Thom Hoffman is an award-winning freelance filmmaker and multimedia producer. He’s also a consultant – he goes into organisations to develop digital strategy, and give workshops introducing people to multimedia. Thom’s film work spans science, culture, education, comedy and documentary – but he believes the best projects happen somewhere in between.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I’m a filmmaker and multimedia producer. My background is in psychology and Science Communication so I make a lot of films explaining science, exploring ideas and philosophy. I try to make smart films that connect on a human level. Pieces that are humorous, emotional and thought-provoking at the same time. That’s where I enjoy spending most of my time working and where I think the best change in the audience takes place.
I’ve been getting paid to make multimedia since 2009, which is disturbingly long ago… I first got into it after a failed stint working for a tin foil manufacturer after university. I really needed to make a change so I went on findamasters.com. I discovered Science Communication MSc at Imperial and got accepted to what sounded like my dream Masters course, where I could explore documentary, non-fiction writing and radio. I then got a job making podcasts about swine flu, for the British Medical Journal. It was a great place to gradually increase my multimedia skills to include filming, directing, editing and management. I went part-time because I was starting to get some cool freelance work, and then went completely freelance in 2015, it’s been a fun ride.
My favourite projects bridge, art, science, humour and emotion as well as having excellent soundtracks. I’ve got to make so many different things over the years, working 5500m above sea level on Mount Everest, and 4500m below it near the Mariana Trench on the seafloor. The themes of my work change, but the desire to try new things, be ambitious, and push what’s possible for the budget remains the same. I love travelling, meeting amazing people and embedding myself with life’s characters. It’s a privilege to listen to their stories and find ingenious ways to share them with the world and make audiences take notice.
I also like making films in my attic. I find it gives me great satisfaction to travel the world for stories, but also to just sit down in my studio with a bunch of illustrations and inanimate objects and bring things to life. It is somewhat like being a kid, albeit most kids would get bored of stop motion animation after the first half a second of film! It’s very nice to have a range of creative projects because they occupy different parts of your brain, and allow you to recover in between.
Tell me about some of your projects.
I was asked by climate change charity 10:10 to pitch a film about a village who protested and repelled the fracking industry; then wanted to become a totally renewable energy area. It was a cool story, but I felt that people might feel they already ‘knew’ it, and so it might not engage the right people. We wanted a frame to the story to reflect how something divisive like the fracking was replaced by something collaborative – a community solar energy project, with a solar panel-covered primary school at the heart of it.
I collaborated with light artist Sola, and we spent a cold evening getting the Balcombe school kids to paint long exposure photography with torches, telling the story in light. It was a really fun project and I think it really worked to try something different, we got some beautiful images and the film got picked up and featured by Upworthy which got us hundreds of thousands of extra views, and hopefully contributed to extra funding for the project.
What are your top tips for other creatives?
Seek critical feedback, keep reading novels, take your inspiration from as wide a range of sources as possible. My work has been inspired by awesome people across quite different industries from Paper Cinema, an awesome collective of puppeteers and artists to an awesome book about creative marketing called Guerilla Advertising. Experiment as often as you can; if we aren’t going to experiment in web-film then we won’t know the best way to tell ‘that’ great story when it comes along. Be open with other freelancers, give them work, don’t be competitive, the good ones lift each other up. Don’t trawl the internet too much for ‘relaxation’ that is not what that is… Keep raising your prices – you are getting better. Ride a bicycle. Be conscious of who needs to hear the messages you have to to put out there. Hire the best people you can. Write a list of the topics you are interested in and things you want to work on this year, so you don’t take on commissions you’d be better off skipping. Walk a dog every once in a while.
Lego Mars Rovers and plasticine planets featured in this short film. Blending animation with space scientists, engineers and astrobiologists to tell the story of the 100yr old scientific technique alive and in use in space.
What’s it like freelancing as a filmmaker?
I find freelancing is great way to work, you have boundaries, objectives and deadlines and get to work with interesting people who have different perspectives and can teach you a lot. It can be difficult when working on new projects with people who have a completely different experience levels and approaches, but you can be in charge of maintaining consistent working practices on your side.
