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Work & Life Q&A: Vanessa Mc Donnell, Lowkey Films

Work & Life Q&A: Vanessa Mc Donnell, Lowkey Films

Promonews - 13th Dec 2021

Vanessa Mc Donnell has been running the music video division at Lowkey Films for the past six months, and from the moment she arrived it's been non-stop. But as the year draws to a close, Vanessa has finally found some time to have a little catch-up with Promonews.

Lowkey's Head of Brands & Music and EP for music videos, was born and raised in County Tipperary in Ireland. After studying Visual Communications in Limerick, she went to London for "a three month break". That was nearly ten years ago. Since then Vanessa, 29, has been working up the ladder of production roles in London - and for a few years before joining Lowkey, she was producing music videos for the likes of Thomas James, Silent Tapes and others.

Having lived in vibrant Camden Town for most of her time in London, she recently moved across North London to Crouch End. "A very chilled change of scene, to say the least," she says. As it's been a very full year, she is looking forward to chilling out too this Christmas. She's even threatening to throw away her phone...

I think everyone has felt the intensity of work the last few months.


How long have you held your current position? What were you doing before this?
I joined Lowkey in the middle of May this year as an EP and their new Head of Brands and Music. It’s been unreal since day one. It's also felt way longer than that! I think everyone has felt the intensity of work the last few months. It's so crazy to think of the amount of work we’ve produced in a short space of time, it feels like I’ve been with the team much longer.

Before joining, I was producing freelance, working for a mix of production companies, agencies, and labels for the last three years. And before that I was in-house producing for a few years with a production company.

What was your first job, or first significant break in the industry? 
I knew no one when I came here, and managed to jump on a friend’s shoot, who was making it as a director, and we shot an indie band in his back garden. I was hooked! I kept at it as a runner, and nagged and stalked who ever would let me on set. And I kept that up while getting and job at an e-commerce studio where I managed the photography studio, organised shoots, stock, and casting models. It was definitely my first glance at production and I continued working on sets working my way up with different companies and clients.

Anything that allows me to shoot something different... is always a win for me.

Name one music video that inspired you before your career started? 
I couldn’t put it down to just one. I remember not having loads of channels as a kid and loving going to my friend’s house and watching all the music video channels for hours on end, after school and all my summers. I’ve always been obsessed with music videos for as long as I can remember and always knew I wanted to make them.

Everything early 2000’s was just crazy exciting to me. They were so excessive, colourful and conceptual - I would love watching BTS videos with the directors and how they did it. Anything Hype Williams, Sophie Muller and Jake Nava touch; I was/am in love with it all. [So here's one of those early Noughties classics by Jake Nava! ed]

Name one project you’ve done that was significant as a learning experience – and why? 
Oooh, where to start? Quite a few to choose from, but one I think I’ll never forget was with the incredible Thomas James, who I have produced for a few years now, and has become a dear friend. We created a really special dark piece of content for a new absinthe brand Ditch [launched by Jonas Åkerlund, no less - ed]. A mini-film in essence, called Twisted Rituals. We both pushed ourselves to our limits on that one, with a tiny budget. 

Everything that could have gone wrong did leading up to the shoot, and we were constantly bouncing back and fixing problems just for new crazy ones to come up. But we made something really beautiful from it and it's still my favourite piece I’ve produced to date. All the hard work paid off and were both really proud of it.

What are your favourite music video-related jobs of the past year or so, and why? 
Due to the effects of Covid on production, and the difference of before and after - is there an after? - I think I'd go for two things that are very different.

I produced a Jonas Blue and Paloma Faith video in Latvia just before lockdown, with exploding walls and lots of fun with the locations and art direction. Special love for OB Media, and Münchhausen Productions for making it all so lovely. Anything that allows me to shoot something different and in a new country with new people is always a win for me.

Covid was mental for production. I definitely got to do a few fun Covid videos, which had to be done with just the artist, director and DOP, in the artist’s apartment, to cover all guidelines and safety bubbles. Couldn’t get any other crew involved so it was just as full on. I think nearly everyone has one of these videos now though.

I'm excited for where we're at with our directors and their development and next stages.

More recently I had a blast shooting a few different projects for Bastille which are out now - multiple live sessions and their latest promo, for No Bad Days - which was co-directed with Lowkey’s Trash Factory and Dan Smith from the band. It’s a tribute to all things sci -fi and was so much fun to film and collaborate on.. 

We’ve just released Calum Scott’s new video with Franklin and Marchetta, which is the first video in a while to make me cry. So excited for that one. I'm honestly very excited for where we're at in-house with our directors and their development and next stages.

What are your favourite other jobs of the past year or so? 
We’ve just released a gorgeous campaign piece with Ted Baker, covering live performances of Joy Crookes, Jungle, Alicai Harley, Little Simz and Bastille. It was live filming meets festival stage, meets runway.

It was quite the mental few days. With just over 150 people on set each day over three days of filming and crazy turnarounds with set design and lighting. A special thank you to [director] Edie Amos and [producer] James Cross on that one. It was a really good one to secure after just starting working here - and showing people what Lowkey can do.

We’ve had some really fun moments with new artist Amun, coming to us twice with director Nicolee Tsin. And White Lies did their latest promo with us, which saw a crazy amount of sand being poured over Harry, the lead singer.

