Lucy is a BAFTA and Royal Television Society award winning and critically acclaimed director working in a variety of formats including documentary, commercials, drama and installation films.
She started off as a graphic designer with a particular interest in photography and animation and worked at the BBC for more than 10 years before setting up her own production company continuing to make documentary series.
She has just finished producing and directing a 60 minute film for a Neflix series (made for BBC Studios) about a top brain surgeon in the US who started off as an illegal immigrant farm worker.
Critically acclaimed documentary work for the BBC includes Lido, Carlos Acosta the Reluctant Ballet dancer for Imagine, a series called Naked about how you feel about your body at different life-stages, and a trilogy called Bridges which took her to Bosnia and New York.
She has also directed a wide range of commercials including the very first Dove Real Beauty campaign, Visit Wales, First Direct, Royal Bank Of Scotland, Cancer Research Uk and Macmillan Cancer Care as well as a cinema film for Medecins Sans Frontieres shot in Liberia.
Lucy always embraces new opportunities and formats and this freshness feeds into all strands of her work. Her short Film The Birthday was one of twelve films selected for the International Berlin Film Festival. Her installation film Shipping Forecast for The National Maritime Museum (part of a commission by six contemporary artists) ran on a giant video wall in the entrance for five years. She has also written a book to accompany her series Bridges (collaborating with writers, designers and photographers) and also co-produced a full scale theatrical music and dance show in Havana by choreographer and partner Alexander Varona using her photos and video projections as part of the set.
She is a nightmare to sit next to at a dinner party as she will have your life story down within minutes!
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
It never crossed my mind that you could earn a living directing – I didn’t even know that such a job existed. I just remember thinking that art was the only subject I really enjoyed and just followed my passion (I have my Dad to thank for this) when I set my sights on going to the Central School of Art in London (now Central St Martins) to do a Foundation Course despite having no realistic prospect on paper of making this happen.
It’s tricky to look back and try and work out the hard work and determination to luck ratio on any journey but I do remember being aged seventeen and lobbying my local MP (in Macclesfield just outside of Manchester) so much that he finally allowed me to circumvent the rules of the day which were that you had to attend the foundation course nearest to where you lived. My problem was that my local one wasn’t great and I knew I needed great teachers to help me find my path which as it turned out was quite a winding one.
Once I had the resources in place I then had to address the no small matter of getting accepted so I ventured off to London for the first time and turned up for my interview with a portfolio literally bursting at the seams. I figured I may not be the best or most talented candidate for one the few precious places available every year but I was hoping they might be able to squeeze in someone who may have been erring on the quantity rather than quality approach but had an above average level of enthusiasm and really wanted the chance to prove herself.
Much to my great relief I did get in and that year was the best and most informative year ever. I had no idea what area I wanted to specialise in next but it gave me the invaluable opportunity to dabble in different disciplines including life drawing, painting and 3-D design.
I met some great tutors at Central who were very encouraging and although I discovered that fine art wasn’t my thing, I did come to realise that I seemed to be an “ideas” person and that that was also considered a skill that could be developed. I remember one project in particular set by a tutor called Peter Stebbing that involved boiling up a fish and taking the delicate bones and using them as inspiration to design outlandish buildings and 3D objects including clothing and jewellery and ceramics. We were being encouraged to let our imaginations run wild and I loved that feeling. Being pushed to think outside the box and pull things out of my brain like a conjuring trick was something I really enjoyed doing. It was also fascinating to see what other students saw in the seemingly lifeless fishbones that lay before them.
This might seem a strange and unrelated thing to mention in terms of how that could possibly apply to my later career as a director but this kind of project showed me that everything can be used as a launch pad for creativity and that there was an infinite world of possibilities in everything including problems. The solution is there, you just can’t see it yet and that’s what I remind myself at the start of every film I am starting where the blank canvas of infinite possibilities seems to loom large.
I still had no clue what I could actually do that anyone might pay me for in later life but I decided to trust that things would work out one way or another and threw myself into everything that being at Central and being in London had to offer.
Towards the end of this year I applied for a Graphic Design degree at Kingston mainly because it was one of the few multi-disciplinary courses I could find and it encompassed animation and photography which I thought sounded fun. Filmmaking still wasn’t on the horizon for me. Wide eyed and curious about everything, I was still searching for my path.
It wasn’t until my second year at Kingston that we did an animation project set by a freelance TV graphic design tutor called Pauline Carter which involved designing, storyboard and then animating one verse of a Malcolm McLaren song. The planning had to be meticulous for the moving image sequence I had envisioned in response to the lyrics to hit every beat but I learnt so much in doing so. Who would have thought hours of work could go into creating only one second of anything!
