Ringan Ledwidge has long been one of our favorite commercial directors. From the wry comedy of Logitech's "Ivan Cobenk" to the poetry of Puma's "After Hours Athlete," from the drama of the Guardian's "Three Little Pigs" to the action-packed physicality of an Audi "Duel," the British director never fails to create something artful and memorable.
We caught up with the Rattling Stick director recently and asked him to take us step by step through his career, touching on many of his best-known spots. Below, check out that conversation, in which Ringan explains his process, the stories behind some classic spots, and how emotion can elevate the best ideas into something transcendent.
Muse: At university, you studied visual design and communication. What did that teach you about visual language?
Ringan Ledwidge: Sport and art were basically the only two things I was any good at, or had any sort of real passion for. I didn't really know what career I wanted to do. I just knew I loved images and designs. Photography, and graphic design, and drawing, and painting. Filmmaking was miles away in terms of something that would ever be a reality. I found myself at this place called Ravensbourne [School of Design]. And somehow, slightly unwittingly, I got into a very hardcore typography course, much to my surprise.
How did that go?
Literally, the first three months we were only able to design within a very small square on a grid system, using only black Helvetica type. I was like, "What the fuck is this?" It was so restrictive. It kind of drove me insane. By the end of the year, I hated it, if I'm being perfectly honest with you. It was very theoretical. It was about the Golden Section, which is this mathematical theory about the way to create the perfect picture or image, where elements should be. Fortunately, toward the end of the first year, we were allowed to introduce photography into the graphic design. They had a really amazing photography course and a great teacher. So then I started turning more to photography.
But what I realized, interestingly, was that the discipline of that first year, and how that made you think about negative space, really influenced my photography. My photography was very street-based and very narrative. I'd try to find stories. But a lot of the principles I'd learned in that first year, I was applying to my photography. I would say even now, to this day, that first year was very meticulous and very detailed. It was really all about the small details. Despite pushing against it, it really stayed with me.
It gave you an appreciation for detail?
Right, yeah. A lot of where I really get the joy [in directing] is in the preparation and in fine tuning—much to the annoyance of people around me. [laughs] I can be incredibly anal about stuff. In a weird way, it's the perfect combination for me. With actors and performers, I tend to like to experiment and be quite free. But the framework that I set them within tends to be very structured.
Did you make a living as a photographer for a little while?
I did odd jobs here and there. I shot some stuff for a magazine called ID that no longer exists. I didn't really get paid for it, but it meant you got work into publication. Then I had a bit of a hunger to travel. Did a bit in the Middle East, took photos there and sent them to news agencies and got a bit done. I just kind of bumbled around for two years. Then I was like, "Fuck, I've got to make some money." And I figured advertising would be the right place to look.
How did you get your first advertising work?
I put a book together and just started doing the rounds, dropping my portfolio off to places. It was a very hot summer. I would take large watermelons with me to leave with the portfolio, just as a nice gesture, but also to make sure they remembered me. It managed to force open a few doors. In the meantime, I'd been messing around, shooting stuff on Super-8 and cutting it with a friend of mine who was trained to be an editor. Through that, some guys at Leagas Delaney, Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, who later ran Wieden London, liked my photography. They were doing a very small commercial for the Guardian newspaper and asked if I would do a treatment for it. I didn't even know what a treatment was. But I said, "Yeah, sure!" And then I went blindly into shooting a commercial, having never been on set before, ever, in my life.
Yeah, it was pretty funny. They very kindly put a producer together, found a DOP, whose name I can't even remember anymore. Normally, obviously, you would choose the DOP yourself, as a director. I had no clue about anything. I just trusted people. And the first day on the set, I went to say hi to the DOP to introduce myself. And he just said, "White. One sugar." [laughs] So I was like, "OK." So I went off and I made him a cup of tea! And then I got back and said, "Oh, yes. I'm the director." And he shit himself. I think my kind of utter lack of any understanding about how anything works—I think, weirdly, people found quite refreshing. I don't think you could get away with it now.
Let's talk about some of your spots. Axe, "Getting Dressed." That was one of your early ones, wasn't it?
Yeah. The creative on it was a guy called Nick Gill, who's at BBH in London. Really smart, talented guy. I'd been in to see him for four other jobs and didn't get any of them. So this script came in, and it was clearly just a really great idea—this idea of people waking up and then picking their clothes up, and then at the end you reveal that they met in a supermarket. So I was like, fuck, I really don't want to put the effort in again, because he's never awarded me a job. I went through this whole debate with myself about going in. And then, fortunately, I decided to go and do it and just kind of threw everything at it, and I got the job.
