Dougal Wilson is a director well known for his music videos and commercials. Dougal began his career as a copywriter at The Leith Agency, Edinburgh, before going on to direct his first ads and music videos for artists including Coldplay, Goldfrapp, The Streets, Bat For Lashes, Basement Jaxx, Dizzee Rascal, and Jarvis Cocker.
His many commercials include those for Apple, Ikea, The BBC, and Amnesty International. Dougal’s Christmas adverts for UK department store John Lewis have become a widely talked-about part of British popular culture.
In 2019, Dougal was named Director of the Year by AdAge/Creativity. Dougal was recognised in AdWeek’s Top 100 “Creatives Behind the Most Innovative Work” in 2018. Amongst his many other industry awards and honours, Dougal’s film, We’re the Superhuman’s for Channel 4, garnered two Black D&AD Pencils and the Grand Prix for Film at Cannes Lions in 2017.
Dougal was nominated by the DGA in Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials in 2020.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
My route to becoming a director was somewhat haphazard and circuitous. I grew up in the late 70s / early 80s in Wirral, Merseyside. I liked drawing and, from the age of 9, I played in a series of bands. I was also obsessed with Star Wars but didn’t really connect this with the concept of the people who must have made it and how it was done. I really had no realisation that you could be a film director as a job. When I was about 8, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on TV and was mesmerised but thoroughly disturbed by the ending. This film later became a bit of an obsession. At secondary school I loved art but I also liked physics. I think part of the reason I liked physics was because I liked 2001. I ended up studying physics at university, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do afterwards. I was generally a bit confused.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
While studying physics at university I found I increasingly missed drawing, so I began designing posters for university theatre groups in my spare time. I really enjoyed doing this and it was a bit of an added thrill/ego boost to see the printed posters displayed around university. I guess this was my first experience of ‘advertising’. I also started making sets for some of these plays, and went to the Edinburgh Fringe every summer. I was seeing a lot more films at the university film club, and started playing around with a Super 8mm camera. All these experiences really began opening my eyes to possible things I might actually want to do (as opposed to physics). Then I happened to hear a Radio 4 interview with Ridley Scott and Alan Parker where they were saying that they got started in feature films through directing commercials. As I was increasingly interested in films, plus was already sort of making ‘adverts’, I thought that after university I’d try and get a job in an ad agency as a ‘creative’. I thought this might be a bit like doing posters for plays. You start to see what I mean about my route to being a director being haphazard and circuitous.
I somehow managed to get a job as a junior copywriter in an Edinburgh ad agency and soon found out that this wasn’t really like drawing university posters. It was much more about thinking of simple ideas, in all sorts of mediums – print, radio and TV. We made ads for lots of Scottish things, including Tennent’s Lager and Irn-Bru. When you made a TV advert you had to select a director, so I watched a lot of showreels – which in those days were on enormous U-Matic videotapes. Some of these directors’ showreels also had music videos. This was the mid 90s and there was a kind of renaissance happening in music videos. I started seeing work by directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. This was quite a revelation as the music video format seemed to contain elements of everything I was interested in. I decided to try and make some music videos for my friends’ bands. The experience in the ad agency helped as it made me try and think of simple, (hopefully) funny ideas. They also had to be cheap and do-able by myself with friends as crew.
My very first video started with a bleak empty road, with a microphone stand just rising into shot in the foreground. Then the singer from the band appears in the distance, running towards the microphone. However, the microphone starts mysteriously moving away from him (it’s attached to an unseen truck, which the camera and crew are also on), so he has to keep running to keep up with it (and sing into it). As he runs, he’s handed a guitar from out of shot (we handed it to him from the truck). Meanwhile, some more people appear in frame, also running. They are roadies, holding his amplifier. They plug his guitar in, but need to keep running with him as they’re carrying his pedals and amp. More and more people start appearing into frame from the sides – the bassist, plus people carrying his enormous bass cabinet, and the drummer, who is being carried on a chair while about four other people carry the various bits of his drum kit. I also had people carrying lights, and a make-up person who briefly runs in and touches up the singer’s face. Inevitably it all ends in chaos as the various people trip over / give up / mutiny. I learnt an enormous amount just from doing this. My next video was for another friend’s band, and was set at a gig. The sound engineer on the mixing desk is adjusting the sliders, which are labelled “Bass”, “Snare”, “Vocal” He then discovers that the sliders control other things than just the volume – “Competence”, “Audience Interest”, “Video Budget”, “Species”… etc. The idea basically came from my mate while we were at a gig, standing next to the mixing desk. Again it was possible to shoot it on a reasonably low budget (£500), and we tried to make a virtue out of the highly shonky production values.
