Monday, May 21, 2018
  • Monday, Apr. 4, 2016
Up-and-Coming Directors: The Spring Collection
Craig Ainsley
Promising Talent Comes From Agency, Movie Art Direction, Feature Filmmaking and Experimental Sectors

SHOOT’s spring season ensemble of up-and-coming filmmaking talent includes: a U.K. ad agency creative director who’s made a major splash with a short film he wrote and directed; and a creative director in Portland, Ore., who has landed production house representation after directing varied projects on the agency side.

Also in the spring SHOOT up-and-coming directors mix are: a feature art department veteran who’s come up the ranks, successfully transitioning to the director’s chair with his feature filmmaking debut unspooling at this month’s South by Southwest Festival; a duo whose experimental film fare in Paris is gaining momentum in the ad arena; and a feature director who scored his first commercialmaking gig, which rolled out during this year’s Super Bowl telecast.

Here’s our spring collection of some promising directors to watch.

Craig Ainsley
Three days a week, Craig Ainsley works as a creative director at Anomaly London, a schedule which allows him to accommodate other endeavors ranging from serving as a BBC TV comedy series writer to recently making his directorial debut with a well-received short film.

“I used to work full-time as a creative at Mother London. It was brilliant there and I learnt a lot, but one day I just found myself quitting without another job to go to. I took some time out. I went to film school. I wrote on some shows at the BBC. And so now I have this situation where I do a couple of things with my time.

One such “thing” was the alluded to short, titled Lesley, which he wrote and directed. The film introduces us to an aspiring actor who makes a half-hearted attempt to get away from civilization by trekking to a remote forest. However his escape is only partial as he’s tethered to the big city and his acting career via a cell phone, which offers intermittent service in the great wild. He’s either calling or being called by Lesley, presumably his talent agent and friend.

Production company Blink produced Lesley. “I’m not repped by Blink,” said Ainsley who at this point has no production house affiliation. “I’ve just worked with them a lot and they’re really great. I had this script that I’d written. I had the actor [Arnab Chanda] involved already because I’d written it for him, and I was trying to get someone to make it. So I showed it to James Bland [partner/executive producer] at Blink and he said, ‘why don’t you make it?’

“So then I panicked and started from scratch, prepping as much as I could,” recalled Ainsley. “It was actually a lot of fun going through the script again and thinking not just about the writing, but how it would come to life. I kind of re-conceived the film and started learning more about what I had written. I had originally written Lesley because I wanted to get something made. So I stripped everything down to one character, one location and a phone.”

Ainsley noted, though, that “when it came to directing, this set-up was more challenging than I had expected. First of all, we were lugging equipment through a forest [Epping Forest straddling the border between northeast London and Essex]. But also, I was relying on one actor. I had no one to cut to. Luckily, he was really great. I knew his voice and had written it with him in mind, so it felt right.”

Also contributing to that “right” feeling were Ainsley’s many years of experience collaborating as a creative with talented filmmakers. “I’m lucky enough to have worked with some directors that I really admire and I suppose when you’re a creative you get to mooch about on set and stick your nose into many aspects. And you’re involved in the whole process, from writing right through to post, so you learn certain things. Luckily, at the same time I was prepping, I was working with Ringan Ledwidge—he was directing an advert I had written. So I pestered him during the shoot and picked his brain and probably really annoyed him, but he was pretty damn helpful.”

Ainsley has worked as an ad creative for about a decade, starting at St. Luke’s and coming to realize that he prefers smaller, more independent agencies. He affirmed that “the best part of the job is working with good people. I’ve made successful work for John Smith’s and MoneySupermarket and Budweiser—which was fun.”

As for how the experience of making Lesley has impacted him, Ainsley noted that he has since had “some offers of help to make another short film, so I’m going to do that. I was actually due to shoot my first commercial recently, but as is the way sometimes in our industry, the whole project is dead in a ditch somewhere. Production company affiliation would be great, but I’m just going to carry on making films that I feel are fun and see what happens.”

