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Question Time with Ian Watts

BCOMS’ Nigel Wallace interviewed BAFTA award-winning film and TV director of photography Ian Watts, who gave us the lowdown on his professional journey so far.

One of the few established black cameramen in the sports industry today, Ian Watts also boasts a wealth of experience that ranges from dramas, factual entertainment and documentaries, to music and current affairs films.


Tell us how you first came across your passion for photography and the use of the camera?

I initially started out as a photographer, I went to college to learn the art of photography and then later learnt photojournalism. After that I progressed onto my first job as a photographer working for Africa magazine and quickly started getting my photographs published around the world.

At the early stages of my career a vast amount of my work had been in the music industry because of my passion for music. This involved working with a number of musicians and attending various concerts.

Ian’s photography career promptly grew from strength to strength. But once he had reached the peak of his powers, he soon realised he was in need of something new. He decided to leave the world of photography to embark on a new journey in film and television.

I was very happy as a photographer but I thought I had reached the top of my tree. I considered working for the likes of Time magazine or Newsweek but I didn’t have my heart in photography. I had always been intrigued by film and television. I wanted to explore and see how I would get on, so that really interested me. So I left the top of my tree as a photographer and went back to the bottom to learn television and film techniques.

Ian went to film school to learn the different techniques of how to shoot on film. He started out as an assistant working on a number of commercials, pop promos and dramas across the board, gradually building up his career along the way. In 2009, his career had achieved new heights as he was awarded a BAFTA in Children’s Entertainment for the BBC TV series “Election”.


Tell us how your incredible career led you to becoming a BAFTA award-winning film and TV director?

I have been in this industry for 25 years and it’s just basically a continuation of the same journey, you don’t become successful overnight. It’s nice to be recognised for films that you have made but that isn’t the reason why we make films, you do it because you believe in them and have passion for them.


You mentioned you also share a passion for sport; can you see yourself working on more sport in the near future?

Yes, most definitely! I love sport and one of the reasons behind my association with BCOMS came because of my love for sport. I think it was about 11 years ago we made a film on Usain Bolt and it was one of those dream jobs when I got a call from the BBC saying would I like to go to Jamaica to make a film with Usain Bolt and the athlete turned presenter Michael Johnson. It wasn’t a very hard decision to make to spend two weeks in Jamaica making a film on the fastest man on the planet! Needless to say we made the film and it was very successful and enjoyable, in fact one of my highlights, if we’re talking about highlights, that would certainly be up there.


Tell us about your experiences working on successful documentaries such as “Back in Time for Brixton”

When you work on a film like “Back in Time for Brixton” you get a certain type of buzz, it gives you a kind of enthusiasm for the project because it’s a story that you know and you’re working with people who you’re familiar with, so it was just great fun. It was literally close to home; I had family who grew up in Brixton in the 1960s, so it was like déjà vu going back to Brixton market! I didn’t grow up in Brixton but I certainly knew the story so it was great to work on the film that actually highlighted that.


Other than the Usain Bolt documentary, what would you consider as the highlight of your career to date?

I worked on the very first series of “Who Do You Think You Are?” with BBC presenter Moira Stewart back in 2004. That to me was one of the highlights because it was such an interesting story; it basically set the template for the series, which has now been running for almost 12 years. I was lucky enough to get to work on that and got to know Moira quite well and her story. So that definitely was a career highlight for me. I was fortunate to work with her again a couple years later on a film about the end of the slave called “In Search of Wilberforce”.

Ian has had an illustrious career that spans over two decades filming in more than 50 countries around the world, stretching from Ghana to Greenland, and has shot comprehensively throughout the UK. But funnily enough, neither photography or television and film was the initial career path that he wanted to pursue.

I originally wanted to be a writer but I couldn’t find any areas for my creativity as a writer. So I moved into photography because that was where I saw an opportunity to try and break into the media. Unlike today there weren’t the same opportunities you had back when I was growing up so by any little means to get your foot through the door – you used. My window of opportunity was by being a photographer, I’ve always loved writing and up until now I still do. But I just didn’t get the chances when I started out, hence why I moved into photography.


If you could go back in time to offer yourself one piece of advice as an aspiring photographer or cameraman, what would it be and why?

I think you’ve got to want to do it, there’s no point doing it just because of so-called glamour. I think a lot of people want to work in the media because they perceive it as being glamorous. But don’t do it for the glamour or the money, do it because you have a passion for it. You will have setbacks and it won’t always be positive, you won’t be working every day and there will be days when you want to give up. But if you are driven and ambitious then that’s the reason why you should do it, rather than for the glamour of TV.


Describe your 25-year career in just three words?

Creative, challenging, rewarding.

Chelsea Foundation and BCOMS Journalist Bursary Programme applications open for third year
Chelsea Foundation and BCOMS Journalist Bursary Programme applications open for third year
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