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Spring 2017 Director's Profile: Henrik Hansen
Henrik Hansen
Artistry and humanity

Quipping that he could shoot cars until he’s "ready for the coffin," director Henrik Hansen of RSA Films is known for his far reaching visual sensibilities, marked by innovative use of light to capture riveting action—often further enhanced by compelling characters who put viewers into the throes of that action.

Hansen continues to take this work to new levels—and in the case of Range Rover’s "Inferno Downhill Challenge," new altitudes. The film captures a Range Rover Sport taking on nature’s track in the Swiss Alps, the province of "crazy skiers." Hansen zigzags the Sport across the rugged terrain of an 88-year-old Downhill Challenge course known for its motto, "never brake." The piece meshes breathtaking aerial photography, exhilarating yet at the same time fear-inducing, borderline harrowing off-road race footage, candid performance from precision driver Ben Collins (of British show Top Gear fame), and first-person interviews. 

This tour de force work, though, isn’t enough for Hansen. Not content to rest on his visceral automotive ad laurels, he has independently diversified into short films that are character studies, delving into the lives of artists, creating portraits that shed light on them personally and professionally. Hansen’s docu short about custom motorcycle builder Shinya Kimura, founder of Zero Engineering in Japan before going off to launch Chabott Engineering in Azusa, Calif., has earned critical acclaim, including being nominated for a Vimeo documentary award. Hansen profiles the very zen Kimura who shares his unique process for hand-crafting powerful Zero-style, back-to-basics bikes in an era of contemporary mass production. Kimura test-drives them himself in the Southern California desert. His high-performance bikes are akin to functional art as Kimura’s aesthetic values and philosophy yield sculpturally unique designs. Combining form and function, the bikes straddle the line of consumerism and collectible art.

Hansen’s latest docu short, Tracker, portrays legendary Dire Straits songwriter and front man Mark Knopfler, a virtuoso guitarist. Hansen takes us to a recording studio in Knopfler’s rural English home. We meet a famed yet strikingly unassuming artist with a self-deprecating sense of humor—he recalls the band’s members originally let him play guitar only because he was their songwriter. Hansen’s work environment is an amalgam of old and new tech, replete with the sound (and smell) of magnetic tape. Tracker, though, goes beyond work environs as Hansen takes us on a walk along with Knopfler in the woods with his two greyhounds under a grey sky in view of a melancholic yet majestic sea. It’s almost as if we’re getting reacquainted with an old friend. 

"I want viewers to feel these people," said the Danish-born Hansen of his work portraying Knopfler and Kimura. "You do this by building trust with your subjects. I want people to see the humanity of these artists, their surroundings, how their surroundings affect them."

Hansen also connects us to their artistry. In the case of Shimura, Hansen related, "For his creations, he works intuitively from the back to the front of the bike. We had a weekend to get into his brain, two days to shoot and show his surroundings, his approach, his art. It was a gratifying experience."

This intimate portraiture dynamic in turn is evident in Hansen’s mainstream commercial work. Going back to Range Rover’s "Inferno Downhill Challenge," for example, Hansen noted that he wanted to explore what makes precision driver Collins tick, "reflecting his inner thoughts and how his body reacts to what he’s experiencing on the mountain. After he did his first run, I talked to him and got a sense of what he felt. We also tried to capture the kinetic energy that was part of his experience."

Visual roots
Hansen made his first mark as a commercial still photographer, then diversified into moving pictures, camera operating for notable DPs, and then becoming an accomplished cinematographer himself. He branched out into assistant directing and ultimately settled into the director’s chair.

To this day, Hansen will shoot his own work when agencies request it. His recent directorial endeavors span such brands as Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Dodge, BMW and Mazda. For the latter client, director Hansen teamed with Oscar-winning (Life of Pi) cinematographer Claudio Miranda. And the alluded to Dodge work—for Wieden+Kennedy—positions the Challenger, Charger Hellcats and Dodge Viper as "predators," showcasing not only gorgeous photography but also Hansen’s penchant for breathing life into vehicles, making them characters in a commercial.

Hansen’s preference is to capture as much as he can in-camera. He shared that feature filmmaker John Frankenheimer ranks as "one of my biggest inspirations. I remember as a kid seeing Grand Prix and how he did most everything on that film in-camera. There was no hocus-pocus. That’s my approach. And if by chance we need to add in post, I try to make that as invisible as possible. I want the camera to capture the story, to get that realism."

Towards that end, Hansen noted that there are times when he shoots projects with no artificial light. "It can help create an authentic feeling," he explained. "And if there is light added to a scene, I try to make it so that the viewer doesn’t feel it." Being innovative in the use of lighting, he said, can include knowing when not to light.

The director credited his team of camera operators with helping him attain that desired authenticity. Those artisans collaborated in detail with Hansen on "Inferno Downhill Challenge," a job for which he served as both director and cinematographer.

Hansen has enjoyed a seven-year tenure at RSA—and counting. The studio provides him with access to a cutting-edge creative box of tools and resources, as well as the chance to team with the very best people. Hansen affirmed that the support he receives from RSA has been instrumental in his career, citing his executive producer Marjie Abrahams as well as his crew, many of whom worked with the late, great filmmaker, Tony Scott.

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