Crashing planes and scaling mountains with Ben Lawrie

Award-winning director Ben Lawrie is renowned for creating daring adventure films and documentaries for international broadcasters including the BBC. Take a listen to our podcast with Ben as he discusses crashing a plane into the Mexican desert for the BAFTA-nominated Plane Crash, and never “interrupting the journey between action and audience”.

Subscribe to the Podcast

Hello there, I’m George from Movidiam and you’re listening to another episode of the Movidiam podcast. Today we’re speaking to producer and director Ben Lawrie. Ben has had a remarkable career, and made some landmark documentary series for the BBC, independent production companies and U.S. broadcasters. Hello Ben and welcome to the Movidiam podcast.

Hi George thanks for having me.

It’s been very interesting we’ve actually had a couple of crossed paths a few times recently, and you very kindly came to the Movidiam London launch, and I’m pretty familiar with your work. I want to just dive straight into the Plane Crash, most of our listeners and users will be familiar with that body of work on Discovery/Channel 4 co-pro. Was it just the most amazing project to work on?

Fantastic. The privilege of doing what I do is that it gives me access to stories that you absolutely couldn’t buy your way into. The places I’ve been range from the most extreme jungles to the most extreme deserts, I’ve been up in the stratosphere with NASA…The stories that I get are fantastic, but nothing will ever trump the opportunity to crash a Boeing 727 into the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It really is one of those once in a lifetime experiences and I doubt it’s something that will be repeated in a hurry. It’s the biggest controlled plane crash ever attempted, I think NASA attempted a smaller one back in the seventies which didn’t work out — the remote control plane crashed and burst into flames. Ours was a kind of stunt for TV but with the ‘gloss of science’ shall I say. Ours was the biggest and best ever done. It was truly a spectacular experience to say the least.

It was, and I think the visuals are actually imprinted on anyone who saw the trailer let alone the actual piece of work itself. So your involvement in that, I mean it must’ve been incredibly technical, incredibly sophisticated from a logistics and planning view, with military precision — how did you pull the various people together that you needed for that piece of work?

You’re right it was a military operation, to the extent that we had the military involved. We had a huge designated area in the desert in Mexico, I actually could get the exact area, but essentially we had to close off miles and miles of the desert which the Mexican army did for us which is fantastic. It makes for fantastic footage, these guys charging around in the desert in Hummers, but aside from that we obviously needed a really really big production team to just get the coverage. The plan was to crash the plane into a pre-made, essentially crash pit, in the desert which we packed with cameras — multiple GoPros, a Phantom, you name it. So there was a big technical team on the ground in Mexico but also people involved in rigging the plane, there were multiple cameras in the plane, and then also just the people who were responsible for flying the plane, getting people out safely. For example, this thing has to take off when it’s fully crewed, so the plan was to get people up in the plane; pilots, registered parachute professionals, and then get everyone out of the plane before it crashed, and then take the plane into the ground on remote control. There were multiple technical people from safety officers at one end, through to all the camera teams, through to the remote control specialists, through to the parachute teams…I think we had three hundred people on location on crash day, so it was quite full on.

Absolutely amazing, a sort of boyhood dream meets a James Bond sequence, to get a pilot out before the plane crashes. So yes I highly recommend it, Plane Crash, a remarkable project. So looking forward now, I know you’ve got a lot of expertise — the Motorcycle Diaries toured you around South America, you’ve done a lot of traveling, so what are you looking for now, what’s the next ambition? Aerial projects, perhaps a nautical brand, any business interested in your storytelling methods?

Yeah absolutely, you’ve really hit the nail on the head there actually. Making these big documentary projects, which I’ve been doing now for sixteen or seventeen years, is absolutely my first love. If great projects come my way I’ll absolutely take them on, for example I’m off to Nepal and Bhutan just for a shoot actually in a couple of weeks time, a big BBC project that required a director for a particularly glossy opening sequence. That said, I’m actually, well I’m not stepping away from this territory, but I’m looking to expand my horizons, develop a slightly different portfolio and I’m looking into the world of working with brands, and branded content projects. As I see it, the skills that I have making these kind of very glossy landmark pieces, not just stunts like Plane Crash, but science pieces, automotive pieces, I’ve filmed in hospitals, medical work, lots of things with great characters…all those things. Getting to the core of a story and then being able to share it with the audience in a glossy but easy to understand, entertaining way, I think are things that will really help me push into the world of brands. It’s a slightly different field for me, which appeals actually because these projects, the last thing I’ve done is an adventure series in Venezuela that’s coming out in a few weeks time on the BBC, and that took me nearly all of last year. The project before that, an archaeological adventure history series in Cambodia, took over a year. So I’m actually really interested in some slightly shorter turnaround projects, working with different kinds of people in different creative arenas, and just mixing it up a bit and seeing where it takes me.

