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Dream Teams: Directing Powerhouse Humans


Directing duo Humans (Thom Whitaker and Danielle Outhwaite Noël) on avoiding the ‘Meh-ville’ comedy graveyard, sci-fi obsessions and non-stop dialogue, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Dream Teams: Directing Powerhouse Humans

Riff Raff directing duo Thom Whitaker and Danielle Outhwaite Noël, also known as Humans, are known for their wry sense of humour, impeccable eye for craft and intuitive sense for ideas that will break into mainstream culture. These qualities have earned them a reputation as two of the most exciting new directors in the London scene, especially after their video for grime legend D Double E was selected by BUG (the BFI’s showcase of global creativity in music videos) and Promo News named it one of the best comedy videos of the year. 

While today Humans are enjoying working on both sides of the Atlantic with production company RiffRaff, the pair spent the past eight years of their careers as creative directors at Mother, during which time their sense of humour and conceptualisation skills won them an envious amount of awards. The move from creative directors at Mother wasn’t the easiest career decision for both, but they say they ‘know the journey every creative goes on’ - from having an idea to getting it out into the world. “It can take a really long time and you’re only ever one research group away from it going straight in the bin,” they say. “We always try to be as collaborative as possible and work as closely as we can with the creatives and creative directors. After all, it’s their baby, we’re just there to deliver it safely into the world, so that the public can coo all over it.” 

But even earlier than Mother, before Thom and Danielle were Humans, the pair met in 2009 on the Watford Course (adland’s year-long boot camp) where they were both learning copywriting, art direction and generally how to survive the ritual humiliation at the hands of the course leader and ‘sadistic genius’ Tony Cullingham. “When you go through that kind of trauma together an unbreakable bond is formed,” they say, “we’ve been working together ever since.” The creative ‘speed-dating’ that Tony organises on the course is usually the culprit for all these incredible duos - including the Or’s Tom Snell and Dylan Hartigan and many more - that have formed there and stayed inseparable since. Here, Humans quickly realised they were the perfect match, sharing the same sense of humour as well as similar  tastes in film,  music and low grade Northern cuisine.

After the deal was struck, their first official project together was for an American singer/songwriter called Bill Baird. They flew over to Barcelona and shot the whole thing in one hotel room on a super low budget - a classic first project story. Of course, chaos was never in shortage, but Thom and Danielle remember they felt the benefit of having an extra set of hands in moments like these. “We could work twice as fast,” they say. “We drew all the storyboards ourselves and would keep bouncing ideas around right up until the day of the shoot. It definitely helps having a partner in crime to riff with and who can be brutally honest when your ideas are a bit shit.”

That honesty could lead to disagreements, of course, but they both believe that disagreement is a crucial ingredient to creativity. “It’s usually when we come at things from different directions that the best stuff happens. We never take disagreements personally. The work is very much the third person in the partnership - a silent partner that is routinely put through the ringer for our own amusement.” 

And when you put your third partner through the ringer you sometimes get some pretty good stuff - like Humans’ work for IKEA’s Christmas advert, during their time at Mother. Dubbed ‘Silence the Critics’ the project was a dream come true for both Thom and Danielle, as they got to collaborate with the ‘godfather of grime’ D Double E as well as the incredible people at VFX production company Electric Theatre Collective and sound post company 750mph. “The ad did so well that when Radio 1 requested a full length single, D Double asked us to direct the music video,” says Danielle. “Shooting him and Steve Oram was an absolute blast, just don’t ask us about the location. We will forever be haunted by what we found in that bathroom,” adds Thom.

What excites Humans in a script really varies from project to project. On their recent work for Bosch, they were really hyped about the idea of creating a dark, mysterious, cinematic world - something that they are not necessarily known for as an aesthetic. “We’re both huge fans of sci-fi - everything from Black Mirror to Donnie Darko - so being able to delve into that genre was a dream come true. Anything that feels original with a great idea at the heart of it always gets us pretty hyped.” So while they aren’t known for creating sci-fi-like environments, they are very much known for their humour and comedy. But when it comes to striking the balance between what represents a brand commercially and what they find funny, things can get tricky. 

They explain, “Comedy is a very subjective thing. So as soon as you try to be someone else’s version of funny, you quickly end up in the comedy graveyard known as ‘Meh-ville’. We just write what makes us laugh and then try like hell to keep that joke alive all the way to the final edit.”

Writing what makes them laugh and keeping true to themselves is a vital part of Humans’ creative process. And what makes each of them unique, is what makes Humans distinctly… Humans, when put together. Developing their own aesthetics alongside each other has given way to an amalgamation of the two, and to them that’s a lot of fun. “We’ve got more shared Pinterest boards than a gen z bride-to-be. Thankfully, we’ve always been drawn to similar aesthetics, so the whole process happens pretty organically. We’re forever bombarding each other with photography, film stills and other random imagery that’s inspired us.”

After all, the cliché that two heads are better than one always rings true when it comes to creative duos. The constant dialogue means that nothing stays still for too long, so ideas are constantly evolving and smoothing out their rough edges. Having somebody’s eyes on you all the time also makes it harder to procrastinate, adds Thom. “You can’t claim that 13 cups of tea, a Wordle and a quick scroll through the ‘gram is ‘just part of my process’ when the other person is sitting opposite you. You just have to dive in and get going.”

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Riff Raff Films, Fri, 09 Jun 2023 15:40:19 GMT