Work & Life Q&A: Francis Wallis, FAMILIA

Promonews - 26th Aug 2021

As one of the founding partners and founder-directors of FAMILIA, Francis Wallis has played a crucial role in establishing the London-based production company's ethos through his creativity and versatility in commercials and in music videos, working for an eclectic range of artists including AMA, Birdy, MK, Blossoms, Tiggs Da Author, Naughty Boy, Yogi and more.

Francis was born in London, but he grew up in Cascais, just outside Lisbon in Portugal. He says "Portugal really shaped my identity." It also explains his accent, which he describes as "all over the place - people often mistake me for American, South African or even Irish."

He returned to the UK aged 19 to study Film and Business at Kingston - quickly finding the film side of his degree way more interesting - and his practical experience of filmmaking came later as a runner on music video shoots - and he is still bothered about what he did to Cat Stevens' favourite guitar...

Then his breakthrough as a director arrived in 2010 with the completion of his short film and subsequent festival hit Lonesome. Then he and fellow directors Craig Moore and Sasha Nathwani founded FAMILIA in 2014. 

Francis, 38, lives in Lower Clapton, East London, with his partner and two young children. When he's not working you may find him at home, tinkering with a motorbike...

Above: Francis (far right) on the set of Yogi 'Baby' video featuring Maleek Berry, Kid Ink and Ray Blk (centre)

WORK:

How long have you held your current position?
There are two elements to my day job. I've been working as a director from about the age of twenty five. And over the last seven years I’ve been involved in FAMILIA as one of the founding partners.

What were you doing before this?
My only real job before getting into the industry was as a mixologist at a fancy cocktail bar in town. My swirling skills were pretty badass at the time! Other than that I just had a bunch of odd jobs and summer gigs.

As a freelance runner I spent a lot of time on sets, saw some crazy stuff and met pretty amazing people.

My route into the film industry came as a freelance runner. I spent a lot of time on sets, saw a lot of crazy stuff and had the chance to see some pretty amazing people - directors, DoPs and talent - in action. I definitely served my time but also know how important the experience was to me in shaping where I am today.

What was your first job, or first significant break in the industry?
I realised that it's all talk until you actually go and make something. That feels like a pretty big realisation and a big breakthrough for me. I linked up with a DoP and made a short film called Lonesome. It was the first time I’d taken full ownership of an idea or dream and saw it through to its completion. 

I didn't really know how to play the game of sending it out to festivals at the time, but it did get picked up by some people and it won a couple of awards. From that moment onwards there was a mentality shift and soon things started to click into place and come my way. I started having success with music videos which soon started to bleed into advertising work as well. 

Name one music video that inspired you that get involved in making music videos?
I was shaped by iconic music videos from the 90s on MTV, but the one that stands out is Michel Gondry’s video for Chemical Brothers' Star Guitar. It was the perfect visualiser for the song. 

After [Star Guitar] I started analysing and thinking about music videos in more depth.

After that it felt like a switch had been flicked on inside. I remember having daydreams that felt just like it, through my own experiences on trains or buses. Looking back it was probably after this that I started analysing, and thinking about music videos in more depth, feeling compelled to make them.

Name one project you’ve done that was significant as a learning experience – and why?
Being able to think on your feet and be adaptable in the heat of the moment feels like a learning curve that I'm sure most music video directors can relate to.

At times when something is just not working as you envisioned, often the best advice is to find a new solution or just to move on. Music videos are pretty brutal when it comes to schedule and variety of shots often needed in a day, so getting stuck on one and burning through allocated time can come at a great detriment.

If you're close to making the magic happen it's important to persist.

But on the flipside... if you know you're close enough to making the magic happen it's just as important to persist. I remember the last shot of Blossoms' Blown Rose video I did a few years back: an exterior shot where we needed to set a large table on fire mid-performance and shoot through the flames as lead singer Tom performed. The elements were not playing ball. It was late, windy as hell, and even started raining. Basically everyone was losing their rag a bit.

I remember almost giving up at one point, and then it suddenly came together. It proved to be the great final shot of the video we needed and totally worth all the pain!  These are the little things you start to see a little clearer over the years and after a few projects under your belt.

What are your favourite music video-related jobs of the past year or so, and why?
I linked up with [Jan Blomqvist and] The Bloom Twins, whom I had done videos for in the past, creating a low budget but equally fun and stylish video for them.

A few weeks back I also created a futuristic promo concept for Spencer Ramsay's Love With You at Polydor which had a fun and compelling narrative that I enjoyed making.

What are your favourite other jobs of the past year or so?
In between a couple of music videos I had a pretty good run with advertising projects. Most recently I shot a  commercial promoting the Tuscany region of Italy for the US market - filmed in Tuscany, Salisbury and Nashville.

Earlier in the year I also worked on two separate sports-related films, one that celebrated the drama of horse-racing for William Hill, and another for Korean football media outlet and fashion brand Goal.

I'm still finding my lane when it comes to advertising, and excited to see where this goes. 

What are you currently working on?
I’m developing a film concept for a new electric motorbike brand. This particular brand combines electric innovation with that high performance look and feel. And of course I'll be trying to bring some music video vibes to our visuals if at all possible.

