Here at Ads Magazine, we always want to showcase the creative talent behind the commercials or short films you see on screen.

Alex Sufit is a London-based film director with a background in Illustration. She’s won numerous awards for her work and we were lucky enough to interview her.

We caught up with Alex, who shared her experiences, what makes her tick and her thoughts on the industry as a whole.

So, Alex – How Did You First Get Started In Making Trailers?

I started out making shorts and fell into music videos ‘by mistake’. I have the DSLR to thank for that. A friend of mine, who is a photojournalist, had pre-ordered one of the first Canon 5D cameras to land in the UK. We decided to do a test shoot, on a whim, and not wishing to waste the opportunity, I called a couple of actors and came up with an idea on the way over to the location. I literally stopped off to buy a box of chalk. The result was ‘Chalk’ which I initially considered to be a short film. Just on deadline, I submitted it to Rushes Soho Shorts, in their short film section, ‘on the off chance’. We went on to be nominated for their Music Video Award. From there, I developed a taste for music videos and all short form, and made my way into ads. Book trailers came about as a result of an advertising competition for the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which M&C Saatchi and HYPvideo ran a few years ago. They chose twenty up-and-coming directors to create a cinema ad for the ICA in 24 hours (total madness). From that, I got offered my first book trailer and funnily enough, I also landed my first major broadcast campaign for tourism in Ireland. The client loved the idea. It just goes to show that these competitions can work; at the end of the day you just have to be out there, making films.

Do You Enjoy Working On Book Trailers?

I’ve grown to be quite a fan of them, as I love the challenge of bringing a book to life on screen, which is not always an easy feat. I studied Philosophy & English Literature at University so I guess this also makes me feel a bit less guilty for reading so few novels since I graduated. I treat book trailers as I would a film trailer and try to capture the essence of the story. With the ‘Breathless Reads’ campaign for Penguin Books we faced a massive challenge as the client wanted all five books from the series to feature – in a 30 second spot. Bearing in mind, you have to leave 3 odd seconds for the pack shot, that leaves very little time. The solution we came up with was to feature shots from each book on posters that ‘come alive’ on the teenage girl’s wall. It involved a massive compositing job. At the end of the day, you’re there to make the client happy, but behind the scenes there is always a lot of work that goes into even the most seemingly simple concepts.

Did You Come Across Many Struggles And Difficulties When You First Started?

When I started in the industry I had no contacts and no experience, so I literally started from a blank slate. If I’d stopped to think about it, I probably would never have picked up a camera. I just took the plunge and in 2006-7 made a 20 minute short film about a middle-aged kleptomaniac called “Retail Therapy”. It was not a work of genius, but it did give me my first experience as a director and I followed up with another short “How Not To Say I Love You” which did well at festivals and allowed me to meet more people in the industry. This industry is all about ‘who you know’. You can be incredibly talented, but if your films are just gathering dust on a shelf at home and you’re not out there meeting people, then forget it. I make films because I want to tell stories, but you have to develop a thick skin and share your work, take criticism on the chin, get out there. The other major struggle is budgets. Unfortunately, I started making films as the recession hit and I saw budgets tumble, just as my showreel was really starting to develop. If I’d been making music videos in 85-95 and churning out the stuff I am now, I’d probably get a case-load of money and creative free-for-all. I’m exaggerating of course, but it’s not too far from the truth. There is very little money in promos at the moment and Fuji just stopped producing film, so it is not exactly the most optimistic time to be a director. The whole ‘viral ad’ bandwagon has also caused a lot of clients to turn around and say: well you can make on online ad for x, why is broadcast so expensive? It’s a tough time for everyone and it limits what you are able to produce, but I do believe the talented and determined will out in the end. I’m living proof that budgets (or rather lack of them) won’t stop the determined, or fool-hardy as the case may be.

What’s Your Process?

I start at the beginning with a concept, which is either the result of an image or idea that pops up in my head, or a brainstorm. From there, the first port of call is a piece of paper – getting your ideas structured in the form of a treatment. I almost always work off storyboards and usually draw them myself as I trained in Fine Art & Illustration. I also create a folder of images and photographs that I find from sifting through books or the internet. Visual references are crucial, and while the treatment is of course important in explaining the idea, you need those references to show the look and feel of what you’re aiming for. On one major commercial campaign I did for tourism in Northern Ireland, the production company even created video storyboards: filming a rough outline of one of the concepts. The work you put in depends on the client you’re working with. Some require a lot of ground-work and preparation, others are happy to trust you with a sketched out concept (although that is rare). Coming from a visual background as an illustrator, I need to sketch out my ideas on paper and you’ll often find me doodling in restaurants and on the tube. I have a habit of buying these beautiful leather bound notebooks and for a while I’ll walk around with them and a stack of pens. Not a single creative idea will spring to mind. Then after a few days, I’ll forget the notebook and you are almost guaranteed that I’ll be scrabbling in my bag for a scrap of paper. One of the walls in my flat is covered in napkins, scraps of paper and torn newspaper, scrawled with my ideas and drawings.

What Equipment Do You Use?

