Thomas Thomas director Tina Bull discusses directing, design and why they call her the Tiny Bullet
Design and creativity have always been part of Tina Bull’s DNA. As a child, her dad would test her typeface-identifying skills and she got into the Royal Academy at the intimidatingly young age of 16. It was then that she made a DIY title sequence for Match of the Day and sent it to the BBC – her first steps into the world of Broadcast Design. Just a few years into her career, she headed up the creative department at English & Pockett, an agency that specialised in media and entertainment brands (and which then become FutureBrand English & Pockett). Since then, her creative career has taken in photography, art, corporate design and directing and has split her time between the UK, US and Australia (where her budding directing skills were first nurtured). These days Tina is fully embracing directing and has joined forces with Thomas Thomas Films. LBB’s Jason Caines caught up with her to learn more.
LBB> How did you get involved in design and how did that lead to directing?
Tina Bull> I knew I was going to be an artist from when I was five. My dad’s a traditional sign writer and when we watched TV, we’d watch the credits and he’d say, ‘what’s that typeface?’ I’d say, ‘Bodoni Bold 12.3’ and he’d say, ’that’s my girl’.
My teacher put me up for my GCSE art when I was 11 and so I did everything six years in advance and I tried to get into the Royal Academy when I was 16. Most people are in their late 20s when they apply there. I got in and it motivated me to focus on art. After I started studying design, I started to do animation. I started to see everything come to life. I did broadcast designs for Channel 4 and other title sequences for TV shortly after I graduated.
LBB> What’s the connection between broadcast design and directing and what ideas did you come up with at the time?
TB> When Channel 4 needed new idents and new menus, I’d come up with an idea, go to the client, shoot it myself, design it myself, including post, do everything. It’s great training but then I realised all I really loved doing was the directing.
That was around the time I went travelling for a year; I was in my early 20s and thought I just wanted to go backpacking and travelling and then I ended up getting signed to a film company in Australia called Prodigy, by accident. They used to take on new, young directors, they got me a visa sponsorship and I ended up staying there for a large part of my career.
LBB> What would you say are your defining moments in your early career?
TB> I love football and there was a TV show called Standing Room Only, a magazine type program. I had these football cards that used to belong to my Grandad and I started animating them and turned it into a title sequence for Match of the Day when I was around 16. I sent it to BBC Manchester and they said that they loved it. They called me up and asked if I wanted to come up and have a look around the studio. That was my first thing I ever did that was on TV. That gave me the bug.
One of my other defining moments also happened around the same period in 1994. At my final show at college, my plan was to print letterpress hand type and animate it. I printed everything out, scanned it into the Mac and then reanimated it, so I’d end up with a huge stack of pages, which I’d hand animate with a rostrum camera. But they didn’t tell us that you had to remove the pip out of your tape, so I taped black over the whole thing by accident. It was a day before my final show, after three years of studying.
I got home, and thought, ‘what am I going do? Am I going to end up working for McDonalds!?’ I got into my mum’s car and I drove back up to college and hid under the edit suite table until the caretaker locked up that night and then I reanimated it overnight be. The tutor put my work into an award and I won a £1000. A designer called Malcom Garret, who used to do Sex Pistols album covers, took me under his wing and he introduced me to BBH and all these other places. I think that’s my defining moment because I could have just given up.
LBB> Why do they call you the Tiny Bullet?
TB> Because I’m small and very fast. I’ve got a lot of energy and I do a lot of photography and painting and always have written the label Bully Art on my work. My dad and teachers have always called me that and other nicknames. My producers started calling me Tiny Bullet and its caught on. Especially here, as right now there’s a lot about female directors and I think it’s a very feminine take on something powerful.
I’ve been a director for 10 years but this year, for the first time, people have been saying we need more female directors. I’ve always been pretty busy but I always think if someone’s talented that they should get the work.
LBB> Which other directors do you admire and why?
TB> At the moment, I like Megaforce, French team of directors who do very weird, kooky stuff that grabs you, their stuff is amazing. Spike Jonze, anything that visually you’ve never seen before. I think he’s really clever because he gets people talking
LBB> What was your first directing project?
TB> My first project was the Sumo ad for Lenovo, which is still on the reel, I loved it. It was filmed in New York and India and was aired during the Olympics so it got a load of attention. It kicked off my directing career. I also used to do a lot of work for Grey New York. In those early days it was very design led. People like to pigeonhole directors but more recently I’ve opened it up. For my eBay work, I’ve written and directed it.
