Frank Budgen: A Tribute

Frank Budgen, who has died aged 61, was quite possibly the greatest commercials director the UK has ever produced

Budgen had been battling cancer for several years and is understood to have died in his sleep yesterday.

From the late 90s onward, Budgen was simply the best commercial director in the business. He had a reputation of being able to take any script, no matter how unpromising, and make something truly remarkable.

A personal favourite will always be Double Life for PlayStation from 1999 which spawned so many imitators and showcased Budgen’s eye for casting and great performances.

One of Budgen’s great strengths was that he had no obvious signature style. But without fail his work would be both technically brilliant and have a depth and intelligence to it that consistently raised the bar for the industry. When people tell you that they remember when the ads were better than the programmes, it’s probably Budgen’s work that they had in mind.

Even when he was already very ill, Budgen continued to produce remarkable work, such as this brilliant ad for Taylor’s of Harrogate, shot just last year.

For its 50th anniversary celebrations, D&AD honoured those who had won more of its awards than anyone else with lifetime achievement awards. Budgen was joint winner of the Commercials Director category along with Tony Kaye. At the time, Rothwell said that “What makes Frank stand out is the humanity of his work and a realism that he brings to it. Even if it is a very unreal situation, the humanity he brings to it makes you care and the realism makes you believe it. Frank brought in a new visual language and a new way of storytelling to commercials. Even 20 years after he started directing, I look at ads and think, ‘that’s Frank-influenced’. He’s very focused, very contemplative, very enquiring, with great technical know-how. And he’s got an ability to forget about the pressure of a situation, and just concentrate on the performance of the actor and what makes the ad better. He just has this amazing ability to concentrate on what really matters.”

D&AD produced this video tribute to Budgen at the time:

A profile of Frank Budgen drawn from the CR archives follows. Please also leave your own memories of, and tributes to Budgen in the comments box below.

Creative Review readers consistently voted Budgen as their favourite commercials director, and Gorgeous as best production company, in the days when we ran our Peer Poll. Here is Paula Carson’s 2004 interview with Budgen from our Peer Poll issue

Once again, readers have voted Gorgeous Enterprises Best Production Company. Small wonder given the results of this year’s Gunn Report: Gorgeous has been the most awarded production company in the world for five years running now. In the last 12 months alone, Frank Budgen’s Mountain for PlayStation bagged the Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as Golds at Creative Circle, BTAA and the Clios. It hasn’t just been Budgen’s year though – Peter Thwaites’ Sense for Honda collected awards across the board, as did adidas Kicking It from co-founder Chris Palmer – and Tom Carty’s latest Pepsi Bunraku extravaganza Can Fu looks a contender for next year. By April 2005, Gorgeous aims to be ensconced in new Soho office Gorgeous House. If the last seven years are anything to go by, the team, along with new-ish recruits Ben Seresin and Vince Squibb, should thrive in their new home.

Knocking Jonathan Glazer off the top spot as Best Commercials Director is yet another pat on the back for Budgen. Tucking into his lunch at the Gorgeous offices he chats away about work, his latest obsession – late night poker on the TV “you ever watch that? It’s addictive,” – and also his favourite distraction, baby daughter Ella. This year, he announces, he hasn’t shot any commercials, though there’s a job in the US for Jeep in the pipeline. “Over the last five years I’ve averaged three, maybe four commercials a year,” he comments. He finds shoots quite mentally strenuous: “It’s not three weeks of your life, it’s three months,” he explains. But then, Budgen doesn’t enter into projects lightly. Deliberately selecting the strongest ideas, then quietly carving up the competition with the carefully crafted results is what’s made Budgen’s name in advertising. Selectivity isn’t making him rich, but it explains his impeccable reputation.

Amusing then to hear he was made redundant after his first year in advertising. Straight from an art course at Manchester Polytechnic he found a copywriting job at BBD&O. He moved next to Saatchi’s and then finally BMP, where he shot his first commercial for John Smith’s Bitter. Telling then boss John Webster of his intention to shoot this self-penned spot was a task Budgen didn’t relish: “On the Monday morning I was going to tell him… I walked past his office every day that week, and by the Friday evening I still hadn’t done it,” he admits. Webster, it transpires, was not pleased by Budgen’s plan. Crucially, though, he didn’t say no so, with the help of production company Park Village, Budgen went ahead and shot the ad anyway. Handily, Webster was delighted with the results, making it easier for Budgen to continue in writer-director mode.

