HOW TO HAVE A CAREER AS A DIRECTOR, with Philip Sansom, director and Founder of PHIX London
Philip Sansom is an award winning film-director, producer & photographer based in London.
Phil started his career at luminary graphic design agency Blue Source, before moving to the newly formed music video department — Colonel Blimp.
In 2004 he established directing duo Diamond Dogs, which saw him nominated for 8 MVA’s including Best Director, in 2008. His first short film The Black Hole won Grand Prize at the inaugural Virgin Media Awards and went on to feature in an endless list of festivals and clock up over 20 million views on YouTube.
Phil established his own content production company PHIX in 2012.
In 2013 he wrote, directed & edited his short film One man’s Loss, filmed on the streets of downtown LA. It was instantly featured on NOWNESS and made a Vimeo Staff Pick. Most recently it was nominated for Best Script at the 2016 Madrid Fashion Film Festival sponsored by GQ & Conde Nast.
ES: Tell me about the first hour of your day, what does it usually look like? Specifically any habits or morning routines that you have.
PS: I am a night owl so mornings are my least favourite part of the day. I always sleep really well so the day usually starts with an unwanted alarm and laying in bed willing myself to get up. Usually I put on some tunes to try and kick start the process. A long shower is essential and a coffee is a must.
ES: Tell me what do you for a living, without using your job title?
I tell stories and capture light. Mostly with 1s and 0s these days but occasionally with film.
ES: What did you do at work yesterday?
I oversaw a few edits, commissioned a TV series script, spoke to a lawyer, delivered a documentary to SKY Arts and had a tough conversation with a producer.
ES: Why do you do what you do? What need (other than paying bills etc.) does your job fulfil?
PS: I’m not sure I could do anything else now. I like to work for myself. I need constant challenges and I enjoy finding creative solutions. No project is the same. I also like developing stories and characters, I guess it’s a way to let my imagination run wild and keep a playful element to my life. It’s also a way to write and experience things I would never otherwise get to do.
ES: What was your first real experience with what you do now for living? When you thought — I’d like to do something like that?
PS: After studying Fine Art at college I went on the dole until I finally found a job as office runner with luminary design studio Blue Source. I had no idea what they did really, until after the interview when they asked me to look through their portfolio and watch the company show-reel. The work they produced was incredible, so many iconic images and videos that I knew and loved. I had no idea until that point that there was even a real industry, in which you could make a living from making music videos or designing a record sleeve. I think once I saw that I was all in — I wanted to do what those guys did.
ES: Tell me the journey from that moment to landing your first, paying job.
PS: At that time, I was working for £75 per week. I was responsible for all the office management, printing, ordering supplies, making show-reels, in-house editing, running diaries, delivering images for scans, creating video treatment layouts, scanning images for research, keeping the library sorted. It was all courier bikes and ISDN lines in those days — no high-speed internet.
I would watch Rob & Leigh create amazing treatments and then practice writing my own. John Hassay had just moved to Blue Source and had set up the new production company Colonel Blimp. I wrote ideas on the tracks he had left on the server and send them to him to review. Eventually one day he submitted one to the label without me knowing — the label loved it and suddenly he asked if I could do it. I had never made a music video, but I had done a lot of film making and editing at art college so I jumped in head first. I’m not sure I actually got paid for my first music video, but I had some money to make one at least.
ES: Where did the drive or the confidence come from to do that? Who or what made you feel like you could do it? Or that you had nothing to lose by trying?
PS: It was very daunting in many ways to try to emulate people already making amazing music videos at the time. I had just come through some heavy personal shit that could easily have taken me down another much less creative path entirely, so I really did feel that life was giving me a new opportunity in a creative field that I was determined to take with both hands.
My self confidence was pretty low at the time, but I was lucky to have great friends — when you need help call it in. I called Olly Williams a friend from art college who had been art directing over at Battle Cruiser for Jake Nava. Next thing I knew, we had been directing together as a duo called Diamond Dogs for over 10 yrs. It was a lot of fun and always great to bounce ideas off of one another. As a team it felt like we could achieve things that a single creative would never attempt to do alone. It was an incredible fun and intense creative period in which I learnt an enormous amount.
ES: What advice would you give to a smart, driven 18-year old trying to get your job?
