Why I have built myself a lot of pigeon-holes

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Amy Allais (Photo by Chris Saunders)

I was asked to write an opinion piece on pigeon-holing directors. It’s a subject close to my heart, primarily because being pigeonholed is boring. And a bored director is like a bored dog: not to be left unsupervised in the house.

After much procrastinating – one of the niche skills I have been honing for decades – here are a few thoughts. I’m not sure that I have any insight to offer that we don’t all already know, but I can only speak from my experience.

The holy grail for directors is to create a body of work so unique and original, and so unquestionably, unerringly spot-on, that they will get hired to tell those few unique and original stories out there, in whatever way they deem necessary, because it’s obvious they know what they’re doing. In this ideal world, there’s a sense of trust that, as far as telling visual stories and taste go, the director knows best. That trust is, quite rightly, very hard to come by.

The rest of us plebs get by slowly and painfully proving our abilities in this or that limited context, and amassing – if we are lucky – a range of niche showpieces so that at least we’re not just stuck with the one. People tend to be literal, and often lacking in imagination, and frequently, if you don’t have something on your reel that looks very close to what they want to make, they’re not going to hire you to do the job.

Of course, to some extent that is only fair; you have to have proven yourself, there’s a lot of money at stake. The problem is that far too often this is insanely literal. And that is narrow and limiting not only for the career of directors (which I’m fully aware that no one has any reason to care about but us), but more importantly for the quality and types of stories that are told. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it is far more likely that you will fall into the rut of doing it the same way. This makes for boring work with no differentiation which might as well have any old client’s logo stuck at the end.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the advantage of specialising. In an ideal world, it means that you go deep, that you master that specific thing, that you avoid being a jack-of-all-trades. But some of these so-called specialist skills are only a matter of common-sense. If someone has a good eye, can structure a story in an intriguing and engaging way, can tug on the heart strings, then chances are they can tell a food stylist what to do, communicate with a DP about beauty lighting and lensing, keep back at a distance and let the baby wrangler do what they do best. And specialising in something too narrow and niche can lead you down a very boring rabbit hole.

Briefly, here’s how it played out in my career, in which I have been very determined to avoid being streamed into just one type of work:

From the outset I was aware that it was my job to build myself a reel that reflected the scope of my abilities and continued to create interesting work opportunities. To this end I would say yes to anything I hadn’t done before, and to a large extent that is still the case.

In commercials, I started off with lo-fi comedy performance, because those are often the cheap boards that clients will take the risk on a new director with. Along the line, I showed how I could make things look pretty (which is really about having clear ideas and a strong team).

I’ve always loved design and fashion, so whenever there was an opportunity to stylise things, I would take it. Then, many years ago I did an epic dance piece involving a lot of different ‘ordinary’ people doing choreographed dance moves. For years, I was inundated with every song-and-dance board out there. Lovely, but I missed the dialogue! I missed the story! And working with actual actors, which is the best bit!

Along the line I made sure I could shoot a burger build, and I love the precision and smoke and mirrors that go into filming food, but by heavens I would curl up and die if I had to do a full-on food job more than a few times a year. A couple of years ago I did some baby ads, and, well, now I have done lots and lots and lots of baby ads. So I guess I’ve been relatively successful at diversifying, which I’m grateful for. I enjoy every single one of these things, but mainly in small portions.

In my experience, these narrow and literal ways of classifying people are much more extreme in the international market, and with multinational corporations. Which explains why I’ve mainly been flown across the world for choreographed song-and-dance pieces and to shoot babies and children, because those are things that many directors don’t have on their reels.

The bad?

Well, as I have said it’s unimaginative and often doomed to result in formulaic work. Is this literal-minded thinking on the rise? It certainly feels that way, and it stands to reason. Both globalisation and economic instability exacerbate the issue.

Large, bureaucratic multinational organisations tend to have a formulaic and literal approach, which leads to formulaic and literal decision-making. That kind of cumbersome corporate structure also makes people more risk-averse. Then there’s the fact that in tough times, everyone’s terrified of losing their clients, with the same net result. So they’ll only hire you if you have something very similar on your reel. It’s tried and tested. And safe.

The good?

Well, for the industry in general I’m not sure, apart from the obvious. Certain skills are very niche and require a specialised approach.

For the likes of me? If you’re lucky enough to acquire some specialised skills and your work attests to it, you will always be busy. And you may get to travel to some cool and interesting places to impart your hard-won wisdom. Will it be your finest work? Probably not. Will it be a lot of fun? Hell, yeah.

By Amy Allais, Director at Ola Films

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