Ainsley shared, “I made Lesley because I liked the idea and I wanted to make something. But I kind of thought that I’d put it on the Internet and then everyone would just call me an asshole in the comments, because, well, it’s the Internet. But that didn’t happen. premiered it and Vimeo made it a Staff Pick. And some people wrote to me out of the blue to say nice things. One person even sent some fan art—a painting, which I think is a really cool painting. The fact that some people liked Lesley or connected to it makes me excited to direct again.”

Kasra Farahani
“Art directing on a major studio motion picture is the best film school anyone can have,” assessed Kasra Farahani whose work in the art department has had him collaborating with the likes of David Fincher (Farahani served as conceptual illustrator on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Steven Spielberg (assistant art director on The Terminal), Tim Burton (assistant art director on Alice in Wonderland), Sam Raimi (concept artist on Spider-Man 3), Michael Mann (conceptual illustrator on the feature Miami Vice), Barry Sonnenfeld (art director on Men In Black 3) and JJ Abrams. For the latter, Farahani was an art director on Star Trek Into Darkness, part of a team which earned an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence In Production Design Award nomination two years ago in the Fantasy Film category.

“Interpreting the written word and translating it into the world in which the story takes place, solving all sorts of creative problems, the practical aspects of picking locations and doing ambitious stage builds, makes for a great filmmaking education,” continued Farahani who’s used these learning experiences in the art department as a path to the director’s chair, most recently culminating in his feature helming debut The Waiting, which made its world premiere earlier this month at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival. The Waiting is a thriller about two high school filmmakers, portrayed by Keir Gilchrist and Logan Miller, who try to convince an unsuspecting neighbor (James Caan) into thinking his home is haunted.

Farahani said he was drawn to the script for The Waiting, penned by Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard. “This is not a tawdry or exploitative story. It has something to say that’s worth hearing—something I can add to the conversation about the modern world,” related Farahani. “We’re in a time when adolescence and technology have converged. Teenagers are staggeringly intelligent and adept technologically. They can do so much at such a young age. They can shoot and edit a film in middle school. But all this doesn’t mean they have fully developed brains. They haven’t cultivated empathy. There are habits and behavior that are stifling the cultivation of empathy more than ever before.”

The Waiting is just part of what’s been a fruitful month of March for Farahani who has also seen his short film Concerning the Bodyguard honored at MOMA’s 45th annual New Directors/New Films event in New York. Concerning the Bodyguard debuted at last year’s Toronto Film Festival where it was seen by a MoMA curator, leading to its selection for the MoMA showcase which was about to wrap at press time. Based on a short story by Donald Barthelme and narrated by noted author Salman Rushdie, Concerning the Bodyguard explores dictatorship and overthrow through the thoughts and loyalties of a bodyguard entrusted with the protection of a dubious world leader.

A prior Farahani short film, Noon, marked his debut as a writer/director. The 2013 sci-fi short, upon its premiere online, was optioned within 24 hours by Chernin Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox where it is currently in feature development.

The success of Noon and Concerning the Bodyguard also demonstrates Farahani’s penchant for and expertise in short-form storytelling, which he hopes to parlay into a career as a commercials and branded content director through Chromista, the production house launched in 2013 by director Darren Aronofsky (a Best Director Oscar and DGA Award nominee for Black Swan), and exec producers Sandy Haddad, Ted Robbins and Scott Franklin (who is Aronofsky’s long-time feature producer). Citing Haddad and Robbins’ extensive experience in commercials, Farahani noted, “Sandy and Ted are very smart about the advertising business and to be at a company with Darren Aronofsky is amazing. Darren is also an alumnus of the MoMA New Directors/New Films program and it’s that sense of filmmaking that has shaped Chromista. I love the shorter formats—commercials and the emergence of branded content give great narrative value to the short form. Sometimes there are emotional spaces you want to be in only for a shorter amount of time—branded entertainment allows for that.”

