Monday, January 23, 2012

Las Vegas "Campground"

Click to watch.

Director: Karni Baghdikian

DP: David Mahlmann

Producer: Camillia Monet 

Why this script/concept? How does it reflect your vision as a commercial director?

I have a lot of faith in initial instincts, and my feelings for this one were were very strong, right away--I literally fell in love at first read.  There were a few other scripts I had tossed around, and I was actually prepping to shoot another spot when this one landed in my inbox.  I requested it within 30 seconds of reading it, and the stars lined up quickly...we shot it a couple weeks later.  

As for my vision as a commercial director, well, I enjoy shooting slightly sinister comedy, and I like strong choreography.  So it was really important that the spot be funny, a bit dark, and something that was relatively easy to execute without a lot of firepower.  I also wanted it to feel like something I hadn't really seen much of in the spec world, which this most certainly was.  Finally, there was the timing component.  With a :30, you have to be very specific, and this spot had to be executed like clockwork to reach its potential.  I had a stopwatch around my neck, and timed each take, so we knew right away if we had it or not.  That was a new approach for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the actors' timing.  I think the delta was 2.2 seconds for 40+ takes.

What was the casting process like?

In this case, there were two actors – Chris Pauley and Stephanie Little – who I had known for a while and had long hoped to work with, that I really felt were a good match for the material.  It's not always the case, but when you read something and feel it right away, for me, it comes back to trusting that first instinct.  Thankfully they were available and extremely supportive in the realization of this spot.

How did you search for/lock a location?

We wanted a campground that felt a little shabby, to juxtapose against the luxury of the Vegas experience that appeals to our core audience.  Finding wooded landscape in LA is no easy task, so my wonderful Producer Camillia Monet reached out to as many of our friends as possible for leads.  At one point, we considered trekking up to Big Bear, but didn't want to do that to a crew; we wanted to be able to shoot in one day and not have to spend half our money on gas.  We looked at public parks like Malibu Creek, but the permits and fire trucks were a bit too pricey.  Pretty late in the game, we wound up getting a little lucky, in that I had AD'd a short film a few years back that was shot on a private property up in Topanga Canyon.  We got in touch with the property owner and he hooked us up.

How did you select your DP, crew?

A director is only as good as the people around him, and I'm extremely fortunate to have had such a great crew.  My DP David Mahlmann and I have been working together for a few years.  He lensed a short we shot with the RED ONE in 2008, and we've had a terrific working relationship ever since.  He's usually the first person I call when I have a new project, and when I don't, he's the first person I call for those pep talks that every filmmaker occasionally needs to keep things in perspective.  Dave usually crews up camera, grip and electric with his own contacts; most are people we've worked with in the past, but he never amazes me with his ability to find great new people when we're in a pinch.  He's a magnet for the right kind of crew member.  As for art, makeup, wardrobe, that was all Camillia.  She knows lots of great people, so she knew what we needed right away.  
How did shooting go? Any challenges?

Shooting went well; it was a relatively easy day all-in-all.  The only real challenge we faced was – brace yourself – losing light.  When you shoot in a canyon, you lose light really quickly in the afternoon, so Dave had his work cut out for him in keeping things consistent.  We didn't have a very big lighting package at all, I think we primarily used bounce boards and 12x12 silk to cut the sunlight, with some HMIs on reserve, just in case.  We started at 8AM and were wrapped by 4PM, a pretty nice day, and the lights stayed on the truck.

Tell us about editing and finishing.

Editing is when you cut the shots together in a timeline, and then you mix sound and color grade picture to finish.  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  I generally like to cut my own material, it's just something I've grown accustomed to, as I've been editing for years and really enjoy the process.  I think it was born of an indie filmmaker's need to keep things as cheap as possible and learn by doing.  Now it's the quickest way for me to figure out what works, and what doesn't.  I've worked with editors as well, and that's good and fine, but I'm a very hands-on guy and have a computer arts background, so for something like a spot or a very short film, I'm happy to go it alone.  Sound design was a big one on this, because we had to sell the idea of a swarm of bugs that you can't actually see, and aside from choreography, that was the biggest creative challenge.  I have a great sound mixer in Pat Lydon, who always brings a little extra creativity to the table.  He's another person I've been working with for a few years now, and I enjoy finally getting down to the mix so he can take that track I've heard over a thousand times in the edit, and take it to new and exciting places.

In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?

As I mentioned there was a specific choreography to this spot, and we were all really focused on that, and I think the actors were tightly wound at first as a result.  With a :30, you're always going to get a ton of takes and different ways of saying "this" and "that," but I think the real gold came when we let the actors go off a little bit and just have some fun with ad-libs.  Chris and Stephanie are tremendously funny and quick with improv, and had us in stitches for a few laughers – you can only imagine the kinds of outtakes you can get with Vegas as your subject matter.  So they loosened up a bit, and I think that helped, because when we returned to the script, everything gelled and it came together quickly from there.  It was a great reminder to sometimes let things come naturally instead of trying to force it.

Any other thoughts.

This one was a a lot of fun.  
We had tons of coverage to work with, plenty of great audio.  A relaxed set.  Lunch was good.  I think this was about as smooth as a shoot can go, and when that happens, you just have to thank your lucky stars, because that always comes down to two things: great collaborators, and a little bit of magic.  

Agent Provocateur "Eyeball"

Click to watch. 

Director: Patrick Ortman
Writer: Britt Benston
Producer: Kathi Funston
Production Designer: Pam Chien
Visual Effects Supervisor: Greg Anderson

Patrick Ortman:

I'm attracted to story, and this concept – created by Britt Benston, and then honed by myself and my producing partner Kathi Funston – really hooked me. It's perfect for the brand, which is high-quality, but edgy. Of course, Britt's music choice was perfect, too. 