I also made a couple of shorts. The ad agency then got me to shoot some very low-budget ads that they couldn’t afford a proper director for. Edinburgh was a great place to live, as it wasn’t too expensive or difficult to get people together to do little shoots. I also got to go to the cinema three times a week by thoroughly exploiting the company’s corporate membership card.
Eventually I’d worked at the ad agency for eight years but also had a directing ‘showreel’ of various low-budget music videos, shorts and ads. I had a friend who worked in one of the London ad production companies who I think must have been desperate for new directors at the time, and they offered to ‘represent’ me. This was a bit of a scary step, as it would mean leaving my secure Edinburgh job and going to London, which I’d always been terrified of. There was also no guarantee I’d actually get any work. When a production company represents you they’re basically trying to get you work from ad agencies (for ads) or record companies (for music videos), and you only get paid if you work. But by this point it felt like an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, so I went for it.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
When I moved to London I had to basically pitch on almost every opportunity I was sent, which were invariably quite low-budget music videos. I was desperate to succeed so spent almost all my time working and didn’t have much of a life. With a music video pitch, you just get sent a track and a ‘brief’ that says something like, “We’d like a performance video with a twist”. The trouble is that there is never any guarantee when an idea will come to you. There is a bit of luck involved. But I’ve found that the harder you work, the more luck you have. I spent most nights and weekends working. Sometimes I’d come up with a decent idea, sometimes they were a bit of a stretch. But I’d always try and come up with something.
My first professional music video was shot on my 30th birthday. It was on 16mm film with a full professional crew and I found the experience highly stressful and frustrating. It was so much easier making things with my DIY style small Edinburgh crews, and I found it a lot harder for my tone of voice to come through with the large, hierarchical crew as everything was much slower. The video looked very nice, but really wasn’t funny. My second video experience was much worse and is still, in fact, perhaps the worst of my professional life to date. It was for an indie band and my whacky “performance with a twist” idea was for the band members to be discovered, one by one (and all their instruments, etc.) buried under the sand on a beach by a guy with a metal detector. On paper this sounded hilarious. It really should have been done in two cheap days on a wet British beach with a small crew. Instead we had the opportunity to go to South Africa on the back of another larger shoot that the same production company was doing. This was presented as a great option as we’d get “great light” and one long shooting day. One piece of advice – the more time you can get to do anything, the better. So if your shoot goes from two days to one day, this should be regarded with extreme scepticism. Also, “great light” was really not necessary for this idea. Guys with metal detectors are also rarely seen on beautiful sun-kissed beaches. Anyway, the whole thing was horrendously rushed and my lack of experience meant I was unclear of my shooting schedule. The art department were also completely unprepared and discovered that burying someone in sand is incredibly difficult to do in a way that doesn’t look terrible. I remember the beautiful sun inching horribly towards the horizon, as the storyboard was only one third complete and the record company guy constantly tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “You need coverage, you need coverage”. I think this shoot, more than any other experience, drummed into me the importance of being prepared for every element of a shoot and not leaving any detail to assumption. I.e. know the schedule, test out any practical effects, have a good AD that you thoroughly talk everything through with. Anyway, sometimes a trauma like that is necessary to learn. I remember the awful hot flush of panic creeping over me during that shoot on this beautiful beach, that I would never work again. Of course, you will, but what you won’t do is make the same mistakes again.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Rather than short films, it was mainly music videos and low-budget commercials that got me noticed by the production company I’m now represented by. I got something like £5,000 from Channel 5 scheme where you had to pitch and idea for a 1-minute film about an environmental issue. I also got £500 to make one of my first music videos from a Channel 4 scheme, and I think I got £1000 for another one, again for another music video scheme. A lot of the other things were ‘self funded’. I didn’t have any formal education in film. Most of what I learned came from trying things myself with a mini DV camera, or from being on the shoots of commercials I was the copywriter on.
How did you get your first break?
My break, I suppose, was getting represented by a London production company, Blink. Like I said earlier, that was through the somewhat serendipitous fact that I knew someone who worked there, and they showed a copy of my VHS showreel to the MD.
Since then, every commercial or music video I’ve done has had to be ‘pitched’ for, so I’m quite used to competing for jobs. My first few jobs weren’t really that good, but then I did a couple of music videos that got noticed, and then I started getting sent more interesting commercial scripts. If anyone is interested in directing commercials I would strongly suggest they also make music videos because the two formats go very much hand in hand.