A few weeks ago, I made my little directorial debut in the form of a TV commercial for Nissan. Unusually for this industry, there was no agency involved; I developed the board with the client and we dealt directly. I suppose that’s also how I landed up being director. The dust has settled, the post-shoot euphoric rush has somewhat calmed down, and I’m now able to put some coherent thoughts together on the whole experience and what it means for my career in the long term.
The honest truth is that for the longest time, I didn’t ever think I could make the jump. I simply couldn’t see beyond single frames; firstly in the form of still life/ product setups – such as the ones I do for my watch or architecture photography – and then later on during my reportage work. You work so hard to condense all elements of the story into a single frame that expanding it into a sequence seems almost like the easy way out, because causality is fixed and dictated directly to your audience. And let’s not even talk about cuts and transitions – where do you use fades? Wipes? Direct cuts? How much should the camera move? Pan or track? Etc. It was a foreign world, and one that I simply didn’t understand.
In early 2010, a job in a previous life required me to produce a short corporate video for a project my company was doing and that I was managing. Being the control freak and generally creative person I am, I developed the board together with the production house and was on set for the entire thing. I doubt I contributed anything useful, but I definitely did learn a lot about how these things worked behind the scenes and the roles of each person. At the time, digital filmmaking revolved mostly around DSLRs; we shot the production on a 5DII with adapted C/Y Zeiss lenses. Coincidentally, I also happened to be using identical lenses – the ZF.2s are mostly based on the C/Y designs, with the exception of the 15/21/55 and 135 – and I made it my aim to match the end video result as closely as possible because we also needed production stills for the project.
That was the start of cinematic for me: I learned quickly about color grading, mood, use of foreground, implied motion, wide angles vs involvement and detachment etc. A couple of years of developing that, and I believe my work in that style is as good as any. But what I didn’t know was that the circle would complete itself several years later. In the meantime, a Sony NEX 5 found itself into my possession; being a very capable video camera, and able to take the adapted ZF lenses, I made a few (embarrassingly horrible) short films as experiments in motion and pulling focus. I believe minimal effort with google and youtube will reveal them, if one is morbidly curious. There were a few cigar review videos in there too, which I don’t consider to be that exciting – other than for the challenge of operating the camera and pulling focus on yourself while you’re presenting.
In 2013, I created a board for another healthcare client, which I advised on during production, and operated the second camera. That raised my involvement another notch – and piqued my interest. I could script a scene, I could figure out the lighting (essentially the same as I’d use for stills, but just more of it and continuous) and the camera moves. Putting the whole thing together was still some distance off. The client was pleased with the result (I keep meaning to do an on-assignment post about this, but haven’t gotten around to it yet). There have of course been the very popular workshop videos – however those are more about an instructional objective rather than pure cinematography, though we do try very hard to make the whole thing visually beautiful.
The Nissan commercial – I obviously cannot reveal the car or any more than a few of the lifestyle-type images yet, as launch date is still a little way away – was I believe the start of something for me. I’ve been feeling somewhat ambivalent about still photography for a while; commercial work is usually to-spec for clients and has little room for creative interpretation. You can obviously still shoot for yourself, but if you’re back to back between the eyepiece and Photoshop, sometimes you just want to do something different to keep the creativity alive. I won’t hide the amount of prep work, client management and revisions to the board that took place before the actual shoot – but the four days we were rolling put me on one hell of a high. We have some amazing footage; the team worked like a well-oiled machine and the client was happy.
Here’s where the circle completes: the assistant director was the same as the one on the 2010 video; as was the DOP. What I didn’t know until a few days into the shoot was that the DOP (Eric Yeong, arranged by my producers) was possibly the best in the country – responsible for many awards and the highest grossing Malaysian film of all time over a 20-year career. And yet Eric, like the rest of the team – was one of the nicest, most humbly unassuming guys you could ever meet. So, it’s no surprise that in the end, the way Eric interpreted the individual shots in the board gelled perfectly with what I had in mind – after all, he’d heavily influenced my understanding of the style several years back.
I’ve pieced together from the crew a few surprising things: firstly, this was an unusually smooth shoot; everything worked, the weather was perfect for all the critical master shots, it rained when we needed it to (long story) and didn’t when we didn’t; personalities didn’t clash and the entire team* did a fantastic job. I think it’s fair to say that everybody left on a high. Secondly, I’ve taken an unconventional route (yet again); photographers usually transition to be DOPs rather than directors; directors are usually ADs first or unit directors. Thirdly, the directors don’t do that much on shoot day: their job isn’t to coordinate (that’s the AD) but to focus on locking the shots, continuity, story and ensuring the board and their vision of the final output gets translated properly on film.
*Executive producer – Adam Lokman; Line producer – Farid Yusof; Assistant director – Prinz Joseph; DOP – Eric Yeong; Key Grip – Boy Singh; Art director – Iskandar; our talents Kubilay and Leticia; Foo, Nadia, Hanif, Simon and all of the dozens of no less critical crew. I am hugely grateful to you all for making my first production a smooth one; and I apologise if I unwittingly did anything stupid.
However, the biggest surprise was that the crew were really specialists: they didn’t all aspire to be executive producers or directors. A lot of them chose those specific roles because they best suited their strengths and personalities; the resultant level of commitment and professionalism would honestly shame every single one of the ‘professional’ organisations I’ve worked for in the past. Things are done right, or not at all – as long as it takes and as much effort as it requires. When you want to be there, care about your job and actually take pride in your work – the results are on a different level.
I left the job very much on a high. I believe that this is the direction I’m going to be heading in from now on; directing and writing frees me from the necessity of post processing and logistics; it gives me larger budgets and more freedom of expression; and a wider audience. I can focus on the shot instead of everything else that goes on around it. It isn’t a lonely solo pursuit; working with a team of that caliber was something much, much better. I believe the expectations are necessarily much higher, but this is really a situation in which the sum of the parts of the team is much greater than the individuals. And there’s no question I’d love to have the opportunity to do it again.
As for the commercial, I’ll of course post it here as soon as the embargo is lifted – together with an on-assignment behind the scenes. [Edit: that was written a little while ago; the commercial is now on youtube and the on-assignment is in the works.] I suppose now it’s time for me to cut a reel and update my profile. In the meantime, I’ve applied the lessons learned here to the workshop videos – both those we recently released like HTS3: Penang, and the forthcoming Melbourne, Havana and Monohrome Masterclass videos. Anybody need a director? :) MT
Somebody failed to mention that a Red Epic-X is not a DSLR. It certainly isn’t as ergonomic or light as one – and that EVF is about the size of the Olympus 75/1.8; shooting it this way is definitely masochistic – perhaps that explains the labelling of the switch under the shutter button…
H2 2014 workshops now open for booking – Making Outstanding Images San Francisco, Chicago and Venice; Masterclass San Francisco and Venice – click here to book or for more info
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved