Director Henry Hobson goes over to the dark side, bringing a new strain of moody narrative drama to videogame promos and a graphic design discipline to shoots. He tells David Knight why his favourite thing to do is shout at Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Henry Hobson is in Brasov in the Carpathian Mountains, where it’s 20 degrees below zero, talking about his current shoot, which is “keeping everyone on their toes, that’s for sure,” he says. “We have battalions of soldiers, different historical figures. We have scope, scale and the depth of history to play with.
It’s pretty special.” This is actually the second part of a production that started in New Zealand, deep in Lord of the Rings country on South Island, where Hobson staged battle scenes with American actors Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead), and top Chinese actor Fan Bingbing as the legendary commanders of different armies from history. Now Hobson is filming sequences in real medieval castles and villages around Brasov, adding more interior texture and atmosphere to this series of commercials for mobile game Evony.
“We can play with characters that have a pre-existing story and twist those stories and create new worlds,” Hobson says of the ads, which are a big leap of the imagination from the algorithm-based game itself. It is also the latest and most spectacular example of the type of ads that Hobson has been making for a while. He has built a reputation for adding a new cinematic live-action dimension to video game spots such as Resistance 3, The Bureau and Halo 5. These are dark, gripping, nerve-janglingly tense works – not usually terms associated with commercials. Hobson is now also applying this dramatic style to much bigger household-name brands.
In the past year he has worked with Gillette to tell a fast-moving story using characters and hardware from Star Wars movie Rogue One; directed an ad for Apple, highlighting the design and durability of the iPhone 7 through a near-monochromatic graphic style – probably the darkest Apple commercial ever; and helmed a PlayStation ad where a sinister shop owner displays the array of imaginative weaponry he sells in a gothic ‘real life’ version of the online PlayStation Store.
What’s as remarkable as any of the tales Hobson tells is his own near-meteoric progress. He has gone from being fairly unknown in commercials to directing big budget ads in a little over two years. But like a lot of supposed overnight successes, there’s more to the story.
His previous career in graphic and motion design saw Hobson create title sequences for some of the biggest Hollywood movies of recent years, including The Hangover Part II, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Help. Furthermore, before he really cut it as a commercials director he had already directed a low budget feature – starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has demonstrated he can work with big names in filmmaking, now he’s doing the same in advertising.
“I’m pretty collaborative,” reflects Hobson. “In commercials when someone has been working for six months or a year on a script, you have to pay a lot of reverence to that. Ultimately, the most important part is communicating what the end goal is.”
Hobson has latterly found success in the US, but he’s English. Born in Salisbury and brought up in Yorkshire and Wiltshire, he was obsessed with filmmaking from his youth, shooting numerous Super 8 films. But having no connections in film, he couldn’t find a route into the industry. Instead he studied graphic design at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication) in London, which led him to a job at design group Why Not Associates.
Why Not was co-founded by music video and commercials director Howard Greenhalgh and, as Hobson says, “There was definitely a bent towards the filmmaking side when they started training me up – it meant I could bridge the various skillsets involved.” When he began working in motion design, creating title sequences for the BBC and others, it got him noticed in Los Angeles. He moved to the US in 2009, initially to work on the Academy Awards show, and also to make title sequences for British director Guy Ritchie.
Hobson’s work in titles design would give him access to more of Hollywood’s big hitters, including Ridley Scott, Gore Verbinski and Rupert Sanders. Creating the titles for these directors’ movies was, he says, like “becoming a sort of miniaturised auteur within someone else’s project”. He built his reputation by bringing a “slightly obtuse” British design sensibility on board. “I approached it with the viewpoint of how I would like to see it, rather than how they wanted it to be.”
Having created design elements for the Academy Awards for a few years, he was handed the role of lead designer for the 2015 show – the first Oscars with an expanded Best Picture category, with 10 nominations. Hobson’s innovation was to give each award its own graphic personality within the show’s overall unified aesthetic. For example, for the award for Best Production Design, he created a grid of objects from the physical props of each nominated film. For Best Picture, the iconic moments from each film were captured in a poster-like single frame.
Hobson’s design work led to his filmmaking break in 2010 when he was approached to make an ad for the PlayStation game Resistance 3. The client was expecting an ad using assets from the game itself, but Hobson made a persuasive pitch to shoot live-action. “I didn’t think the audience was going to relate to the characters [in the game itself],” he says. “I said we could make it happen for the budget, and said: ‘Let’s get behind the characters and tell a story of what could happen, not what has happened.’”
The ad was made on a shoestring but Hobson proved his point, building a nail-bitingly tense portrait of a group of survivors on a train crossing America, preparing to do battle with monsters as night falls. He went on to use the same approach on more promos for games such as The Bureau and Evolve. He also directed a gripping short film, The Greys, starring top screen villain Michael Ironside. The effectiveness of these films far exceeded their budgets, which Hobson attributes to the discipline of his design background.
“The major lesson I bring from the design world is the preparation that goes into it. I’ll do my own board creation and work where I’m taking from storyboards and building further, photographing intensely, and being very methodical about how various choices are made.”
You took my smartphone – big mistake
Hobson’s design skills were instrumental when it came to directing his debut feature. Maggie, which was released in 2015, is a low-budget independent movie, which nonetheless stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, very much against type, as a father unable to prevent his daughter succumbing to a zombie virus. Hobson presented 200 pages of detailed storyboards for his vision of the movie to Schwarzenegger, who was also a producer.
“My preconceptions of Arnold were as a strong man who can solve all problems,” he says. “But on meeting him I saw flashes of vulnerability. I immediately thought that this could be an interesting space for him.” Maggie provided plenty of challenges – not least working with more than 20 producers on the movie – but it sealed Hobson’s love of directing. “When you catch yourself shouting across to Schwarzenegger, him reacting to that and being changed by what you’re saying – that for me was a key moment.”
Hobson has since worked with Schwarzenegger again in different circumstances – on the spot Fight for mobile game Mobile Strike, which is also probably his most lighthearted work to date. It’s an action-comedy with Arnie fighting his fellow hotel guests for his smartphone, setting off a mini-war. “We didn’t know we were both involved until we were both locked in,” says Hobson. “And we realised we could play with a whole host of cinematic memories.”
He also calls Fight a “fun breather” from the narrative work that has flowed over the past couple of years, particularly since he joined LA’s Furlined in 2014. These include two blockbuster ads for Halo 5, in which Hobson pushed an iconic videogame character into a new dramatic space by suggesting he had been killed off.
“What I enjoy about the videogame world is the ability to bring rich stories to life, and also twist expectations,” he says. “To be able to play with the Halo world and expand upon it and give it emotional resonance was a real highlight.”
Give yourself to the dark side
That feeling only intensified when he was able to enter the Star Wars universe with Gillette last year. He was effectively embedded in the production of the Rogue One movie, with access to all the toys. Then came the Apple iPhone 7 spot, where aspects of nature and the real world are fused into the device, which is only ever seen in silhouette. “That allowed all the strands from my world to come together from a graphic perspective,” says Hobson. “I think the visual look and aesthetic that Apple is leaning towards now is a lot braver than before.”
Henry Hobson is definitely playing in the big league now. And as he readies for another day’s shoot on his latest blockbuster ad, he explains why his darker, dramatic, graphic style is no longer a barrier to working with more mainstream brands. In short, an audience that loves Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad is ready for it.
“Fifteen years ago the contemporary fix would be soap opera, now we can see that soap opera can be spun in a moodier, involved story way,” he says. “I think the same can be said of commercials. People just love to be told a story.”
Photograph by Conrado del Campo