From student to DoP: meet young filmmaker Otis Tree

Having graduated from film school in summer 2020, Otis Tree is already producing his own feature. He shares his insights into how to hit the professional ground running straight out of university.
A young man in casual dress crouching on a pavement photographing a man in checkered trousers and white trainers.

Recently graduated filmmaker Otis Tree had been mulling over the concept for his feature film, Big Smoke, for years, but was inspired to make his vision a reality after shooting his award-winning graduate short, Destructors. "Despite its successes, I felt unfulfilled by how it all came together," says Otis. "It was so damaged by the first lockdown. The time I've had to reflect on it has helped me realise some of the ideas I was getting at."

The Big Lebowski (1998) is set in sun-soaked Los Angeles in the US, not drizzly, grey London in the UK. But for his first feature, Big Smoke, graduate filmmaker Otis Tree is channeling the spirit of the Cohen Brothers' cult slacker movie in a new direction. "It's a comedy-horror, where the characters are constantly paranoid, second guessing themselves," says Otis of Big Smoke. "The Wicker Man is another big inspiration. The film is set on winter solstice and we're going for that pagan atmosphere, despite the modern, urban aesthetic."

East London-born Otis bagged his first festival screening, at the BFI Future Film Festival, aged just 13. Since graduating in summer 2020, he's already clocked up some impressive accolades, winning the 2020 Emerging Talent award at Brighton's CINECITY Festival for his short film, Destructors, and working under DoP Ben Wheeler on a high-end TV production for Euston Films. We asked him about the insights he acquired as a student and how he's used them to launch his film career.

A young woman in a headscarf lounging on a roll mat, surrounded by small candles on the floor.

Set on winter solstice, the plot for Big Smoke centres on a group of young Londoners known as "The Druids". Otis shot his proof of concept film in an old, abandoned church to give it the Wicker Man-inspired horror sensibility he was after and used a Canon EOS R5 to shoot the promotional stills. Taken with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/1.2 and ISO800. © Otis Tree

You're currently working on your first feature film, Big Smoke. What stage are things at?

"I've written the whole film – it's gone through a few drafts – and I've shot a short self-funded 'proof of concept' film that captures the essence of what the feature is about. I'm now pitching to different places. The biggest challenge is the initial wall between you and the industry. It seems insurmountable at first but it's a slow climb. You've got to keep those contacts going and keep pestering people."

Can you tell us more about your visual and technical considerations for the film – and how you're building on what you've learned from your previous work?

"I've usually shot totally handheld. I started out as a 'run and gun' filmmaker and I'd shoot the script entirely in order. With this one, almost every shot is from a tripod, with limited camera movements. I'm trying to do things simply. When I look back at my final graduation film, Destructors, the opening scene had something ridiculous like 100 shots in it. This time I'm trying to do things in three shots maximum. Rather than moving the camera, I'm zooming with the lens. I've watched a lot of Stanley Kubrick films, paying attention to the methodical nature of his camera placement and how long he forces you to watch a shot. As a young filmmaker you're trying something new every 30 seconds and one of the biggest things I've learned is the importance of tonal consistency. Generally, as an artist, I want to be more reserved. Instead of using fancy camera tricks, I'm focusing on performance and character."

What are your plans for funding and distributing Big Smoke?

"At university they taught us about crowdfunding and I did a bit for Destructors. It's an interesting approach because you get full creative control and autonomy with the money. What I'd really like is some sort of a grant or as few funding sources as possible for the production process and after that I'd be open to anything when it comes to distribution. I just want to get it out there, whether that's through festivals or online streaming. My priority is to retain as much control of the end vision as possible, so I'm hesitant to try making it too big. I've just graduated and it's my first feature film – I think there's merit in trying to do it as independently as possible."

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A group shot of four young people in bold outfits, the tallest man has hair spiked up in different directions.

A promotional still for Otis' Big Smoke proof of concept film shot on an EOS R5. "The Canon brand is synonymous with professional-level photography, and the R series is the latest evolution of that," he says. "These cameras are going to be this generation's workhorses for decades to come, the same way that the Canon EOS 5D series has been by the side of every serious photographer in the past decade." Taken with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/1.2 and ISO800. © Otis Tree

A photographer taking a side profile of a young man in a baseball cap with a Canon EOS RP camera.

