Little Black Book
19 October 2022
Josh Dawson is an award-winning director who recently joined Truce Films. During the six years he lived in Germany, Josh was represented by Lovestone, Henry and RadicalMedia. He’s worked for brands including Ryobi, ACV, Foxtel, Transport NSW, Vodafone and AAMI. He sat down for a chat about his approach to directing, 3D animation and puppetry, and drawing early inspiration from cartoons.
Much of your work is visually unique and surreal: where does that style come from?
That surreal element goes way back to when I was young and watching cartoons like Ren & Stimpy. I was interested in animation because there’s an unlimited source of ideas and possibilities – and the camera can be anywhere: it lives outside of the physical world.
In film, you’re limited by physics and how the actual world works [laughs] but I loved the magic of imagining the real world as a cartoon where anything is possible. I remember watching The Simpsons, which was quite grounded in reality at the time, and thinking ‘Hmm, that’s not as interesting as when Ren and Stimpy’s world goes completely pear-shaped’ – that perspective interested me much more.
How do you incorporate those surreal elements into your work with clients?
With commercials, I always try to think outside the box and ask, ‘Where could we go with this? How could this be done alternatively?’ Sometimes you get scripts and instantly feel excited – Dummy [for ACV] was a great example of that. The agency [Dunckelfeld] had the idea to show what it would be like if the life of a crash test dummy was different – or if they tried something new. I was lucky enough to write the script with the creative and we created this unique character, which was a really fun process.
It was similar with Plastic Bag – the concept behind that was about trying to find a bizarre narrative of something being where it doesn’t belong.
How do you bring your ideas to life on a shoot – especially when working with VFX and puppets?
My work has to be prepared: on the day of the shoot because there are so many different elements involved. We might have puppetry, or people walking with wires and poles, so a lot of time is spent in pre-production, preparing and storyboarding.
I make 3D animations and animatics to keep my skill set up. With puppets, I’ll build a prototype to sell the idea, and then get other people to build it. The plastic bag, for example, I built completely myself. I made a 3D model for the crash test dummy and animated it to get a rough idea, so I could send it off to the people who’d know how to do it better than I would. Doing this gives me a good grasp of what to expect.
I find joy in being a bit of a handyman; I like to get my hands dirty. You know the term ‘jack of all trades, master of none’? No one told me until recently that there’s more to it, the saying continues. It’s ‘jack of all trades, master of none, is better than a master of one.’ It makes so much sense and I used to feel guilty for doing a lot of jobs – but now I like to do a lot.
Tell us about that recent spot for Ryobi — how did you animate those cleaning products?
This script came with challenges that required clever solutions. Not only did we need to make these old cleaning products look real and integrate them into the story, we had to give them character, personality and, most importantly, emotion. We wanted to make them seem tough – but without faces.
The first thing I did was actually make a 'casting video' with these products in 3D – a simple yet explorative test. It gave not only me but also the creatives and clients confidence in the project plus it was just a good laugh. Secondly, I went to good ol' Bunnings [a hardware store] to buy wire, sticks, tape and glue to create some puppets – knowing full well that certain shots would require puppetry over CGI.
Combining both the puppets and the 3D really sells the concepts as a whole and it becomes difficult to tell which is which in the final product.
You worked as a D.A. at Exit Films – how did that experience inform how you approach directing now?
I was lucky to work at Exit Films with Mark Molloy, Glendyn Ivin, and a short stint with Garth Davis. They’re some of the best commercial directors, if not feature film and television directors, going around.
They’d probably say I was a shit D.A. [laughs] and they’re right but I learned three pillars, one from each of them: Mark Molloy is a master of emotion and theme, Glendyn Ivin is great with setting and character, and Garth Davis has this eye for expanding on concepts and world-building. I ‘stole’ those mentalities from those incredible people.
Working at Exit Films also taught me professionalism: I’d learned a lot by playing around on my own so jumping into a company of that calibre showed me the procedures, the mentality needed to ground what you’re producing so that everyone – client, agency, everyone down to the runner – has a clear understanding of what’s going on.
It sounds like communication and trust are important to you as a director…
Yeah – a director’s role, in my mind, is to find the strengths in the individuals to create a team of people that all have the exact same goal – and give them the confidence to do their job.
I like to make sure that when someone has a question, I can answer it – or think on my feet to fix a problem – but I also want to trust in, for example, the cinematographer. It’s not a director’s job to hold the camera and they’ll probably see an angle you couldn’t perceive. It’s probably better than your original thought because a director is also thinking about eight other things.
I want everyone to be on the same page and try to figure out what we’re going to do. It’s the entire crew that makes it work, not just the director.
Before you started working in the industry – where did your love of filmmaking come from?
My father was involved in film and the commercial world but the thing that really triggered me was when my mum – who was a radio presenter – would occasionally have to film something for work and would bring home this really old VHS camera. My brother and I would use it to film Lego pieces that we’d blow up with matchstick heads and make up little stories and film stop-motion. There was no editing; we’d have to do it all in-camera and rewind to do it again. We’d play it back in the evening to the whole family and that was my very first taste of filmmaking – I was only about six.
Do you have a favourite job or a piece of work you’re most proud of?
You can base the enjoyment of a job on the people that you’ve worked with. As much as I love seeing a job go viral – for example, the crash test dummy campaign had millions of views within the first few days, which was awesome – my favourite job was probably Plastic Bag. It was a really small crew and we just walked around Berlin shooting, with me as the puppeteer. It was a small post-production house, and the job was so close and collaborative.
You recently joined Truce Films. What are you looking forward to doing with Truce — any plans on the horizon that have got you particularly excited?
I have been with a plethora of production companies over the last ten years – from very small to huge. Something I've learnt is that it isn't the company itself that counts, it's the people – and Truce has amazing people: they're relatable, understanding, and super professional. Since joining, I’ve come into the office and instantly felt comfortable; there aren't any egos and we're all in it with the same goal: make awesome work.
I'm looking forward to growing with Truce; I see so much potential for the team and there’s this momentum that I feel already. Also, having the ability to dip my toes into their feature film branch is incredibly exciting. It's the start of something amazing.