Inspiration

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The little big joys of Benedict Bannister

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It's hard to meet people who find pleasure in little things, nowadays. Freelance film and motion director Benedict Bannister is one of those.

Benedict enjoys gardening, exercising, and most of all, he loves taking inspiration from his children for his own work. Having started in the industry at the end of the analogue age, Benedict knows the best of two worlds and he still believes he has a lot to see as a professional in the industry. But as his team and work experience grow like his plants, his passion seems far from withering.

For this Member Spotlight, we are learning about the story of one of the most passionate creative professionals out there, someone with a genuine love for his craft and and unstoppable drive to aim for the best of his creative output.

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How did you get into the industry?

I started out as a production runner at a commercial production company in London. I was very fortunate that the company was busy, doing great work and was a very friendly place. Perhaps best of all, unlike most production companies, it had its own film studio, editing suites, camera and lighting equipment. So I was able to experience and learn beyond simply what is done within and from the production office.

I decided that the camera department was what interested me the most. So while still working as a production runner, I was able to get hands on experience with cameras and lighting.

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Where are you based now and who do you work for?

I am based in the South East of England. So London is the work hub. But I will go wherever the work takes me. Generally that is within the UK, but I have been fortunate to work all over the world. How Covid-19 affects this, we will have to wait and see.

Essentially I am freelancer. So can produce from my own company, or will work out of production companies and agencies who commission me, wherever they are.

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If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

After leaving University, I was interested in journalism and production. Journalism remains an interest but it is an even more precarious profession than production.

I’m passionate about gardening, so the great outdoors has an appeal. There are few better places in the world than Great Dixter, so working in that environment would be very interesting as well.

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Can you explain your creative process?

The creative process is not really one thing. It depends entirely on the project at hand. The one general rule for me, is that I enjoy the process, and the results are much more successful, if it is collaborative.

Something like London Lockdown 2020 is born out of Danny Boyle’s excellent film and the times we live in. That’s the inspiration. And in this case it’s quite prescriptive. There was a pretty clear road map laid before us. Beyond that it required a tiny production footprint, because strictly speaking we shouldn’t have been out filming during Lockdown.

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London Lockdown was made easier because Director of Photography Peter Bathurst, I know very well. So, once I pitched the idea to him, we had a very open discussion between ourselves on how to achieve it; creatively, practically and technically. And of course there were no clients to satisfy.

Commercial work, I find is quite different. There are many more stakeholders involved. As Director and/or Producer, one of your main tasks is satisfying all these stakeholders, who may be arriving from competing points of view - the agency creatives, the agency producers, the agency account handlers, the client. I don’t often shoot brand commercials, so the aim of the commercial films I shoot, is quite focused. Within that it is a case of keeping everyone on side, and being able to explain why as Director or Producer you have approached things the way you have. I have never understood the inherent friction so often found with the client. It’s their product you are selling. Presumably they know more about it and their market, so surely involving them is only going to help?

The work I have shot for Platform 13, Boudicca, is again very different. We have a strong relationship, so they have always been happy with me to run with an idea I have. Once I pitch it to them, then they will contribute. They are brilliantly creative, so it’s a pleasure. Both the films, Tornado Dress and Wode were ideas I pitched to them. The ideas themselves came from working in their studio, watching them and thinking that would be neat... wouldn’t it?, then talking with them and working together to develop the idea further. Then the execution has been left almost entirely to me.

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How has technology affected the way you work (if at all)?

I began life in the industry at the tail end of the analogue age. Film was shot on film. Video formats simply did not offer the kind of top end quality that film afforded, be it 35mm or 16mm. It was edited on print using Movieolas and Steinbecks. That is ancient history but what it taught me was discipline. Every frame counted. Every time the camera was turned over money was being spent, above and beyond the hire of the crew and equipment. I remember as a camera assistant sitting down with the Director and DP and choosing which takes would be printed for the following days rushes. It seems extraordinarily anachronistic that you simply wouldn’t have all the material available for the off-line that you had shot - good and bad. I do feel that the discipline this process engendered is missed.

On the other hand what the digital age provides from the range and capabilities of the camera systems, LED lighting, to the potential in the off-line and online is simply incredible. Where we find ourselves today would have been almost unimaginable when I started out. Almost everything is possible. Is there a danger that this can lead to a loss of discipline and preparation, with the oft quoted expression “we can sort it out in post”? I think there is a danger of that.

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However, what is as true today as 25 years ago, is that the equipment and tools available at any time are only ever as good as the people using them. Our industry is a people's business. And that is one if its greatest joys; that you work with a large and disparate group who gather together for the project in hand and execute it as best as their abilities allow. It is no surprise that over time you build a team of people, who are largely freelancers, whom you end up working with again and again. Who are talented, whom you trust implicitly, who can all make a contribution to the execution of the project. I have been very fortunate, as I’m sure many others are as well, to have met some fantastically talented, generous, interesting people.

