Creative Lives — Director of Photography Steve Annis on flunking film school, working for Florence and the Machine and staying relevant
Known for his moodily lit, intimate storytelling, director of photography Steve Annis has developed the look and feel of videos for Florence and the Machine, The XX and U2 and commercials for Apple, Nike and UNIQLO. Camera-obsessed Steve was too busy making films to finish his degree, instead helping out on any student project he could find before working his way up from focus puller to camera assistant to DP. Having worked on the holy grail of ads – a Super Bowl slot, he’s at the top of his game in the world of music promos and commercials, but he’s just about to take a leap into the unknown – feature films.
Director of Photography (2009–present)
Florence and the Machine, Ed Sheeran, U2, The XX, Apple, Nike, UNIQLO, Waitrose
Camera Assistant (2001–2009)
BA Film, UCA Farnham (Left before graduating)
How would you describe what you do?
I create the entire visual style of a film. I've just finished my first feature film, but right now my bread and butter is commercials and music videos. I've worked with everyone from U2 to Taylor Swift to Ed Sheeran to Calvin Harris. It's been a crazy ride.
People would say I have a very particular look – for me that's very important. In my opinion, all good DPs have a style, but it's not to say it's the right or the wrong way to do cinematography. I like the human face, I’m not really interested in filming stunts. I’m very happy in a room where there’s someone having a moment. For example my favourite promo that I’ve worked on is one for Florence and the Machine. It's just her and a great actor called Ben Mendelsohn, who was in the new Star Wars film, contemplating their lives and their relationship. It was an exploration of the human face, with beautiful light.
“It’s about doing jobs that keep you recognised and keep people talking. You have to keep running. If you stop, you’ll get forgotten.”
What does a typical working day look like?
There isn’t a typical day as such but commercials generally take a week. You’ll travel to wherever in the world – Argentina, Uruguay, Tokyo – land, have a day off, scout for maybe one or two days, have a day off, and then shoot for two days, and then you’re back home.
On a tech scout, you go to each location that you’re shooting in with the grip, gaffer, the director and the first AD and you’ll talk through each shots. You work out where the actors are going to be sat and where the sun will be at its best, and from that you start to work out a schedule. You’re essentially putting a jigsaw together, figuring out when to shoot, where to put the lights, where the Steadicam is moving and so on.
On a shoot I operate the camera, deciding on frames and the style of the lighting, and rally the crew. On commercials you’re usually working 11 or 12 hour days. If you go over it's to great expense because everything is unionised. If you’re doing something that isn’t unionised, you can do 20-hour days. It's exhausting.
Commercials tend to pay well but for passion projects sometimes I'll spend thousands of pounds to work on a job. For example, I worked on a piece for director James Vincent McMorrow recently where I bought my own flights, but it was because I really believed in him. I can only do that because of the commercial work; it's a strange dichotomy of commerce and art that you have to keep constantly balancing.
How do projects usually come about?
It's usually repeat business, either I've worked with a director or a producer before or someone will recommend me. Also social media has made your work available on a global level. I just did a big Super Bowl spot for Apple and it got a lot of kudos. A lot of people will see those and that's how you get work. But this opportune moment only lasts for a very brief time – perhaps only a week or two. For example I did a music video for Ed Sheeran for his new single Castle on the Hill, there was a bit of heat on that for maybe a week. It's about doing jobs that keep you recognised and keep people talking. You have to keep running. If you stop, you’ll get forgotten.
I've got an agent (Lux in UK and Europe and William Morris in America). If a big commercial is being bid for, a producer or director will reach out to all the agencies to see who they suggest and then it's up to your agent to recommend you. I have an online diary, that's linked with both agencies – it's pretty crazy. You can end up on Friday with 15 things penciled in for the next week.
I tend to interview a director before I commit to a job because you never know whether they might have a totally different idea of how they want things done. I say I'll do a project if we shoot on anamorphic, and if they don't have it available in that location we might compromise, but I don't drop below a certain quality of camera lens. Same with crew, I want to see CVs for the focus puller, grip, second AC [assistant camera], DIT [Digital Imaging Technician], gaffer. If they're not good enough, you ask if you can fly people in. You need to make sure they're working for you and the script.