I set about the task of hand painting my twenty-five different sequential paintings on pieces of cell per second following the storyboard I had planned out. During those weeks of many late nights in my basement room slavishly hand painting the hundreds of cells I had no guarantee that my idea would hang together when all the different frames were filmed sequentially and run together.
I eventually got to see the finished film and I was totally taken aback. A strange alchemy had occurred where my original idea had somehow grown wings and taken on a life of its own and become something better than I had ever imagined. It was like experiencing magic that I’d had a small part in creating and I was hooked.
From that moment I knew I wanted to work in some way with moving image rather than pure 2D design and typography. It was a like a lightbulb had clicked on inside my head illuminating my path.
From then on things started to fall into place and at my degree show I was offered a job at the BBC as a junior graphic designer which stunned me as there were so many other incredibly talented students that I felt were all cleverer and more talented than me. I decided not to question their decision however and on my first morning at BBC TV Centre, when I discovered the route to the graphics department took me passed Dr Who’s actual time travelling tardis I knew I was on my way.
I have to say I still get that same feeling every time I watch a finished film that I’ve made – whether it be 30 seconds or 60 minutes. That transition from storyboard to real life makes me instantly forget all the seemingly unsurmountable problems and hours of work and struggle and doubt that I go through every time and it’s what spurs me on to wanting to make the next one.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Once I was at the BBC I was just hungry to learn, get to grips with all the new technology, making lots of mistakes along the way of course. Looking back, the BBC was my film school for many years and I shall be forever greatful for this.
After a couple of years I was designing and directing title sequences for documentaries and dramas as well as BBC idents and loving every minute. What I lacked in experience, I made up for in enthusiasm and hard work and enjoyed learning everything I could from everyone around me both technically and creatively.
Little did I know how valuable the experience of designing and storyboarding every frame of a 30 second sequence could be in the future. I loved getting a brief and either planning a live action shoot or commissioning animators to achieve my vision. I remember on a couple of occasions being allowed to commission famous musicians I admired to write and record the music tracks. I soon realised that if I worked with the right people it would not only be enjoyable but I could learn from them and work out how their creative input could improve my original idea and enhance my vision in a way I could never have done working in isolation.
During these years I was also lucky enough to gain a smattering of awards which increased the opportunities that came my way and allowed me to film more live action sequences with slightly better budgets.
Eventually though I started to recognise that in my view the producers and directors, particularly in the documentary department, who were briefing me had a more interesting job than I did. I started to think about how I could make the move into making the actual content for a series rather than just designing and directing the title and end sequences.
The opportunity I was waiting for did come up in the form of a work placement for 6 months in documentaries, so without too much hesitation and against the advice of several people in the industry whom I respected (who thought I was better off staying in graphics where I was progressing nicely and warned me that documentary making would be like starting again and would be very competitive with less job security etc) I made the move and never looked back.
I had to take a fairly substantial pay cut, starting again at the bottom of the ladder in a new discipline but documentaries were what I was drawn to. After all I’m from the north so I will talk to anyone and am told I’m a nightmare to sit next to at a dinner party as I’ll have your life story down within minutes. In documentaries I had found a way to be paid for what I did anyway – a burning curiosity to figure out what makes people tick.
The upside of the paycut was that I was allowed to take all my overtime in “time off in lieu” as they called it in those days so every year or 18 months I would go backpacking in South America for a month or so on my own and take photos and keep diaries about the people I met along the way. I would encourage anyone and everyone to travel as much as possible and gain new experiences outside the narrow world of filmmaking because it always feeds back into your work in the long run, even if you can’t see the direct relevance at the time.
My first job in documentaries was as a researcher on an innovative BBC documentary series where I had to not only find the contributors but was also actively encouraged to help create a new shooting style with the encouragement of the series producer and director Nicolas Barker. This series was called “Signs of The Times” and was about peoples’ personal taste in the home. Martin Parr took the stills to accompany the series and it was fascinating working collaboratively with him all those years ago when he was not yet a mega star Magnum photographer.
I have to say the collaboration element of filmmaking is what I love more than anything and have been lucky enough to work with many other talented people along the way. A lot of the early lessons I learnt on this series had a great influence on me and I saw that documentaries didn’t have to fit a particular mould. They could be anything you wanted them to be. Rather than be confined by a script someone else had written I could interview people and then from the transcriptions create a script of sorts that would link one person’s thoughts with the next in the edit.