The Devil You Know—a Santa Monica, Calif.-headquartered integrated production house founded by executive producers Don Block and Simon Wallon last summer—recently brought the Cokau duo consisting of Achille Coquerel and Thomas Kauffmann aboard its directorial roster for exclusive U.S. representation. The signing is in line with the company mantra of connecting with artists from varied disciplines and bringing their talent to bear in commercials, branded content, and other forms of filmmaking across different platforms.

Coquerel and Kauffmann met in 2006 and worked together for several years as editor and motion designer in a Parisian audiovisual studio. They began directing in 2010 as Cokau and produced numerous experimental videos pushing visual boundaries. In 2012, Cokau won the Vimeo Award for best experimental video on the strength of Prie Dieu which captured the fantastical world of the preying mantis and its prey, with a tongue-in-cheek flair. The whimsical, visually arresting short served as a catalyst for invitations to direct other projects, spurring Coquerel and Kauffmann to form their own studio, Cokau Lab in Paris. The Cokau duo went on to put its graphic signature across work for the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Pernot Ricard, L’Oreal, Infiniti, and Yves Saint-Laurent. Cokau’s fusion of editing, motion design and sound design with their live action is a prime driving dynamic behind their films.

The Devil You Know’s Wallon, who is based stateside but has roots in France, related, “When I came across Cokau’s work, I was instantaneously blown away.  The delicate and deep understanding of organic elements combined with their extremely powerful energy and visual approach make them truly unique directors.”

A French piece for Nissan’s Pulsar showcases how folks can personalize the look of their car—and captures how they feel as a result. Titled “Personalization,” the meticulously designed spot is a visceral experience for which Cokau tapped into its digital wherewithal for agency TBWA Paris.

Also in the automotive arena, Cokau wrapped a Volkswagen spot shot in Shanghai for the Chinese market, meshing live-action reflections of the Coupe GTE with CG enhancements, bringing a new dynamic feel to sheet metal photography.

The blending of different production disciplines is additionally evident in a promo spot for Biotherm’s Aquasource moisturizer which incorporates expertise in tabletop, live action, and fashion/beauty. “We didn’t want to do the water via CGI,” explained Coquerel. “We love to shoot everything as real as we can, with water churning and flowing into the moisturizer jar. The nature of shooting in the studio and working with real elements often lends itself to happy surprises which we love.”

The norm for Cokau’s international work initially had the duo handling not only production but the entire postproduction process. But Kauffmann noted that this has changed to better enable Cokau to take on more assignments as a separate editor drives the post, bringing another perspective and dimension to projects. This way of working is also more in line, he reasoned, with the stateside modus operandi. Kauffmann and Coquerel aspire to step up their activity in the U.S. The Devil You Know is looking to meaningfully introduce the Paris-based Cokau to the American ad market. Cokau continues to be handled in the U.K. by Bang TV and in France via Gang Films for spots and branded content.

Kauffman said that he and Coquerel feel an affinity for Block and Wallon, which figured heavily in the directors’ decision to join The Devil You Know. “We also love the fact that there aren’t too many directors on the roster, that there is a real link between the producers and directors at the company plus we love the work of the other directors here. They don’t do exactly what we do so there’s no conflict. Instead there’s more of a complementary feel.”

Cokau’s commercialmaking and other paid gigs finance their ongoing personal projects at Cokau Lab. The duo has spent the past year-plus on an undisclosed digital interactive experience which is scheduled for release in the next month or so.

Luke Greenfield
For director Luke Greenfield, breaking into feature films proved easier than establishing himself as a commercialmaker. His movie career was catapulted by the breakout hit teen comedy The Girl Next Door, a 2004 release that launched the careers of Emile Hirsch, Olivia Wilde, Paul Dano and Elisha Cuthbert. Greenfield’s other film credits over the years include Let’s Be Cops, Role Models and Something Borrowed. He diversified into TV with a couple episodes of the critically acclaimed series Aliens in America. And currently he is attached to direct several other features as well as a cable TV series he’s created, The Greener Grass.

