An outfit that had its beginnings in a Leeds skateboarding park, Crowns & Owls has glided swiftly along from making skate videos and promos for local Yorkshire bands to creating slick, polished films for Ted Baker and other top fashion brands. David Knight talks to the former skater boys about retaining a little irreverence while mastering their craft

Rory Martinez, Tom Harrison and James Alexander Adair, aka Crowns & Owls, have displayed their directing chops in campaigns for River Island and John Smedley, but their most important collaborations in fashion have been with British designing behemoth Ted Baker.

Their latest, Mission Impeccable for the autumn/winter 2016 collection reveals how far they’ve developed in terms of creativity, camerawork and production design. Executive produced by Guy Ritchie, the highly polished mini-spy caper offers a cheeky twist on the classic style that befits the Baker brand. The super-spies foiling the plans of thieving gangster ‘The Needle’ are the clothes themselves. At time of writing it had more than four million YouTube views.



Nights in the museum

Until recently, Martinez, Harrison and Adair had to make the Ted Baker films while working around the label’s photographic shoots. “Our first one was classed as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ film, shot alongside the photographer,” remembers Martinez. “After a couple of days you get to put together a narrative.”

In the case of their film Wonders Never Cease, a tale of two rival male and female explorers, it took six long nights shooting in London’s Natural History Museum. “It’s a weird way of working,” agrees Harrison. “It’s a bit like making a football ad, when you only get five minutes to shoot Ronaldo.” In fact, their first commercial clients as a new production outfit in Leeds included two Premier League football clubs, Arsenal and Everton, which commissioned them to film players for the clubs’ promos. “That was how we were able to pull off the Ted films,” says Harrison, “we knew that these footballers had to rush off and play golf.”

Originally a quartet named Brown Bread Films (co-founder Rob Blake departed in 2011), they had set up in a Leeds studio overlooking a bridge that was to give them their new name as a trio. A plaque on the bridge, featuring three crowned owls, commemorates the place where, in the 1880s, it’s thought the first ever film footage was shot by French entrepreneur Louis Le Prince.


Behind the scenes on Crowns & Owls' cover shoot.


It was a love of skateboarding that brought them together. Martinez and Harrison, childhood friends in Leeds, both went to the city’s art school, and met Newcastle native Adair, who was studying at film school in Leeds. “One day Rory and me were in a skate park in Leeds,” recalls Adair, “we started talking, and realised we had similar tastes.” The trio soon started shooting skate videos together, with Adair as DP, Harrison directing and Martinez producing. They soon progressed to making music videos for local bands, usually offering a twist on classic tales of Northern grit. Their video for Toby Gale’s Showdown, where a grim build-up to an illegal fight turns into a dance-off straight out of Footloose – was nominated at the UK Music Video Awards in 2012.

Their work for Arsenal and Everton came via The Lift Agency in nearby Harrogate, who then got them to make a film for knitwear brand John Smedley. The resulting film comprised of multiple scenes, from a WW1 battlefield to an Alpine resort, presented in a single tracking shot. “We really wanted to do a one-shot,” says Adair. “We art directed it ourselves, and shot it for pennies. Then we realised we’d done something more cinematic than other brands of that calibre were doing.”

Consequently, Stephen Whelan, then the EP and founder of White Lodge, Blink London’s former direct-to-brand fashion and lifestyle division, wanted to rep them. He introduced the trio to Ted Baker, they moved to London and have been working with the brand ever since. They say it took 18 months to hit their stride. “Wonders Never Cease was our first good one,” asserts Adair, who now shares the directing with Harrison and Martinez. The team has also now made films for River Island and installation-style projections for property development project Wardian London.



Getting back to the nest

Their Ted Baker output also includes a two-part comic gangster caper T For Tall, starring Dexter Fletcher, who appeared in Guy Ritchie’s movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Ritchie, a friend of Ted Baker’s founder and CEO Ray Kelvin, became interested in the trio and wanted to meet up. “Guy wanted us to work on a short film with him,” reveals Harrison. “It was a bit too explicit for Ted Baker, so Ray said, ‘Let’s do something together, and then you can do whatever you want afterwards.’” The result is Mission Impeccable, over which they had more control than ever before, but there was also more at stake. “Suddenly we had the responsibility [of creating something] that had our tone of voice… and Guy’s… and Ted Baker’s,” muses Adair. They’re also now shooting stills for the label and would like to move into working across a whole campaign instead of just the film.

When White Lodge closed, they joined Iconoclast in London, saying it’s a spur to move to the next phase of their career – but also to get back to their roots. “We’re pitching on music promos again,” says Harrison. “The future is to reestablish what we set out to do in the first place. All our videos have a joke in a twisted way. We have a good opportunity to get back to that, now we’ve learned the visual craft of what we do.”

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