Very interesting. So if Virgin Galactic came knocking that would be an interesting thing to jump up at…

Absolutely, I’ve actually been knocking on their door to be honest!

Well we’ll see, look forward to doing a podcast about that in the future…So that’s an interesting point you make about the size and length of programming and that project by project nature, and obviously your projects taking a year in the build and shooting. Some of these brands and businesses don’t necessarily have the commissioning budgets per se that some of those big TV programs have had, or maybe that world is changing a bit now, short turnarounds, high production value. What sort of teams do you use, the same team to work on your potential commercial projects as the TV world, are those two worlds merging a bit?

I think so. I think, as you are very well aware, the Internet is very disruptive when it comes to these territories and the ability of brands and broadcasters actually to create content that doesn’t sit within the traditional framework. Particularly for brands where their usual video output would be a 30 second spot, going in the middle of the XFactor or something, you know it’s great, you get a huge amount of viewers, but it’s not a shareable, consumable piece of media and I think that the potential that comes with being able to make targeted pieces of content for brands or broadcasters, that sits in a space in between the two, is a really tantalizing proposition. Obviously it’s something that is increasing exponentially month on month. The skills that people have in the broadcast sector I think overlap very very strongly with those branded content areas. And also, particularly the storytelling things, I think is absolutely crucial. So I think it’s a really exciting time actually.

And I think it is very interesting as the brands suddenly have the means or the channels — the social channels, the Twitter channel, the YouTube channel — and they’ve got an audience with an almost insatiable appetite for interesting brand storytelling. There’s a new sort of genre appearing, it’s something that I can definitely see that you connect with as well, because it is still about good storytelling but just with a different agenda behind it.

Absolutely, a different paymaster, but a great story’s a great story. You know, people have told these campfire stories for generations. You sit there, tell the story of an adventure or a funny person or whatever it is, and people will listen. It doesn’t matter whether that story is broadcast on TV or it’s coming out of a brand on the internet. That’s what really attracts me to it.

You’ve worked a lot in the US, of course in Mexico with Plane Crash — how do you find that the audiences or the production processes differ across the pond from where we’re based here in London?

That’s a good question. I’ve worked in I’d say at least a third of the US states, including Alaska and Hawaii, so I’ve got a lot of experience filming over there. I mean at one point it seemed I was always in California, which I can’t complain about, and California obviously there’s a fantastic production base there and a great skill set, but in the kind of work that I do, it’s interesting to see that, particularly the kind of bespoke BBC-style documentaries — very, very carefully researched, very, very, very high production values — things like that tend not to be made so much out of US production companies. The biggest supplier for Discovery Channel is based in London and a huge amount of programming output on Nat Geo or History channel comes from British-based companies. The skill set is in place here and always has been, partly through the history of the BBC employing so many great freelancers around the country here. So it is interesting, working a lot in America, I do use American crews a lot but primarily I’ll go out there with my key team members being British. Obviously that’s not to say that British DOPs or sound recordists or CG people are better than those In America, but there are different ways of working for different kinds of productions. The things that I’ve specialized in, these glossy, landmark, BBC-style, Discovery-style projects, tend to be best suited, in my opinion, to people coming out of the British market. The training that is in place here perhaps isn’t available so much…or conversely the kind of programs that are made out of American production companies often seem to me to be more the reality end of the spectrum, which is awesome, but it’s a slightly different focus.

Yeah a different approach, and perhaps that comes from a sort of cultural, you know what the audience is used to receiving or familiar with, so the production style is adjusted, it makes total sense and I understand that. If I think about the Movidiam platform and how we’re building visibility of independent team members, directors, DOPs, and now we have users in 178 countries around the world, and we already see brands, agencies, production companies and broadcasters reaching out to the community and looking to crew up — is that something that you think the Internet is going to enable a lot more of?