“Just after Christmas I turned down a Nike advert because it wasn't quite gelling, then got asked to shoot a Taylor Swift video instead.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I used to find it frustrating when you came across producers that had little regard for safety. They didn't want to hire a grip, then someone would fall over and hurt themselves. But now I make sure it's all a pleasure. I don't do jobs that are going to cause me pain. Although the exhaustion can be annoying.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
My feature film. It was a tiny budget of just £300,000. That's ridiculous considering the Apple spot I mentioned was £3m. This film was a pure passion piece, I worked for three months without pay on a script I believed in with an amazing actor and director. I'm not really allowed to talk about it yet...
What tools do you use most for your work?
I don't own any kit. The equipment is so specialised and needs to be maintained so it should be kept at a rental company. I don't even take a computer on a job with me. Maybe if I'm shooting on film, I might take a light meter. But I'm not the norm.
How I Got Here
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I failed my GCSEs twice and failed my A-Levels. I couldn't find anything I wanted to do. I just managed to get enough points to a strange mix of media and business in Edinburgh and while I was there I met some people from the Scottish Film School which was in a place called Napier. They advised me to apply to one of the four film schools that actually worked with celluloid at the time, Westminster, London College of Printing, Edinburgh College of Art and Farnham. By some miracle I got an interview at Farnham. I was supposed to be interviewed by the head of film history and I think that if that had happened I wouldn’t have got in. By some fluke the head of photography was passing by while I was waiting and ended up interviewing me. I had a real passion for cameras and we got on. It was so lucky.
What were your first jobs?
I’d been working on lots of student films at Farnham – whatever you wanted to do you assisted the person above you so you did an apprenticeship. In my second and third year I was on a different film every week. I met a director of photography from the National Film and Television School at a film festival and asked him if he had a focus puller. He was a bit taken aback but we went for a pint and he let me focus pull on his graduation film. The equipment they had there was pretty intimidating but I did a good job, and then word got around and other people wanted to use me. When those DPs got out into the real world they took me with them. But I was so busy at the NFTS, I flunked my degree.
“You may think I’m at the top of my game, but in this world I’m at the bottom again.”
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
I did a film called The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, with a very famous DP called Giorgos Arvanitis. He’d worked on all of Theo Angelopoulos’s films – if you know your film, he was a big deal. I was working with a professional DP on a 35 Anamorphic. It was an amazing experience and the first time I’d felt like a professional focus puller. It was an important turning point.
As a DP, the turning point was doing a little job for a musician called DJ Fresh, for a director called Ben Newman. The budget was tiny, around £5,000 and I worked for free. We went into the Bronx just the two of us and shot it. On the strength of that video the director exploded and then got offered a massive Lucozade commercial in LA. That's how it works, you do a little thing, it explodes and you get a load of money thrown at you.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Doing the work is not the challenge, it’s staying relevant. You have to keep making those commercials that everyone talks about. What they are or when they’re going to come, nobody knows. Also making decisions can be difficult. For example I’d committed to work on a film and the very next day director Cole Webley called me up and asked me to shoot a Super Bowl commercial and I had to turn it down. When I later saw what it was – an incredible spot about Mexican immigrants that everyone talked about, it was so painful. But the opposite has happened. Just after Christmas I turned down a Nike advert because it wasn't quite gelling, then got asked to shoot a Taylor Swift video instead.
Could you do this job forever?
I’m here for life. There is literally nothing else I can do, aside maybe teaching.
What would you like to do next?
Going into features is a whole new level. The film I've just finished is not going to get Oscar nominated – but then again look at Moonlight. The hope is that someone will like it, wonder who shot it and I'll get another film. My agents are making sure good scripts come my way but it's the old adage, no-one's going to hire you to do a film until you've done a film. You may think I'm at the top of my game, but in this world I'm at the bottom again.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a director of photography?
In all honestly you're not going to do anything until you live in New York, LA or London. Sure Munich, Paris, Sydney have industries but those first three have are grounded in promos, commercials and films. If you ain't living there you're not going to succeed 99.9% of the time.
Once you get to the city do an apprenticeship at a camera hire company – be warned the waiting lists are long. At every corner of your career they'll be something painful waiting for you, it's just the grace of god whether you get attacked it or you move on – that’s the film industry. Film school is so important. I'm only here because people I met that took me with them.