Adam Powell now directs videos for some of the UK's top talent — but it all started when he made a skate video with a borrowed VHS camera.
From the outside, it can be very hard to see how to make the transition from producing videos with your friends to doing it for a living, but for Adam Powell — director of high‑profile promos for the likes of Tinchy Stryder — it seems to have happened quite naturally. So first things first: how did he start making videos?
"When I was around 16 or 17, me and my friend Kenny were skateboarding a lot. I was at college taking my A‑levels, but instead of working on course work we were just skating. Kenny had an idea that we should take his step‑dad's old VHS camera and make some videos of him at the skate park. That's kind of how it got started, with him skating on a mini‑ramp and me following around with a VHS camera, which his step‑dad had so he could film...” Well, let's just say the films couldn't have been broadcast before the watershed.
Working with analogue media must have been a far cry from today's digital file‑based formats. Was it tough? "It was very hard to work with. I would import the analogue video into my PC using a Matrox capture card, playing it in real time, but the limited space and power meant that I could only edit about three minutes at a time before bouncing it back to VHS. All my early skate videos would have a line run down the screen after three minutes, where I had to change to the next section! Being able to just plug in a memory card or camera and drag footage in is still a novelty for me.”
It wasn't until Adam had made a few of these films that he really caught the bug for video work. "I didn't really have much interest in video or film, but I liked skateboarding and wanted to be involved in that. When I started editing to music, that was a real rush, it was awesome. I got more and more into editing, watching skate videos and trying to decipher how they were made. I thought they looked amazing, and I spent a lot of time trying to work out how I could make things look similar at home. I realised I could only go so far with VHS and Hi8 cameras, and decided to throw a bit of money behind production and upgrade to a Canon XM1 with a fish-eye adaptor.”
The XM1 is dated by modern standards, shooting standard-definition DV to tape, meaning that although the footage was digital, it still had to be played into the computer in real time. "As I created more and learned more, I realised I was trying to emulate the look of 16mm film with my home editing system.” But it was still a while before Adam was able to get his hands on 16mm film or progressive digital video.
I was curious to know how Adam made the jump from skate videos to music videos. "While I was at university, I was still making skate videos using the Canon DV camera. My friend's band Gorerotted (now called The Rotted) had just signed to Metal Blade records. They liked my skate videos, and approached me to make a video for their song 'Only Tools and Corpses'. At the time I had no intention of making music videos, but I just went for it. The first treatment I ever wrote was simple: 'We'll get some zombies and give them hammers'. We improvised make‑up on all our friends and had them go crazy.
"I shot half of it using DV and half using super 8mm film, but I had no idea what I was doing! I bought a couple of cheap worklights, the yellow ones from DIY stores. At the time, I didn't have a lot of technical knowledge, I was just pointing and shooting.”
This taste of music-video production shifted Adam's focus onto creating promos, so he began using social networks more and more, to get in touch with artists. "After I'd left university, Myspace was really picking up, and I started getting in touch with bands I liked, offering to make videos. I shot a video for a band called Blood Red Summer. At the time, I was watching a lot of hardcore videos, and there was a director called Darren Doane who pioneered a style of low-budget but slick‑looking band videos, using digital video. I watched a lot of his work and went for a similar look.
"I was lucky to have some very handy friends who helped me build a 'rain rig' using copper tubes. We also built three 10-foot by 10-foot frames covered in muslin, and back‑lit these with worklights. My friends Richard Fosh, Jonny LuRoc and Tim Wheeler were very hands‑on guys, and would get stuck in, building props. I filled a wheelie‑bin up with water and put in everything I had that was red or brown: coffee, food dye, Ribena, and just pumped it out through the makeshift rain rig, to make a rain of blood!”
So as your skills grew, did you find it difficult to adjust to the technology and terminology?
"Not really. I already knew about colour grading from working in graphic design, so I just transferred the knowledge across to video. The trouble was, the interlaced DV format wasn't really up to scratch for the kind of promo I wanted to make, and I realised that I should probably step it up a level. The Panasonic DVX100 was released, shooting 25‑frame progressive video, so you could capture film‑like motion. I was watching one on eBay and it went for somewhere around £1500$2000. I was working an office job at the time and just decided to put the spare money I had behind the video work. I bought one myself.”
But progressive frame‑rates were only part of the film look. "The next band I worked for were Send More Paramedics. Although the DVX100 had 25p, it didn't have the ability to create film‑like, shallow depth of field. To capture shallow depth of field with the DVX, I had to use a Redrock M2 35mm adaptor, which allowed me to attach Nikon photographic lenses to the front. The image was projected onto a spinning piece of ground glass in the adaptor, and this image is what the DVX recorded. It used to buzz and rattle quite a bit, but it did the trick.”
"For a lot of my career I was riding a wave of new technologies. There was a hell of a lot of passion in there, but I kept an eye on technology, and any tricks I could use to emulate film and make a video look higher budget. After a few more projects, I upgraded to a Panasonic HVX, a much more expensive camera that I bought on three‑year, interest-free credit, working in an office to make the payments.”