Absolutely, I must say I think Movidiam is a fantastic platform and I can’t commend you highly enough on having put it together. Obviously there have long been many kinds of disparate crewing websites or talent websites out there, but I haven’t yet seen one that seems so complete in its thinking, from the initial stages of crewing up a production right through to the project management — I think it’s fantastic. I’m a relatively new member myself, but absolutely when it comes to finding those talented staff that I need for the kind of productions I do, it would be my first port of call. Actually it might very well change my thinking about what I was just saying, of there being a lesser extent of the kind of production staff in the States for example, than I’d expect to find in the UK — maybe it’s just that I haven’t been able to find them previously. I know I’m going back on that slightly, I know that there are hundreds of fantastic American or Canadian Cameramen and so on, many of whom I’ve worked with, but tracking them down is so often very difficult. Something like Movidiam is really going to be fantastic and will facilitate much easier, seamless production.

It’ll certainly give you some options in a different way, but as you said it’s a slight behavioral adjustment for people who haven’t come from that broadcast world. It’s the sort of new creative entrepreneur-filmmaker that comes out of film school, starts making films for brands that are actually something visible on a global level. I think it’s very interesting, and actually someone such as yourself who might want to connect now with different brands, brands who are coming to Movidiam to find a place to streamline their way of making films, brands who don’t necessarily have the expertise or understanding of how to make a film but want to find someone who clearly does. I think it’s opening up the black book a little bit.

Absolutely. I only wish that something like this had been available when I was starting out. The Che Guevara motorbike trip, that kind of kickstarted my career — I’ll just tell you a bit about that. Back in 1997 or 1998 I read Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries which had just been translated into English. It was subsequently, many years later, made into a feature film and at the time I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, riding motorbikes, speaking Spanish or anything like that but thought essentially, bloody hell what an awesome adventure. I just wanted to do that and I’ve always loved that fusion of historical storytelling and raw adventure — basically bringing two disparate elements together to make a bigger hole. I kind of pulled it off against the odds — managed a motorcycle trip around South America, in the tyre tracks of Che Guevara. I made a radio documentary for BBC Radio 4, I filmed the trip, did lots of newspaper articles and things like that — but nowhere did I have the ability to market myself as a young independent filmmaker with a great idea and I didn’t have a platform to show off my work. It was very much a case of writing letters and trying to interest people, and I wasn’t particularly well connected at that time in the industry, I didn’t know who to contact either, so it was a two way thing. There was this massive impediment to the kickstarting of my career and if something like Movidiam had been available to me as an aspiring filmmaker at the time, maybe, who knows, I might have followed a very similar career path I don’t know, but I would’ve loved to have had that opportunity.

Well I think this is it, isn’t it, it’s a question of not just making films and getting them out there into the ether because that’s possible, it’s a question of getting them out there and referencing who you’ve worked with, referencing who paid you make that, building visibility, and also to a certain extent for people that have come to you cold, credibility and trust is calculated when they’ve updated their profile a lot, there’s a lot of going on in their blog…You might’ve been writing about Plane Crash for example on your blog on Movidiam and therefore validating any future, potential commissioner, be that a brand or a broadcaster to come to you later, and this is what we’re encouraging: document your own ambitions and your career, the work that you’re doing and connect with the industry because that’s the only way that you raise the profile of your work and the expertise in areas that interest you.

Absolutely, I think it’s really important that people can see what your skills are and are able to connect with you as a real person rather than as a quite dry list of credits on a CV.

Sure. So just dipping into the technical now: your kit bag, what’s in your essential kit bag for a project, maybe not on the scale of Plane Crash, but if it was say a brand film about a new jet that’s being developed?

It really really varies — I’m not precious in the sense of having that equipment, I mean I don’t even have a set go-to DOP, I very much cherry pick based on the exact nature of the project or film I’ve got to make. If I’m making high energy actuality sequences I’ll work with a camera operator, perhaps he’s got a background in sports. If I’m making beautifully lit interview type scenarios I’ll work with somebody who comes from perhaps a more drama background. So once I make those decisions that will very much influence the kind of kit that I might use. You know it’s a good example, Plane crash: given there were so many elements that needed covering, I deployed multiple bits of kit to suit those elements so that on one end of the spectrum, we were shooting on Arri Alexas for the gorgeousness of the remnants of plane in the desert, and for some of the setup interviews and things like that. But at the same time, for the aftermath crash when the fire crews were going in and when the crash investigators were piecing through the wreckage, I was shooting on ENG-style cameras, with big old traditional zoom lenses where I could just punch in and out, and really keep the energy in the piece. So in that sense, I pick and choose very much based on what the requirements of the story are.