I also learnt a lot from Nick about how important it is to use sound creatively and for dramatic effect and was lucky enough to attend the edits which has always been for me the bit where the real magic happens.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
Before graduating I had set my heart on working for a company called Robinson Lambie Nairn who were the gold standard in my opinion in terms of making innovative title sequences and Chanel 4 idents and they even made some commercials (plus they had shiny offices in Soho as I remember and seemed very glamorous to me) The owner Martin said he liked my work BUT he thought the BBC would be a better fit. I was devastated at the time and saw it as a huge setback but looking back he was absolutely right. The BBC allowed me to grow and experiment and work on a wide variety of styles and projects and I probably had greater freedom than I would have done working in the commercial field. Plus I probably wouldn’t have been able to make the switch into documentaries as I wouldn’t have had the same influences or had the same opportunities that the BBC offered me. None of this I knew at the time of course.
In terms of other setbacks, I remember once I had finally made a couple of short documentaries, applying for a job on a series called Children’s Hospital where the style and content was already set. I thought my career had ended when they rejected me. I was genuinely flummoxed that I didn’t get the gig. Again it’s only later on and with hindsight that I realise that type of series would have given me valuable experience but it wouldn’t have pushed me and certainly wouldn’t have encouraged me to develop my own distinctive style.
Sometimes obstacles are thrown up that make you question or veer off the path you thought you should be on, and its only later on you look back and think thank goodness I took that fork in the road otherwise this or that wouldn’t have happened.
Jobs that you think will lead nowhere that you might be doing as a favour to help someone out can sometimes lead to more exciting work further down the road as years later someone you worked with recommends you. It’s like gathering pieces of a big jigsaw along the way and it’s only at the end you can sit back and start to view the whole picture.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
After working for Nick for four years on two different series, I was ready to emerge from under his umbrella and make my own documentaries. My first film was to make a 10 minute piece about Terence Conran’s mantelpiece as I remember it! I remember being terrified. What happened if it was terrible and everyone found out I was just winging it and I would be sent, tail between my legs back to the graphic design department ? To allay my fears I promised myself that if it was truly awful I could get a job in a pub. I just had to give it one go and see if I had what it took to direct a documentary.
After this I was trying to make that leap from being an assistant who had made one short doc to get a commission for longer form ones. I applied for every film and directing course that the BBC offered at this time and I continued to work as various talented directors’ assistants in the BBC documentary department, gleaning every ounce of experience I could watching and listening.
Here and there I also directed a couple more short documentaries including an anniversary film about the moon landings where I made a slightly wacky film called Fly Me to the Moon about ordinary people in the US who had put their names down on the waiting list with Pan Am to fly to the moon and were still waiting decades later. Despite a fairly modest budget I somehow managed to re-inact the scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the plane with zero gravity with my contributors as actors enjoying the voyage into outer space.
How did you get your first break?
My first big break came when Stephen Lambert started a landmark new BBC series called Modern Times and he called me up and asked if I wanted to be one of the in house directors. It took about two milliseconds to say yes.
There have been lots of stepping stones along the way and lots of people who have influenced me but Stephen encouraged me to make authored documentaries in the way that I wanted to about ideas and themes that I was interested in exploring.
I never asked him why he chose me but I expect it was because I went to art school and had had a different route to the other three or four guys I was working alongside, many of whom had come up via Oxford or Cambridge and had gone through the BBC’s own TAP scheme for trainees.
My first film for this series was about a Lido in Brixton (Brockwell Park) and the people from all walks of life who were regulars there. Stephen was worried that it would be really boring and kept asking me the question all execs want to know: what was the narrative arc and what would happen in the film? “Nothing” I replied . “That’s the beauty of the idea for me. I want to find the right characters then just sit down with them and chat.” I remember him looking slightly sceptically at me as I continued to enthuse about how this film based within the four walls of an outdoor swimming pool could look and feel and sound and how I imagined the water as a kind of spirit who held all the swimmers subconscious thoughts below the surface only to be unleashed when they dived in.
He kept trying to divert me onto other ideas as I remember but In the end I was so determined that this was the film I absolutely had to make that I drove him all the way down from TV Centre to the Lido in Brixton to see for himself. It was my bad luck and bad planning that the pool had been emptied for cleaning that day so wasn’t looking its best and it was also pouring with rain so there was no one in sight and it all looked very grey and grim but that did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.
Luckily for me Stephen eventually capitulated and said I could go ahead and make the film. Bingo! That was when the real hard work started and I began to imagine whom I might find and what themes and stories I was seeking out as a kind of blueprint before the research stage began and so that I could brief the researchers.
I was allowed complete freedom to make the film I wanted to make– an increasingly rare opportunity. It was on this film that I began a working relationship with the brilliant DoP Mike Eley and music composer Andy Cowton that continues to this day (I’ve even dragged them into commercials projects from time to time)
Lido was well received by the press and achieved around three million viewers as I remember so was deemed a reasonable success and I went on to make four or five more films for Modern Times about pretty diverse topics. I really valued this period in my career as I was learning my craft and at the same time meeting amazing contributors, whom I would otherwise never have met who opened up their lives . I even got to live in a YMCA in Hong Kong for a few months making a film about how the impending handover to the Chinese would affect regular people across the expat / Chinese divide.