Also we had a very last minute shoot with David Guetta for his latest video for Family, thanks to 305 films in the US trusting us with the pick ups. So that’s out now and very cool of them to work with us.

What are you currently working on? 
It’s starting to calm down a bit which is welcomed I won’t lie! Currently pitching on some exciting bits to come for next year, so looking forward to diving into those now too!

The real focus for 2022 is building our commercials department into its own stronger division, similar to what we’ve done with our music video and the feature film department.

I love anything that's a new take on human experience.

What kind of work would you like to be doing in future?
I love anything that tells a new story or a new take on any human experience. I think longform narrative would be a dream, or something of my own that I’ve got control of creative and production on, that would be great. Seeing the [Lowkey] guys wrap their first feature in-house and the scripts that we have lined up is amazing to watch. I'm keen to see how it all progresses. We’ve also just had some great news, that our latest short Silent World has been nominated at Slamdance film festival 2022 - which means we can go on to be BAFTA and Oscar qualifying if successful.

What advice would you give someone entering your field? 
Everyone who knows me gets this rant, but I think it’s important. I’ve seen a weird attitude take hold of people in general, that if were not “made” or have a certain title, or X amount of work behind them etc, that they haven’t done well, or are very quick to quit. 

Feels like a lot of people want their careers fully developed in a short space of time. If you can move fast, that’s great, but there’s a lot to be said by learning skills and working on your craft. Try everything out, put yourself out there. Put time into your career and enjoy the longevity of that, and not burn out or get overwhelmed by not having everything figured out in a short space of time.

I spent years on set, getting to know not just what my role in production was but also what everyone else does, and tried my hand at a few bits too. It can be very hard to break into starting out, so there’s nothing wrong with having a part-time job to pay the bills until you get where you want to be and get on your feet with everything. Also being an asshole gets you nowhere. Just be kind and decent and you’ll go far.

We run a really special internship at Lowkey which has helped a lot of entry level people move into new jobs, and gain more experience on set. Drop us a line and come say hi!

My advice? [Don't] burn out or get overwhelmed by not having everything figured out in a short space of time.


Tell us something that we don’t know about you…
Outside of production, I couldn’t organise a funeral and I’m a bit of a disaster. No one can make sense of it, my brain just says 'no'.

When you’re not working, what do you like to spend time doing? 
It took me a long time to realise time off and holidays are crucial. Recent years has all been about travelling and exploring new countries for me and taking time out at the end of each year to do that and recharge. It’s my new obsession!

Anything you’ve achieved in lockdown that you wouldn’t have done otherwise? 
Finished a few gigantic jigsaws and drank my body weight in wine, ripped up the carpet in my old flat, sanding down 200 year old wood and then moved house before finishing. Landlord loved me. I also managed to produce a couple of beautiful videos and commercials too, but I'm super-proud of my floor.

Outside of production, I can't organise anything... my brain just says 'no'.

Where did you go on your last holiday (or vacation)? And where would you love to visit? 
This one was rare but did seven weeks in Vietnam in 2019, which was amazing. Travelled North to South and back up again. I want to hit a new country every year, work around Asia, and then move onto to other continents. Japan is a country I’m itching to get to, among a bazillion others!

What are your favourite currently-running TV shows? 
Ozark, for sure. The Morning Show, and I'm trying really hard to catch up on English TV series, as there are some gems - Fleabag, etc. I May Destroy You was amazing, and Black Earth Rising.

What’s the best movie (or movies) you’ve seen recently? 
Just saw Dune which was really good. And I’d never seen Casino up until recently, which is a new favourite - and I can finally say I’ve seen it.

What are your favourite music videos by other people in the past year?
I'm loving everything Samuel Douek is doing at the moment [like MNEK & Craig David's Who You Are, below - ed]. Ghost Poet’s I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep by Thomas James. There are so many, I could talk about for hours.

Favourite music artist(s), and favourite gig(s) in the past year? 
I basically have been listening the same three albums for the longest time! But I do love finding new artists and new music. Especially great when you get a video in and you love the track or discover a new artist through work, that not many people know about yet.

Best book you’ve read, and/or best exhibition you’ve seen recently?
Recently finished Hidden Valley Road. It’s a true story and just incredible, couldn’t put it down. Same goes for a book called Slave. And I'm currently reading House of Gucci. Long time favourites are A Piece of Cake and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Museums and exhibitions? I love being able to explore unfortunately have not had the chance much since everything opened up again, maybe over Christmas break.

Favourite food and/or favourite restaurant(s)? 
Steak and red wine, every time. La Patagonia in Camden High Street never fails.

What’s your favourite political or charitable cause, and why? 
Any charity focusing on mental health and suicide prevention is so important. Darkness Into Light at Pieta House, in Dublin, does amazing work with this, and mental health awareness in general.

I’m trying to do better with work/life balance... do something for myself even if it's small.

Best recent purchase (send photo, if poss)? 
Coke from McDonald’s as I write this! And I love finding bargains for my home, and currently in love with my new yellow armchair.

Work & Life - balance/ imbalance out of five?
I’m bad for work/life balance, almost non-existent. But I’m definitely trying to do better, and get out at the weekends, even if it’s a walk or a dinner, just to make sure I’ve done something for myself even if it's small. I work like crazy all year and then throw my phone in the sea come December!

• Vanessa Mc Donnell is Head of Music & Brands at Lowkey Films. Find out more about Lowkey here.


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