Shooting the message #3: Casual Films

Curator Patrick Russell continues his series of field reports on modern ‘communications’ filmmaking with an account of Casual Films, a youthful company with a back-catalogue running to 2,250 titles for everyone from Unilever and Asda to Friends of the Earth.

Patrick Russell

Entering Casual Films’ Islington premises, I quickly clock that I’ve pushed the average age of occupancy several notches upwards. Everyone here is (or was, until I turned up) under 40, mostly under 30. Though, they stress, they’re an equal ops employer, their youthful profile is clearly basic to their business model.

In conversation with Casual’s Nick Francis and Adam Ruddick, they characterise Casual Films, founded 2006, as an enterprise predicated on employing creatives (17 staff plus freelancers) with wider ambitions. Someone who’s made commissioned shorts, controlled their costs and negotiated their politics, holds an interesting calling-card. Francis argues: “This is a good apprenticeship for filmmaking in modern, straitened, ‘feature-film-from-a-bedroom’ times. The ability to produce high quality film has been democratised: the best way to stand out as being trustworthy with larger budgets is to get as much experience as possible.”

This career path has lineage. Long ago, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, Hugh Hudson, Peter Greenaway even, cut their teeth on ‘industrials’ or ‘sponsored documentaries’. (Others, admittedly, failed to make the mark on feature film their shorts suggested they would: Paul Dickson’s is a name that comes to mind). This tradition withered in the 1980s, as specialist video became hermetically sealed from mainstream filmmaking. I’m intrigued by its return, but suspect many wannabes still disdain ‘corporate’ work  or just find it too difficult. It demands (though doesn’t always receive) more ingenuity than poet-in-a-garret self-expression does…

But never mind the aesthetics… it’s the economy, stupid. Anyone doubting the significance of ‘comms film’ should ponder the size of Casual Films’ back-catalogue: a whopping 2,250 films for everyone from Unilever and Asda to Friends of the Earth. Fifty percent, they estimate, were for ‘internal’ audiences and most (“99% by number and 80% by value”) for primarily online distribution. Casual’s staffers have grown up with digital technologies older companies have had to learn. I suspect this has both pluses and minuses, as with an earlier generation’s shift from film to video.  

I first encountered Casual’s work on a jury judging 2010’s best recruitment films. Producers’ identities being appropriately withheld from jurors, I discovered later that Casual Films (with agency Tribal Resourcing) had produced this Thames Valley Police film, reputedly sparking a 34% increase in applicants:

What Do You Want to Be? (2010)

Film-as-recruitment-aid dates at least to the 1930s. Sitting through modern examples, I found too many all-but-indistinguishable: employee vox pops and stock-shot montages set to library music. Less formulaic efforts stood out. This was one such, dexterously executing a simple, clever concept, lodging facts and associations in both conscious and subconscious minds. (Trivia: it was due to end on a car crash filmed on a closed road. A traffic cop, seeing the script just before filming was due to start, pulled the plug, delaying production by months). 

Casual’s ‘breakthrough’ film had been Building a Wall (2008), made in association with Work Communications, for public-sector recruitment (anyone remember that?). Winning the Recruitment Advertising Awards, it prompted other recruiting agencies, Tribal Resourcing included, to head-hunt its producers.

Both films have recently entered the BFI National Archive, alongside new award-winners, Chemistry All around You (2011) and Macmillan Online Community Animation (2011). Both again marry concise text or speech to a high-concept visual schema. One, however, is swish and the other homespun:

Chemistry All around You (2011)

Made (for the European Petro-Chemical Association) for the International Year of Chemistry, I enjoyed this not least as a throwback to industrial film’s high-budget halcyon days. Its plush pictorialism (the music, to me, is less effective) has here been applied, as it often was then, to classroom communication from a partnership of international agencies with multinational industries. Francis found himself answerable to a 14-person board, multiple oil company reps and UNESCO, themselves answerable to 650 member companies. Tasked with addressing worldwide schoolchildren indifferent towards chemistry, and antagonistic towards petrochemicals, the filmmakers have sought to trigger interest in their real-world application, necessarily preceding curiosity about its theoretical underpinnings.

Macmillan Online Community Animation (2011)

Casual having produced some 150 talking head information programmes for Macmillan, they were well-placed to make this more expensive but unassuming, informative, cheering combination of live action and animation, suitably crafted for purely online viewing.

Charity filmmaking has always been ‘feel good’ for producers as well as viewers. Francis muses that corporate films, however valid their purposes, are ultimately locked (aren’t we all?) into the capitalist system, “making rich people richer”. This one is simply, solely, about helping people. I hope it’s done so.

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