It just comes to mind as you’re describing that — Movidiam user and DOP Phil Arntz actually worked on the project Hello Jetman for Emirates which was this remarkable flying of two jet packed individuals flying alongside the vast new Emirates jet. It is, it’s a question of finding the right team, the right guy, the right equipment for the actual story, so starting at the story and working back. Because the skill sets are so diverse in filmmaking, it’s not one type of individual director fits all, and I think that’s something again that the testimonials, the credits and the referencing that we have on Movidiam enables you to drill down on relatively quickly without actually knowing the person for a twenty-year career beforehand.

Yeah absolutely I think being able to pick and choose like that is critical, and certainly when it comes to kit, knowing how to use it and when is very important. Certainly as I’ve gone through my career, one of the key things I’ve learned is actually when not to use equipment. I mean don’t get me wrong I absolutely love flying around in a helicopter with a Cineflex mount on it, that kind of stuff is in my kit bag often on the kind of projects I do, but many many times i’ll have that stuff but I’ll use it very sparingly. For me it’s all about the story and it’s about the people who are critical to delivering that story to the audience. So even though I might have the nicest crane and the greatest crane operators, chances are I’ll be hanging off the on-screen talent’s shoulder with the camera, with the DOP or whatever, and I’ll be right in their face keeping it focused and personal. People I think respond to that, the moment you start over-using technical equipment it can it can be a bit distancing for the audience. There’s a trap you can fall into, particularly with projects in the documentary sphere, where it feels overproduced and, to me, that somehow diminishes them. The audience needs to buy into the fact that they have unfettered access to a story, they’re part of the story. The way I like to direct my crews is that I say, just imagine that the audience has just rocked up on set and they’re with us — I don’t want any kind of barrier between the action in front of the lens and the audience who are essentially behind the lens, albeit sitting on their sofas having a glass of wine or whatever in the evening. The less we can interrupt the journey between action and audience, the better. There are times when, however nice a sweeping helicopter aerial might look, or an incredible underwater sequence or whatever, I think it’s handy to think critically about the use of that equipment, and just try to ensure that the audience can connect with the story.

A very interesting point. Well we’ve been going for about twenty five minutes now so let’s wrap it up and have just one last question about your latest piece of work, when can we see that? I think we’ll be able to see it on television soon.

It’s just been formally announced by the BBC — I think it’ll be out in the first two weekends in March on a Sunday evening so it’s a great prime time slot. It is as yet untitled, it’s got two working titles — one working title is Islands in the Sky, and the other is Extreme Mountain Challenge, which gives you a sense of what it is, but essentially it is a truly truly epic story of an attempt to scale a very sheer side of a mountain to be found in the deepest darkest jungle in Venezuela and different parts of Brazil. The sheer-sided mountains have flat tops which are isolated from the forest floor, and is thought to be a place where wildlife, plants and animals might have evolved in isolation. Essentially it’s the story of an expedition to try and get on top of one of these mountains to conduct the first ever biological survey on top, and what is great, in TV terms, about it is that it all goes horribly wrong. There are storms, dangerous animals, people in genuine fear of their lives, all of which we’ve successfully been able to capture. So aside from it being a very glossy, landmark production with all the usual kind of elements you’d expect; the sense of wonder, the jungle, river trips, all those kind of things, there’s a really really gritty raw edge that absolutely powers the project along. It’s one of the projects I’ve been most excited about over the last couple of years. So hopefully people will feel the same way when it comes out.

Very much look forward to seeing it. So that’s Ben Lawrie I highly recommend that you head on to Movidiam and check out his profile, he’s done some amazing work. Thank you very much for listening and I hope you enjoyed it. We’ve got some other podcasts from Brit De Lillo and Dan Myrick which are on the Movidiam blog or iTunes, and I look forward to catching up next time. Ben thanks so much indeed.

Like what you read? Give Movidiam a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.