Simon + Ben of Borderland
Simon + Ben of Borderland
Simon Frost and Ben Hanson are an award-winning London-based directing duo who’ve been working together for years, travelling all around the world making stunning films. They’ve created intimate documentaries, cinematic branded content and even found time to found Borderland, an independent creative studio.
Simon + Ben recently sat down with us to discuss how they found their way to becoming a directing duo, their inspirations and how DIY and the sound of rain helps them cope in this crazy industry. A video of our conversation can be found at the bottom too.
What was your path into the industry?
BEN • I went to uni, did Psychology, but still made films on the side. Joined the film club. That I knew was my passion. When I left uni, I decided going to Australia was the best idea, get a job with a production company in Melbourne, because that’s what was meant to be “the cool” place. And when I got there they were just like, “No, you’re on a working holiday visa. We don’t have anything.”
So I just did a coffee shop job for a year, basically. It really started when I came back to London. I thought, I need to do something. I sent out emails to agencies whose work I liked. It was only one agency that responded and said, “come meet for a coffee.”
They also had an in-house production company in the same building.
They gave me real Lexus footage to play with. It was the first time I’d ever used professional editing software. They took me on and that opportunity grew into making films. That’s where I started directing and that’s where our origin story starts. Where you joined.
SIMON • But his psychology degree came to play and he sort of decided we were doing all the jobs together and so everyone was a winner.
BEN • Yeah, exactly!
SIMON • But it worked out well…
What would be your dream project?
BEN • We’re lucky that although we work and do a lot in advertising, sometimes a job comes along that has – not a purpose, but a bigger thing behind it. When someone comes to us with a pitch and says “we want to do this with our brand”, like the MND Project. A dream project is another one of those, really. Something that can live longer has an actual impact on people’s lives. And there’s great creative behind it.
SIMON • We love projects where we’re invited into a family or a community or an area that we’d never – or normally wouldn’t visit. We feel so lucky when we get to do that.
What got you interested in this as a career?
SIMON • I came into it through music. I was making a music video for my band at the time and just thought “I’m really enjoying music, but I can’t see millions of people buying my records – or even hundreds.” So I thought “maybe, I guess I’ll get a job.”
And I had a few mates working as runners in London, so I ran for a few years and then I just went through a load of different disciplines: I was an animator for a while. I did web design for a bit, I did editing and music producing. I just tried my hand at loads of different things until I found something that I really enjoyed and aspired to be. Turned out it was being a director.
When I was a runner, I was getting [director’s] lunches from four different restaurants to assemble one perfect lunch.
It was like a pretty high status job and it felt very unattainable. Turns out it was unattainable because no one buys my lunches now. But it just seemed like, you know, how do you make that jump? And then I sort of realized that you can just call yourself a director overnight and you are one.
BEN • I know that my dad took me to watch films all the time, and we always watched films together. And then they bought me a camera and I made loads of animations with a whiteboard. It was a camera you had to plug into the TV and the VHS. You had to press record, record for a second, stop, and then wipe out what I’d drawn, do the next frame and so on. Those tapes still exist somewhere. I just loved this idea you could literally create any world rather than sort of being confined by the room you’re in.
I then moved on to just making my friends be in every film, making trailers when they came round to my house. This is something I really loved. Loving, putting music to video and putting a title on something made it feel like a real film. It was constantly wanting to record and capture everything and then edit it. I just loved that.
Who have been some of your favorite people to collaborate with?
BEN • Part of what we do – because it’s documentary stuff – means we get to meet great people out there. Sometimes they’re the subjects of the films we’re doing, like the film we did in Kenya. The guy who was basically building a ship out of flip flops that he found on his beach. I see these guys are the people we collaborate with.
Like this Dell Intel job we just did, “I Will Always Be Me.” The guy who came up with and is pushing that project, Stuart Moss at Rolls-Royce, got these two massive tech giants involved to create this new technology for people with motor neuron disease. Those are the people I love working with. They just are infectious.
SIMON • The nature of a lot of the jobs we do is that they require a lot of time and patience. We still, with our way of working in small teams, try our best to stretch the budgets to allow us as much time as possible with our subjects. And yeah, we build friendships and relationships with people. We try and stay in touch with people. There’s a longer story to be told, especially with Mike’s story. He’s an amazing guy, amazing character.
Do you think that you might do more narrative drama projects, or are you just naturally more drawn to uncovering stories and telling them through documentary?
BEN • We love things that aren’t documentary too. And we did a short film a few years ago that was more narrative, but we kind of approach all our projects in the same way. We work with people who’ve never seen a camera before, and so when we work with people who aren’t used to cameras or performing, we are amazed by that unexpected quality they bring.
SIMON • Yeah, this blend of documentary and narrative is something we want to do more of going forward.
Is there something amazing that you’ve seen lately that you’d like to share with others?
SIMON • A House Made of Splinters. It’s a documentary set in an orphanage in Ukraine. It’s unbelievably, beautifully shot and it’s essentially a one person team that made it. I think the way me and Ben came up, DSLR shooting, doing everything on your own, we learnt how to be our own team. Even now, when a project expects a bigger team, with a lot of people to manage, agency people, and so on. We still like to push for a small team.
What do you do to keep sane or unwind?
BEN • I listen to rain, thunderstorms. Not real ones – sound machines. My favorite place is the Lake District. It’s not as easy just to get there when you need it. If you could bottle the Lake district into a jar, that would be my chillout.
SIMON • I love a bit of DIY. It feels like sorbet for the mind compared to what we do.
Next question is, do you have a genre you may enjoy working in or would like to turn your hand to?
BEN • I would say we’ve done quite a lot of heavy subjects recently. I actually, oddly, would love to do comedy one day. Some of our favorite directors are Jeff Low, Howard Einstein, that kind of humor. I just love it. When we’re working on some of those jobs that span quite a long period of time in really tricky subjects, watching those kinds of ads, watching something funny, is quite useful and inspiring.
Which art form or mediums that you don’t work in, do you find the most inspiring?
BEN • I always think that if I hadn’t got into this, I would probably have wanted to go into something with buildings or architecture. That’s partly maybe my dad. I like video games as well. I think creating a world in video games would be amazing. Just building cities and stuff in games.
SIMON • For me, it’s music. I’m essentially a failed musician. That was my first love and I still try and sneak my music into our films. And I have to – sort of – pretend it’s not me, otherwise I defend it too hard and it’s quite obvious.
BEN • You do spend a lot of nights talking to composers.
SIMON • Yeah, composers hate us for that one little trick.
What is something someone else has made that you wish you made yourself or that you’d been a part of?
BEN • About maybe two years ago there was a Macmillan advert called ‘Whatever It Takes’. The director was Jonathan Alric and had Max Richter’s ‘Spring’ as the soundtrack. In 60 seconds it can make you cry and smile. If you can do that, I’m jealous.
SIMON • The Department of Education ad following a new teacher and a girl growing up through school. That was really nice. It was done by the creators Will & Elliot who we’ve worked with before.