The Thomas Thomas director on her design sensibilities, amping up the visuals and real-life gnoming
Tina Bull (AKA Tiny Bullet) took a meandering (but very scenic) route into directing. With a sign writer for a dad, she soon became a typeface expert. In fact, he used to test her on her lettering knowledge. Eventually she got into the Royal Academy aged just 16, making her the youngest student ever to be accepted there.
Having studied typography and animation, she soon made a name for herself in broadcast design, working as creative head at English & Pocket, winning BDA and Promax Gold awards for four consecutive years, before she hit the road to travel the globe, eventually landing in Australia.
Soon filmmaking became more of a focus for her and Tina began directing commercials. In 2017 she returned to the UK to join Thomas Thomas Films and ever since she’s been on a good run, bringing her heavily stylised and wonderfully over-the-top style to films for BBC Sport Relief, Lovehoney, McDonald’s and a brilliant short for International Women’s Day called ‘Adpology’.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with her to find out more about her process.
LBB> Your recent films made with Leo Burnett for McDonald’s were kind of bonkers but brilliant. How did they come about?
Tiny Bullet> This was the biggest project for me. When the script came in I knew they were looking at big directors so this was my chance to throw everything at it. There was no point in playing safe and I didn’t think I’d win that job based on my reel because I’m still building it. I thought I’ve got to do everything I can to wow them.
In the treatment I didn’t play it safe. I just wrote some crazy, surreal, mad ideas. I always do that in my treatments. Then I always like to collaborate with the creatives and they can pare it back for the client. I did that and then they wrote back and they said they didn’t really want to take anything out and I was like, ‘really? So you liked the ninja waiter and the hands appearing out of the table?’
LBB> So it was quite a collaborative process, involving you as a director in the script as it changed?
Tiny Bullet> They asked if we could have a little meeting before we start the job. So me and Trent [Simpson] the producer went in that they said they loved it but could we push it even more?
It’s all about the normal, banal world - the bus stop, in the car - how do you get them into this. I felt it was like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. How do we get from one to the other?
When I was writing it, I’d visualised so the guy just starts moving on his own, someone taps him on the shoulder and then he goes through and he appears in the fridge. And so now that’s my favourite bit - that trigger, that moment of going into this dreamworld which visually was really good.
We weren’t allowed to show a real normal supermarket, so it shouldn’t be too bland, but then we couldn’t also go and take the piss out of a specific supermarket brand. Which is why a lot of it’s crafted with a colour palette that I had in mind. I was banging on about this colour palette. That was really good fun.
LBB> You definitely like to bring your design sensibilities into your films. Is that always there?
Tiny Bullet> If the script’s right. What I’m consciously trying to do is whatever the script is to go down whatever route suits it. My first British project was Sports Relief, which was naturalistic, cinematic, kind of a bit gritty, grungy, so it fits that and the way the camera moves.
But when it comes to something like McDonald’s it makes me smile because it’s everything I love. I love post, design, but also mixing into what I’m trying to do now which is more into casting and performances. It ticks all those boxes.
LBB> Most of your work has had some absolutely bang-on casting. What has guided that?
Tiny Bullet> I’ve become more confident with my casting choices rather than playing it safe. Sometimes, early on in my career, I was second guessing people rather than going with my instincts. I think I’ve got quite a good sense of energy about people. In a casting room I can just tell what you’re gonna be like on camera. I never knew I had that instinct until recently. It seems to work so I’m trusting it more.
The trick all comes down to having a good relationship with the agency. When you know you’ve got your cast, you know whether or not you’re on the same page with the agency. If you’ve got completely different opinions in the casting stage it’ll be a tricky one.
With McDonald’s we managed to get the girl Sarah, the restaurant lady. She’s a proper actor and she’s bloody amazing. If you were to read the script, all it is is a woman at a table reacting to things with surprise. So at the casting a lot of people [were making cheesy surprise faces] but Sarah brought something different. She’s a pro. She had a big range and looked shocked in different ways. I didn’t tell her too much because I wanted her to feel quite surprised. Towards the end she gets pulled out. We didn’t tell her that was going to happen. And we ended up using that first take. Her eyes are just looking straight down the barrel in complete horror.
In McDonald’s there is a longer version with a guy holding some vegetables and he’s got these terrified eyes because he’s in front of a camera. We just thought it was hilarious. It’s just something you can see in a little glint or a moment. If that person just keeps doing something. Like if you look at them and they blush, you want that, so you just trust that they’ll do that on the day.
In Treatwell, the guy on the phone there, I needed him to be quite nervous because he’s ringing up for a back, sack and crack. He’d never been to a casting before so he was really nervous. If there’s a role where all I need them to do is a beat and they’re really nervous or whatever I see in the casting room. I know I’ll only need that. It’s picking the right person when you need a range but being brave enough to pick someone straight off the street.
LBB> Adpology must have been a huge casting job, too.
Tiny Bullet> It was all volunteers. We did it because we all believed in the cause. I loved the script when it first came in. The only thing is we couldn’t do it unless we have at least eight people turn up. It all relies on casting.
