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The Directors: Steve Cope


Dark Energy Films director on getting the creative juices flowing, the creative potential of post production and putting Stevie Wonder and the Sugababes on stage with Elvis

The Directors: Steve Cope

Steve is well known for creating highly crafted, narrative led films & commercials with an emphasis on high end post-production.

After graduating from Art college in London, Steve started his career at the BBC as a graphic designer, quickly graduating to director in the BBC promotions dept, where he directed the multi-award-winning follow-up to the BBC’s ‘Lou Reed - Perfect Day’ campaign which put Elvis on stage with fellow legends such as Keith Moon, Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye. This early 'deep fake' campaign was voted one of the top five advertising campaigns of the year and also had the full backing and blessing from the Elvis foundation back in Memphis.

Steve then spent seven years as a director working at Rattling Stick Films, where he directed many award-winning commercials for Guinness, Heineken, Pepsi & Samsung, to name a few. He also made a series of hard-hitting and impactful films, creating awareness of domestic abuse for the National Centre for Domestic Violence charity, and the problems of sensory sensitivity for the Autism Society.

Joining 2AM Films he worked with them for eight years, creating beautiful conceptual campaigns for Ford and Range Rover. He now Joins Dark Energy Films.


Location: LONDON

Repped by/in: DARK ENERGY


Cannes Lions – NCDV ‘House Hunt’

Cannes Lions – BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’

D&AD Yellow Pencil – BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’

D&AD Wood Pencil – National Autistic Society ‘Sensory Overload’

D&AD In-Book – Benadryl ‘War’

D&AD In Book – Prostate Cancer ‘Bob Monkhouse’

D&AD In Book – BBC4 Edwardian Season

British Arrows Bronze – Benadryl ‘War’

British Arrows Bronze – BBC4 Edwardian Season ‘People Like Us’

APA Collection – NCDV ‘House Hunt’

APA Collection – BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’

Creative Circle Gold – Benadryl ‘War’

Creative Circle Gold – BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’

Creative Circle Gold – BBC4 Edwardian Season ‘People Like Us’

Creative Circle Silver – Prostate Cancer ‘Bob Monkhouse’

Campaign BIG Silver – Benadryl ‘War’

Clio Bronze – National Autism Society ‘Sensory Overload’

Epica Bronze – HSE ‘I Will Survive’

Kinsale Sharks Palme D’Dor – BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’

Kinsale Sharks Grand Prix – Guinness ‘Music Machine’

Kinsale Sharks Silver – HSE ‘I Will Survive’

Kinsale Sharks Silver – Prostate Cancer ‘Bob Monkhouse’

US Promax Gold – BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Steve> I get excited by the challenge of creating something that hasn’t really been seen before. When I did the ‘Elvis’ film for the BBC years ago, I wanted the audience to truly believe that Stevie Wonder or the Sugababes really did share a stage with ‘The King’. It was great creating an illusion of reality that had audiences questioning what they just saw. It’s making the impossible, possible, but done in a way that’s totally believable. I remember the agency had a slightly different view as they were talking about a ‘cut out’ or ‘Sgt Pepper’ style album cover type of execution, with black and white footage of Diana Ross next to colour footage of another iconic performer. I was very against that approach, as I really wanted to push the ’deep fake’ aspect of it, which luckily, they went along with. Of course, now ‘deep fake’ technology is so advanced that someone can achieve great results on a smart phone, though I still think the original spot still really stands up. 

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Steve> Everything starts from the agency script. If it is a strong and simple idea, it’ll get my creative juices flowing and the first instinctive thoughts I have are usually the best. What we’ll do then is bash out ideas and themes with the agency creative team before spending a week or so putting together a very visual treatment. I’m very precise, nothing is left to chance and every frame and every story beat is carefully considered, even at treatment stage – this is just the way I’ve always worked and I find it’s a pretty good system. 

As I love cinematography and photography, I’ll often go out and film some test shots or take photographs which help to explain the vision. For me every script could potentially be executed a million different ways, and as a director I have to find one way, the best way and with all my experience over the years I’m very aware of what can and can’t be achieved.

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Steve> I generally leave the strategy side of things to the agency! Although as a director I find most products interesting, especially when creating a film to tell a brand’s story in a new way. Researching and learning new things is all part of the joy of making commercials. I shot a very successful commercial for Guinness quite a few years ago called 'Music Machine' and a couple of years ago Guinness asked me to shoot a new campaign for their Nigerian market. I soon learnt that the brand and the beer in Nigeria is very different to the Guinness we have here in Europe, and subsequently how it is advertised. So, it was great fun to research Guinness’s place in the African market, to liaise over Zoom with key Nigerian influencers, designers and stylists from Lagos to create an authentic Nigerian vibe in London. We cast for Nigerian actors across our city and turned a well know bar in the heart of the City into a cool Lagos nightclub.