Where's Nick's great is, he's very collaborative. We ended up helping each other with different scenarios and different places they can find the clothes. I also tend to really love using location scouting to shape a story and letting locations inform how that story might unfold. So we wrote up a bunch of ideas. And then I went over to Cape Town and did quite an extensive location scout. For example, when they find, in the shipyard, something hanging off the edge of a forklift truck—that was something we just drove past and I thought, "Wow, that looks visually cool and interesting." So, it was great. I've obviously got a very strong relationship with BBH, and that was the beginning of it.
Also through BBH, the Guardian's "Three Little Pigs." Obviously such an iconic spot. What do you recall about that production?
A guy named David Kolbusz—he was at Goodby Silverstein when we did this Kevin Bacon spot together, this Logitech thing where Kevin played a Kevin Bacon superfan. So David sits down, pitches me the "Three Little Pigs" idea. Which is a great idea, but it was quite a complicated one to get my head around—for everyone to get their head around, I think. It was the advent of this idea of media becoming instantaneous and live and created by anyone, anywhere, at any time. The idea was really fascinating, but it's a complicated thing to try to convey.
They had this great idea of the construct of taking a nursery rhyme and making it a news story. The interpretation was very much up for discussion. It could have been animation. It could have been real pigs. It could have been CG. A big part of it, for me, was—I wanted to make sure this was a really exciting piece of work. Because, to me, news is fucking exciting. This is real shit that is going all over the world, and it should be exciting, and we should want to know about it. It shouldn't be seen as dry and boring, which it often is sometimes. So I came up with this construct of ... let's make it like a movie trailer. Let's give it real pace and real energy. Let's make it move fast, because that's part of what this "whole picture" idea is saying, that news is going to travel very quickly and it's going to be a very fluid thing. So I thought of this idea of wanting to make it feel like a film trailer. Let's make it entertaining.
So then—how do we create this? What world is it that these three little pigs live in? It's absurdist, but it's also a very real thing—about how are people going to pay their mortgages, and so on. So we created our own universe. Let's have them as real pigs, but they're just living in a normal house on a normal street, and let's create this world where there is a mashup of nursery rhyme characters and real people inhabiting the same space.
The pigs are very memorable. The heads are almost creepy.
Interestingly, the budgetary constraints—"Oh Christ, how are we going to do the pigs?"—we remembered the English author from years ago, Beatrix Potter. All her characters were animals. And I remembered that the Royal Ballet Company had done a kid's ballet based upon Beatrix Potter's characters, and there were pigs in it. So we tracked down the original costumes, including these really beautiful pig heads. We just lucked upon them. And they were incredibly cheap in comparison to us having to do it from scratch. Then we just tweaked the faces with a tiny bit of CG for eye movement and mouth movement. It was a two-day shoot, and the last day was about 22 hours. It was hugely ambitious and one of those jobs where no one complained about the hours. It was just really enjoyable to make.
Another one of your great ones is Puma's "After Hours Athlete." The voiceover in particular is very unusual. How did you get the atmosphere right on that one?
Work can really sing when you get that nice alchemy of people who trust one another. One, the idea is great. I love this idea of the after-hours athlete, unremarkable athletes. Let's be honest, most of us don't wear sneakers in order to run. I like the idea of having prowess after hours—staying up late, drinking too much, those kinds of things. I just it thought that was a really great insight. I've got a very close-knit group of mates. We've all been through various shenanigans and ups and downs together. There's a real nostalgia attached to that. Often it's the smallest things you remember. It might just be a look between you and your best mate. I romanticize that part of life, I guess, and how special it is, even though it's seemingly quite banal and everyday, just having a piggyback race or chasing down the middle of the street for a cab. If you're actually living in those kinds of moments, you can look at it and totally relate. And if you're older, you can look back on it with some kind of nostalgia.
For me, it was almost like trying to create a series of moving photographs. It would be like looking through a bunch of photographs and reminiscing about a certain time. That's why it has that slightly dreamy quality to it. It was a two-day shoot. It was very ambitious. And we would try to squeeze as many locations in as we could, and loosely have some stuff in there that you could potentially say was sport. But really it was just about creating environments and a scenario and actually genuinely get people to enjoy themselves and have a laugh. Creating an atmosphere that they're able to do that in is sometimes slightly scary, because it isn't locked in. You're searching for something. It's not a defined thing. You know the night is only going to last for a finite amount of time. So, you're chasing the night a bit. There was a really nice energy to having to move fast and having to chase each location. We had the same bunch of people with us all the time. A lot of it was about the trust of trying to find something poetic in the beauty of the messiness of a night out. There can be beautiful moments within this. It's just trusting that those moments would come through because we'd picked the right cast and picked the right locations. Literally, in a sense, it was kind of evocative.
