Kyra Bartley Knows Film
The FINCH Director Talks Her Journey To The World Of Commercials
It was the last day of filming on a spot for Bpay, ‘Rural Aid’, and director Kyra Bartley was watching a dust storm. The acclaimed commercials director thought the danger had been avoided – from where she stood, the dust was moving in the opposite direction.
Then, all of a sudden, the wind changed, and that was that. Bartley and her cast and crew were engulfed in the storm, a situation that Bartley describes, in understated fashion, as “intense.” The wind whipped the cameras. The sun disappeared. Bartley’s eyes were clogged with dust. And still – they got the film done.
That moment of surreal intensity provides a nice mirror for Bartley’s work. Over a career spent making sports for clients as varied as Vodafone and the charity Save Our Sons, Bartley’s one constant has been a control of tone. She starts in the real – ‘Rural Aid’ was a docudrama work, starring authentic farmers – and then she lets the real play out in all its heightened beauty and strangeness. She’s an artist always interested in how things actually feel, rather than how they actually look.
Bartley began her career in animation, honing her skills as a storyteller through her drawing. Indeed, that passion for spinning narratives through visuals led her to Cambodia, of all places – when she was just starting out, she came across an opportunity to travel to the country and start a design school there. Having scoured the country for young people with an interest in animation, Bartley began working tirelessly with her young students, sleeping on the couch in the studio for nine months. “They would wake me up,” Bartley says now, “and be like, ‘Hi, how do I do this?’”
Bartley describes Cambodia as a “liminal space.” It was there that she directed her first ever spot, a stop motion short that sees a man chased by a giant bottle top (she says she’d be “mortified” if she had to watch it now.) And it was there that she cultivated the radical sense of empathy that guides her work – a keen interest in people, and how they operate.
When Bartley arrived back in Australia, she submerged herself in the world of film production. From there, it was a process of finding her voice – working out what she was, by working out what she wasn’t. “It’s already hard to do animation that’s not ‘cute’ and I’m not a cute director,” she explains. “I’m pretty empathetic, and I’m just a big softie. I didn’t realise that would be something that would work in my favour until I started doing this kind of work.”
Certainly, the work that Bartley admires is stridently not cute – she mixes the magical with the gritty, lifting slightly off the ground without ever leaving it entirely. “I [like work that’s] grounded but it’s still weird; it has personality but it’s heartfelt; it’s strange.That’s the direction I want to go in.”
And the thing about Kyra Bartley is, she’ll make these things happen. For instance, when she began to move away from animation and into live action, she grew anxious about her ability to direct flesh-and-blood human beings rather than drawings on the page. So she did something about it. “I did a bunch of acting classes – I am such a bad actor,” she says. “I wanted to know what that process feels like.”
It was in those acting classes – where she was guided by Miranda Harcourt, New Zealand acting legend and the mother of breakout star Thomasin McKenzie – that Bartley learned the importance of keeping her direction of talent simple. “Quite often I have found, the less you tell people the better. You can spit a million things at people, like, ‘you’ve come from here, you’re doing this, you’re thinking this.’ And what you actually want them to do is just look to the right.”
These days, Bartley feels honed by the pressures of the creative process. They sharpen her; strengthen her attention. “I like being thrown in the deep end, and I know that is how I learn and perform the best … I know that if I commit to something, I won’t half ass that project.”
That’s not to say that stress doesn’t have some effect – as the producers closest to her know, when pressures begin to mount, the usually chatty Bartley begins to quieten, ever so slightly. But this, she believes, has become an advantage, not a hindrance. When she first started out in the business, she felt the expectation was that she’d have the right answer for everything. Now she’s worked with some of the most experienced people in the business, and she’s watched them trust the process, rather than trying to control it. Sometimes, you have to say, “well, let’s see.”
Because the work that Bartley does is highly charged and deeply magical – for instance, her film for Vodafone, which creates an almost supernatural sense of time’s passage – it requires a particular attention to detail. In turn, she is careful about the atmosphere she creates on set. “You find the right people. I have people I love working with. We push each other, and we have a nice shorthand,” she explains.
Such a shorthand helped realise the elevated images of ‘Reluctant Sea Shanty’, the film she made for Australia for UNHCR. Depicting the refugee experience through song, and three set-ups of real-life migrants singing directly to camera, it has a style that is clearly Bartley’s. The shoot wasn’t exactly easy – it had its own challenges, from actors struggling with the emotional content of the spot, to the speed required for the one-day shoot.
But Bartley is used to such things. “I have confidence that if shit goes wrong, we will find a way to solve it,” she says.