’m proudest of...

From a global point of view, the BBC Planet Earth 2 series - everyone knows it even if they haven’t seen it and it’s really elevated us as a creative studio. But on a personal level, I think it has to be Netflix’s “Tiny Creatures”. We had full control from day one. We pitched for it. Won it. Made it. Shot it. Exec Produced it. Edited it. (DOP, wrote it) That in itself is the pinnacle of where we are now, and not many directors can say they’ve made a Netflix Original. I’m also really proud of what we’ve achieved as a team. If you’re going to do it, you have to give it your all. I’ve since been asked so many times to do the same thing on different platforms, but if I’m honest that doesn’t really excite me. I’d much prefer to try something new or learn a new skill. The great thing about the Netflix series is that it fuses everything we know from our background in commercials and natural history all put into the melting pot. It’s completely different to anything out there both visually and in its execution. At the end of the day “Tiny Creatures” essentially is all table top. 

Everything is a learning curve. On every project you learn something different. I’ve done some great commercials in the last few years too, most recently for Jaguar Land Rover and Canon. The shoot (Land Rover) was not without its challenges; a campaign comprising both ATL and BTL films shot over 16 days in multiple remote locations, with 50+ crew and cast, a number of embargoed vehicles and live animals - all during COVID-19. But it was a great series of scripts that we loved bringing to life. We’re still learning the commercial process which is so different to natural history, and we’ve only just dipped our toes in the water, so we’re hoping there’s more to come. 

What’s a recent project I was involved in that excited me the most… 

We’re working on a top-secret project at the moment with a Hollywood director, Oscar winning VFX artists and Hans Zimmer composing the music. It feels like we’ve entered that ‘grown up world’. I keep pinching myself and thinking, well this is kinda cool!. It’s like the pay-off for all those years of bloody hard work. I think it's going to be pretty special when it drops.

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Ember Films, Thu, 18 Mar 2021 14:15:24 GMT