Agency head, Steven Croston, speaks to HerioVisual featured artist, Mark Davis.
If you’ve seen hit TV dramas like Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Unforgiven or Black Mirror, then you’ve also seen the work of HerioVisual featured artist, Mark Davis. One of the UK’s most in-demand drama editors, he’s also a prolific and highly inventive director.
As Mark puts the finishing touches to his second feature film, The Dark Channel, he took some time-out to talk to me about his new sci-fi, and a career that’s taken him from painting murals in Portugal in his teens to cutting episodes of Netflix mega-budget period drama, The Crown.
Mark grew up in Eastbourne on England’s south coast, a town famous chiefly for its population of retired colonels. ‘I felt isolated. Art was the only thing I found to occupy me, so I really put the work in. By the time I left school I was good enough to earn a living through drawing. I worked in Portugal for 4 months of the year painting oils, watercolours and murals.’
Whereas Mark enjoyed the immediacy of painting, he felt there was something missing. In what he describes as one of the most ill-thought-out career steps ever, he followed a friend to sign-up for A-levels at a local college, ‘I didn’t have a clue. I just enrolled for whatever my friend was doing! But one of the courses was media studies, so purely by accident I found film and I loved it, loved it, loved it because it had story.
I tried to make nice pictures, but it was always the story that was most compelling to me – the ability to create worlds. It transcended what I’d been able to achieve as a painter and illustrator. Film is the thing that grabbed me most, I think, probably because it the hardest.’
After a year at the NFT and a degree in film studies Mark graduated knowing exactly the path he wanted to follow ‘A DoP friend and I self-funded our first music video. We approached an artist we liked and asked if we could make a video for a certain track. I talked to the commissioner at Sony and he let us do it. We shot on 35mm; it was great.’
And their investment paid-off. Mark spent the next decade directing music videos for some of the world's best-known artists including the acclaimed ‘Trilogy’ series for Funeral 4 A Friend .
‘I went into music videos not caring what artists I worked with. I just wanted to make narrative films. I would think to myself: if this piece of music was in a film, what kind of film would I like to see? I was very open to all forms of music. I’ve done cool videos for cool artists, like The Kills and I’ve done cool videos for ‘un-cool’ artists like James Blunt and The Corrs. That said, James Blunt was actually incredibly cool!
‘I feel like a I made some good films – and some of them have gone out to big audiences (Mark’s video for James Blunt’s ‘High’ has been viewed over 27 million times on YouTube), so I’m happy that my art has been seen by more than it might have otherwise.’
After having worked with Mark on-and-off for nearly 20 years both as a director and editor, it’s always struck me that films for him are never a mere commodity. He invests himself fully in every production bringing a level of integrity and freshness which is pretty rare, particularly in corporate production.
It was Mark’s growing expertise in cutting to music that led to his first broadcast TV editing work. ‘Someone phoned the place I was working asking for an editor who could cut to music for a new Channel 4 show. I sent a show-reel, did an interview and went straight into editing a 6-part series. It was very musically-led which meant cutting to rhythm and to this day, even with drama, I still cut to sound. It might be to the rhythm of the conversation or dialogue, or sound effects or music. Rather than doing a picture cut and adding sound later, I do them simultaneously so I can judge whether it has the right flow’.
RetroJuice, the production outfit that Mark had set-up after graduation together with a couple of friends, was generating regular work, mostly in the form of (often delightfully quirky!) corporate films and TV commercials which he both directed and edited.
But 2012 saw Mark’s break into TV drama when he was booked to edit David Evans’ landmark mini-series, One Night , a four-parter telling four interlocking stories of a murder on a London council estate. ‘I watched One Night again recently for the first time in ages. It’s great bit of drama; it still stands up and it was very well regarded in the industry. Editing that is what bumped me up to edit the bigger stuff like The Crown , Black Mirror , Unforgotten , Sherlock and two seasons of Peaky Blinders ’.
In my twenty years as a commissioner of corporate media, I always strived to actively blur the line between traditional ‘corporate video’ and cinema-quality filmmaking. Whereas the ultimate purpose or intent of a production may differ – and the corporate imperative to change what an audience thinks, feels says or does can be a big ask compared with ‘simply’ entertaining a broadcast audience – viewers are ostensibly quite similar in their expectations. I asked Mark whether his corporate filmmaking borrowed techniques from his drama work.
‘They’re not mutually exclusive. It’s easier to entertain and it’s hard to sustain peoples’ attention without some depth. People are sophisticated in their tastes. They watch a lot of TV and film; they experience good quality work, and it affects them. If you’re able to deliver something (in a corporate film) which is on par with what they experience through other media, then they’re much more likely to listen to what’s being said. More importantly they will react emotionally and engage much more with what’s in front of them. But you need to be very clear on your intent.’
So, the intent or purpose of any production is everything. It's only once you’ve clearly identified your desired outcomes, whether they be raising brand awareness, communicating a corporate narrative or simply making people laugh, that we can begin to work out how to achieve our objectives – to develop our creative treatment, if you will.