Casting was huge on this one. Britt had a visual effects supervisor look at the script, and he warned me when we first met that it'd be a tough commercial to make. He was right. I ended up firing two visual effects artists over this spot – one of whom told me the 'money shot' in the piece was just not possible to do. Well, they were wrong. I ended up doing the VFX myself, and it turned out just fine. I think it's because I'm better able to think outside the box, sometimes. That's a good thing, since the whole point of this commercial was about making your own way – 'do your thing, whatever it is,' right? 

We shot on RED MX, and I DP'd, Kathi Funston produced, and Pam Chien was our production designer. We shot the whole thing right here in my studio, we just moved out the edit bay and desks, and brought in stuff we bought on Craigslist. 

I'm really happy with how it turned out.

Britt Benston:

I can't believe how well Patrick turned the concept into a story, and on top of that, how he showed the weirdness of it as truth. 

The money shot was done perfectly. It's funny – a couple of years prior another director had seen that script and approached me about making the spot. After looking into producing it, that director sought out a simpler spot instead; a more known quantity. 

Then a year ago, Patrick came around and approached "Eyeball" fearlessly. He called me and requested a meeting, and after a chat, I knew he had the breadth of skills to take it on. Patrick is an artist and a production/post-production polymath. Then I had few more conversations, first with Vis Effects Director Greg Anderson and then with Patrick, who plunged head-first into production. This was all while he was in various stages of completion in his own short film and two other spots. An amazing feat!

In the end, the gorgeous spot is made for either TV or the digital age. It deserves to be spread around and it really could sell the Agent Provocateur brand and its lingerie in appropriate (and inappropriate) style.

Stride Gum "Global Warming"

Director: Justin Foia

Writer: Hunter Fine

Why this script/concept? How does it reflect your vision as a commercial director? How was working with the writer?

I was attracted to spot based on the opportunity to direct more visual effects based material.  I find myself increasingly going in that direction as doing VFX (and motion graphics) is what I do for a living.  I already think in those terms of how things can be done in post, so I want to focus more on that kind of spot.  VFX driven storytelling and/or comedy is a pretty popular genre, so I hope to find more work there.  The script was elegant and simple and I thought it could lend itself to a more cinematic visual style -- something more hyper-real in terms of the arctic environment as well as the "thermostat" prop to be specific.  I told the writer that if it was okay I was going to push the production value higher because that was the real substance of the story.  Hunter Fine, the writer,  was great.  Super easy to talk to and work with.  I'm on the West Coast, but I got a chance to meet him in NYC this October and we spoke about the spot face to face before I started drawing boards.  This was a new and very cool experience for me, as doing spec work has meant largely collaborating with the writer on the phone or online.  In this case, an in person meeting allowed me to pitch how the production design was going to work.  We bounced various references around and I think we landed on the same page pretty quickly.

What was the casting process like?

I originally cast another actor for my lead, but due to scheduling it wasn't going to work.  I reached out to an actor who played a supporting role in a short film I directed this past year.  I knew he could nail it, so that part was easy.  I also ran it past Hunter so we were both happy with the choice.  My news caster role was recommended by another actor/director friend of mine and she was terrific.  I think that if you can cast people you've worked with it helps, but mostly it's good to have great actors no matter what.  That's more than 50% of the spot in my opinion.

How did you search for/lock a location?

The location was actually my brother's house.  But I chose it because of the character and not just convenience.  I was prepared to go elsewhere if the DP told me it wouldn't work.  On a budget those choices are easy, but I believe that location is very important.  Go the extra mile to get the right place.  In this case, it just had the look I wanted and a great window set up for lighting.  We were pushing warm tones, and the walls and blinds just meshed really well.  Also, set dressing it was key.  As to the "snow scenes" that was good old backyard green screen shooting.  We opted for an outdoor setup for natural light.  I have shot similar things on a sound stage with chimera lighting, and frankly, this worked out better for realism.

How did you select your DP, crew?

This was my first time working with the DP who came recommended by a director friend.  I saw their short film they did and was sold.  We met up a bunch of times to discuss the tone and look and felt we spoke the same language.  He was awesome.  The production designer came on via the DP and she was amazing.  We all did a tech scout to see the location then moved into pre-production.   She built this beautiful prop and set dressed everything.  I wanted a "LOST" type of technology that controlled the Earth's temperature, so she went in a retro direction with the build.   It was great.  The crew was really small but that helped to move fast.

How did shooting go? Any challenges?

Shooting was easy except that our smoke machine broke, so we couldn't get the haze I wanted.  We opted to smoke about five cigars in a closed room until it was hazy enough.  True story.  I felt like we should have been playing cards.  The outdoor stuff was challenging because of light -- whereas we wanted real light, it failed to be overcast, so the DP and his AC had to do a lot to block out the raw sunlight.  Other than that, we were on schedule the whole time.

Tell us about editing and finishing.

I cut the spot and did the post work.  I had some consulting help on editing, and Hunter and I went through several cuts before we settled on the final one.   The story changed slightly in the structure of the spot, but this version felt the most solid.  I had done several matte paintings and plates for the post, but since I had done a spot similar to this before, I was ready for it.  The post on this spot could have it's own breakdown for VFX so I will just leave it at this. 

In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?

I would have gotten a little more coverage here and there for acting options, but I see that as a lesson for any spot going forward.  Just shoot it so you don't need it later.