It’s always fascinating to find out about new products, though I have to say that I didn’t really have an affinity for Rustler’s microwavable burgers. It’s the sort of product sold in 24-hour petrol stations to students. Regardless, I enjoyed directing their spot as I really liked the idea the agency came up with and the opportunity to be really creative and push things.

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Steve> It might seem obvious, but for me, the relationship between me and my producers is the most important relationship for a director to nurture. You have to work in partnership and be totally honest with each other. Personally, I also like to know all the behind the scenes details, the processes of production, clients, budgets etc. As a director I don’t like to be shielded or protected from any of the politics, I find the production side, as well as the directing side totally fascinating. I think some people have this idea that directors are in some sort of a bubble, outside of the day-to-day production of a commercial, but even someone like Stanley Kubrick who of course was a director first, was a producer second. He totally understood the nuts and bolts of every aspect of film making, even to the extent that he often knew more about cameras than the cinematographer he hired to execute his ideas.

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Steve> I’ve always loved the magical and creative potential of post-production. The possibilities are endless! Recently I’ve been shooting lots car commercials which are always great fun because the scripts often include big ideas and we’re always looking for new and dramatic ways of seeing the cars, both inside and out. Car photography is a real art, camera angles and locations carefully selected to show it at its best, meaning we could go all around the world to film that perfect spot. I also love problem solving the technical aspects of getting the camera just where we need it to showcase that perfect curve, or that new, hard to get to desirable detail inside the car. Last year I shot a big campaign for the new Ford Focus Active, which involved building hundreds of CGI butterflies, not your usual pretty butterflies, but macro, beautifully engineered robotic butterflies. We paid loads of attention to the design as we wanted each butterfly to be made of glass, chrome and metal, in a way to be microcosms of the car itself, emphasising the ‘Engineered By Nature,’ aspect of the campaign. That was one recent campaign that I was particularly proud of.

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Steve> I’m sure most directors get pigeon-holed to some degree, I most often get approached for the bigger budget CG and post-production jobs because of my reel, especially the work I did for the BBC with Elvis early on in my career and also Guinness, and of course I love doing that kind of high concept visual post-production type work. I suppose with my art school background, twinned with my earlier career in Graphic Design has contributed to the visual side of things which is of course where CGI excels. Saying that, I rarely get scripts that are more ‘in camera’ in approach, even though I really enjoy working with actors, developing their dialogue and nuanced performances. One recent job that stands out for me was directing a bunch of hardened street cast inner city Dubliners who we got to mime to karaoke favourite, ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor for an anti-smoking ad for HSE. That was a really successful a campaign that was great fun to shoot. The agency were delighted that I agreed to the shoot on a really tight budget, but as it was such a great and simple idea and also for a worthwhile cause, it was definitely a job that I couldn’t miss out on.

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Steve> Of course, cost consultants are a big part of the commercial making process these days and we have to respect the new ways of doing things and work together. Of course, I won’t be working with them directly, but I suppose indirectly via production, and as I said previously, I’m very interested in the production side of things and like to have an honest relationship with my producers, so I’ll always work within the parameters of the budget, always looking for and creating solutions. The whole process of making commercials is collaborative and I think it’s always important to work together as a team.

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Steve> I had to film Lara Gut-Behrani who is the current 2021 World Skiing Champion for a commercial for Swisscom in the Swiss Alps a few years ago. They wanted the shoot to take place in the middle of July at the top of a small area of the glacier and they wanted me to make it look like she was competing in the downhill race in the Winter Olympic Games. The client was convinced that Lara would ski down the mountain and give us the dramatic, adrenaline filled shots for the commercial we needed. I immediately expressed my doubts, as from previous experience I knew that world class athletes wouldn’t risk potential injury for a commercial. After the meeting I told my very capable Austrian producer to find a couple of stunt skier/body doubles and have them on standby. On the shoot day, at the top of the Glacier in Zermatt which incidentally was one of the hottest days in July, Lara quite rightly refused to risk injury by skiing down a very icy, treacherously melting glacier. I managed to get the shots using the stunt doubles and then using post-production I re-built the mountainside along with CGI crowds to look like it was a cold winter ski event, when in reality everything below the glacier had melted as it was in the middle of Summer. The glacier itself was a dirty yellow colour with streams of water running down it. It was one of the hardest, but most exciting shoots I’ve ever shot as everything was breaking down, skidoos were crashing, camera equipment was failing because of the altitude and temperature, helicopters weren’t flying. I found it totally exhilarating as at one point there was no video playback and even though I knew I had some fantastic stunt shots, I couldn’t show the client. I had to look them in the eye and assure them that we had it. I still remember as he said, “if Steve is happy, then I am happy.” It’s days like that when you need to draw on all your experience and the experience of the crew to make things work. No shoot is perfect and its situations like this that make film making and solving problems so much part of the overall fun.

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Steve> I’m always open and collaborative with the idea and I will always be honest if I don’t agree with something. I have had a couple of creative disagreements over the years, but ultimately you have to be professional about these things and realise that the agency or client will and should have the last say as they are the ones holding the purse strings. Creative disagreements are usually always down to a subjective point of view, it’s never really about it being the right thing or the wrong thing, so in my opinion it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I totally respect your decision.”

