The Transmedia Director
Storytelling is one of the oldest art forms for communicating ideas and one of the great adapters to evolving mediums. So are the storytellers, like transmedia director Chris Clark.
He tells Ande Schurr how his role is becoming broader and more collaborative.“Which is great. More clever people with more good ideas!
"All these changes aside, in the end it's all storytelling, that's what it will always boil down to.”
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‘How Freelancers Can Succeed' by Ande Schurr
There is no doubt in my mind, the director is the most important person on a film shoot. Their attitude and skill with the technical and artistic components of the production will make or break it. To work for a good director is a very satisfying feeling. Yet their role, at least in the TV commercial sector, is becoming a great deal more complex.
The responsibilities have broadened to include all manner of digital platforms: website media, web videos, web banners, iphone apps, live demonstrations, facebook and youtube social marketing, and of course the 30 second TV commercial, to name but a few.
In this interview I talk to director Chris Clark at production company Exposure, which has a Parnell office in Auckland. Chris has embraced the direction that story telling is going, in this multi-medium way, and thus is able to offer competitive pitches to agencies whose clients want more than just the traditional TV commercial.
Was the award winning Orcon web banner / video your first job under Exposure Film Company? How did you get the job?
Yes - the Orcon web banner was my first official commercial job that ran through Exposure.
It was a brief that came from the advertising agency 'Special Group'. Kevin Denholm, the owner of Exposure thought it was a cool job for me because I'd done a music video through his company previously with Craig Henderson Producing, so they got me in, I met the agency, they gave me the brief and I wrote the treatment which they really responded too. For a web banner it had a massive budget. But because it had live action, much like a TV commercial, it had a very very tight budget. So there was a real tension between our ambitions and our resources.
Craig Henderson the producer did a fantastic job to make it work. My producer is now Yolande Dewey – I guess you could call her the head of production at Exposure, she produces for Kevin and for director Brook Benton. She has her fingers in a lot of projects. She's amazing.
The advertising agent sends you a script knowing that they like the work that you've done, but also because they know there's the security that you have the production company - Robber's Dog, Film Construction, Exposure or whatever, backing you. That brings a certain amount of cachet and weight; an understanding that the job will be completed and done to a certain standard. I was commercially unproven at the time of the Orcon ad but because it was being done through Exposure, it gave it the necessary backing.
How much Creative License do the advertising agencies give you?
It differs from job to job. The Orcon banner job came with some clear-cut, strong ideas. It wasn't a story board but there were many illustrations they had drawn up for how it should unroll. For example, at the start there are two guys at a desk and some builders come in and push the wall out and they illustrated how they saw that happening. They provided us with reference material of banners they really liked. However there was no script because it didn't require a traditional script. They were basically saying "this is the story we are trying to tell, this is the direction visually that it should go in, give us a treatment". So my job is to take those ingredients and give them my take on their idea; this is what I think are the strengths of your idea, this is the tone of it, and plying it with a bunch of reference material.
What do your treatments look like?
A treatment is what you do every time you try to win a job and you are competing against other directors. I do an introduction to tell them personally why I think this job excites me, I then gather reference material so I can show them this is what it's going to look and feel like. My big approach for the Orcon banner was basically a cross-section. I love cross-sections and so that's how I opened it up. I had recently painted some work on canvas that was a cross-section so I showed an image of that too. Cross sections are all about details but it has to be very clean so you can look at them and in a moment know who they are and what their characteristics are. A builder has to have a hard-hat on. They have to be almost 'playmobil' characters in their simplicity.
Because this job also had heaps of technical challenges I addressed those to let them know I had a real handle on it. For example with the Orcon job, (Andrew Stroud was the Director of Photography and Salt Interactive were the guys helping integrate it into the web medium), we figured out that the camera had to be dead-center in the set so the perspective was right width-wise and height-wise then lock off the camera so no one would bump it. Because of the file-size limitations on nzherald.co.nz or stuff.co.nz, the duration had to be no more than 30 seconds for each mini-drama. We had a whole day of rehearsals for the actors and the 1st AD was counting down "you have 10 seconds…5 seconds…4…3…2…1…freeze". And at the end of each drama the video goes into a two second loop so the actors had to finish every skit in exactly the same position at their desk or chair so the transition was smooth. Se we built the set then we had the full day of physical rehearsals then we had a day to shoot it.
Does a director need a strong point of view?