Leaving his creative director post at BMP in 1992, he joined the Paul Weiland Film Company, shooting award-winning campaigns for Orange, Capital Radio, and Holsten Pils. Photography lessons at college and his continued interest in the medium (he has exhibited his stills photography and shot a print campaign for Coco De Mer) proved a strong foundation for Budgen. A jack of all trades, he frequently acts as lighting cameraman on his own shoots. “Photography really makes you learn the basics: the effects of different lenses, frame rates… much of what applies in film applies to stills.” The intimacy of stills shoots don’t quite equate with the large numbers required for directing though. A naturally shy type, how does Budgen feel being centre of attention? “I’m a weird combination,” he admits, “sometimes I have to push myself to not be shy – but I sort of do things that, generally, shy people wouldn’t.”

His work benefits from this shyness though. Asked about his influences, Budgen cites the observational deftness, yet eye for beauty of Magnum’s photographers. He also mentions Ken Loach, with whom he worked when he was just starting to direct. “He was so quiet and observant, letting things happen on set – I remember thinking ‘you don’t have to be the archetypal loud, dominating figure in the centre… you can be a quieter observer’.” He’s happier adopting a fly-on-the-wall approach, coaxing out natural performances in his cast. When working a six-day shoot on Guinness Snails in Cuba, some of the actors didn’t even clock that Budgen was the director. “I quite like that,” he smiles.

Says creative Vince Squibb, who worked with Budgen on Hero’s Return for Stella Artois: “He has the ability to make even the toughest decisions seem like common sense.” Tony McTear worked with Budgen on PlayStation Mountain: “He’s very thoughtful on set,” he comments. “You can see his brain ticking over.” A self-confessed obsessive, Budgen admits he finds it difficult to abandon ideas he likes. “He keeps going and going until somebody turns the lights off and says it’s time to go home,” says McTear. “It’s tunnel vision,” says Budgen. “I don’t want to do what I’m not doing. If I’m not shooting I don’t want to shoot and if I am shooting I don’t want to stop.”

Budgen believes his best work arises from open scripts, where he can latch onto a core idea: “Tag was like that – a good idea in one paragraph, then a couple of pages regarding how that idea might play out. Levi’s Twisted, again, was just about people whose limbs move freely.” Says McTear: “There’s no point in employing a director like Frank when everything’s already been buttoned down. It doesn’t bring out the best in him.” This shines through in the aforementioned Snails: the most evocative moments occurring in the opening frames, when the viewer is given glimpses of local characters going about their everyday lives. “The original set was wiped away in a hurricane. We had a full crew waiting around, so we spent a morning knocking on people’s doors asking if we could film them,” Budgen explains. “If you have the time to do that, to build up some sense of time and place, it’s lovely… but then mystery and commercials don’t really go that well together,” he laughs. “You’ve got 30 seconds to get in, say what you want to say, and thanks very much.”

Which is probably one of the reasons why film beckons – putting ads on the backburner, at least for a little while. Right now, he’s working on the script and casting for a Hollywood project called Julia Pastrana. There’s another project, Bruiser, based on a book by Ian Chorao, and a script he’s writing jointly with Laurence Coriat (of Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland) in the pipeline too. Gorgeous now has a small film department, and most of the directors, he tells me, are working on film projects. “If, in five years time, Gorgeous was a film company that made commercials I would be very happy with that,” he comments.

In the meantime, Budgen’s excited, but also reserved about the move over to film. “I get nervous about people not letting me do what I can do,” he explains. I remind him of the week he spent walking past John Webster’s office trying to pluck up the courage to ask to shoot his first commercial… Budgen just smiles.

We’d love to hear from readers who worked with Frank and would like to share their memories of him. Please use the comments box below

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