“To capture something striking,” photographer Elsa Bleda tells us, “you need to keep your eyes open.”
Director Georgi Banks-Davies inspires viewers to do just that in her Lexus film "Sunrise to Sunrise", which takes the city of Lisbon, Portugal as its subject.
Inspired by the aesthetic of Elsa’s photography, Georgi and Elsa worked together to capture unique facets of the city—bathed in sunshine, enveloped in colorful washes of illumination from streetlamps, or awash with evening fog. The resulting film, created with agency The&Partnership London, is a cinematic look at little-seen moments in the life of a fascinating city, experienced through a car window.
We spoke with Georgi, signed to the roster of SKUNK, about her fruitful collaboration with Elsa on an initial inspiration lookbook, the challenges behind shooting 30 scenes across 24 hours, and her deep love for directing automotive projects.
"I think the thing I like most is that if you are an absolute photography nut, there’s a ton of ‘easter eggs’ in there!"
Your campaign “Sunrise to Sunrise” for Lexus shines a spotlight on photographer Elsa Bleda—were you familiar with Elsa’s work before working with her on this spot? What about her work resonated with your own sensibility initially?
Georgi Banks-Davies: I’m a huge photography nut and collector, and had been a fan of Elsa’s work for a while. There’s a sensibility in it which is hard to put your finger on; dark, tactile, enigmatic, it’s a feeling most of the time which she’s capturing—and it’s that I was drawn to.
How did the two of you begin collaborating on the film’s look? What was the collaborative brainstorming process like, between you, Elsa, and the agency/client?
The creatives, Jo & Tom, were brilliant. They had total trust in Elsa and me to take their script and run with it. When Elsa and I first spoke, it was clear straight away that we shared very similar inspirations in art, film and photography. We set up an online scrapbook of sorts, throwing everything that we found inspiring for the project into it. It became our look-book and bible; there wasn’t anything ‘literal’ to the film in there (the opposite of how often treatments have to be) but all mood. Then, in the prepping process, whenever we talked about an emotion I wanted to convey or even a lighting reference, we’d find things in there that would inspire us. I remember showing it to the production designer, who asked if he could make it into a book! Elsa and I then spent some days together in Lisbon scouting the city. This time was all about working out how we would tell her journey. We are actually technically quite different in our processes, so it was interesting getting to work things out together through different working perspectives.
What filmmaking techniques did you use to bring Elsa’s photographic aesthetic to life in motion?
What Elsa and I also agreed early on was that this wasn’t ‘her work on film’. It couldn’t be – otherwise she would direct and shoot it. It was her inspiration – the way she sees the world. So most of the time we weren’t trying to capture the world exactly like one of her photographs, but more the life, color, textures and uniqueness she sees in it. We wanted it to be bold, every frame beautiful.
My dear friend and close collaborator, cinematographer Kenji Katori, was the third piece of the triangle. We knew wouldn’t be easy to translate all this inspiration and emotion we wanted to bottle onto film, so in the end, the main trick was ‘less is more’. We found locations that had incredible light or texture already there, and planned completely around time of day for amazing light (which, thankfully – ALMOST always worked …)I’m a realist, so everything is in camera – playing with shutters and frame rates to create a visceral feel.
We also decided to shoot anamorphic, a deliberate juxtaposition whilst approaching the framing photographically. My bloody brilliant producer Toby Courlander also let Kenji and I badger him into getting some 35mm stock and a 435 camera too, which we used here and there in certain scenes, to add that thing that film does that nothing else can. Finally I have to also mention my colourist, Simone Grattarola, who’s the final part in bringing this all together in the grade.
"I LOVE cars. My dad was a car engineer, so I grew up around them . . . they're pretty much my favorite thing."
How did this location end up affecting the shoot—did it pose any unique challenges? What aspects of Lisbon were you hoping to be able to capture on film in this spot?
There wasn’t a pre-set agenda of hoping to capture specific areas of Lisbon in the film—it was approached as a place we needed to discover and uncover. The plan was to shoot what other people rarely see, so we really dug around the city—again with the amazing backing of the agency to write scenes to locations if needed. The greatest challenge was avoiding the places we all know, and seeing the city in a new way. It’s also a very dark city, and given half of the film is at night, and not being a fan of throwing up big lights, that posed its own set of challenges. It’s those challenges though that led us to find the most amazing locations when otherwise we may have not.
What were some personal highlights of working with the team assembled for this job?
From a production side, the people alongside me were the same team I’ve been growing my career with. I’ve been gunning for a script like this for a long time, and they knew that and were right behind me pushing everything 200% to help me achieve my vision. They are all brilliant. A director is only as good as the people they surround themselves with.
What are some of your favorite elements of the final product?
It’s so hard to say; every shot has a story from its inspiration to the shoot. I think the thing I like most is that if you are an absolute photography nut, there’s a ton of ‘easter eggs’ in there! Oh, and I fucking loved shooting the car at night!
This isn’t your first car commercial, a sector that women directors historically have a tough time breaking into. What particularly appeals to you about working within this genre?
I LOVE cars. My dad was a car engineer, so I grew up around them. Next to filmmaking and footy, they’re pretty much my favorite thing, and so are one of my absolute favorite things to shoot. Stereotyping what women should or shouldn’t do is a waste of talent: if you love something, you inherently approach it with a ton more passion. It’s madness that we work in an industry which presumes what we’re into, as directors and audience alike. But trying to prove I can shoot the thing I love was a long old journey.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’ve shot a couple of ads since Lexus, which are finishing now, and back into the pitching process we all know and love so well. I just finished my next short film, “The Fight,” a dark violent masculine story of identity (almost all set in a car) which is being sent out to festivals now, and hopefully will play somewhere. If not, there’s always my Vimeo. I’m also in early stages of prep on my first feature, which I can’t yet say much about yet, but I can say is VERY exciting.
What kinds of storytelling opportunities are you looking forward to taking on in the future, both in your commercial work and in personal projects?
Commercially, I’d love to do more car work – but I’ve been spoilt with brave, unstereotypical scripts and I hope that continues. I’m also a narrative director at heart, so I’d love the opportunity to direct an evocative narrative commercial, with beautiful performance at the centre. The feature I’m on is about breaking convention and genre and is an amazing opportunity to do something unlike anything seen before. I’m also working with the writer of my short film, “Garfield,” Myra Appannah, on a TV adaptation. Basically, I just want to keep pushing myself and staying out my comfort zone.
Finally, what changes do you hope to see for women directors industry-wide over the next year?
Opportunity, as always, and getting that horrible unbalanced percentage way up. I’d also like to see the label we seem to instantly have to wear in the business as ‘women’ shaken off. First and foremost we’re directors, with our own voices, perspectives, and stories to tell, just like the boys – I don’t see any stickers or symbols or stats next to their names. We’re probably more than a year off that, but this parity is the aim.