Director Ninian Doff: 'I love going in way too deep'

Doff talks about getting his start in music videos by glueing arms on to crows, crafting Santa's origin story and what he has learned from making his first feature film.

Director Ninian Doff: 'I love going in way too deep'

Ninian Doff is an award-winning director at Pulse Films whose work spans music videos, advertising and comedy. He has shot films for artists including The Chemical Brothers, Miike Snow, Run the Jewels and Migos, and for brands such as Veg Power and Sainsbury’s. Doff's debut feature film, Boyz in the Wood, won the coveted jury prize at South by Southwest 2019 and he was listed among Campaign’s top 10 directors last year. 

All I ever wanted to be was a director. I joined a young film club when I was 13 in Edinburgh called SKAMM, which stands for Scottish Kids are Making Movies. I was quite a good old film nerd. My dad was into cinema, so I used to watch films with him. Like any Scottish teenager, Trainspotting was life-changing. Basically that and Pulp Fiction were all I watched for a few years. 

I studied film and theatre at the University of Bristol, but I don’t think studying an academic film course was the best idea. It was actually the short films we made in our spare time that were way better.

I worked as an in-house editor at DDB (pre-Adam & Eve), then I quit editing full time to go freelance. There was a point when music videos started getting really exciting and interesting again. I was obsessed with being a music video director, so I made a video off my own back for an unknown artist, with a budget of literally £20. It’s called Staring out the Window. I filmed hours of crows and then I cut them into a slightly old-school black-and-white music video. I got my friend to re-perform all their actions against a green screen in a suit, then I motion-tracked his arms on to all the crows, so they were all like Frank Sinatra-style singing crows. I spent all my free hours for months glueing arms on to crows. It got nominated at the UK Music Video Awards for best budget video – there was an irony that the fee to submit it into the awards was four times the budget of the music video. 

That nomination opened the door a crack to people being interested. It tangentially led to signing with Pulse Films and then my first proper music video for the solo album of Graham Coxon from Blur. 

A few years ago, I made a music video for Miike Snow called Genghis Khan, and I get sent more emails from strangers about that video than anything else I’ve ever made. It’s like an alternate James Bond universe that ends up being a love story between the bad guy and Bond. I had a few emails from teenagers saying they essentially came out because of this video. So that video is incredibly special to me. You want to make something good, but you never know what’s going to catch people’s imaginations. 

Boyz in the Wood was the opening film at SXSW and at Edinburgh Film Festival. It’s about four boys in Scotland on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a camping and walking expedition that I did as a teenager. They believe they’re being hunted by the Duke of Edinburgh himself and it becomes an insane, anarchic chase film. It’s like an American hip-hop soundtrack over rolling green Scottish mountains, and has these great boys at the heart of it, some of whom have never done film before.

When I was driving to set the first day, I had a little voice in my head that suddenly reminded me that I’d never shot anything longer than four minutes in my life and I was now going into a month-long film shoot. Going off to make a film is such an enormous challenge and learning curve, making you think constantly about storytelling on a level that you don’t ever do as intensely on short form. Coming back, I feel there’s a better understanding of storytelling.

I was always so desperate to make a film that I used to beat myself up when I wasn’t doing it. But when I came back into the world of commercials and music videos about a year-and-a-half ago, I was so hungry and excited to do commercials and music videos again. I had satisfied this huge, all-consuming creative urge and that allowed me to appreciate commercials in a way that maybe had been harder to do before.

Commercials are more constrained than music videos, but they also come with their own benefits and opportunities. You can shoot a comedic genre spoof and a month later you can do something else. You can experiment and play in your own way. The best jobs I’ve done this year have been ones that played with genre, tone, pace and storytelling.

Something I find myself doing a lot in jobs is taking something that could be silly and treating it incredibly seriously. With Veg Power’s ad [in 2019], it was a veg invasion but, instead of cutesy puppets, I wanted to shoot it with all the tropes of really serious films – but with broccoli. 

The Sainsbury’s Christmas ad [in 2019] script came in and it was so good, I was kind of psychotic in my desire to win it. It had that mix of irreverence, Dickens and Batman Begins, within this context of a giant Christmas ad. I was like: this is just delicious, this cannot be real. For me, it was finding loads of moments where you can add more story, more humour and more charm. As a viewer, you kind of know subliminally if the people who made it have been all over every detail. I love going in way too deep. 

I feel good about this place I’m shaping in commercials, with Veg Power, my Chemical Brothers video that was partly an ad and Sainsbury’s. There’s a space I’m making that I’m excited about working in. When I look at my all-time favourite directors, they’ve all moved within that space of commercials, music videos and films. Like Spike Jonze – his personality is so present in all his work, from ads for enormous brands to winning an Oscar for Her and still running a skate team. I’m interested that he didn’t have to choose just one.