From this point onwards I moved on from making one off films to documentary series, first at the BBC and later I left to set up my own company and continued to make documentaries for the BBC as an independent.
I was also lucky enough to be offered a short drama set in Ireland by Film4. Despite it taking me way out of my comfort zone, directing drama for the first time with a writer and actors was fascinating and an altogether different experience that stood me in good stead for directing commercials. Around this same time I was taken on by a new start up commercials production company, Brave Films, run by two dynamic girls who became great friends. They were always happy for any commercials work to fit around my documentary commissions so it was a relationship that worked well for many years and certainly helped financially when I eventually cut the apron strings of the BBC to go it alone as an Indie.
I’m surprised in a way how much I have enjoyed directing hundreds of commercials over the years. I think it takes me full circle back to my graphic design days where thirty second sequences were the order of the day. I always learn something new on each one and I get to handpick and work with amazingly talented and inspiring individuals who are often also dipping in and out of the commercials world, usually after coming off some big drama.
My proudest achievement in the world of advertising is that I directed the first “Real Beauty” campaign for Dove where I cast real women with real curves who were not models or actors which hadn’t been done before in a beauty ad. They chose me as I had previously made a four part documentary series about how you feel about your body for the age you are at.
I cannot take the credit for having the idea of course – that was the advertising agency – but I was able to bring to this campaign everything that I had learnt throughout the years. Rankin was chosen to take the stills for the posters and press that accompanied the TV campaign and I don’t think any of us would have imagined that it would kick off such a big shift in how women’s bodies are portrayed.
Any opportunities to do something a bit different have always appealed to me and so when I got a phonecall from the National Maritime Museum to be part of a permanent exhibition showcasing six modern artists from a painter to a sound sculpture I was flattered and intrigued at the same time. We were all commissioned to make an artwork about the sea and there was no brief which I have to admit did rattle me at first. My mind went blank for weeks. I had never considered myself an artist and had never done an installation of any kind before and yet here I was being asked to respond in a personal way. I realised that sometimes it’s easier to have the constraints of a brief than a blank canvas.
I finally did come up with a solution however inspired by the Shipping Forecast as my main link to the sea. I had always wondered where on earth places like the poetic sounding “Dogger Bight” and the like actually were so I set off to find out. Travelling from Iceland to the Outer Hebrides and down to Finisterre in Galicia, I marked the actual spot I had selected on a map and took one reference photo.
Sixteen cameramen were then given half a roll of film each and asked to find the exact same spot on the map for the area of the Shipping Forecast they had been sent to, set the tripod up and turn over for five minutes, They all did this simultaneously on the same day at the same time as I had also used the budget to buy the rights to using the Shipping Forecast for that day so it would become the soundtrack for the film and all the shots would slot in showing the actual weather that was being described.
I find the stuff of life that is nothing to do with film making is what feeds back into the process. Travelling, constantly eavesdropping on peoples’ conversations, doing fun things with my kids, trying out new things like archery (that’s another story but has inadvertently inspired a documentary idea)
And now for the imparted wisdom bit as a sign off. Perseverance and hard work is a given so here are a few thoughts / things I try to do, sometimes fail to do, but feel are important to remember:
- Stay curious. It will help you to keep learning at every step of the way.
- Play more. (I always say my two kids are my best production and its true – they remind you how important it is to play no matter how old you are)
- Try not to compare yourself to other people. Life is too short to do this although we all fall into this trap from time to time.
- Listen to your head but follow your heart (gut instinct) when it comes to decision making. If you can’t hear that inner voice that’s struggling to be heard then find a quiet space, don’t actively look for it and it will appear to you when you have forgotten you were looking.
- Never eat yellow snow.
- Smile more.
- Generate small impromptu acts of kindness whenever the opportunity arises as it will start a chain that will come back to you one day when you most need it.
- Seek out feedback and accept criticism but cherry pick the comments you actually think ring true, Ignore the rest. If you are making something that appeals to everyone it probably isn’t that interesting.
- The final bit of advice I can offer to anyone starting off in this industry is dare to fail. Only by throwing caution to the wind and forging your own path to find your own voice will you be able to bring what is unique about you to the fore and be able to create, via film or any other medium, your take on the world and what you think is important and only you can do that.
TV Credits: Modern Times (1995-1996), Imagine (2003).
Film Credits: The Birthday (2001) .
Photograph: Rod Olukoya