First Hand — Nick Knight on what makes a great fashion film, and pushing forward in times of turmoil
Legendary photographer and OBE recipient Nick Knight is a pioneering force in fashion and image making. With a career that spans well over three decades, his trail of iconic visions includes work for Dior, Calvin Klein and Tom Ford, not to mention collaborations with Alexander McQueen, Björk, Lady Gaga and Yohji Yamamoto. Most recently he made headlines with his dramatic, flower-filled cover shoot for British Vogue’s September edition, featuring Rihanna. Consistently challenging and redefining the boundaries of fashion imagery, in 2000 he established SHOWstudio.com as a critical and celebratory platform for fashion, and 2015 saw him launch the SHOWstudio Fashion Film Awards, which is set to return this November with an accompanying festival. Now open to entrants, we spoke to Nick about what he’s looking for in submissions and the act of defining a whole new medium, as he let us in on his own voyage into filmmaking, the value of mistakes and pushing forward in times of turmoil.
A journey into filmmaking
“I started filming my photoshoot sessions in the 1980s, after a friend of mine recommended it. I would set up a tripod and point the film camera in the direction of the model for the eight to ten hours I was shooting. I would then put the film in a box, thinking it might come of use one day. Over time, I would look back at them, to see what the lighting did and how the set was working, and I quickly realised that the same lighting that worked for stills worked for film.
I began thinking I could make films as easily as I created pictures. This was the mid-’80s and it took another ten years until the internet arrived, so I didn’t yet see any platform for these films. Television, for some reason, never managed to catch onto [showcasing fashion film] – there wasn’t a serious understanding of it.
In the ’90s I realised the power of fashion film and had the first inspiration for SHOWstudio. Originally I was going to use VHS cassette to send out as a compilation of films. However, when the internet came along, there was a distribution model already set up.
“I quickly realised that the same lighting that worked for stills worked for film.”
‘Susie Smoking’ for Yohji Yamamoto, 1988
SHOWstudio was started [in 2000] as a platform for fashion film, which I saw very firmly as an emerging medium that hadn’t yet had a dedicated platform. Many great fashion photographers have dabbled to some degree in moving image – whether it’s Richard Avedon or Guy Bourdin – but the parameters of the medium are still being defined. For example, there are no rules on length; you can watch it on your phone, laptop,TV, at the cinema.
I feel that fashion film is the most exciting medium out there at the moment. I see a lot of young image-makers moving towards fashion film. Partly because, in essence, it’s the best way to show what the fashion designer intended – no designer ever intended clothes to be seen just as a still image; they imagine them in movement. So it’s hard to argue that the best way to show fashion is through photography.”
Devon Aoki shot by Nick Knight for Alexander McQueen, 1997
Observing a fashion revolution
“Weirdly, 20 years ago no-one had linked fashion and film – unless they were talking about the fashion featured in a film. It didn’t exist. So when we launched SHOWstudio, we were really inventing fashion film as much as we were championing it, investigating it and moving it forward. It was also set up as a critical platform to look at fashion, dissecting why something works or doesn’t.
At that time there were no mobile phones with cameras on them, no reality TV shows or behind-the-scenes or process films. It was a different cultural landscape, and there has been a total revolution in fashion over those 20 years.
We broadcast the first-ever live fashion show, for Alexander McQueen, which was in some ways a watershed moment for the industry. Instead of it being shown to 300 journalists and buyers (all of whom looked a bit grumpy and bored), we were reaching this huge fan base, all desperate to see it. And when millions of people are trying to view a show destined for 300, there’s a penny-drop moment for fashion CEOs: Why would you talk to so few people, when so many more want to see it? Now all fashion shows are broadcast live. And this has resulted in a lot more theatrics in shows; it becomes a televisual spectacle.”
Don’t sit on the sidelines
“What I like about awards is that there are very few times in your career when you are actually given any recognition. Being a fashion filmmaker or photographer is a funny and slightly odd career; not many people get back to say thank you or well done. You’re only really recognised when you get booked again for the next season. I’ve received a few awards, and it does make you feel that people have recognised your hard work and intentions. It’s a way of the industry and your peers saying, ‘Well done, that was good.’
SHOWstudio’s Fashion Film Festival came about through wanting to celebrate fashion film as a new medium. In conceiving the festival, I wanted to put myself in the position of the visitor. I thought: Yes, I could come and see lectures and talk to people, but do I come away with anything important from that? Isn’t it better to experience something yourself – to get your brain working in a way a fashion filmmakers would? So I’m planning to create a fashion film together with the audience. They can all bring cameras, be a part of it and send their footage in to be edited together at the end of the two days.
“The best way to understand something is to do it, rather than sit on sidelines and ask questions.”