The best advice I could give an 18-year old trying to get my job is don’t. Make your own path and don’t put pressure on yourself to achieve too much. Make mistakes. The best thing you can do is to make work, whether it’s good or bad. Experiment, pick up cameras, write things, shoot things. Don’t be precious, at least not to begin with or you may never get started. Find friends and colleagues who can bring expertise or enthusiasm to the table and get out there and learn while making.
I also believe in having the ability to trust your instinct. There have been times where I have been slow to put myself first in many situations. Often it is only you who is holding yourself back. Make the changes and try to operate at your most comfortable, If something is bothering you in your creative process, it’s ok to change it — even if you feel it might be hard for others to understand, they will eventually.
ES: What if they can’t afford higher education? What might a rough plan look like for getting that first job?
I’m not entirely convinced you really need higher education to succeed in the arts. It’s much like an apprenticeship, the sooner you get started in a profession then better you can get. Trainees in film departments often move through faster to HODs than by studying film or media. Once you are out of college nobody ever asks you what you studied or what grade you got. It’s about knowing your craft and your trade. I think knowing what you actually want to do is the hardest part. I probably learnt more about film production by running the student union at art college than I did from lectures or making art itself.
It seems that more so now than ever before, you can make amazing films on as little as a mobile phone. You can upload it to the internet on YouTube or Vimeo and start broadcasting yourself. If the work is good, then the hope is people will find you and once you have a show-reel (even if made on a mobile) then you have something you can present to the world. A portfolio that tells people about who you are and the vision you have. If you can’t afford a phone get a shit job until you have saved enough to buy one, it won’t take long. I was on the dole for 2 years getting paid £75 per week cash in hand when I started. But I did it because getting experience is more valuable than a degree.
One route I often see is to find a position as a runner for free, on set or in an edit suite. Make yourself available, be keen, be a sponge and soak up the experience. There is always an opportunity if you work hard and always a way in if you want something badly enough. Work for free if you have to, do it for yourself — if you want something enough you will find a way I truly believe that.
ES: How do you measure the size of a person? What’s your measure of whether or not someone is a going to be a good person to work with?
PS: Does somebody do what they say they will, or just say they will do something. Talk is cheap in my opinion, action speaks volumes.
ES: What three character traits do you think people who are good at what you do, have in common?
PS: Hardworking — Resilient — Organised
Being a nice person can take you a long way in many industries, but at some point you also need talent and drive.
ES: What is bad advice you hear being given about your job or your industry? What advice should people ignore?
PS: It’s not really for me to say. If people offer advice then listen, it is always good to listen. You don’t always have to follow through with advice and you’ll know when things feel right. Also you can’t be right all the time, it’s good to make mistakes — it’s the only way to ever really learn anything. It can often be best to avoid acting on advice for big decisions until you absolutely have to. The world has a funny way of revealing a clearer path with a little time — no need to rush, especially early on. Best to sit back and take it all in, even the bullshit you hear early will help you detect it later on.
Tell me about a time in your career that you’ve struggled? Or felt lost?
Well that’s a constant in this industry. I always feel there is something new to do or something else I should be trying, but that pushes me forward. Putting your own work out into the world is always a very personal thing because people judge you by it, that is always a struggle to overcome.
However, if there was a moment I struggled or felt lost in my professional life, I would say it was when I decided to go solo. Leaving HSI and looking for a new production home during the worst recession in years was incredibly tough. Nobody was signing new directors, companies were streamlining and some were closing entirely. I didn’t want to just join anywhere for the sake of it and eventually after some careful thought, I decided it was the world telling me to start my own production company and do things for myself. It was incredibly hard to leave the resources and support of an established production company. But something was driving me to just see how it went. Luckily it’s still going.
ES: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
PS: Failure is a harsh word. You can never really fail, you learn that pretty quick in music videos and commercials. You work on so many pitches. You pour your heart and soul into them and work on them like crazy. Tight deadlines over a weekend, only to find your work rejected for something shit that you could have done so much better. It is a cruel teacher (that’s how you feel at the time). However, by making endless pitches you hone your craft, you improve your writing, you plan your shoots better and you create a wealth of ideas you can dip back into at any time. I have pitched ideas 3 or more times before they got made and I know directors who now use old music video ideas as incredible commercials.
