We all have seen the documentary style and how it looks and feels with real people. The director XanderTM over at Backyard Productions had a different idea and it was so unique and fun to shoot that I wanted to share it with all of you. I was finishing Fathers and Daughters in Pittsburgh when the call came in. I was standing in a large parking lot that used to be the location of one of the biggest steel mills in the city. Back in the early 1900s, this baby was pushing some major pollution. Cough, Cough!!!!
XanderTM and James Blom, the producer, got on the phone and described the concept. After hearing it, I told him I thought I was born to shoot this baby.
So two weeks later, I found myself flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, NASCAR country, to embark on this once in a lifetime experience with a very talented director at the helm. Many of you have asked how this relationship works with director and cinematography. This was a wonderful collaboration where XanderTM challenged me out of my comfort zone with shooting in a style that was very unique, in the moment and lightning in a bottle performances as well as hacking the GoPro to deliver images that usually are supplied by a much higher quality camera system. Armed with a couple elite team members from LA, a wonderful local camera, grip, lighting team, three Canon C500s, ten hacked GoPros, a Canon 1DC and three Canon 5D Mk IIIs, I was up for the challenge.
New and Different
I thought it would be really cool to show you this not only from the cinematographer’s perspective, but from the director’s. XanderTM has been very gracious with his time and offered to collaborate with us at the HurlBlog. This will be a two part series where XanderTM will go into the discovery and the creation phase of the project. Part two will be the execution. Hold onto your short shorts.
XANDERTM, TAKE IT AWAY
“The Discovery” by XanderTM
Normally, when my Executive Producer emails a project to me with the subject “Would you be into this?” he knows damn well I will be. This particular email laid out a unique idea coming out of Saatchi New York for Cheerios Protein. It was just the type of crazy I like. I believe my reply to my EP was, “Jesus. Hell yes.”
I end up doing a lot of commercial work. It’s a particular world with its own set of rules and structure. Since it’s such an insular industry, it’s hard to find information on how commercial jobs run. So I’d like to share with you wonderful people some of the inside information I’ve gathered along the way.
It usually starts with an attachment to an email like the one I mentioned above. What I see is a document from the advertising agency that has been used to sell a concept to their client. These boards (or “deck” depending on who you’re talking to) are normally photos or storyboards representing general scenes the creatives are looking for and a script to go along with the imagery. In this case, however, all I had to work off of was a script. I invite you to have a look at the script I was sent and to think about how you’d approach it.
I try to take a script or boards and visualize how I see them playing out. On average, I cringe at about 80% of my ideas at this point. I try playing out different styles internally, until some type of unified approach that doesn’t make me want to vomit comes to the surface. Then I work on selling that approach to myself. Mostly I am trying to find a style that will set the work apart from other commercials, serve the creative/brand well, and quite honestly, give me an edge over other directors who are no doubt bidding on the job.
My thinking resulted in two themes. First, I wanted to do everything as real as possible – the kid, the surprise, the car, the school – EVERYTHING. The second had more to do with how to get the job in the first place – I wanted to work on storyboards and some CG frame renders to go into my treatment. Normally, those things are saved for after a job is awarded. On this one, I felt that the look and approach might be too loose for the agency and client. I wanted to give them something to sink their teeth into. If we are going to do it real, we can’t just be talking about ideas up in the air. I needed something tangible to ground it.
The standard procedure is to do a ‘creative call’ with the agency. These calls are very important to the process and are really the first-date to landing a job. I’ve shown them mine with my reel and some thoughts on style and approach and they’ve shown me theirs with the script and the hopes they have for the campaign. Hopefully there is a love connection, and I can move on to the next stage, which is a director’s treatment. I did the call on the lunch break from casting on another job and had the pleasure of speaking to the Saatchi Creative Director, Chris Skurat, as well as esteemed producer Dani Stoller. They were really great to talk to, and my big take away from the call was they had wanted to ‘keep it real’ all along. YES! I was amped that they were into the idea and immediately after the call started writing notes and lining up a storyboard artist. I also had a half a sandwich, if I remember correctly. It was OK.
The most important part of landing a commercial is digesting the boards, listening to the creatives on the call, and then creating the treatment that incorporates those elements and adds your flavor. The treatment is critical on every job, but I felt like it would be especially important on this one. I’m going to share my treatment with you – it’s something that not a lot of people get to see.