The HVX's 1080p footage using DVC ProHD, combined with a unique, energetic style, gave Adam's videos the edge. "By the time I had the HVX with the 35mm adaptor, I was able to make videos that looked like film. Perhaps if you blew them up to 35mm you'd have been able to tell the difference, but these videos were mainly played on‑line so they were close enough. Combined with a little grading and some filters, I could make it look very film-like.”
Committing to pay for that camera was quite a big step. Was it around this point that Adam decided to really go for video as a career? "For quite a while, I wasn't making any money from videos, and sometimes I was putting my own money in and losing it. I realised I'd have to get out of that office job if I wanted to take video seriously. I moved back home to my parents' house, quit my job and started trying my best to make money out of the videos.”
"I started working with Ascension, a production company that were making videos with successful bands, some of whom I'd known previously, such as Architects, The King Blues and Bring Me The Horizon. Working with Ascension helped to offset the risk of making videos. Rather than take the whole budget myself and deal with trying to make a great video and have something left at the end, they'd handle the budget and I'd take a percentage as a director. That left me free to concentrate on directing.”
"I worked with some friends, and some great bands. I made a video for a track called 'Fire Fire' by Jamie T, one of my favourite artists, which was great fun. It was after this video that I got a call from Frank Carter of the band Gallows, and he pitched me an amazing opportunity. He said the band had a lot of money from the label to make a series of videos, to go alongside their album. Getting paid for five videos at once allowed me to move down to London, which was another big step. I knew I'd need to be in London anyway to work with Gallows so I decided to take the chance.”
How did he react to the added pressure compared to earlier shoots? Did he adapt naturally or was it difficult? "Working on the video for Gallows was amazing, but it was probably the hardest point of my career. There was a small crew and we had a lot of great ideas that had to be thrown out because of budget constraints. During that project, I actually said to myself "I'm never making another music video!” But while I was working on those videos, Svana Gisla (now Adam's agent) from Black Dog RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) got in touch. After having seen the video for 'Fire Fire', she wanted to talk to me. I had a meeting with her literally that same day! I can't really stress to you how much they've changed my life. They're 'big time', and having the weight of Ridley Scott's name and the RSA producers behind me is amazing. Svana has become a very good friend and mentor.”
So how have things changed now that Adam has Black Dog and RSA behind him? How different is it to the early days, creating a video? "Nowadays, RSA are my sole agent, and record labels will come to them with a track and a budget. They'll ask for me directly or ask RSA if they have any directors they think would be good for a project. I'll put in a treatment, and if it's accepted we'll put together a full crew. It's a far cry from the early days of doing it all myself.”
Many of Adam's videod before working for Black Dog and RSA were for hardcore bands, so how did he become recognised as a top director for UK hip‑hop promos? "It was XL; they are an amazing label to work with. They wanted a high‑budget music video for Giggs, an amazing rapper from Peckham, and found me through RSA. That's how it started, and then of course these things take on a life of their own. Recently, I was working with Tinchy Stryder on 'Game Over'; that probably was one of the biggest hip-hop tunes of 2010, and one of the biggest things I've been involved with.”
Even now that Adam is free to direct, he still has a hand in selecting equipment, and keeps up to date with technology. "There seems to be a bit of a lull at the moment. Canon have shown what's possible on a budget with the 5D MkII, they've made the future undeniable, but they haven't 'cracked it'. Right now, it's just a waiting game to see who's going to bring out the next big thing. The Red is a beautiful camera but it has its problems. None of these cameras really match 35mm film, but they've made it very clear that in the future, something will.”
"Gear selection is dependent on the band, the budget and the video. Sometimes Red is perfect, sometimes 16mm, sometimes it's got to be the Canon 5D MkII. There's no perfect solution, so you have to be on the ball to juggle formats and know what will work.”
That said, Adam maintains that formats are just solutions, and though knowledge is important, it's what you do with it that counts. "People watch videos, not formats. Unless they're looking to get into production, they focus on the video and the energy of the piece. The band and the music come first, because without the music there wouldn't be a music video. Some directors treat tracks as an accompaniment to their own movie, but from experience I've found that trying to crowbar an idea into video doesn't feel right to me in the long run.”
Now that video technology is so freely available, what advice would Adam give to those want to create their own videos, or perhaps pursue it as a career? "Right now, I think it's hard to make an impact, because digital cameras are so readily available and we live in an era when anyone can publish anything. In some respects it's absolutely incredible, but in others it's an absolute nightmare! If I was starting now I'd approach everything in the same way; I'd put my heart into it. You have to be true in what you're doing and true to yourself, and don't put formats and technology before 'soul'. One piece of advice that I always give people is: don't try and make what you think a music video should be, make what you feel is right. It's easy to become limited by what you've seen already, but with so much out there, doing that can make a video fall by the wayside. If you have a strange idea, go for it with whatever tools you have. Don't worry about whether it 'seems' like a music video or not.”
It's great to hear a successful director say that passion and knowledge combined can help you create something great, and get noticed. No matter what equipment you start with, dedication and imagination can lead you on to much bigger things. .