You’re now signed to Academy Films and your latest commercial for Persil was really well received. What are the key lessons you’ve learnt about film making since joining Academy?
My new life here involves a lot of writing. I’m as dyslexic as they come so I’m proud to have been able to get a few treatments under my belt in the first year. I now enjoy it more than ever and have more drive to work on my own scripts and ideas.
Persil was in fact my first commercial. It took a year to come out. I think not knowing the process helped push an unusual idea for them.
I guess one thing that resonates in my head is that I have learned to really see the film before I treat on it. The script has to work for you, and also has to be an idea you believe in. Sometimes you can see potential, and other times it just stands out as a great idea. Others you have to turn down.
How did the Persil ad come about? Watching your powerful Anger series it’s as if the creatives created the script specifically for you. What were the main challenges of creating Persil?
Anger may have helped me win the job, but I don’t think it was in their head when they wrote the script. I think it was a more complex script at first with a kid walking along a street. We decided to simplify it and make something with more of an installation feel, to emphasise a shorter moment. I guess I’ve always wanted to keep things really simple. Trying to make a good idea complicated will water it down. Focusing on the girl and her power within the ad was what I wanted to achieve.
A quick resume please of what led you to directing? Are you self-taught or did you go to film school?
I guess I’m self-taught. My background is in photography and I still shoot a lot. My first project that seemed to do well was called Good Rats where I documented a group of south London punks for five years. I put them in a film I wanted to make about youth. It was my first film and I guess the stills came after, despite my photographic background. I have been making films (slowly) since then and that was about seven years ago. I also started photography with the mind that I’d get into film. Cinema is a big part of my life but photography took over. Making films was always on the cards.
How have you found the transition from stills photography to filming? Your stills have a reportage quality to them, and some of your projects have taken several years to complete. Is it a completely different creative process and mind set creating commercials?
It is a healthy transition. As a photographer you make decisions all the time on your own while you are pressing the button and looking through the viewfinder. It can be quite an insular medium especially when it is for your self and you answer to no one. Film is the opposite of that. It is collaboration and I love that. I get to work with the best people I think suit whatever project I have on. I’m new and learning a lot but the main thing I get excited about is working with people. It feels new to me and keeps me on my toes. I’m a fan of cinematography and don’t put it in the same realm as photography. They are both lens based but two different things. I shoot myself sometimes but most of the time I like to get the DOP I trust and admire.
In many ways my personal photography is a longer process but when it comes to commercial and editorial work photography has to turn around so quickly. When making films there are so many parts to the production it can mean months on a job. I like that.
What would be the perfect script for you?
Round the world extravaganza. I do a lot of road trips with my photos. Being on the move all the time is when I’m most comfortable. So anything with a sense of travel.
What camera and lens are you happiest using?
In photography I shoot on 35mm and break cameras every couple of months as I shoot hundreds of rolls and very fast. Cheap cameras that are fast. Nikon f100 is my choice as I just get a new one when it breaks. All these fancy Contax (I do use a T2 as always on my hip) are impossible to fix.
With film I keep pushing for 16mm as I feel it is the closest to my photos but alas budgets are hard to make that happen especially as I’m quite new.
How thoroughly do you get to know your subjects particularly when you’re shooting a stills series?
It is very important to me. It took me two years with the punk kids to really feel a part of them. It makes the sense of voyeurism complete. When you get to know people well enough, they feel at ease with the camera and forget about you. Trust is formed and people tend not to cease up. It is hard with film… advertising even harder. I think that is why my films are quite unlike my photos. I have to approach it differently. Also I feel like I’m experimenting.
Love your elegant piece for Simone Rocha. Would you like to pursue filming fashion?
Simone and me are old friends. Again with this film I wanted to keep it really simple as I felt a lot of fashion films are too ambitious for the budgets. I thought if we injected the money into something really easy and made that extremely beautiful, it would stand out. Also there would be a sense of timelessness to it. With fashion, it can get old quickly. It would depend on the project but a lot of the time the crossover doesn’t work for me.
See more photography and work of Niall O’Brien here
Persil, Whatever Life Throws
Production Company – Academy
Director – Niall O’Brien
Producer – Dom Thomas
Agency – DLKW Lowe
Creatives – Frances Leach / Christopher Bowsher
TV Producer – Jeremy Muthana
DOP – Alex Barber
Editor – Ed Line @ Final Cut
Post – The Mill