Pocket won the 1998 BBC1 Best Short Film award and Pilkington hasn't looked back. Another two successful shorts followed, the second of which, Sweet, starred Noel Fielding, who also takes the lead in "lounge bar", an ad Pilkington directed for Carling Live.
Pilkington's ability to recognise a good comedy moment has been picked up by more than one television department. He recently directed a brace of spots for the Smirnoff Ice campaign through J. Walter Thompson, including "room swap", where a man manages to wangle an upgrade of his hotel room. "It's got a voiceover and the actor talks into the camera," he says, explaining the trick is commonly used in short films to get information across quickly "and can make ads funnier, too."
Of course, you don't always need a script to get a laugh. One of Pilkington's first ads was the low-budget Orange Tango viral spot "seal" for Clemmow Hornby Inge, which appeared on desktops worldwide.
It was based on documentary footage of a seal being thrown around by killer whales. The director's task was to make the seal-tossing more obvious and shoot a dummy seal landing on the beach and then unzipping to reveal a man packed inside with lots of crushed oranges. Apart from getting the gag right at the end, the ad involved quite a bit of technical nous. There was the problem of knitting archive footage with video shot on the beach.
The seal was filmed by setting up a green screen and volleying the dummy back and forth with tennis rackets.
Pilkington's work for the bookmaker Paddy Power was more about speed than special effects. "I love doing break bumpers" he says. "They're like one-shot jokes, you've got to get something funny in a short space of time."
Despite this enthusiasm for short work, a comedy feature is Pilkington's ultimate goal. "Advertising is like a director's gym. With films, the subject is bigger and you get to play with all the toys," he says. He has had several offers to direct features but is biding his time. "You only have one chance and I don't want to burst my bubble."
- James Pilkington was talking to Pippa Considine.