What kind of work would you like to be doing in future?
I love the idea of moving into longer formats. I've never been attracted to big blockbuster studio-backed projects and see myself more in line with a slight indie approach to feature-length films. Saying that, I also feel that I'm still finding my lane when it comes to advertising projects and am excited to see where this goes. And of course I would love to keep that creative muscle flexing with music videos.

What advice would you give someone entering your field?
Finding work as a runner was a huge step for my development, in being in the company of some amazing talent on a variety of film sets. From there, I started to realize that it's all “talk” until you actually go out and make something of your own. 

So my advice, if you’re thinking about how to break into directing, would be to just go out and shoot stuff instead of finding the little reasons that stop you from doing so. In my opinion that in many ways is the litmus test.

It's all talk until you actually go and make something.

LIFE:

Tell us something that we don’t know about you…
As runner on a music video I once jumped into shot to fix the strap on Cat Stevens guitar at the request of the director. I fucked it up so royally that all I remember is watching his prized possession guitar flying through the air and breaking as it crashed on the floor.

Safe to say I was never invited back to work for that director again. But Cat Stevens was a total legend and pretended it was no problem at all, even though I knew it obviously was.

When you’re not working, what do you like to spend time doing?
Having hobbies or other passions away from work is really important, and I know this keeps me sane at times and has the ability to refresh me in ways I know I need.

I love motorcycles and try to get out and do motocross or enduro when possible. There's a thrill-factor that’s important in life. I try to do as much sport as possible, knowing that I get the best out of myself creatively when I am physically aligned, getting rid of any negative energy and trying to keep the good vibes flowing!

Above: Francis on the set of the Spencer Ramsay 'Love With You' video

The thrill-factor is important in life.

Where did you go on your last holiday (or vacation)?
Growing up in Portugal and still having family out there means my instinctual reaction is to return whenever possible. I know I am biased but I think Portugal is pretty hard to beat in regards to vacation vibes. Lisbon seems to just get better with time, and being a keen surfer having the Atlantic on your doorstep is pretty special.

When I want to really get away from it all I try to second time on the Alentejo coast where it still feels as rural and magical as the special places I remember as a kid growing up.

And where would you love to visit?
I'm a huge fan of South America, and there’s still a huge amount for me to discover there. I've never been to Mexico, which has been on my radar for a while now. Love the idea of mixing a bit of vibrant city life in Mexico City alongside some more rural surf-related destinations on the coast.

What are your favourite currently-running TV shows?
I Know This Much Is True - Mark Ruffalo’s performance was stunning.

I'm also a big fan of escapism, totally emerging myself and getting lost in a story far removed from anything close to my own reality. With that in mind I really loved The Terror.

Finally, in regards to documentary, The Life & Lost Art of Szukalski was one of those mind-blowing experiences that came out of nowhere and definitely would be a recommendation.

What’s the best movie (or movies) you’ve seen recently?
Mads Mikkelsen was epic in Another Round, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. The film is genius in the manner in which it tackles a social issue in ways that are light-hearted at times but very poignant and thought-provoking.  

What are your favourite music videos by other people in the past year?
I've really been loving the work of Andrew Donoho recently. He’s got a great skill of merging VFX and narrative in a way that always feels captivating and narratively on-point. His video for Bad Decisions by The Strokes was pretty awesome - as was the more recent Find My Way for Paul McCartney featuring Beck.

Last year I thought Colin Read’s video Mild Minds by Walls (ft. Boats) was exceptional. Super powerful and a great example of how a visual and conceptual technique can help drive a strong narrative.

Favourite music artist(s), and favourite gig(s) in the past year?
Not exactly a lot of gigs to report back on last year, haha! But my favourite concert before the world's Covid meltdown was The War On Drugs at Brixton Academy

Favourite food and/or favourite restaurant(s)?
La Poule au Pot [in Belgravia] always seems to get it spot-on. I've had some great boozy lunches and dinners there over the years, it's one of my London faves!

I find resonance with any movement aimed at reducing plastic waste... from entering the environment.

What’s your favourite political or charitable cause, and why?
Growing up by the sea I find particular resonance with any movements designed at reducing plastic waste or anything toxic from entering the environment. It's so evident that things are not moving in the right direction when it comes to world health and how unbalanced things feel at the moment worldwide.

As a father I also really admire the Scandinavian approach towards family life and maternity leave. I feel that most societies can take a leaf out of their book in a move towards a more progressive, understanding and developed society.

Best recent purchase (send photo, if poss)?
I saw one of those practical joke videos on Instagram and thought I need that in my life. It’s basically a remote control snake, but it's also really life-like and the little kid in me gets a huge kick out of scaring the shit out of friends when they’re visiting, haha! Check it out...

Work & Life - balance/ imbalance out of five (1 for imbalance; 5 for balance)?
All in all I'd say my work life balance is around 3.5 out of 5. But it still feels like there's a long way to go before the perfect balance between work and quality of life is achieved.

• Francis Wallis is a founder-director of FAMILIA in London. See his work here. Contact Ryan Morgan at FAMILIA for more information (ryan@wearefamilia.com), and to Sam Davey at OB Management (sam@obmanagement.co.uk) for music videos 

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    Promonews - 26th Aug 2021

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