We put it into Belinda Norcliffe Casting and put out a call. We turned up at the casting and Matt, who does all my casting sessions says ‘Tina, I can’t believe it. There are about 55 people queueing.’ People just want to be here. It was the most amazing casting I’ve ever had. And probably the most amazing job because we got all sorts of women. Not just actors. Some were comedians. Some had never even been on TV. There was one girl called Megan, who came with her mum, who has learning difficulties, so I couldn’t really ask her to do anything, but she just lit up the screen. I wanted all of them to be in it, which is why at the end scene we just got as many as we could in there.
On set, everyone was banding together and sharing. Everyone had to wear their own clothes so they were swapping. A bit of a love in.
LBB> What did you say to get people to come to that casting?
Tiny Bullet> We didn’t want it to be controversial. It wasn’t a dig. It was just an observation. We did have typical, ‘attractive’ size-six models turn up. That was another thing. I didn’t want to jump on that bandwagon. I didn’t want to do it because I wanted to get something decent on my showreel. It just felt right at the time. And tonally we had to be really careful not to take the piss out of advertisers.
We just put it on YouTube thinking no one was ever going to see it. After about an hour Trent rang me up and said 100 people had looked at it. ‘No way! 100!’ And a few hours later there were 3,000. Then you guys [LBB] picked it up and all of a sudden it was up to a million. Then it got translated into Italian and Spanish and went global. I had to change all my Facebook settings because I was getting all these people contacting me. Even to this day someone in Brazil will get int contact to tell us they love the spot. We touched a nerve, I think.
LBB> A lot of what you do seems to be observing stuff that’s wrong or pretentious and pointing out how stupid it is.
Tiny Bullet> I just do that. I don’t like bullshit and fakeness. I’ve just been away for a couple of days and come back to London. It’s full on. I’m trying to hang onto that. I travel everywhere on the bus. You look out into the street and there are little short films playing out in front of you. In Australia everything was so bland and spread out. You might see one person over there. Whereas here there are loads of characters. I’m not really inventing anything. All I’m doing is putting a mirror up to what I see going around on the top deck of a bus. My characters aren’t made up. They do exist.
LBB> Even the stuff other people have written seems observational, but heightened as well. Treatwell, for example, was exactly that. How did that happen?
Tiny Bullet> That was direct to client. We worked with their in-house team. We had quite a bit of creative control. That is my only other one which has got a proper visual style to it. Again, I was colour palette crazy.
I created all of the magazines myself. I went all retro. The one in the room with jungle wallpaper, I was bringing out all these parrots. I just keep going. If no one’s telling me not to do it, I will go ‘put that there, put that there, put that there…’ And I will eventually get told to pull it back. By that time I’ve got 80% of what I want there.
I used to have a trademark gnome in all my projects. Obviously all my stuff is a bit silly. It’s not like I’m doing a big high-end drama. But I’d always sneak one in and my producer would see it at the last minute. Like ‘Tina, get that gnome out!’
LBB> Do you still make stuff outside of the films you’re making?
Tiny Bullet> Yeah, all the time. I think it’s really important. Just to liven it up a bit. I do painting. I’m turning one of the rooms in my flat into a studio, so I have something proper to paint on. I still do a lot of after effects. Which is good to keep me on my toes. And always photography.
LBB> Are you still hot on your typography?
Tiny Bullet> Yeah, otherwise my dad would tell me off! The last few projects have ended up with graphics on and I’m a bit of a stickler for text. You spend so much time crafting the visuals and no one will know but any of my peers who I went to design school with will think ‘oh my God, Tina’s really dropped her standards. Look at the kerning on that.’
LBB> Do you have a font that you really hate?
Tiny Bullet> Brushstroke. What’s that cowboy one? Rockwell. Or anything that pretends to be graffiti.
LBB> The last few jobs you’ve done have been more in a comedy space. Are you happy to do be doing that work?
Tiny Bullet> I think you should always be evolving and learning. For me, it’s another thing for me to say what I can do. A director’s only as good as what’s on your showreel, so for me McDonald’s shows that I can do a big brand, with a decent budget to do it properly. It’s all about having a niche. So for me I wouldn’t say it’s comedy, more heartfelt, warm, but isn’t to say I can’t do pretty pictures, because that’s where I come from.
My showreel at the moment is all about connection with humans. That’s really important because early on in my career (and a lot of visual directors fall into this trap) I used to treat humans like props. Generally people who do my kind of work, and people who are into their tech like me, would go ‘you stand there’ and just light them, tell them to move over there and smile. I’m now connecting with people and hopefully I’m quite open on set.
On Adpology I just wanted everyone to have such a good time and just be themselves. I don’t want anyone behind or in front of the camera to have a bad time. So I’m getting the confidence to embrace that and allow the cast to do their thing and not stress them out. I think I know what works and it’s all about casting. Then just having the trust to let them do what you cast them for in the first place.