Having One Foot in Reality and One Foot in Imagination Is a Great Place to Be.

An Interview With David Mellor

By LBB Online
  • FAMILIA director David Mellor on his biggest influences, background in VFX and how he turns pressure into a positive

  • Starting his career in VFX at Framestore London in 2003, David Mellor worked on the third instalment of the Harry Potter series, Troy and Thunderbirds. His eager ‘can do’ attitude and aptitude for CGI propelled him up through the ranks during a golden period of commercial VFX, working on all of Daniel Kleinman’s biggest spots from 2004-2008.

    Consistently pushing the boundaries of technology, David had a key role in pioneering the use of CG fur, feathers, and fluid simulations in commercials at a time when these techniques were in their infancy.

    As a director, he uses his background in VFX to his advantage, knowing exactly when to enhance a live action shoot with a little bit of reality bending. He has worked with the likes of McDonald’s, Sky, LEGO, Nintendo, EA and many other global giants.

  • LBB | You started your career in VFX at Framestore, working on high profile projects such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Thunderbirds and Troy. But what drew you to the industry in the first place?

    David | In the 80s I was already into all the wicked SciFi and action movies with ground breaking VFX – Robocop and Predator were already my favourite movies – bonus of being the youngest of four boys. Then Jurassic Park was a turning point for me, like many others I think! Walking out of seeing it for the first time I was astounded by being able to see these creatures I’d loved as a kid look and move as if they were real.
    I lived in Japan in the early 90s, and got into computers. Anime has a big impact on my style, I love it. It also helped that there are no ratings in Japan, so as a 12 year old kid I could work my way through anything in the video shop.
    I was always into art, and began to focus on sculpture. Putting computers and sculpture together was the final step – much to the looks of insanity from careers advisors and teachers at the time – which led to studying a degree in computer visualisation. At the end of the day though, I was a terrible CG sculpture! I ended up following an FX path.

    LBB | How did your career progress from there to eventually move into directing?

    David | I think many VFX artists are directors, whether they pursue that or not. I guess I was lucky, in that my imagination was recognised by the directors I worked with – I was nicknamed ‘Rainbow Brain’ for better or worse. So we’d spit-ball their pitches and ideas together, which eventually led to partnering up to co-direct, as well as directing my own full CG commercials.
    It was a very slow process, as time was split between Head of CG to then VFX Supervisor and Creative Director. So, I’ve been continually re-kickstarting my directing career. The difference this time is there’s some nitrous in the tank in the form of a passionate and talented team working with me!

    LBB | You made your directing debut with McDonald’s ‘Lemon Aid’ – what was your experience like directing for the first time?

    David | There was a great partnership there. I was the CG expert, and my directing partner (Murray Butler) was the live action and composite expert. My focus was creating a character – the lemon, getting their design right for the story and their character traits, honing their look and performance, and knowing the beats before the shoot. The experience on set wasn’t my first as I was already VFX supervising. But the dynamic was different as the buck stops with the director. Certainly intimidating the first (few!) times.
  • LBB |And how does your first directing project compare to your most recent? How have you developed your style as a director?

    David | I think you can see the parallels. It’s play. It’s fun. That’s what I enjoy, not taking things too seriously. The difference now is the work hinges less on purely VFX, but the VFX is there as a legit part of the story, rather than an excuse to be fancy which you see in a lot of VFX forward work. My aim is to always ground my work in some form of a reality. The VFX is there to enhance the story not to distract the viewer.

    LBB | How does your early career in VFX influence you in your directing?

    David | Planning. Being able to break down a problem and plan accordingly, and consider the entire process rather than just the live action. It doesn’t matter if it’s live action or VFX, it’s all part of telling a story – so consideration needs to be given equally to all fronts.
    Then beyond that it’s finding the balance – knowing when it’s absolutely needed in live action, in the moment on set, and when we can bend the rules and lean on VFX. There’s no throw away “fix it in post” on my set unless there’s a discussion.

