Shooting the message #10: Straker Films

In the latest of his series looking at modern corporate filmmaking, curator Patrick Russell looks at an award-winning production house whose work bears out early pioneer Charles Urban’s prediction that the medium’s most important work would come to be done in the fields of science and education.

Patrick Russell
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Never Going Back (2005)

Never Going Back (2005)

You’ll never fully understand film, this series has argued, by sticking to the red carpet. You’ll need to get out more, and the world of commissioned filmmaking, exemplified by Straker Films, should be on your itinerary. Not our most glamorous film sector, admittedly, but it’s one of the busiest. Anyone attentive to moving images’ place in modern life should study it.

It also has deep roots. 104 summers ago, early film producer Charles Urban predicted:

… while the ‘amusement’ branch of the [film] business will constantly increase, the future mainstay… will be through the development of its most important fields, viz., the scientific, educational, and industrial branches, and in matters of State…

He was on the money. The evidence is there in archive vaults: educational, industrial and official filmmaking has long quietly dwarfed the glistening output of the ‘amusement branch’. Today, it’s a tradition digitally reborn. During Straker Films’ nine years, tape has given way to tapeless production, physical to online distribution. Content commissioning has, duly, massively increased. A diverse portfolio of clients (from the NHS to Nationwide to Rio Tinto), styles and subjects speaking to varied modern concerns, has bagged Straker an enviable collection of awards in New York as well as London.

Lee and Kim (2007)

Lee and Kim (2007)

Straker Films, founded in 2004 by co-owners Nicola Mann and Nick Straker, employs seven staff and a roster of regular freelancers. Managing director Mann had a communications executive and ads agency background, while creative director Straker was a freelance creative for many production companies (the talented Mr Straker writes, directs and edits much of, and oversees all, the company’s output). That blend, of strategic with creative skills, is a hallmark of successful small companies holding their own in an expanding marketplace.

I first picked up on Straker Films via Never Going Back (2005). Discouraging young offenders from post-prison substance abuse, it’s marked by fast-cutting and an expletive-laden first-person script confidently visualised by fisheye-lensed subjective camera. Commissioned by the Youth Justice Board, it’s ‘affairs of state’, Jim, but not quite as Charles Urban knew them…

Never Going Back (2005)

Much of Strakers’ work clusters into key topic areas, revisited for repeat clients from fascinatingly different perspectives each time. An important early example was Straker’s film work (‘educational’, but not quite as Urban knew it either…) for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). One of UK government’s more active video commissioners, CEOP have engaged several producers (including Wilder and Pukka Films), but Straker have been their most frequent suppliers. The excellent reverse-motion ‘docu-musical’ Think U Know (2006) was CEOP’s first major film:

Think U Know (2006)

Straker’s work for CEOP (and, through them, for the Gwent Police and the Virtual Global Task Force) has its historical forerunners (eg fondly-remembered 1970s public information campaigns on pre-digital ‘stranger danger’) but feels radically different, embracing urgently contemporary issues and mores. Sharp tonal and stylistic differences between films are explained by age-group targeting: from the simplicity of the animated Lee and Kim (2007) to My Choice (2011) and Tom’s Story (2008), inflecting animation and live-action with greater realism for older viewers. Jigsaw (2010) fluently interlaces docudrama with interviews (a signature Straker technique, seen in several films):

Straker’s National Grid films constitute another interesting cycle of varied pieces (falling into Urban’s ‘industrial’ category: again, not as he knew it…). These are internal films, stuck into the sensitive business of organisational culture change. Not publicly distributed, you can find some, like Nightmare on Grid Street and Innovation in Action (both 2012), on the ‘showcase’ pages of Straker’s website. The Journey (also 2012), with graphics inspired by vintage Italian animation La Linea, illustrates how, part-way through change (here, nothing less than the transformation of operations and processes), film can ‘crystallise’ its trajectory and meaning, acknowledge its difficulties and so, the theory goes, keep staff on board. 

When I visited Mann and fellow Straker producer Sharon Baker at their Wimbledon offices earlier this year, they were putting final touches to the bite-size dramas embedded in Skilled for Life, a training tool by educational trust Pearson. They’ve since won Gold Awards for direction and script. Mann and Baker cite them as case studies in effective commissioning: a tightly-costed competitive tender responding to Pearson’s ask for video playable on multiple platforms, flexible enough for use both as stand-alone content and in modular trainer-facilitated sessions.

Nightmare on Grid Street (2012)

Nightmare on Grid Street (2012)

To inform their pitch, Straker used their educational consultant, whose advice matched Pearson’s own advisors’. The resulting modules are carefully crafted to key ‘learning points’. “Script is massive”, the producers say, depending in turn on intensive research: talking to target viewers, be they prisoners, school kids, employees or, as here, youngsters in the ‘NEET’ demographic.

The ‘Shooting the message’ series returns in a few months. Meanwhile, one of its own central messages is well illustrated by Straker Films. The “most important fields” of movie-making require skill and empathy, in equal doses and fine balance.

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