I’ve shot on everything from 35mm film, to the Alexa and Canon 5D. The format is dictated by the concept and, of course, the budget. My music video ‘Gentlemen in Squalor’ is set in the prohibition era and is a kind of ‘homage’ to “Bugsy Malone” and “Oliver Twist”. Given the fact it’s set in the 1920′s, it made perfect sense to shoot it on film, and budget wise we just about got away with it. But in some cases, shooting guerrilla style on a DSLR is the best option, as it gives you freedom to move around quickly and grab shots. I have to admit I hold a soft spot for film though. With the advent of cameras like the Red or the Alexa, the quality of the image those cameras produce does not justify the film versus digital debate in terms of latitude for instance, but there is an ‘aliveness’ with film that you just can’t beat. I adore the grain of film, those little defects that give it life. I also find that shooting on film means a different discipline on set. When you shoot with a DoP who, say, worked his/her way up through the ranks from being a focus puller on ‘film’ sets, and you combine that with a director like myself who has pretty good shooting ratios and is not a fan of multiple takes, then you end up with high quality rushes that don’t run into hours. When you are burning stock it does tend to focus the mind. The crew and actors are focused, you rehearse properly, you really think about what you are doing, and you end up with less rushes; without compromising on quality. This means you spend less time in post. So I sometimes find shooting digital, especially since the cost of hiring film cameras and stock has dropped, can be a bit of a false economy.

Any Plans Or Major Projects In The Pipeline?

Hopefully I’ll be shooting another book trailer very soon, for a big publisher. We are just working on the treatment now and waiting for that to be signed off. It will, fingers crossed, be a nice, simple job (famous last words). I am also talking with a band that I have worked with previously about doing a second video for them. Jarmean? are a quirky steampunk band based in Whitechapel and I shot a video for them called ‘Bad Penny’ a couple of years ago. It did well and screened at a number of festivals, as well as picking up some awards along the way, including the Radar Award for Best Music Video at the London Short Film Festival. They’ve come back for a second helping and we are planning to shoot a video before Christmas.
Aside from those projects, I am turning my hand to writing and developing two feature films. One is a psychological thriller called ‘Blink’ that I shot a trailer for a few years back, and the other is a road-movie set in London and France, where I grew up. While I was born in London I was raised in Provence, close to the mountains, which is an inherently cinematic landscape. I was not one of those directors who always knew they wanted to direct and ran around shooting on Super 8 when they were 10 years old. Where I grew up there was just one cinema that screened poorly dubbed American movies and French or Italian art-house. What I did have was an incredibly beautiful landscape and some odd-ball neighbours, with a fair few secrets behind closed doors. In small villages word gets about and people know each others’ business. The idyll of Provence is just reserved for tourists. I am fascinated by what goes on behind closed doors. I think that spurs me on in my filmmaking: all those secrets, behind closed doors. “Blink” is all about voyeurism.

Any Creative Talent You Would Love To Work With?

There are so many talented people I’d love to work with. If he were still alive, I would be clamouring for a chance to meet Krzysztof Kieślowski, who is one of the most talented directors I have ever come across. His trilogy “Bleu, Blanc, Rouge” is a masterpiece and I do not use the term lightly. I would be a privilege to work with, or even just observe, Jacques Audiard, who has the rare talent of creating anti-heroes. Characters who are not picture-postcard cuts out of right or wrong, but well-observed and very ‘real’ personalities. As for actors, the list is long. Marion Cottilard has been outstanding in some roles, especially when she played Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”, and I think our very own Bond, Daniel Craig, is a talented and versatile actor. Some of his roles in less commercial films like “Flashbacks of a Fool” really stayed with me; plus he makes a great Bond.

I worked with Dexter Fletcher on “Gentlemen in Squalor” and he’s a great sport, both talented and humble. I contacted him through a friend of a friend who knew his agent, and sent across my trailer The Budding Director for the BornShorts International Film Festival. To be fair because the connection was so random, I did not imagine it would come to much, but sure enough a very familiar voice called me up about a week later – it was a bit odd as it is as though the TV is talking to you. It was brilliant that he agreed to take part, as ‘Babyface’ in “Bugsy Malone” was his first screen role at the ripe old age of six and “Gentlemen in Squalor” paid homage to Alan Parker’s film.

What Advice Would You Give Anyone Wanting To Get Into The Industry?

Just keep at it. It is not always easy, standing there freezing your socks off on an outdoor shoot in the dead of winter or battling over budgets and creative ideas; but certainly for me, it is worth it. The other thing I’d say is just don’t talk about making films, go out and make them. There are a lot of ‘talkers’ in the industry and it took me some years to distinguish between those and the people actually were making films. I’ve grown better at marketing myself and attending events over the years, but I am not a natural networker. I’d rather stay home and write a script or actually be working on film set. But you have to make the effort if you’re going to get ahead in this business.
I also get asked what it’s like to be a woman in the industry, especially by girls just starting out. I often find myself on a set with say 10-20 blokes, bar the girl-dominated art department. As a ‘petite’ female, I get asked how I manage to assert myself and especially how I cope in commercials. My answer to that is: it’s only a problem if you make it into a problem. We live in a modern society and I can’t say I’ve ever felt less respected by my crew for being female. Sometimes I even get the sneaky impression they respect me even more for it. People might expect a woman to be less decisive, well they’ve not been on one of my sets. You just have to get on with the job and not worry about that stuff. If you think too much about the obstacles: being a woman in a male dominated industry, shrinking budgets, the creative battles, then you’re never going to make a single film. I just get up at the crack of dawn before a film shoot and say “f*ck it!” then I walk on set and do what I’m paid to do: which is to direct.

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  • Barry Gross

    Nice article focusing on a fantastic director.

    I agree that, if this were 15 years ago, Alex would be financially successful. But these lean times have had the effect of focusing her affect.

    Enough with all this focus! Let’s make some more pretty pictures.

    Barry Gross
    Alex’s current favourite cinematographer