That's what you want to do as a director. You say "if I do it, I'm going to bring this flavour to it" and have that be quite different from what anyone else might do. I know directors who have worked in the commercial world but their temperament hasn't suited it because, you get given this brief from an agency then you have to come up with a strong point of view idea and then collaborate and assimilate your ideas and their ideas in to it, and that kind of takes a certain personality that can actually make that work. It's total collaboration. One thing that I constantly remind myself is that the reality is I'm in the service industry; I'm providing the agency with a service. The idea is theirs and I'm a collaborative guardian of that idea as it makes its way to completion.
What path did you take to come to Exposure Films?
My dad left high school and went straight into advertising as a runner. He's still in advertising now - it's his passion. This exposure to the industry rubbed off onto me and my brother. I'm a Star Wars kid. From that moment I wanted to be a director. I just wanted to have that magic at my disposal. I was the kid who took days off school to make movies. At some point it's a blurry line to where it moved from being a hobby as a kid to being an actual career because I left high school and kind of started to get work as a runner. That money I put into making short films. Those films started getting noticed and winning awards. Then I moved up into being a 3rd AD (Assistant Director) making bad television in Wellington. The money from there I invested into another short film which was more serious now because as an assistant director I was meeting better cinematographers and each time my films got a little more professional and noticed.
One thing led to another, my short films got recognition, went international then at some point along the way a relationship started with the film commission. We (my brother, Fraser Clark, producing it with myself) started a 4 year relationship with the Film Commission. They gave us development finance in increments. The movie was about wrestling set in NZ after World War II. It was a massive cultural phenomenon. Auckland and Wellington town halls were filled to capacity every week. In the research of it, I consistently saw that on the front page of the newspaper 5 inches was given to wrestling as opposed to a few centimetres for Rugby!
How do you balance your commercial work with your film work?
I think that to make it in the commercial field you really have to pursue making commercials. You don't have the time or energy to do that to the best of your ability if you're writing and developing a script. As the film commission are financing you they send you on courses, they took me and my brother to the Cannes Film Festival, and you have to be there and available to do it. So you really can't be pursuing a career to the best of your ability separate from that. People like Spike Lee, Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze, they do a film, then some ads, then back onto a film, etc. They show it can be done. But boy, it's hard to find the balance.
What stimulates you most about your work?
Story telling is the essence of being a director. Orcon is story telling, my latest Sovereign commercial is all story telling, the documentary work at Exposure is story telling. It's our oldest art form of communicating an idea. Film uses storytelling, music, pictures (25 every second), editing - it combines all those four things to be the most powerful art form on the planet. Every story is different. Every story demands a different way of being told. Anyone interested in story should read a book called Story by Robert McKee. He boils it down to its principles.
This is amazing… When I read to my daughter who turned a year-old this weekend, when I read to her The Hungry Caterpillar, she will sit on my lap, hold the book and have this instinctive desire to turn the page from left to right. Just like her, the audience must be compelled to know what happens next. Hearing stories is in our makeup.
What is the market like in NZ for the TVC director?
It's at a time of change. New media is such a big thing now - be that web based on phone based or on the side of a bus, or at a urinal of a pub. The role is changing. TV commercials need to tie in with Facebook, websites, their brochures. A commercial director needs to integrate and sometimes help to tell the client's story across all these mediums. There will always be the need for a 30, 45, 60 or 90 second spot but more and more it will tie into a greater campaign. This means there will be more and more 'back and forth' between the director and the agency. Collaboration is a word coming up a lot here!
How does a TVC director become a Transmedia director?
The mindset of the commercial director has to evolve. The companies which they operate within have to get their head around the changes otherwise they won't be around anymore. The days of us being called 'Television Commercial Production Companies' will end and become media production companies.
We are charged with doing an ad for example The Xylophone company - they want a TV commercial to launch a new product line, it has to tie into the website, they want lots of fans on Facebook to drive them to the website, and make those fans on Facebook notice the event which is a mass xylophone demonstration in Aotea square, which becomes a viral phenomenon on YouTube. Which ties in to a big tv ad launch. So my job is the director of the TV commercial is to make the commercial tie into all the other things including having some creative input into the big live demonstration. I have to be able to do all that. It's becoming pretty broad, and I'd say more and more collaborative, which is great. More clever people with more good ideas! All these changes aside, in the end it's all storytelling, that's what it will always boil down to.
You seem to take things in your stride with a very relaxed personality, how to you manage that?
Ha! It's the metaphor of the swan gracefully gliding up stream as, underneath the surface, its feet are going in a mad flurry in order for it to gracefully glide upstream!