That's fascinating. Tell me about the voiceover.
That was an accident—a really happy accident. He's actually the lead singer of a band called Urge Overkill. An old punk band in the '80s. He was one of the ideas we'd had for the voiceover. And then he couldn't make it to the sound studio to come in to record his voice. So he was calling from somewhere else on a cell phone out on the street—straight into the studio. The reason it has that particular quality to it is because it wasn't the best quality recording.
So it wasn't intentional.
No. We got him back in to do a proper version of it, but we just couldn't replicate the magic of him just standing out on the street wherever the hell he was, doing it into a mobile phone.
That's probably my favorite voiceover story I've heard.
Yeah, it's interesting. It just had a particular resonance to it, I think, that just felt right with the unpolished nature of what we were seeing these kids do. It just seemed to fit. It was one of those nice pieces of magic.
Another one that's nostalgic, too, but in a very different way is "Susan Glenn" for Axe.
Yeah, I seem to like playing with the idea of time for some reason. As a conceit, I just really liked it—the idea of unrequited love. The girl you never talked to, that you wished you had. I think it's something everyone can relate to, whether you're a guy or a girl. Memories have always intrigued me, because they're very fluid and they're not edited, if that makes sense. So I've always been interested in the idea of moving through time without edits. It feels like one space, but you're somehow moving to a different common environment in each occasion, if that kind of makes sense. There's something interesting about memories. I'm thinking how they fly in our brains. So it felt like there was an opportunity to cinematically do something that had this stream-of-consciousness feel to it.
And then, obviously, I knew it was Kiefer [Sutherland] who'd be in the spot. One, he's got an amazing voice, so I could imagine how well it would work with the imagery. And also, he has an interesting and colorful past, so it just all seemed to fit, really. It just felt like a good marriage of ideas and thoughts. And the idea felt genuinely romantic to me, which is quite rare in advertising.
What about Audi "Duel"? That's seems like a great technical challenge, but the reverse storytelling takes it to another level.
It's just a great idea, isn't it? I just read it and it was like, "That's fantastic." We've seen stuff that goes backwards before, but to go backwards to reveal these two people were actually fighting over the car—it's just so lovely. It's such a treat. It's just a very smart piece of advertising. I started riffing on ideas of things that would look interesting backwards. I got action movies and played action sequences backwards to see what actually looks good backwards. Not only do we have to look at, physically, what looks good backwards, what can still be dramatic and feel action-packed, but also, the way you set up a gag, you have to think about it differently because you're applying it backwards. You have to apply the same rules of something paying off, but you have to apply it to something going backwards. So it's a complete head fuck!
As if a shoot like this weren't challenging enough.
Apart from my DOP and my production designer, I didn't tell anyone that we were going to be rewinding the whole thing backwards. Because once you get into talking to someone about that, it's a fucking nightmare trying to explain it!
Yeah. We found a great location downtown. This wonderful old hotel. But going up on the roof, falling off the roof, falling through the glass ceiling into the ballroom—that wasn't in the script. We just got the location and it offered up these opportunities. It's just like, right, let's take it that far. Let's really push it to the absolute maximum.
Those are some pretty intense stunts.
We worked with a fantastic stunt guy. Robert Alonzo. He does the stunts for Deadpool and movies like that. So we managed to get in a level of stunt person that I've never worked with before. And the two leads we had were just amazing. We absolutely could not have done it without people that good.
How do you choose projects these days? You probably have your pick of them at this point.
I feel like I choose projects on instinct. There's certainly been projects I've passed on but I've then seen produced and gone, "Shit. I should've fuckin' done it." But I'm always kind of pleased about that, you know? I want to see people do really good stuff. I actually quite enjoy being jealous of someone else's really good piece of work. It's powerful. It's good motivation.
But for me, it's about: Can I connect with something emotionally? Or do I feel like, within a story, that there's a truth that somehow resonates with me that I can bring out? If I've done a big action piece, I probably don't want to do a big action piece straight after. I might want to just do a smaller character thing. I tend to want to keep doing something different each time I try something.
Really, it's about, one, the idea. Two, do I connect to it emotionally somehow? And three, most importantly, do I think I can make it better? I tend to prefer ideas that have a great simplicity to them. Then you really can dig into character and detail and make something really rich. I love good advertising. I love a great idea. All of the spots you've mentioned, they're all fantastic ideas. They're all just very, very smart pieces of advertising, but also things that you can make incredibly engaging. And if you can find a way to put emotion into those very great, simple ideas, then I think you're on to a winner.
See more of Ledwidge's spots below.