When he left school in industrial Birmingham, Venville followed local tradition by embarking on an apprenticeship at an automobile plant, but gave up engines for cameras to study film and photography at art school in London. He "learnt to speak visually" at art history sessions where he was introduced to aesthetics, semiotics and artists like Caravaggio, "the most exciting image maker around," he says. His final-year thesis was an essay on visual decorum entitled "The Rules and Regulations of Renaissance Painting applied to Life Magazine."
He also made three films almost single-handedly during his time at college. "This upset a lot of people," Venville admits, since productions were meant to be group efforts involving teams of six students. His, however, tended to have the same director, producer, writer and cameraman-himself. His single-minded enthusiasm persisted after graduation, though he temporarily abandoned the movies to concentrate on photography.
Venville became an assistant's assistant to London photographer James Cotier. At night, he lingered in the studio, determined to understand and master lighting. Citing Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Avedon as primarily responsible for his obsession with the single source of light, Venville embarked on a series of portraits of friends and colleagues that range from forthright to fantastic and often involve the use of elaborate costumes.
The portraits portfolio continues to expand at a rate of almost one a week, and Venville's advertising print work, which has a distinctly comic bent, includes a nutty campaign for Chiat/Day/New York and the Nynex Yellow Pages; in the meantime, a parallel career as a commercials director has begun to claim so much of Venville's time that it is hard to know which to describe as the day job. Certainly, the directing would never have happened without the photography.
In 1992, the art director in charge of the Audi account at Saatchi & Saatchi Amsterdam saw his portfolio and, guessing that it might be his ambition to direct, suggested he make their next commercial. Venville produced a "Raging Bull"-ish scene of a boxer who is being battered in the ring, as, in typical understated European fashion, a VO explains, "This man drives an Audi and believes in keeping his work and private life strictly separate." The closing title informs us that Audi is the winner of 11 international safety awards. When asked about the spot, with characteristic modesty Venville prefers to emphasize the creatives' bravery and the restrictions of their budget. An equally limited casting budget inspired the choice of a school friend of Venville's in the central role of the black boxer. "The only professionals we could afford were old guys with tattoos and bent noses," says Venville. "Then I remembered my best mate at school, who'd been a talented amateur boxer and was now a landscape gardener, still in excellent physical shape. I used him in the storyboard, we gave him a few acting lessons and the resulting commercial won a few awards, including a Creative Circle Silver."
Next came a speculative series of 10-second commercials for Wrangler, done for nothing with Mark Denton and Chris Palmer, then at Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow Johnson. Typically, Venville was happy to work for free. "If you want to break into advertising, you need to have the work to get the commissions," he shrugs.
Now in his second year with production company Redwing, Venville already has an impressive reel. Besides a dreamily surreal Swedish Moosehead beer spot, and a lovers' closeup nuzzle fest for Lowe Howard-Spink and Johnson & Johnson, it includes "Eggs," a minor comic masterpiece of a trade commercial for a casting company called Mugshots, which cost less to make than to enter at Cannes, where it won a Bronze Lion. Written by freelancer
Dave Dye, the spot features a fixed shot of an eggcup and a long procession of variously shaped and colored eggs, as well as some ambitious related objects, all of which, it is eventually revealed, are trying out for the role of breakfast. The cranky male voices whose VOs are running the audition feature such winning lines as "No mothers on the set, please," as a chicken sidles over to the eggcup, and "You're just a f--king onion; I mean, that's ridiculous," when a ringer is sitting in the cup. The tag: "We're as selective in our kitchen as we are in our casting."
Meticulous about storyboarding, lighting, set design and editing, Venville even took lessons in the language and structure of music so that he could brief his sound colleagues. "For a photographer with deaf parents, it's surprising how crucial I consider the soundtrack," he jokes. His emphasis on preparation was learned from moviemakers like Hitchcock and the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Ultimately, Venville aspires to the long-term commitment of making a film. But that does not mean abandoning photography, at least for the time being. "In terms of 20th century culture, film offers a greater range of devices for expression and emotion," he believes, but he continues to be fascinated by photography's quite different language of lighting. "You can't apply Avedon's beautiful images of a single source of light across a body to people in an urban landscape," he explains.
His understanding of such imagery made Venville the ideal choice for British Airways' new worldwide newspaper campaign, art directed by Mark Reddy at Saatchi & Saatchi/London. A hugely ambitious project, it involves paired portraits of people playing similar roles in different cultures, like psychoanalysts in New York and shamans in Nepal. Venville clearly exults in this artistic and anthropological challenge, rare in advertising. "Advertising is a weird world," he muses, "full of sensitive, frightened people in agencies and generally lagging behind the more established arts."
But he relishes the "occasional bursts of originality" from directors like Tony Kaye and Tarsem, agencies like Britain's Leagas Delaney, Abbott Mead Vickers and BMP, and Wieden & Kennedy, Goodby, Silverstein and Fallon McElligott here in the States. He is far too unassuming to contemplate it, but a detached observer might well include Venville on the list of rare new voices or, more accurately, visionaries.