London: Joshua Stocker's Sweet Dreams

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A student project became so much more for director Joshua Stocker, as his university music video caught the eye of numerous production companies and he’s now fast becoming one of the hottest young commercials directors in London. Stocker takes Emily Ansell back to his Brummie routes and explains how he never thought a life in adland could be obtainable

Joshua Stocker spent his childhood on the outskirts of Birmingham, where he was brought up by his washing machine salesman father and stay-at-home mother. He was sent for various tests and scans during his primary school years after teachers contacted his parents time and time again, telling them that their dear son was deaf.

Thankfully, an unusual diagnosis brought the family a sigh of relief. Stocker’s ears were fit and healthy – he was just a compulsive daydreamer.

“The teachers would shout my name and I’d never hear them. But there was nothing wrong with me, I was just a daydreamer. Even a slap round the face probably wouldn’t bring me back to earth,” says Stocker.

“I think I was just a bit weird. My mum’s also told me that I was once asked to draw a picture of a tree but I kept screwing my drawings up and throwing them in the bin. I still had a blank page at the end of the lesson. I’m the same now; I always want to make something better.”

Dreams come true

Stocker refused to let daydreaming hold him back and left Birmingham for the bright lights of London as a teenager, eventually graduating from the prestigious Chelsea College of Art and Design just two years ago and making his dreams a reality.

His final year university project, a music video for American pop group Gem Club, thrust Stocker into the spotlight and led to interviews with several production companies. The 24-year-old eventually chose to sign with Skin Flicks and, although the company he joined has since closed, he is already making big waves in the world of commercials and music videos and is now represented by Naomi Simpson

Stocker reveals: “I knew I wanted to work in film when I was 10 and watched The Matrix (although I thought Keanu Reeves had made the film and I wanted to be him). As I got older I thought film was an unrealistic medium to go into. I’m from Birmingham and no one in my family was working in that world – it seemed so separate.”

Stocker decided to study graphic design for his degree, but when commercials director Noah Harris visited the campus to talk about his work, directing suddenly became a realistic ambition. “Harris had gone down the same route as me – started in design and gone through to ads. He’d done many adverts that I’d seen and loved,” Stocker explains. “Seeing him do that talk, I realised it wasn’t completely impossible to go into commercials and music videos. That was it for me. It was his talk that made me realise I could do it.”

From that moment on, Stocker bent the rules in all of his university assignments so that he could use film as his medium. He went without luxuries such as trendy clothes and student nights out to save £5,000 for the making of his final project – and the hard work paid off.

His alien abduction-themed Gem Club video, set in Wendover Woods at night, was the springboard to his signing at Skin Flicks. He also bagged the Apple Store’s Bright Young Brits Award 2012 and scooped a people’s choice award at the Mexican Museum of Design for his poster project Death with a Smile.

Stocker had only worked as a one-man band before he took on the Gem Club project, but he was keen to take risks and experimented with visual effects in the video – using a trampoline to create the illusion of levitation and doing most of the post production and editing himself.

“Up until then, I’d always done everything on my own, so I thought it would just be me in a forest with a camera, some lights and a few actors. I didn’t even know what a DOP would be needed for, let alone anything else,” Stocker says.

“I ended up with a group of around 20 people working for free in Wendover Woods all night (my mum and dad did the catering). It was crazy. That video was the springboard for me and gave me more than a glimmer of hope.”

Rip it up and start again

Projects following the music video include fashion spot Up & Out for Nowness, featuring model Molly Smith. The film shows a girl going through the entire contents of her wardrobe, magically appearing in a series of different outfits.

But, in the modest Stocker’s opinion, the film doesn’t hit the spot and he would he love to scrap it and start again like he did with his primary school tree drawings (and, ironically, like the model does with her outfits).

“I don’t think any director is ever really proud of their stuff – you always feel you could do better. If I like something I’ve done, that feeling usually only lasts about half an hour. You’re always moving on to the next idea,” he says.

“I hated Up & Out when I finished it. It didn’t look like the idea I’d had in my head. Molly was great and the stylist was amazing but it just didn’t really hit the vibe I wanted it to have. I think the idea was way better than the actual film and I would do it differently now, but that’s the same with everything I make.

“I love working in fashion film though; it’s really like an untouched medium. Most fashion commercials at the moment just show people standing around looking nice. There’s loads of scope in fashion film to be creative and do some really interesting things.”

A more naturalistic feel

A piece that Stocker’s a little more proud of is a documentary-style spot on creative director Leif Podhajsky for The Avant/Garde Diaries.

The five-minute film shows Podhajsky in the city, on a beach among the trees and on the train, musing about the creative process.

Despite the numerous locations, Stocker and a small team managed to shoot the whole film in the space of a day – it wasn’t about visual effects, it was more about letting the natural moment work its magic.

“It’s a really nice piece because it was such a fluid way of working; it was the exact opposite of everything I’d done since uni. We went off and shot the whole film in the course of a day and it felt like being a student again. We were running around shooting and I didn’t know what it was going to be until I sat down to edit,” Stocker says.

“There were beautiful moments that happened naturally – for example, the shot of shadows falling over the train leads into Podhajsky opening his curtains. It was a transition that we saw in editing, it wasn’t forced.”

Coming from a design background, one thing that makes Stocker different to most directors is that he can leap between the roles of director and editor with slick transition. He does a lot of his own post production and can visualise how his ideas will work and whether they are viable.

Stocker admits he’s currently a “jack of all trades” but he sees this as one of his strong points and a way of getting towards his ultimate goal of mastering the art of directing. “I’ve grown up working in design and motion graphics and it seems to have affected my creative thinking. It’s handy because it means I can usually envisage how my ideas can be made a reality and I can chat to a DOP or editor in the right language,” he says.

“When I’m working with a small budget I do jump into the editing seat, but the aim is to end up doing none of the post as there are people who are much better at compositing than me.

“My work can give the impression I’m really into visual effects, but I’m not. I’m just from a graphic design background and haven’t really had the chance to explore narrative yet.”

A narrative project could be the next big thing in the pipeline for Stocker, as he reveals he’s developing an idea for a short film based on the Stephen King story Night Surf.  “The story’s about a group of kids who burn a guy alive on a beach. Through their conversations, you realise that these kids might be the last people alive on earth.

“The cool thing about it is that the feeling there is nothing else out there is just implied through talking. That’s the sort of idea that I love; it’s planted there and it leads the drama but it’s not shown in any CGI or over-the-top kind of way,” he says. “It makes me think of director Jonathan Glazer, who comes from the commercials world and really inspires me. I love the simplicity of his ideas; they’re the opposite of typical Hollywood where everything is put on a plate.”

A future in film

Looking ahead, Stocker see no reason why he cannot make the move into feature film: “Commercials and music videos are the best film school as the turnaround is so quick and you can try out so many ideas. But look at film directors like Spike Jonze, David Fincher and Jonathan Glazer, for example – they all went through the commercials route and it led them to feature film.

“I’m dying to make a narrative piece as everything I’ve done so far has been conceptual. When I was a kid I thought commercials and music videos were impossible to get into, and I still feel like that when it comes to feature films. Making a feature is the ultimate dream for me and I’ve got many ideas in my head, but I’m sure everyone does!”

The moving image portrait at the top of the page is directed by Joshua Stocker, produced by Naomi Simpson with Kit Fraser as director of photography.