I remember pitching an idea about a black hole to so many record labels for a music video. Eventually we turned that failure of a treatment into one of the most viewed short films on YouTube.
ES: What irrational fears do you have about your job or your work?
I will not get any more work after my last job.
ES: Tell me about your first year of trying to get, or getting a job as a director. What did you do right, wrong? What did you learn?
PS: I kept writing and kept making — convincing people you can do what you say you can is very difficult. But doing what you say you can is even harder. I had a second job as an art director which allowed me to be on set and watch and learn from other members of the production team, including other directors.
ES: Describe the plan, dream or desire in your head at that time?
PS: Not to have an office job, to work with great music and artists, to create work with friends that was fun and challenging. I wanted to get one of my videos on MTV.
ES: What haven’t you achieved yet, that you’d like to?
PS: I’d like to build a house, have children, make a TV series, direct a feature film — in no particular order.
ES: If there had to be an enemy of your job, what would it be? What bugs you?
PS: Time & Money. When you run a company you have to pay people and that means earning money. When it’s just you, you can operate on very little and sometimes it’s more creative that way. Time is a killer, you can always use more time.
ES: How do you stay disciplined in your work?
PS: Fear of fucking up keeps me disciplined. When you are commissioned to make a film or to take photos you have to deliver no matter what — it is not just work, it’s your clients reputation on the line every-time. Deadlines are always a good thing.
ES: What’s your personal approach for making proactive projects happen and choosing what to focus on?
PS: I always try to make a passion project each year. Generally, if my work is too commercial or too client driven, I will feel the need to flex my creative arm a little more outside work.
Or if a piece of a puzzle I am putting together with a pitch or script is missing on my show-reel I will go and make it. Generally, I will save money myself and self-fund the project with any profits from the commercial work. Last year I made a new short-film called “Last Respects”, as a taster for a feature scrip that is in development. That thankfully has some tax benefits you can claim back too.
ES: Tell me about a mistake or an obstacle that you wish someone had warned you about.
Don’t give away IP to anyone unless they are very experienced and are bringing something you can not do yourself to the table.
ES: What is your most treasured professional memory?
PS: It’s almost impossible to say. But I fondly remember giving Ray Harryhausen a copy of our video for The Hoosiers “Worried About Ray” and him saying how he’d already seen it and thought it was great.
ES: Tell me about an event in your childhood or teen years that has shaped the adult you are now? Are there any people who have greatly influenced you? How?
PS: I remember being bullied at nursery school aged about 3 or 4. One particularly nasty little boy was the top dog and I was new. I told my Nan my troubles and she said to tell the kids at fault that she would chop their legs off with an axe if they did it again. I did exactly that — they never bothered after that. My Nan was a total hero!
ES: What book has most made you question your life decisions?
PS: William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is pretty solid when it comes to thinking about life.
I always wanted to be James Bond or a Hobbit when I was younger.
ES: What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
PS: Learning how to edit
ES: Anything you’re currently struggling with or trying to learn or improve?
PS: Well as you get older keeping fit gets harder. Put the time in while its easy.
ES: Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
PS: Often, I write notes and have them in front of me when I have an important call. It’s good to have the key points you want to cover fresh in your head and not get sidetracked or misdirected.
ES: Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
PS: Getting married and having children. You can’t do that on your own.
ES: Tell me 3 things on your bucket list.
PS: Scuba dive in Komodo
Build a house
Make a feature film
ES: If you could enter a time machine that guaranteed return and also made you invincible in the time period you’re visiting, where would you go?
PS: A great but impossible question really…
Egypt during the rein of Tutankhamun
I’d like to see a dinosaur
Watching the big bang floating in space
Watching the last star in the universe turning super nova
ES: Tell me about a fun thing you’re currently saving for?
PS: A trip to Komodo to meet a writer
ES: What do you miss about being a kid?
PS: Finding fun in the smallest of things
ES: What was the last song you sang to yourself or someone else?
PS: Happy Birthday
ES: If you could live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30 year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which one would you choose?
PS: The body
ES: If you could wake up tomorrow with one superpower, what would it be?
PS: Superman has it pretty sorted
ES: Your house is on fire and no person or animal you love is in it. What one object do you save
PS: Let it all burn
Philip Sansom is a director and Founder of PHIX London.