Over the years, Otis has worked with many different Canon cameras including the Canon EOS 600D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D), the Canon EOS C300 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III) and the Canon EOS 5D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV). He also has experience with the Canon EOS RP. "The price range of the Canon EOS RP makes it perfect for students looking to get their first powerhouse of a camera," he says.

You recently had the chance to shoot promotional stills for Big Smoke using the Canon EOS R5. What was that experience like?

"I had the Canon EOS R5 and the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens. I loved the simplicity of that. I just had it by my side throughout the whole shoot. I'd watched lots online and read up about the R5 beforehand so was really excited to try it for myself. It was incredible. Having a camera that capable at that size is amazing. The size really changes the way you can shoot, giving you more speed and versatility and being less intimidating for the actors, which allowed me to capture beautiful candid moments. The autofocus also blew me away – the fact that at f/1.2 it stayed on someone's eye no matter what they did or where they went, was crazy. And the results from the RF 50mm F1.2 lens were tack sharp."

Which university course did you do and what did you learn from it?

"I never went to university to learn filmmaking. There are so many resources online that I'd already taught myself all the software I'd ever need to know. It was about having the time to make mistakes and practise the artistry of filmmaking. I started on a moving image course, which took an art-based approach, but I wasn't totally happy so I switched to a more industry-focused course at a different and smaller, more personal university, the Screen and Film School in Brighton. On my previous course there was no indication about making money when you left, which could be a damaging ethos. Learning how to sell myself and how to fit into the money-making machine of the film industry was really helpful.

"Something I've taught myself from a really young age is to recognise my self value. There are a lot of young filmmakers out there working for free."

Between the two courses, you spent a year in the industry assisting director Tyrone Lebon and working at production company DoBeDo. How did that give you a head start?

"It was a radical change from being a student and having one lecture a week. Being in a real-world situation, you learn more in a day than you do on any course, just by having to answer to real clients. Tyrone shoots everything analogue. His work is pretty wild – it's not the kind of corporate stuff you think you might end up doing after university. It was great to see someone making a living doing something fun."

Canon Cinema EOS cameras set up on tripods in a studio.

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Obviously you're still in the early stages of your career but can you pinpoint your style as a filmmaker?

"It's still changing but, in general, once it's gone through those three intense stages of writing, shooting and editing, my style always ends up being more ethereal and dreamy than I imagined it would be at the beginning. I like shooting on film, and although that doesn't particularly translate into low-budget filmmaking as it's so expensive, I'm quite often in pursuit of some of those characteristics, shooting a lot on vintage glass and veering away from an over-sharpened look. I shot Destructors on expensive lenses for Super 35 that I borrowed from the university but previously I've bought cheap £20 plastic lenses online."

A man wearing headphones and a beige jacket walking along a path.

Film and photography have always been part of Otis' life. "My mum's a photographer so I've kind of grown up around it. In terms of filmmaking, I started out dressing up as Spider-Man and doing drama clubs, before I eventually figured out I'd be better behind the camera. I was shooting films with my friends when I was 10 on a little DV camera," he says. "My end goal is to be a feature film director but I'd love to shoot music videos as well." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/1.2 and ISO100. © Otis Tree

A young man with hair to his shoulders stares at the camera while sitting on a bed. Behind him is a mustard yellow wall with a small wooden cross on it.

Otis was grateful for the strong links Brighton's Screen and Film School has with the industry. "They ran masterclasses with top professionals such as Charlie Brooker and all the tutors are working filmmakers who sometimes invite students to work with them as assistants, which is cool," he says. "It all felt very active." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/1.2 and ISO400. © Otis Tree

It must have been strange launching your film career in the middle of a pandemic – how have you dealt with that?

"There are positives and negatives. Going to online festivals isn't the same but the world being on ice since graduating has given me lots of time. I've been getting consistent freelance jobs in between lockdowns – I've shot music videos, assisted photographers shooting stock images and even documented the restoration of an art piece. If I'd gone straight into the 'real world', it would've been pretty intense, and I might not have had the time to write the feature and do the proof of concept like this."

What's your advice for a student filmmaker who's a few steps behind you in the journey?

"Appreciate everything you've got at university – the kit, the care, the people around you. I think what has paid off the most for me is maintaining connections. It's good to find yourself a mentor figure but also to stay in touch with your peers. You never know where you'll all end up!"

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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