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What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

Be open. Read, look, watch and listen.

This may appear trite, but despite the fact we live in times where the potential to access material to read, look at, watch and listen to, is unrivalled, there is always the danger we simply sit within our own echo-chamber. And the AI that lies behind so much of the virtual online world, simply compounds this. I have to keep reminding myself of this. Also, I have to be careful that I make sure I am discerning about the mass of stuff I absorb. Quantity does not mean quality by any means.

Ironically enough, my children have been a source of inspiration. Above and beyond the obvious, one's visceral love for your children comes from the fact that they can bring a different perspective to things. I often watch classic films with my daughter and listening to her analysis is really illuminating. In the past I have been very scornful of social media, yet they have shown me how incredibly powerful, used positively, they can be.

So perhaps another thing from all of this is that you have to police yourself. Keep questioning everything, not least yourself.

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What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

I think it’s almost impossible to boil it down to one thing. Because my work is very varied, the achievements are likewise.

I was very happy with the Boudicca Tornado Dress film. It looks really good. It was a technical triumph and it has been well received. I draw some satisfaction from the fact that when we were developing the idea we talked to a well known post production company who said our approach would cause all sorts of problems and it would be better to do it another way. One look at their figures meant that their approach was simply unaffordable. In the end they liked what we did!!

I love a technical challenge - so long as there is a purpose behind it. Not simply for the technical problem solving and of itself - but solving the technical conundrum to execute the creative idea. So the Walkway video was a real triumph. As I was explaining what we were going to do, with everyone scratching their heads trying to get their heads round four cameras shooting simultaneously, all locked together, tethered to the time code so we could play back the move recordings… It worked very well.

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Something similar happened when we looked after the motion control on Netflix film “What Happened To Monday?” The team weren’t very experienced with motion control and I’m not sure I was explaining myself that well, so to start with we had some moments. However, the shots with the seven sisters all in frame together inter-acting, as the camera moves about in what appears to be an organic and conventional way, was great. I often show people the material and they cannot spot the effect - they just think the 7 girls are more or less identical, rather than it being the same girl multiplied up 7 times. That the producer said at the end of the film that now they could see the results, they wished they did more shots with us, was the perfect validation.

My favourite film I have directed is the Landover Cake viral commercial. There were lots of really neat technical achievements. The stop frame worked really nicely and so on. However, what I’m most proud of is that I did the script justice. It was a great script. One of those that you read and think, “I want to shoot that.” It is a lovely small idea that is just perfect. So the only thing that could go wrong was that we wouldn’t realise the idea properly. We wouldn't get the words from the sheet of paper up on screen. That was the greatest danger. Fortunately we did. Everyone who ever watches it just smiles. The creatives who wrote it, even though it is a few years ago now, still say it ranks among their best ever work. Mine too.

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How do you recharge away from the office?

I run and cycle a lot. If I don’t take exercise I do get a bit stir crazy - like a dog that hasn’t been exercised. I like running because it only requires a pair of trainers. You can do it anywhere and at anytime. It is solitary and that is good for my head.

I really enjoy gardening. It is no doubt something to do with my age. But especially when work has been slow and the doubts creep in, I have found gardening has preserved my mental health. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but it really has. And then there is something profound about planting a seed and a few months later a plant appears that has a wonder about it, or that you then sit down and eat it with friends and family. My rhubarb and spinach has been abundant this year!! The garlic’s coming on nicely…

There is something very tangible about that, which for me at least is comforting.
And by extension... food. Preparing food - cooking. The kitchen is the heart of a home, I reckon. There are few things better than preparing really good food and then sitting down with family and friends to enjoy it. It is the best of life in a nutshell - create, share, fulfilment.

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What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?

Simplicity - don’t over elaborate an idea. Collaborate - do not be territorial about ideas. Allow people to contribute. It will engender such goodwill from those above and below you in whatever pecking order you find yourself in. With that goodwill, then it is much easier to discard ideas and contributions that don’t work.

And finally it is hard, getting the work, keeping it going. Especially within the freelance environment - I certainly haven't crack it myself! But persevere, remain generous and if your ideas are good then they will be heard, seen and adopted.

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What’s your one big hope for the future of the creative industries?

That it becomes more inclusive. Progress has been made. But there is a long way to go.

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

There is gulf between the creative heads and the technicians - from production to camera department to art department. Especially in terms of earnings. I think we would do well to close that gap. Certainly in film and video production, it is a sum of its parts. Creatives, originators, producers are reliant upon their army of techs to achieve their dreams. We should never forget that.

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