The morning we met with Bristol-based filmmaker and photographer Remco Merbis began with the promise of a sunny spring day. As the first rays were spiking through the urban grey blanket of clouds, we found Remco sitting at a table outside the Little Victories café in Wapping Wharf, camera by his side, gazing into the distance, still fighting the jet lag after his recent return from an exciting trip to Japan. Eager to find out more about his travel experiences and his journey into filmmaking and photography, we moved at a table inside, ordered a jug of freshly brewed filter coffee and kicked off a lively conversation.
Interested in storytelling and photography from an early age, Remco developed throughout the years a keen interest in visual narratives and cinematic storytelling, creating work with a penchant for lifestyle and portraiture. Working as a self-employed creative since 1999, mainly as founder and creative director at digital design agency Pixillion, Remco decided to further explore his creative potential and went solo at the beginning of 2017.
Strolling around the harbourside and soaking up the sunshine, Remco told us about how he joined forces with writer Anna Hoghton and started Make a Place ‒ an online photojournalism series about people who make, gave us an insight into his creative process and shared with us his current projects and plans for the future.
For those who do not know you, who is Remco Merbis? Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m a filmmaker and photographer. I was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and came to the UK late 2004, after a couple of years in Lisbon, Portugal. I’ve been a full time self-employed creative since 1999, first as an illustrator/animator, but mostly as creative director at my own digital agency Pixillion. Three years ago, I started the transition from designing websites to concentrating on content. First with a small team, then going completely solo from the beginning of 2017.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I’ve always been interested in storytelling and one of my most vivid childhood memories is writing page after page in a notebook at night by the light of a torch, hours after bedtime.
What sparked your passion for photography and filmmaking?
My father was a keen photographer ‒ I remember he had a darkroom in the attic when I was growing up. That must have been an influence. As a creative director of a design agency I worked with images and videos on a daily basis, but used to leave the actual photography to one of my designers. After he left, I picked up the camera and started shooting pictures for a fashion blogger, quickly learning by doing. I became obsessed with learning everything I could think of, from how to use the camera to photography techniques and post-production as well. I think I did about 15 shoots with her and things just grew from there.
In terms of filmmaking, I really discovered my passion for it when we shot a campaign for a client at the agency and I directed two crews over five days, shooting one half of the footage myself. I went on to purchase my first proper digital film camera about three years ago and took on a series of passion projects to develop my skills and find my style. I think the combination of storytelling and imagemaking is just perfect for me. Something I had always been looking for, but did separately until I discovered directing and cinematography.
What are your major sources of inspiration?
I have great admiration for directors and cinematographers who have mastered cinematic storytelling ‒ people who make beautiful imagery that really support the story. This could happen in big budget feature films, but equally in much smaller productions I find on Vimeo. I follow a range of filmmakers online who continue to inspire me. They’re also a source of frustration at the same time. It’s the great discontent. You are never happy with your own work. And there are always people that are better than you are and this can be quite discouraging at times. The trick is to turn this frustration and discouragement into inspiration and ambition and if you can make that work it can really push your own work forward quickly.
Tell us about Pixillion. What inspired you to start this creative community and how would you define its aesthetic?
Pixillion used to be a traditional digital design agency. The focus changed to creating content a few years back and I started trading under my own name at the beginning of last year. I collaborate with other people and do that under the hat of Pixillion. It’s essentially a vehicle for when clients are looking for a production company and not an individual director or cinematographer.
Its aesthetic is essentially mine as I lead on the projects and the portfolio is mine. It’s all quite natural, mostly using available light (or making it look like that). There’s a preference for lifestyle work and portraiture.
What about Make A Place? How did the idea for this wonderful initiative come about and what makes it worth pursuing?
Make A Place was co-founded by Anna Hoghton, who worked with me at Pixillion. We’d been talking about starting a personal project that would involve her writing and my photography. I picked up a magazine about denim (Book of Denim) and a newspaper by fashion brand Scotch & Soda in Rotterdam and these inspired me to look at doing stories about people that make, the places they make in and the places that shaped them and Anna worked that into a concept that became Make A Place. Anna moved to Los Angeles and we continued collaborating whilst she was there during 2017. She used a photographer from California and I worked with writers here. She’s back in the UK now and 2018 will be the year we’ll be putting energy into growing MAP, both in terms of the featured stories and the site’s reach. It’s a great outlet for both our passions and we get to choose the stories we’re telling and the people we meet as a consequence and that’s very rewarding.
What are the greatest rewards of being a self-shooting director and photographer?
The greatest reward is being allowed in people’s worlds and tell their story. I love spending time with the subject of a film and uncover ways of visualising parts of their lives and environment.
When it comes to commissioned work, how do you draw the line between your aesthetic taste and the expectations of a client?
It took a number of unpaid passion projects to build a showreel and portfolio of work showcasing the type of projects I wanted to be approached for, whilst I did bread and butter work to pay the bills. I’m now lucky enough that clients mostly get in touch to commission projects because they like my work and are looking for something with my aesthetics and approach to storytelling.
How has the creative scene in Bristol changed since you moved here in 2004 and what do you think is driving the transformation of the city’s creative culture?
The way I see it is that Bristol has always had a very vibrant creative scene during the past decennia and although we may be doing slightly different things now and use more advanced technology in parts, it is still one of the leading creative cities in Britain.
What is a must have in your gear bag?
I love my Canon 50mm f1.2 lens. It’s the first one I go to. It’s beautiful glass and I like its weight and size.
What was the best advice you have ever been given?
Choose a job you love and never work another day of your life. It’s originally by Confucius. I’ve got another one which is more pragmatic. The father of my oldest Dutch friend, a financial advisor, told me when I became self-employed that I had to put 30% of all earnings and all VAT aside and not ever consider that money as mine, because the tax man would claim it. Saved me from getting in trouble!
What does Bristol offer you as a photographer and filmmaker?
I work all over the country and abroad, but Bristol has a lot to offer both in terms of clients and the variety of areas to shoot in. I’ve shot a lot around Stokes Croft and the harbourside for example.
What do you do, or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
My favourite way to properly unwind is to find an empty beach and go for a walk with my wife and two daughters. Ideally followed by a great meal somewhere nice.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Somewhere with great light and great food. I have a special relationship with Portugal, so realistically speaking, it will probably be there at some point. Somewhere around Lisbon.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That it may take a while to pay off but that it’s definitely worth following your passion.
What does a regular day look like for you?
It’s either a day I’m shooting or a day I’m doing pre-/post-production. The latter is spent on the computer in the studio after walking to work, drinking coffee and listening to music. When I’m shooting, there’s a lot of travelling and long days of intense work with other people. Those days are the absolute best. I’m usually completely exhausted after a few of those. I give everything to the story we’re telling. And then I welcome a few days of post in the studio!
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a mix of passion projects and commercial ones. The most exciting for me is a collaboration with an agency where we produce branded content around people who have been or are going through life-changing medical experiences and yet doing amazing things against the odds. People who not just survive, but thrive.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
I’d like to become a sought after visual storyteller working on cool projects that pay!
And now a Max Frisch question: Are you convinced by your own self-criticism?
I often am and it can really weigh me down.
Can you recommend us:
A book: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
A song: The Dreamer by Jose James
A film: Three Colours: Blue
Thank you, Remco for the wonderful tour around Bristol Harbourside and for sharing with us your journey into filmmaking and photography.