Ask any director or writer who’s been asked to produce a film to support an existing corporate campaign: ‘I wish you’d brought me in earlier – I could have done so much more’. 'Creativity' is so often seen as a commodity that’s bought-in and bolted-on at a late stage for directors to simply execute. I wondered whether Davis saw value in bringing in filmmakers much earlier in the campaign-planning process?
‘Totally. It makes much more sense to be brought in early to contribute to the thinking holistically, bringing more creativity up-front so you’re not confined purely to the ‘people in the room’ defining the campaign. With an ‘outsider’ asking hard questions early on, really interrogating and being a blank canvas, you really can influence the direction of a campaign in a positive way. You get a better product, not just more creative but almost certainly more efficient and ultimately more engaging.’
In the ideal world then, communications or marketing teams would bring in the creatives as early as possible, way before there was any pre-conceived notion of what type of visual media they might want to commission. That you'll produce a better product is an easy sell; but the spin-off benefits are considerable. Working together builds relationships: a cohesive, highly functional team and - ultimately - trust.
HerioVisual recently conducted a LinkedIn poll amongst commissioning clients to ask what they most valued in a production company. At 54% of the vote, ‘strategic insight and expertise’ was the clear winner (trouncing ‘dazzling creativity’ at a mere 16%!). In other words, clients need to rely on creative professionals for their nuts-and-bolts skill and judgement on what’s going to make their production deliver its strategic purpose. Ultimately the client makes a leap of faith demanding a degree of trust in the creative talent. Mark agrees:
‘Trust is hugely important, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. The more articulately a director can communicate what their intent is, the more the client will trust them. But it’s something you have to build. It’s about clear communication and it works both ways. You need to spend as much time as possible up-front doing the groundwork so everyone’s clear what you’re trying to achieve.’
Filmmakers in any industry, broadcast, features or corporate face a perennial quandary. Your client is pushing hard to see the first cut of the film they’re spending thousands on, but you’re not quite ready to show it. As a director you have a clear vision of where you want the film to end up, but what you currently have is an un-polished assembly. Allowing a client to see a film too soon runs the very real risk of a panicked exec losing confidence and demanding unnecessary cuts or changes.
I wondered whether it’s even reasonable to expect a client to make the mental and creative leap between work-in-progress and a final product?
‘I would never take it for granted that a client will be able to imagine what a film will be like when it’s fully finished. Equally, you can’t expect sign-off unless the film is landing with them; they’re seeing something which is unfinished and not great, so they’re understandably worried – it’s their job and there’s money on the line. So, we do expect great leaps.
‘It’s actually much easier to sell a client an idea which is yet to be shot than it is to sell them on the idea of an edit they’re looking at and promising it’s going to be great! It’s always a problem when execs want to jump in early on an edit. It’s much better to deliver a first cut we’re happy with and only then let the client view it. It’s really useful to us to get an objective opinion at that point.’
A decade on from his first foray into feature film direction, the whip-fast British-American crime thriller, 126.96.36.199. for Universal, Mark’s new feature switches genre and deals with some altogether weightier material.
Mark explains, ‘The Dark Channel is a dystopian sci-fi set in a world in which everyone is pacified through gaming. There’s an uprising occurring; revolutionaries trying to bring down the entire system which is effectively imprisoning everyone with entertainment.
The central character, Ed (played by Ben Freeman) has lost his memory; he doesn’t know who he is. He discovers that he can recover his memory at a certain location in a city, but he’s also told that he wasn’t a very nice man. So, the question is, should he retrieve his personality or not? In contrast, Mia (played by Jade Anouka) represents the very opposite of Ed; she’s leading the fight to bring down the system.
The film asks questions about identity and altruism versus hedonism. It’s a very divided world controlled by imprisoning people in their individual realities through entertainment. There are parallels with contemporary social media where content is controlled by algorithms keeping your attention which means that we don’t have a shared truth. It’s fundamentally a question of who we are and what makes us.
My intent with The Dark Channel is to make something for an audience which isn’t thinking about these things.’
At the time we spoke, Mark and his team were in the final stages of mixing and adding end credits to the film. I wondered whether the final product was what he’d envisioned from the beginning? ‘As much as I can claim to having this vision - because I wrote it, directed it, edited it, and produced it', he laughs, 'even I’m surprised at what the final product is!’
With the film now practically finished, I was keen to know when we’d be able to see it. There’s a huge appetite for high quality content across all platforms, so presumably they had secured a distribution deal? ‘Not yet. I decided not to pre-sell the film. With sci-fi particularly, people really don’t know what it’s going to be like before the effects are finished. So we’ll finish the end credits and then turn to focus on sales material and developing a strategy to attract the best distributor’.
‘Strategy?’, I mused. ‘We might be able to help you with that’.
The Dark Channel (trailer). Directed by Mark Davis
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