Ringan Ledwidge is renowned as one of advertising’s top directors, creating award-winning work for brands including Audi, Sainsbury’s, The Guardian, Barnardo’s, and Lynx, amongst many others. In 2005-6, he directed the feature film Gone, and in 2006, set up production company Rattling Stick with Daniel Kleinman. Here he talks to CR about the twists and turns of his career to date.
On an early love of photography I’ve always been obsessed with people’s stories and the human condition in general. As a kid, films let me look into lives I could only imagine so I guess in a way when I first picked up a camera around the age of 10 I was always looking for a story to tell. I was a pretty shy kid so somehow the camera made me feel protected. It was like the moment I looked through the viewfinder I’d become invisible. Somehow that’s what I’d try to do when I arrived in new places. I’d walk around for a while, and I’m talking days and sometimes weeks here, with my camera around my neck and kind of wait until I felt like part of the furniture. Then I’d start taking photos. For me good directing should be invisible too. I don’t want to feel the directing. I want to be transported and feel the characters and the emotional arc of the story.
How studying type has proved useful as a director I studied at Ravensbourne College in Kent. It was a school solely dedicated to art courses. Fashion, product design etc. The course I was on was called Visual Design and Communication. Essentially it was a hardcore typographic course. And I mean hardcore. The first project we had we were only allowed to use 8 point Helvetica type within a small white box. We did that for three months. I think after two months we were allowed to use some 12 point type as well. I hated it. I had mates at St Martins who were chucking ink and paint all over the place and having a right laugh. Turns out though that the course was brilliant for me. It taught me discipline, extreme attention to detail and how there can be real joy in simplicity. After this arduous first year we were a lot freer and I started really focusing on photography but the principles we were taught in the first year to this day are the foundation I build from creatively.
How he first discovered advertising I have absolutely no idea to be honest. Obviously I was used to seeing ads on the telly but I didn’t really have any clue as to how they came to fruition and the amount of work involved from inception to being on air. When I left college I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do so I floated around a bit, travelled and took lots of photographs. I also shot some random stuff on Super 8mm that I later pissed around with. After a few years of bouncing around I figured it was time to be a grown up and pursue some kind of career. Photos are what I had so I pulled together a portfolio and then through a bit of research realised that there were some great advertising art directors out there doing some really interesting stuff with photography. Pulled up the names of some people I liked and bugged the crap out of them to see me. Fortunately some did. So began my education in advertising.
Getting attention when you’re unknown I set about researching art directors to see who was doing the kind of work that felt relevant to what I was doing and then relentlessly set about hounding them down until they agreed to see me. This involved numerous tactics such as putting a seal within my portfolio that told me whether the thing had actually been opened! Often I’d pick up my folio and hear nothing. I was pretty confident what I was doing was pretty good and was starting to feel it hadn’t been looked at. Hence the seal idea. So, if I picked it up and found it hadn’t been open I’d redouble my hounding coupled with a large serving of guilt! My other method was to leave a large piece of fruit, like a watermelon, with the portfolio. For whatever reason it seemed to at least alert people to my portfolio!
I got very lucky in that one of my first victims was an art director called Steve Wallington. He now runs a fantastic photography project called the Calm Photography Movement which uses photography as a way to explore, highlight and deal with depression in a contemporary world. Anyhow, Steve is one of the most generous, inspiring guys you’ll ever meet. He liked my work, encouraged me and introduced me to Simon Brotherson (then a creative at JWT) and Steve Paskin (then a creative at Leagas Delaney). I got lucky … all of them helped me and introduced me to many people that have played a huge role in helping my career along. I’m still tight with everyone. They’ve become great friends but will also let me know if something isn’t working or is just plain shit. You need that.
On his first big breaks I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few but I’d say my first ‘real’ big break was the VW Polo Self Defence commercial that I shot with Andy McLeod and Rich Flintham, then at BMP. Andy and Rich were pretty much as good as it got at that time. They were the benchmark. If they deemed you good enough to shoot one of their ads you knew that you were doing something right. They’d both been supporters of mine for a while but this was the first time I’d been given the nod.
The commercial was shot in a self-defense class. Only at the end did you realise that the instructor was taking them through the procedure of getting into your car and then putting on your seat belt and checking the rear view mirror. I think the thing that got me the job was that I didn’t want to use any music. I just wanted to use the natural sounds of the environment and class. My feeling was that a quiet spot would really cut through on the TV. Luckily the guys agreed. The whole process was an education. If you talk about mentors, Andy and Rich were mentors that came to me later. Fortunately they liked what I did and we started on a pretty long run of work. It was like going to college again. Both have an incredible understanding of what makes a good idea and what it takes to achieve that. How hard they worked and the demands they put upon themselves was a real insight into what it takes to do great creative.
