Creative Lives — From Gardeners’ World to going it alone: Freelance director and filmmaker Will Dohrn

Posted 27 June 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

For freelance director and filmmaker Will Dohrn, it’s all about going the extra mile – whether that be working a little later in the studio on an edit, or repeatedly driving to Weston-super-Mare to land a café location for a shoot. Often balancing big ideas with small budgets, Will cut his teeth at Ammonite and the BBC, working his way up from an edit assistant to a motion designer and cameraman. He’s now calling the shots as a director in his own right for clients such as Stella McCartney, Crack Magazine and recently directed a music video for Club Kuru. We caught up with him to find out more about what he’s learned so far and and how to embrace the ‘DIY’ nature of starting out as a young creative.

Will Dohrn

Job Title

Freelance Director and Filmmaker (2014–present)

Based

Bristol

Previous Employment

Freelance Cameraman, BBC (2013–2014)
Motion Designer, BBC (2012–2013)
Edit Support, BBC (2011–2012) 
Edit Assistant, Ammonite Films (2008–2011) 

Place of Study

Sidcot School (1999–2005)
Will went straight to work at Ammonite Films, where he learnt on the job

Clients

Stella McCartney, BBC, Cutler & Gross, Crack Magazine, Carharrt, American Apparel, Nike, The Hoxton, Simple Things Festival, BAD for Polydor & Mura Masa, FACT Magazine, Habitat, London Design Week, Ammonite Films for DISCOVERY Channel, GRADE Management, St Peter's Hospice

Personal Website
Personal Social Media

Will's workspace

Will Dohrn

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
My work ranges from directing to editing and shooting, but recently I’ve been directing more and shooting less. My work involves coming up with ideas and treatments in response to briefs, and then developing these with everyone involved in the production – from producers and stylists to casting directors. Finally, once filming is complete, I’ll work with an editor, colourist and sound designer to ensure everything looks and sounds as good as it possibly can. 

These stages vary depending on the type of project (music video, documentary or commercial) and budget. Sometimes if we can’t afford to pay a freelancer – or simply if I prefer to do it – I’ll edit the films myself. A lot of my work in the last few years has been for Crack Magazine and their agency Plinth, this work varies from corporate work for the magazine with clients like Nike, Carhartt and American Apparel and content from music documentaries to fashion films featuring artists like M.I.A, Massive Attack, Metronomy, Little Dragon, Mac Demarco, and ABRA. 

What does a typical working day look like?  
On weekdays, I get into my studio at about 9.30am and leave at about 6.30pm. I spend most of the day working on the computer, editing ongoing projects, or researching and developing new ideas. But hours can vary; in the past I’ve been at the studio from 7.30am till 3am in the morning when I have to meet deadlines to coincide with an album or EP release. I’m also often out shooting or directing on location, or looking at potential locations for a shoot. But mostly (and, for me, unfortunately) I am often in front of my computer. 

Where does the majority of your work take place? 
I work mostly at my studio, but it can get quite claustrophobic. Sometimes I’ll go to a cafe with my laptop or sit in a park with a notebook to develop ideas. That way I can’t be distracted by social media or new emails for a few hours. 

Club Kuru – Ribbons. Director: Will Dohrn, Producer: Nicola Kane, Director of Photography: Gwylim Evans

Club Kuru – Ribbons. Director: Will Dohrn, Producer: Nicola Kane, Director of Photography: Gwylim Evans

Club Kuru – Ribbons. Director: Will Dohrn, Producer: Nicola Kane, Director of Photography: Gwylim Evans

Club Kuru – Ribbons. Director: Will Dohrn, Producer: Nicola Kane, Director of Photography: Gwylim Evans

Club Kuru – Ribbons. Director: Will Dohrn, Producer: Nicola Kane, Director of Photography: Gwylim Evans

Club Kuru – Ribbons. Director: Will Dohrn, Producer: Nicola Kane, Director of Photography: Gwylim Evans

How does your freelance work usually come about?
It’s a mixture of stuff really, all Crack and Plinth work comes through them pitching, but sometimes I’ll pitch externally to record labels and brands. I also get sent briefs from other production companies and agencies such as BAD films, DAZED MEDIA, Agile Films, OB Management and KINK. Once or twice I’ll receive a brief directly from a client. People hear about you through word of mouth, and sometimes by across your website. Having your work featured on blogs also increases the chance of new agencies or clients seeing your work and considering you for projects.

How collaborative is your work? 
This varies, but the music video I recently directed for Club Kuru was a massive collaborative effort. The director of photography, Gwilym Evans, (who worked in my studio at the time) and producer Nic Kane were both happy to volunteer their time. Everyone involved – from casting, stylists, dancers and makeup – were volunteers as the budget was very small. Over the years I’ve also worked with a friend – director Charlotte James – on a few non-commercial projects that we do for our own enjoyment. We recently made a short film, ‘Colours of Iris’ which is soon to be released. 

“I’ve always been learning on the job, but that’s something I would try and keep to myself.”

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Directing is definitely the thing I enjoy the most. Writing treatments can be difficult but editing is definitely the most laborious task. For example, sometimes there are problems with clearing a track for commercial use, which means having to re-edit the entire project to fit a new track. 

What skills are essential to your job? 
When directing practical skills like making treatments, story boarding, writing scripts and researching are essential. But on top of technical skills, it helps to be constantly on the look out for work and other things you like for inspiration. 

