Kaboom Productions director on having a clear synergy with the DOP and why his heart lies with documentaries
James Lovick is a multi-skilled director and cinematographer with work that is described as “cinematically realized human stories,” with documentary filmmaking at the heart of his visual style. Shortlisted for the Shots Young Directors Award at Cannes, James began his career in feature docs for television, shooting on several high-profile series before finding his way into the world of commercials and content. His style translates across genres, from documentary to tabletop, where beautifully captured food and beverages integrate seamlessly into narratives and stand alone deliciously.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
James> I know a lot of directors don’t like the pitching process, but creating the treatment is such a vital step in the making of a film for me. In my path to becoming a director, I was a visual researcher and treatment creator for over six years and worked with hundreds of different directors in that time. It was a pretty exhausting job… but prepared me for when I stepped up to directing.
Putting my ideas and references down on paper gives me and my wider team the chance to really flesh things out. I like to be pretty specific in my treatments and quite often the references used in the treatment become the lighting or shooting references for the finished film. It really depends on the job but creating the treatment usually involves locking myself away in a quiet room for a few days within minimal distractions until everything’s down on paper. But I think the effort put in at this stage of the process pays off massively further down the line.
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
James> For me, having a clear synergy between the director of photography and the director is absolutely key. You need to find someone that shares your vision and has the same aspirations for the look of the finished film. Then throughout the process, you are both pushing in the same direction. Having a director of photography that can help you achieve the look you want for the film, means that you can put trust in them to give you what you need and want in terms of the visuals… and allows you to think about all the other areas that need your attention. The performance, art direction, styling etc.
Particularly when working in documentaries, having a connection with the director of photography makes a massive difference - quite often, you are filming action taking place before your very eyes and you have to react to things as they happen. With some of the DoPs I work with, they know how to place themselves in the perfect position to be able to react to a situation without my need to give them direction. It’s this instinct and understanding between the two roles that can add real value to the film and makes my job a lot easier, allowing me to focus on getting the best out of the characters in the film.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
James> I think my heart will always be most passionate about making documentaries. It’s where I started at the beginning of my career; shooting in long-form documentaries for tv. Being able to get to know people and get to tell their stories in interesting and visual ways is a real privilege. I’ve been lucky enough to visit and step into the lives of some incredibly interesting and inspiring people over the course of my career - it’s these unique opportunities that I find most special and what makes doing this job so exciting.
LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
James> I think the biggest misconception about me and my work is that I just do documentaries - quite the opposite - food and drink photography makes up a huge proportion of the work that I do throughout the year. The documentary work came first, but food is my second passion after documentary film… so it felt only natural that those two worlds combine. They are two very different skill sets in the film world, so I think for some creative teams it can come as a bit of a shock that one Director could handle both elements of a shoot that requires it. I’m equally happy directing talent as well as food… and when the two combine, then I’m at my happiest! I love the contrast between the two in my work - documentaries can be very fast paced and reactive to what’s taking place in front of you … whereas the food work takes meticulous planning and preparation to get that perfect pour or packshot. Having that balance keeps things fresh and I’m lucky to jump between the two.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
James> The last couple of years have certainly been filled with their fair share of crazy problems haven’t they?!! I’ve had some interesting situations that have required a bit of juggling of schedules etc, but nothing so crazy that it completely derailed the whole shoot. (*Don’t speak too soon James!*) I often find that the harder situations are where you learn the most - how to deal with tricky requests or curveballs… they are, at the end of the day, what we are hired to handle and if you can absorb the difficult problem and react to it in a professional manner, then ultimately all you can do is your best. I think clients respond well to that.
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
James> This is a delicate balance to strike. I feel like I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve almost exclusively worked with really nice and collaborative teams both here in the UK and over in the US. My late uncle and mentor in the industry had two rules he stuck by and passed on to me. Always listen and hear everyone’s ideas, good or bad… and don’t work with d**ks. The second one goes without saying … but the first is important. Listen, take on board, and then respond. Quite often, the agency's ideas will be for the good of the project because they should ultimately know the brand better than me and my team. So if their feedback is for the good of the brand, I try to bring all their ideas into the film. Sometimes, I feel like as the filmmaker you are hired for your ideas and eye for what will make a good end product… and so having that forethought and end visual goal is important to try and stick to. Having the ability to challenge clients and agencies on certain elements is an important skill and guiding them on the journey to end up with a better film for their own benefit is again part of what I feel we are paid for as directors.
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
James> This is so important - we need to open up the production world to a much more diverse pool of talent. I always try to have a fairly equal split of men and women on set across all areas of production. Kaboom is a female owned and run production company and part of that was the attraction for joining their roster. They are championing women in all positions within the industry and it informs a big part of how their productions are run.
Throughout my career, I have learnt the most from the people I have worked with - be that in the office during production, on set, or on location. During all those experiences I have absorbed all sorts of influences from so many different people. It’s these that have shaped me as a director… but I know I would like to have influences from a greater and more diverse group of people, from all walks of life.
I am absolutely open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set - this is where I have done most of my learning and I think it’s important to pay that back to the next generation of filmmakers coming up through the ranks.
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
James> To me, there’s nothing greater than being on set and shooting… so I really hope that I never have to go back to remote directing. I do think it’s shown us that there are definitely opportunities for agencies and clients to remotely dial into the shoot and view things from anywhere in the world. As the director, I want the client to care about what the camera sees, rather than looking at a set in its physical form, because the two can look drastically different through your own eyes and that of the camera. So really, they can be anywhere in the world and dialing into a shoot as I want them to have their focus on the monitor. From an environmental & health point of view I think this is great as the minimal amount of people are traveling to a set… but I also think for busy clients and agencies, this frees up huge amounts of time in their schedules. During the pandemic, Kaboom and I produced two TVCs for Anolon cookware to launch their new Anolon X product range. We shot and edited in London, UK with the entire creative, client and agency team across the pond in the US. No one traveled and the project was a massive success. It showed what was possible. This all said, I know that being on set is awesome and being a physical part of the production is a real buzz… but I think the technology and processes involved with remotely viewing shoots is only going to get better going forward.
LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
James> Different formats and aspect ratio deliveries are here to stay… it’s now so common to be asked to deliver in a whole variety of formats and you have to keep them in mind the whole time you are shooting. My main arch-nemesis is the 9:16 portrait format because it’s almost impossible to shoot for both 16:9 and the portrait equivalent. To try and incorporate the two into one shoot means that one or other of the formats gets compromised. I normally always insist on shooting two versions for each… but when this isn’t possible, I have shot on two cameras simultaneously with one rigged at 90 degrees to the other. Then you are getting the best of both worlds. Some of the new sensors on cameras like the Sony Venice are getting close to being able to give you the flexibility of shooting for portrait and landscape formats, but I still think something ends up getting compromised in the long run. Ultimately, anything’s possible … it just costs a bit more to make it happen!
LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?
James> I love new tech and love learning about these new developments. Some of them are relevant to what I do, but sometimes I like to geek out and go down a rabbit hole on a new camera/lens/bit of kit. Being knowledgeable about what’s out there and what it can do is important I think. Virtual production I think is a huge leap forward in terms of sustainability - I’ve been talking to a studio here in the UK about the capabilities of virtual production for some of my food shoots. Being able to shoot 5 sets in a day that come pre-lit and art directed, with controllable lighting and weather conditions…. What’s not to like?!? There’s a lot of learning to be done in order to make it as streamlined a process as its real equivalent at the moment… but after our initial tests… I’m really excited about what the possibilities are.
LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
James> My favourite work is where I’m able to combine my two different skill sets in one film - real food and real people.