Being on set for the first time as a director My first interaction with directing was my first day on set. It was absolutely terrifying. It was the first time I’d seen a film crew. I came from photography so my mind was blown by the amount of people that were on set. I remember going over to where the camera was and asking the focus puller what he did. I couldn’t believe that there was a guy whose sole job was to keep the shot in focus. Obviously I know now that a good focus puller is worth their weight in gold! The funniest part of the day was probably when I introduced myself to the DOP. I wandered over to him to say ‘hi’, which I did by hovering uncomfortably near him until he noticed me. He looked me up and down and then said ‘white, one sugar’. I went off, made him his cup of tea and then came back and gave it to him. When I didn’t go away he enquired ‘yes?’ I was like, ‘oh yeah. Hi. I’m Ringan the director.’ He damn near shit himself!
I’ve always loved movies. Ever since I can remember I’ve been pretty obsessed with them. My Dad took me to see 2001 when I was six and it totally inspired and freaked me out in equal measure. I didn’t speak for a week. From then on I’d often spend time drawing moments from my favourite films. I’d also write ideas for movies I’d like to see and I guess kind of storyboard them as well but when I grew up the idea of becoming a film director was something that felt as far fetched as going to Mars. I remember telling a school career advisor that I was into films, photography and art and he suggested I become a painter and decorator. I’m not adverse to a bit of painting and decorating but it wasn’t really what I had in mind.
The differences between movie direction and ad direction They’re the same but different. I guess that’s kind of obvious. I absolutely loved the experience of making a movie. The day-to-day of being on set, shaping a story and working with actors is incredibly exhilarating. The film I made, Gone, is not bad but it’s not brilliant. I was pretty young when I made it and I felt that despite the creative differences within the script that I’d be able to bend it with my will to be exactly what I wanted. I was wrong. What’s on the page is really what you get on the screen and you really do live and die by the material.
I’ve been hammering away for a while in an attempt to make another but know whatever I do next everyone has to be pointing in the same direction. How is it different to commercials? Well, for a start it took me about a week to stop looking back over my shoulder to where the agency guys are normally based to check if we were good to move on. That was pretty funny. You are very much on your own, which whilst being great is pretty fucking scary, but you get used to it and soon start to really enjoy the freedom. Also in terms of creative decisions it’s kind of just accepted that you make the calls, very rarely are you asked to justify decisions you make. One thing I will say though is that advertising has within it some of the most creative people I have ever met. I genuinely love working on commercials as I don’t think there’s many other industries with so many quick minds. We’re trained to be fast-thinking problem solvers and that’s something that’s incredibly applicable to any creative process.
On what he finds most challenging The biggest challenges? Hmmmm. To be honest I’m constantly waiting for the tap on the shoulder where I’m found out. ‘You. We’ve been watching you for a while. You were kind of amusing for a while but let’s be honest – you’re a charlatan. Game over. Time for you to fuck off.’ So therefore I’m constantly on guard against complacency as I don’t really feel I deserve anything which I guess is a pretty useful trait. I generally tend to prosper in the face of adversity and can tend to be a bit of a chippy working-class kid sometimes, something I try and keep in check as sometimes it can be misguided, but I like a fight. I can’t think of a specific challenge but I know there’s been many, but let’s face it, there’s nothing better than proving someone wrong and giving them the bird. I often think I create conflicts in my own head just to be fucked off at something or someone. Problem is most of the time I’m fucked off at myself. I don’t think I’ve ever been satisfied or happy with anything I’ve ever done and long may that continue.
Juggling work and a personal life I’m an absolute nightmare in regards to juggling my career and personal life. I’d say my work impacts my personal life every week if not every day. My problem is I’ve never viewed what I do as my job. It’s just what I do. I’ve been making and creating things ever since I could walk and if I’m not doing that I’m a pain in the arse. It’s simply just who I am. I’ve gotten better at separating the two and have finally, I think, understood that although I can work happily every hour of the day making stuff it might not be the best for other people in my life. I could well be fooling myself of course but I don’t seem to be getting in quite as many blow ups as I used to!
On what he’s most proud of Christ. That’s a horrible question. I don’t really think that there’s anything ‘in’ my work that I would say I’m proud of. Perhaps I ‘pride’ myself on the work I put in before the shoot. I don’t like to go about anything half-arsed and I think how you approach a job from the moment you sign on and until the end is the most important thing. Explore the idea, push it to breaking point and don’t leave anything to chance. There’s nothing worse than finishing a job and not feeling like you’ve pushed it and yourself all the way.
On how the ad industry has changed I think everyone can see that the industry has changed a fair bit over the last few years. There’s this vast hole called the internet and everyone, clients included, seem to be hell bent on filling it with utter shite that no one watches. Why have one beautifully crafted, insightful, thought-provoking piece of content watched by millions when you can have 50 pieces of mind-numbing branded nonsense watched by 52 people and a goldfish? Answer on a postcard. But having said that I think it’ll come good. It’s brilliant that it’s easier for young filmmakers to pick up a camera and shoot – technology is allowing that – but the sooner brands realise that in this ever-increasing swamp of content, the work that’s well-crafted, brilliantly written and entertaining cuts through dross, the better for all of us. There’s a ton of talent out there and it’s time they were given their heads again.