    LBB | You recently joined FAMILIA’s roster, what is it about FAMILIA that caught your attention? And how does its values align with your own?

    David | Enthusiasm. I’ve worked with executive producer Toby Walsham in the past, and back then I was impressed with his enthusiasm and ‘can do’ attitude. He would just make things happen. FAMILIA is also constantly evolving, and I can see they push to exceed expectations at every opportunity.

    LBB | What type of work are you most passionate about – is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

    David | Anything reality bending. I live in my imagination, but that doesn’t mean being absolutely fantastical. Having one foot in something that is recognisable to us – whether that’s physics or motion etc – and the other in reality is a great place to be. My head starts to break and I have internal challenges if something – in live action at least – couldn’t be justified as real.
  • I live in my imagination, but that doesn’t mean being absolutely fantastical.

  • LBB | How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

    David | Pressure – it’s the best. Thinking on your feet is important on set, and it’s similar in pitching. Then there’s the magic of the snooze button, those moments between awake and sleep where your mind flies. That’s where the magic happens – you see it in your head, the ideas flow, and you have your film already made. That’s why I like to digest and sleep on an idea, and write the narrative first. Then you edit it, talk with creative partners, and it evolves and becomes something more. It’s a wonderful experience creating the story before it even really exists. Then I often find the finishing touches come much more in the moment as the ideas and story continue to evolve. It never stops, it’s never done, it’s just delivered when it has to be.

    LBB | Can you share your top 2-3 directing highlights and why you chose them?

    David | Shooting Storm Troopers with Larry Fong – It’s Larry Fong! What a legend and a gent. Then to see Stormtroopers walk onto set is a very surreal moment. Shooting a Ferrari F8 and McLaren Senna – I love cars, so this was like meeting heroes. Especially having the F8 arrive in absolute secrecy. It was like some kind of top secret mission. Diving into a fur tree lined ‘trench run’ of a road, and orbiting a wizard on top of a mountain in a chopper. Overcoming motion sickness and the skill of the pilot was humbling to witness. Along with the out of body experience watching the VTR while in the chopper, being detached from the reality of what was actually happening, focused on getting the shot.

    LBB | What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

    David | While shooting a VR experience for Volvo, it was in the script to have an auto braking moment caused by an animal in the shot. It was thrown out as there weren’t the resources to achieve this in VFX which was the most efficient solution. But when it came to the shoot – driving the beautiful roads north of Whistler in Canada, nature provided the solution when a group of deer decided to cross the road where we were shooting. Nature often intervenes and gives you those one-off magical moments.

    LBB | What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

    David | It’s always a consideration as tech is in such an amazing place at the moment. The limitations are time and money, as pretty much anything is possible. I think that consideration is a huge part of production, and how to use resources in the best way. I am also an Unreal ‘Fellow’, having attended the Unreal Fellowship in 2020. That was a great experience, but I’m yet to fully put it into practice. It has been great using Unreal as a previz tool, or even to get a head start visualising lighting and set dressing so the conversations can begin.
  • Nature often intervenes and gives you those one-off magical moments.

  • LBB | You are a frequent contributor to industry events, having spoken at the Innovation Festival at Cannes Collision and Spikes Asia. What is it about the industry that you are most passionate about right now and why?

    David | I think we’ve all gone through a shift in the past few years. They’ve been difficult and re-affirming in many ways. With that there’s a refocus on what’s important in life, and I think that moves through to the creative world as well. I think stories are more connected emotionally, as well as providing an even greater need for escapism.  Along with this, the integration of post-production with pre-production. Virtual production has changed the way we look at VFX, and it’s no longer simply ‘post’. It’s an integrated part of the entire production process.

    LBB | What sort of projects are you hoping to work on in 2022 and what are you most excited to achieve?

    David |If I can make people smile, laugh, take them on a mini adventure bending a little reality on the way, I’ll be very happy.
  • Films By David Mellor
  • Originally Published On LBB Online