I really think the best way to understand something is to do it, rather than sit on sidelines and ask questions. It’s really a way to allow people to consider how you work with a model, what clothes do in certain lighting and all the problems and joys of making a fashion film.
[In terms of SHOWstudio Fashion Film Awards entries] I’m impressed by people who understand and want to express fashion – and fashion takes many different forms, from gang culture to haute couture to sportswear. I’m not impressed by just technique or people who want to emulate something that’s been done before. The sole purpose of a fashion film is to show a piece of clothing; the narrative will only ever come from that. Any other narrative is superfluous.”
You must have something to say
“People will try and force you to be one thing, but these days I think there’s a bigger acceptance of expressing ourselves in many different ways, across all manner of mediums. This is certainly what the digital age has freed up. A lot of people are becoming generalists, but the older way of doing things was to push people to become a photographer or fashion photographer or landscape photographer – as if you were only allowed to do one thing. It’s part of a weird desire to divide people into easy-to-understand categories, defined by your hardware, rather than what you want to express.
But the equipment you use has very little to do with your ability to create a good piece of art. I’ve never been obsessed with equipment. It’s there to perform a function: sometimes you need it, sometimes you don’t. But it certainly doesn’t define you as an artist.
The desire behind the work is what makes it important or lasting. Of course craft is important too, but it’s like language: You can express yourself beautifully with a vast vocabulary and become great narrator, but you must have something to say, otherwise you’re just talking. I think the same is true of photography and filmmaking.”
“The equipment you use has very little to do with your ability to create a good piece of art.”
Experimentation is key
“Film is a very powerful, emotional medium in comparison to still imagery. It’s very hard to remember the last time I opened up a magazine or book and cried at the sight of an image – but it’s quite normal to be reduced to tears by a film. This will nearly always be down to the combination of imagery and sound. I think the power of fashion and film is absolutely and integrally linked to its sound.
Starting to work with sound is a very exciting part of the process. I’m always trying to find sounds that make me feel something emotionally. The sound you put on a film will fundamentally change it. You can have a 30-second film with two soundtracks – one will feel like it zips by, and the other will feel like it goes on for half an hour.
I’ve also been on a whole exploration into the length of a fashion film. It’s very hard to know the length of something unless you know where it’s appearing or all its uses. So first you have to work out where it’s being shown, as fashion film is very cross-platform. It can be seen anywhere from a mobile phone to the cinema. Part of that is opening the whole thing up and experimenting.”
Freedom in failure
“Live broadcasting is something I’m finding exciting as part of the evolution of filmmaking, and it’s something we do on SHOWstudio as much as we can. For example, we recently did a broadcast on ‘queer’ – what the word means, exploring ideas by inviting people to do performances.
Live broadcasting feels completely free. It doesn’t feel like anything else, as you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s terrifying, it can all go wrong – and it often does – but you have to accept that. But instead of being a mistake, it’s just all part of it, and that’s totally refreshing.
“[Live broadcasting] is terrifying, it can all go wrong – and it often does – but you have to accept that.”
I think embracing failure and mistakes is a hugely important part of creating art. We shouldn’t think it’s all about being perfect. When a beautiful piece of art on a pedestal in a gallery, you have no real way of understanding how it came into being. People think you shouldn’t show the process because it gives it away, but I’ve never felt the desire to hide the path I went down.
I think fashion film goes hand in hand with this new way of speaking and performing. You are actually allowing people to see what you do, partake in it and shape it. This seems a lot more exciting to me than hiding away and producing something with all of the mistakes taken out.”
Push things forward
“I’m very pro-future and technological advances, and I think we’re really seeing humanity changing. We’ve always evolved, and we are doing so at a different rate now. I think it’s important that artists play a role in pushing things forward, rather than it just being left to businesses or money makers.
What you see happening with Brexit, Trump, Isis or in religious ideology, are reactions against the future. For example, with the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan – it’s a way of looking back, and creating a future based on the past. But this isn’t how you advance; it’s how you throw a society into confusion and fracture it.
So I do think it’s important for artists and a platform like SHOWstudio to champion the future. It’s about saying: What went before was fine, but what’s happening tomorrow is much more exciting.
I don’t think fashion film has been defined yet, and it will keep defining itself because it doesn’t yet have those parameters. This makes it an incredibly exciting area for young filmmakers to get involved in, because they have the power to define it themselves.”
See here for full details on SHOWstudio’s Fashion Film Festival and Awards, and submit your entry before 1 October, 2018. Categories include: Best Fashion Film, Best Short Shorts, Best Illustration in Motion, Best Long Format Film, Best Animated Fashion Film, Best VR Film, Best Sound Design and Best Commissioned Brand Fashion Film.