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Steve> I’ve always been a big advocate of pushing for a more diverse pool of talent and of course I’m totally onboard with that. We’re in the business of storytelling and great stories come from everywhere, from all different backgrounds and cultures. One thing that’s especially important to me is that people get some sort of payment when starting out. In the past young people would get that essential experience and opportunities through unpaid internships, which is admirable, yet not everybody has the luxury of being supported by their wealthy parents. This means that some brilliant people could be overlooked because they don’t have that financial backup, and the opportunity is lost to them which is a tragedy. It’s really important to not let overlooked talent slip through the net.

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Steve> The pandemic has caused lots of restrictions, and I know that agencies are being asked to tone back ideas and I get frustrated when they try and second guess what can be achieved before speaking to a director. Obviously, a sense of reality is important when it comes to ideas and budgets but ultimately, we are here to solve exactly those problems and find solutions so that ambitious and creative ideas can still be made – and that is what I love doing, so in that respect I don’t want this pandemic to restrict or dictate anything.

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Steve> Yeah, a lot of content is now shown on mobile phones in portrait format (9:16), and other social media formats which means framing something cinematically is trickier. Ideally, we would shoot things two or three times for different formats, but there is very rarely the time or enough money for that luxury. It comes back once again to problem solving and collaboration throughout the pre-production stage, with tightly drafted storyboards and clear communication. I draft my own storyboards very early on in the pre-production period and as I’m totally across all the different formats, sensor sizes and camera speeds on cameras and lenses, it’s never really a problem. The only thing I’ll avoid shooting on are anamorphic lenses, unless I know it is only used for the wide screen aspect ratio of cinema. For me, at the present time, the perfect film sensor size would be a perfect square, a 1:1 format which I could exploit as a portrait or a landscape. It’s not that difficult.

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

Steve> I’ve always loved new technology, not particularly the interactive storytelling that you talk about but more the latest CGI post-production techniques, interactive virtual background projections and camera equipment, lenses etc. Some of the new Lidar, laser scanned landscapes or environments that were by being used by the gaming industry and are now being re-purposed by high-end feature film post-production is pretty mind blowing. Forget green screen, now it’s possible to use LED screens to back project and light people placed in front of them. The level of detail, data and expertise required to be believable is now here, and I suppose with all the restrictions of travel that you’ll get in a Pandemic, then re-creating LIDAR or Laser scanned external environments, from different parts of the world in a UK studio is pretty exciting. I haven’t seen these techniques used on any commercials yet, but hopefully there will be opportunities very soon.

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why? 

Steve> Ford Puma ST for AMV BBDO

This recent spot for PUMA was really good to film as it shows how we can shoot in a Pandemic. It’s the sort of job I love doing, I’ll work with drones and complicated camera tracking shots, but then I’ll also get a film camera and go off and personally film some extra cutaway angles or special effect plate shots which don’t feature the car.

Ford Focus Active ‘The Beauty of Change Continues’ (Butterflies) for GTB

I like it sometimes that adverts are beautiful to watch and listen to. I wanted the Ford ‘Butterflies’ advert to feel like a David Attenborough nature sequence, effortless and graceful, something you’d be happy to watch over and over again without it ever getting irritating.

Guinness Gold ‘Golden Moments’ for Hey Human

This was a really ambitious idea and a very complex shoot. The campaign was all based on freezing time. I didn’t want to use a 'Matrix' style time-slice rig but ended using ultra slow-mo high speed cameras which I moved in multiple passes using a robotic arm. It was the sort of technical shoot, involving actors and post-production that I absolutely love doing. Like all highly complex shoots, there is always an element of risk, as we needed two days to shoot it, but because of experience, a very hardworking crew and very appreciative and accommodating client I covered the multiple shots very quickly over a long day. 

BBC Radio 2 ‘Elvis’ for DFGW

I’ve always been proud of this spot as I think I really wanted to push the realms of believability. I always wanted to make Elvis interact with someone from the present day, and at the time I wanted to animate “Murdoch” the bass player from Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, so that he interacts with Elvis in some way. The agency loved the idea, but BBC Radio 2 didn’t think that Gorillaz were a Radio 2 band, so they vetoed it. With some clever post techniques I then came up with the idea of Keith Moon interrupting Elvis with a drum solo as he reels off the members of his band. “On backing vocals, the Sugababes…etc. etc.” Incidentally when I was filming Keisha from the Sugababes I showed her the rough edit and where they going to be in the film. She said to me “Who’s that on the drums?” I said, “Keith Moon”. She then replied, “When did you film him?” I replied slightly embarrassed, “Er, he died about 25 years ago...” She then looked at me totally straight faced and said. “Phil Collins would have been better…” it was one of those unforgettable tumbleweed moments.

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Dark Energy Films, Fri, 24 Mar 2023 09:14:09 GMT