What tools do you use most for your work? 
In terms of post production work: editing and animation software like Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects. When creating treatments I’ll write down ideas in my notebook before developing them on Photoshop and InDesign. 

A still from a film by Charlotte James and Will Dohrn

A still from a film by Charlotte James and Will Dohrn

A still from a film by Charlotte James and Will Dohrn

A still from a film by Charlotte James and Will Dohrn

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up? 
I wanted to go into product design when l was at school, but I was about 18/19 when I set my aspirations to filmmaking. 

What influence has your upbringing had on your work? 
My parents played a massive role in my career choice. My Dad is a wildlife filmmaker, and seeing the passion and integrity that he has for his work definitely rubbed off on me. My Mum is a History of Art lecturer at Bristol University, so my sister and I were always being taken to art galleries and exhibitions as children. I’d like to think that constantly being surrounded by pictures from particular artists in our home and art magazines like Artforum (where she used to work) influenced my own visual direction in the things I create. 

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role? 
When I started out, I was very unsure, and I wasn’t at all successful at school. I went to Ammonite because I already had very basic skills in filmmaking from my father. It was only once I learned more skills that I began to develop a more serious interest in filmmaking.

“The mistakes I have made in my career usually come down to not going the extra mile.”

What were your first jobs? 
My first job (in filmmaking) was at Ammonite Films. I started there as a runner, collecting packages, making teas and coffees and logging footage, before gradually moving to edit assisting. Ammonite taught me so much about the production process and the ins and outs of editing software. Working there made me want to pursue filmmaking further as a career. 

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
My decision to go to the BBC. I learnt so much by having to think on my feet and in high pressure situations at a younger age. Robin Littlewood (motion designer) took me under his wing for a year whilst I was there and taught me the basics of After Effects which I later used to do title animations for BBC programmes. I also made good use of their Lynda account. Working with Duncan Parker and the BBC Innovation department on innovating and developing new shooting techniques for programmes also helped. I was thrown in the deep end shooting title sequences for programmes like Gardeners World. The responsibility of getting it right with very little experience at that level definitely improved my confidence as a cameraman. Working with Alfie, Jake and Tom at Crack Magazine also gave me a platform to be freely creative.

Will behind the scenes at the Club Kuru shoot

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development? What skills have you learnt along the way? 
Really, I’ve always been learning on the job, but that’s something I would try and keep to myself. I started directing web commercials for local businesses (things like coffee roasters, charities and hair salons) when I was 21. I both made and learned from mistakes on those projects. My knowledge of editing, grading, sound mixing, animating and design software which I picked up at Ammonite and the BBC has also definitely helped me. It’s very much DIY when you’re starting out, and that’s still very much the case for some productions, or self initiated projects now. 

What’s been your biggest challenge?
It has to be the Club Kuru music video. Working with a very small amount of money meant I had to post produce the whole film myself. It’s also really hard to get good locations with limited money; the cafe owner at one of the locations was ignoring me, so I kept driving out to Weston-super-Mare to ask about the location. After the third attempt I think he saw how much it meant to us so he gave in and let us use his cafe for £100. 

The mistakes I have made in my career usually come down to not going the extra mile. For example, a few years ago I was making a music documentary about a well-known group, but in retrospect I wish I’d done more research. Again, this was created on vey little money so it was hard to justify getting an experienced DOP but I still think I could’ve tried to get more people involved to execute the film on a higher level.

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
As a relatively new filmmaker my role is changing frequently. I’ve kind of entered a world which I know very little about, so I’m constantly learning and still asking questions. My job will change when I feel more experienced and comfortable, but right now I still feel I am at the beginning. 

Crack Magazine with M.I.A for the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown 2017

Crack Magazine with M.I.A for the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown 2017

Crack Magazine with M.I.A for the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown 2017

Crack Magazine with M.I.A for the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown 2017

Crack Magazine with M.I.A for the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown 2017

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I recently signed to a film production company so I’ll be receiving more music video briefs which I am very happy about. I would like to also put some of my short film ideas into production very soon, and I’d like to make great commercials as well. I will leave the distant future for now – let’s how I get on with the next five years first. 

Could you do this job forever? 
Yes, I love what I do.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position? 
I would say directing larger scale productions for bigger clients and artists. Having said that, bigger budgets don't always equate to better films. I’m keen to do films on my own that don't require a lot of money but do require a lot of time. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a filmmaker? 
Work for people you respect. Find someone whose work you really admire, email them and ask if they offer work experience. If you build up a good relationship with this person or organisation, you’ll get to learn a lot in a short amount of time, while working on projects you admire. 

Don’t leave anything to chance! From styling and checking kit to making a shoot plan and shot list. Make sure you and everyone working on the production are clear on your plans, and on the same page. Uncertainty will lead to mistakes on a shoot. 

Do stuff for your portfolio. If possible, shoot for free. When you start out, you won’t get paid work until you can show a client or label some finished projects. This was the case when I was working with Crack magazine. It meant I had work to show potential clients, which in turn made them feel confident I could take on the project. 

Don’t be afraid to say no. You can spend all of your time working on projects that you don't have an emotional attachment to. Think about what you take on, and leave some time for work that you feel passionate about. You will likely only get the work you want to make, if you put out the work you like. 

Posted 27 June 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Film
Mentions: Will Dohrn, Charlotte James, BBC, Ammonite, Crack Magazine, Plinth
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