TB> I got a brief from the ad agency: ‘A 100 Sumos get off a bus and turn into an aeroplane’. ‘Light on weight, heavy on features’ was the line and I brought that to life. The funniest thing was that we had to cast 100 sumo wrestlers but we could only find six who looked like Sumo wrestlers. We had to get a load of extras that we spray tanned and then we put wigs on them and put them in the background. It was also really lovely as these all bonded during their four-day trip. There’s even a video on YouTube of them all singing and chanting. Just type ‘flying Sumos’ and they should come up.
LBB>I’ve watched some of the other ads on your showreel. The eBay ads are especially quite tongue in cheek. How did they come about and what was the brief?
TB> We made three of them. All we got told is that eBay have these crazy wonderful facts about shopping from eBay Sales and they said we want to too do some online content that gets attention. It was the biggest open brief I’ve ever had. It naturally led me as I have a quirky sense of humour.The first film starring Doris was actually a short film, which we’ve cut down into the showreel.
LBB> The tagline ‘Melbourne Smashes Whey More Protein than Sydney’ is hilarious and a great way to satirise ‘bro culture’. How did you come up with that?
TB> Don’t know how I came up with it - bit silly right? The agency and I brainstormed and we kept talking about bros with big muscles. I just thought ‘let’s turn that on its head.’ I love the fact that it’s an old lady and she’s frail and she’s old but she’s a superhero. It’s pretty cool. It was quite low budget and we put all the money into that one to get a proper actress.
The one that got all the attention and awards is the one with the girl on the treadmill. Her name is Celeste Barber. https://www.instagram.com/celestebarber/?hl=en She’s really famous for taking the piss out of famous women. That clip is called IVY Park, because Beyoncé has a range of well-known activewear in the states and she did this really poncy spot where she’s all ‘oh I get up in the morning and I feel so pumped and I have to go the gym and go for a run in the park’ type thing and so the ad ended up being a tongue-in-cheek take on that.
She’s very slapstick, so when I was directing her I had to make sure she didn’t overdo it. Sometimes I had to pull her back. She’s quite an attractive girl so I’d have to say ’be sexy, sexy… ok now be Celeste’ and she’d fall over or do something funny.
At the end, she was very happy with it. At the beginning she said, ‘please don’t make me look like an idiot’. Some directors could have done but she put her trust in me. I was very conscious in the editing process to make her look good and to laugh with her not at her.
LBB> As a director, how do you put people at ease like that?
TB> I’m not a big alpha male director type. I’m small and friendly and like to make everyone feel at home. I know it must be stressful to have a camera being pointed right in your face. I always have crazy people coming up to me in the street, maybe I just have that kind of smile that says, ‘come up and talk to me’. I think it’s important as a director to bring everyone together and make people feel comfortable.
LBB> Tell me about the cat-themed Intel ad that you made?
TB> For the intel ad, it has a bit of my design. I did all the stuff on the screen and the cat animating. For things like that, if I have the time I get onto After Effects. The cat lady with the jumper is subtle. That whole thing was drawn. I make a lot of my own props – mugs, cups... I designed all of that. I love doing it.
LBB> Why is now the time to fully embrace directing? Do you have any plans to go back into design?
TB> I did some stuff for Passion Pictures, freelancing, and then for Luscious, who are lovely and brilliant. I was there for seven years. I didn’t have the personality to be a full-on director at the time because I was more focused on the design side and now I’ve come back with much more confidence. I feel that now I have enough decent stuff on the reel. Thomas Thomas have been on my radar for a long time; a friend of mine is a DP and works with Kevin Thomas and he told me they were a lovely company, they’re small and it just felt right. Immediately they were top of my list and I was over the moon when they said they would sign me. I’ve just started and I’ve also just signed to a company in Germany. I’ve always been repped in the States and Australia but now also in home territory.
LBB> So back in the UK, directing with newfound momentum, what are you plans for the future and what do you want to achieve as a director?
TB> I definitely feel that I’m ready to move up to the next step and get the cooler scripts and the bigger budgets. Anything I can get my hands on that pushes me forward is important.
The way the industry is changing all the time I’m even thinking about doing more VR work. I’m a techie, I’m a gamer and I want to keep in touch with all of that as I think it’s a new way of storytelling. It’ll never take over film but I just want to keep up with that. There’s moving imagery everywhere and always will be.