As you can see, I wanted to set the tone with some frame renders that have the Cheerios car interacting with locations I am referencing. In addition, there was no Cheerios Protein car yet, so we had to create the placement of the logos. It’s a small touch, but I really wanted to get as close to my vision in these renders as possible. Also, the storyboards help a ton. You can really start to see the tone coming together. In essence, I was trying to make the job real in everyone’s mind and these elements do a lot of work towards that goal.
The treatment seemed to resonate with the agency and soon after we submitted it, they awarded me the job. I was really psyched, but that only lasted for a few minutes before the crushing reality of living up to your own expectations starts to grind its way into the pit of your stomach – or so I hear.
The really big question I had to answer was, “How do you find the kid?” There are a few elements at play to consider and none of them are easy. We need a kid who knows NASCAR and specifically Austin Dillon. You don’t want the kid to know what we are shooting because we need the element of surprise. And we are restricted geographically by the access to the NASCAR cars. That ain’t easy, let me tell you. Luckily I had a secret weapon – producer James Blom.
James is one of the best out there and we have gone to battle together many times. What I really love about James is that he always figures out the right way to do something complicated. We usually sit over pints of IPA and hash out the problems until there can’t be a better way to do it. In this case, James’ bright idea was going to high schools in the Charlotte area and asking them to give us names of students who were huge NASCAR fans. I was only slightly aware of how big a deal NASCAR is in Charlotte, but after hearing from the high school principals, I started to get an idea. The high schools were falling over themselves to have us shoot the spot on their campus. Normally, high-speed cars at a real school during a real school day would be a non-start, but in Charlotte NASCAR is life.
We were sent several candidates for kids and began the long, intensive process of casting. Eventually we settled on about six potential kids, and I thought the best approach would be for me to visit each one and get them on camera. Road trip.
I decided to tell each of the kids we were shooting videos about what teenagers do in the morning, before school. I would get to know them a bit, and they’d take me through their life. When we got to Jake, he was my favorite instantly. His parents were cool and fun to be around and most importantly, Jake was just the right age and had great energy. Normally I sit in a casting facility with agency and we do callbacks together, culminating in picking our cast before leaving. There was no way I could have anyone meet Jake and not give up the size and scope of the production. So I spent a late night in my hotel room editing short videos about my top three kid choices. The next day we did a review with the agency. They were as enamored with Jake as I was. We got the final approval from Cheerios and were good to go.
There was one other element I wanted to discuss with the agency. At this point the scene with the kid on the bike was still in the script. It was the only situation that required an actor and a scripted reaction. My feeling was that if any part of this shoot slipped into fiction, the whole concept would be compromised. I discussed this with Chris and Creative Director Johnnie Ingram, who had been on another Cheerios job up to this point. I was really lucky, because these guys were fantastic to collaborate with from day one and saw the advantage to dropping the scene.
James and I had been bouncing between the job we were on in Boston and casting/location scouting around Charlotte. The prep was going very well, but there was one extraordinarily important element we didn’t have in place yet – the cinematographer!
This was not a normal job for so many reasons, but especially because of the way I wanted to shoot it. Not only did I want to shoot it real for Jake’s surprise, but all the car work needed to be done in the moment, on public roads, with a serious NASCAR driver.
James and I had been discussing DPs since we got the award and hadn’t found anyone whose work touched in all of the areas I needed to feel confident in. I also had an agency that was very curious what cinematographer would be taking this beast on. We got word that Shane was available and interested while we were on our last shoot day in Boston and set up a call to go over the approach with him the next day. Shane and I had never worked together before, but I knew his work very well. I remember freeze framing the Camera and Lens Breakdown he did for the Need For Speed trailer obsessively, months before Cheerios was a glimmer in my eyes. It was knowing what an open, passionate and collaborative guy he is that had me excited beyond the prospect of just shooting rad car footage with him. We did our call on the train back to NYC from Boston. Two days later, we’re sitting next to each other on a flight to Charlotte, sharing work we are proud of and discussing the down and dirty details of fitting twelve cameras inside and on a NASCAR car.
In part two of the post, we will go into the execution. Stay tuned!