When writing a creative brief my first piece of advice is to make it as interesting a proposal as possible. Filmmakers are always on the hustle for showreel boosters, if you are paying someone to do this project it should be interesting and cool and meaningful, so make sure it sounds like it. We have to put a bit of our souls into these projects, so show that it is a great opportunity to do something powerful.
In my web series for Radio4 on the Human Zoo, I used humour to illuminate social psychology concepts. The first episode was on how we learn unwritten rules in society. It got lots of people talking on social media, and engaged a different demographic with the radio show.
Nothing is worse than total freedom or total control. You as the commissioner are an expert in your area so make sure you aren’t paying a creative to solve the problems you know more about.
Before speaking to a creative, you should answer the following as best as you can:
Target audience – who is this aimed at? Who do we want to reach and connect to? (if you try and reach everyone, you will engage no-one)
Objectives – what do we want the viewer to think/feel/do after consuming this piece. This will help guide the smaller production decisions along the way.
Style – What style might work for this? Are there any similar examples out there? How does the style/approach connect to the objectives and target audience?
Volume of information – how much can we realistically get across in this piece? Sometimes it’s best to focus on a couple of messages in a film and use links to direct people towards text/content heavy things…
Emotion – does it engage on an emotional level? Does that matter?
Alternative – should this be a video, should this be a picture, should this be text?
Budget – How much do we have to spend?
What would count as a success for this film? 1 million hits, or ‘this changed my practice’.
By attempting to answer these questions beforehand, discussions with the creative are much better. They can come in and focus on the best way to make those things happen.
As commissioners, you must have opinions on multimedia, start cultivating this now. Sometimes I work with people who see video as being the job of the ‘video department’. But if you work in publishing, you work in film and digital. Start watching things like a producer, think about the questions above, what were the producers of those pieces trying to make you think feel and do? Were they successful? Store up good examples as these are very helpful to show when having conversations with creatives.
I’ve mostly had great experiences with clients, and I’ve been lucky to get a lot of repeat work so the kinks in production styles often get ironed out. Work is always challenging when you are trying new things, but that’s where the gold is and it’s the most interesting way to work.
Can you tell me a bit about your creative process?
First I thoroughly understand what we want to achieve with the film. Then it is all about getting to work brainstorming all the ideas, visual motifs, themes, jokes, and lines that jump out at me. Which ideas come together to best serve the target audience, what would get them to watch it, and what approach would make them feel what you want them to feel? I Then whittle this down into a few pitches, that I think warrant a final commission. I share these with commissioners and get their feedback, see what jumps out to them. During these conversations one idea will usually be the most popular. This renewed focus might warrant a deeper brainstorm, finding characters, story ideas, jokes, animation styles and then we can set about prototyping, or just getting stuck in to it.
The most important thing is understanding the topic you are covering, researching it extremely thoroughly and noting down all the little details that really jump out at you. I was asked to come up with a film idea about how design can build protection against malaria. The ‘building’ element really jumped out at me, so I pitched an idea using lego, plasticine and an articulated-card mosquito. I felt this would make the topic vibrant, relatable, hand-made, and engaging; making a project tangible and showing how simple design changes can have a major impact. The film was shown on BBC News and featured on their Instagram too, showing that the style reached across different audiences. It won the Association of British Science Writers ‘Best film’ award in 2016.
The piece involved collaboration with BBC producers on the script, and two cool young artists of British/African heritage on the film. We experimented with different animation techniques to create a rough prototype, which proved the concepts would work. We then spent an extremely long day in a Shoreditch film studio (Sorry Patrick and Victor) doing plasticine and lego animation. Full prototyping is great if you have the time, but we often need that time to make the final piece as great as it can be. We just did a rough animatic to make sure everyone was comfortable with the ideas. A good creative knows if something will work and can convince others, and good commissioners can see the beautiful fruit dormant in the scratchy seed.
Here’s a rough proof of concept for our animation.