But while he has long eyed commercialmaking, dating back to when he was a young student “pounding on the doors of Propaganda, RSA and Satellite in the 1990s,” it wasn’t until this year—via Anonymous Content—that Greenfield entered the ad arena, auspiciously on the industry’s biggest stage with the wryly comedic Super Bowl spots featuring TJ Miller for InBev/Anheuser-Busch’s Shock Top brew. “I’ve had a deep respect for years for the big commercial directors like Adrian Lyne, Mark Pellington, Craig Gillespie, David Fincher and Ridley Scott. Their work gives me chills and they all went on to feature film success,” said Greenfield who ironically is seeking diversification in the other direction, adding spotmaking to his feature exploits.

Several dynamics fell into place to translate into Greenfield landing the Shock Top opportunity. He credited such key contributors as EP Gina Zapata of Anonymous Content, Anheuser-Busch entertainment marketing exec Jim Holleran, and TJ Miller himself.  Miller has gained plaudits for his role as Erlich Bachman in the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley. “I had worked with TJ before, briefly years and years ago on a TV pilot when he was just breaking out as this new wild comedian,” recalled Greenfield. “He has become one of the most gifted comic actors out there—and I think we’re going to find that he’s capable of much more than comedy. It’s just a matter of time before film studios and networks see him for his dramatic talents to go along with his humor and style.”

Holleran is a friend of Greenfield. “Jim knew I enjoyed Shock Top and asked if I would be interested in doing a campaign for the brand,” recalled Greenfield. “I had been trying to get meaningfully into commercials since I got out of film school. I told him, ‘tell me when and where and I’ll be there.’”

And Zapata, said Greenfield, “has believed in me and my ability to translate my filmmaking successfully into commercials for some time. She has been exploring opportunities for me and helped to bring this one about.” In fact, Zapata first connected with Greenfield at production house Wondros, The EP and director then again came together at Anonymous Content.

The Shock Top experience also relieved any anxiety Greenfield had about commercialmaking. “All my filmmaker buddies and friends who were doing commercials told me these horror stories about creative clashes and politics. But my experience on Shock Top with the creatives at Anomaly Toronto was extremely positive. We had the same sense of humor, the same kinds of goals, and worked cooperatively towards helping the campaign stand out from the other more massively budgeted Super Bowl commercials. It was like working well collaboratively with a co-writer on a movie.”

Greenfield is no stranger to short-form fare. Upon graduating from USC Film School, he sought a means to showcase his filmmaking sensibilities to the market at large. That calling card turned out to be The Right Hook, a short film focused on a guy’s fears of approaching single women at bars and clubs. The short delves into what’s the best “hook” or line to break the ice. The Right Hook went on to win the Short Film Grand Prize at the Manhattan Short Film Festival in 2000, Best of the Fest Short Film distinction at the 2001 Malibu Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize-Short Film at the 2001 New York International Independent Film & Video Fest. The short helped to open up doors on the feature filmmaking front, leading to Greenfield directing the Rob Schneider-starring comedy The Animal, and then The Girl Next Door.

The latter caught the attention of no less than Steven Spielberg who met with Greenfield for several hours. Years earlier Greenfield’s mom had written Spielberg about her aspiring filmmaker son. Her letter was accompanied by two of Greenfield’s short films from high school. Amazingly, back then, Spielberg responded, encouraging the young Greenfield to continue making films. While Greenfield getting the chance to meet Spielberg would suggest that their relationship had come full circle, there’s still more. At that initial meeting, Greenfield pitched Spielberg a movie titled Destiny. Circumstances, though, undermined it at the time in that Greenfield was under contract to Fox. Fast forward some dozen years to today and the script for Destiny is being finished. Spielberg and Amblin Partners are attached and Greenfield hope to soon go into pre-pro on the film which he describes as “a supernatural dramedy” centered on a roller coaster designer who is able to remember his own future as if he has already lived it. Greenfield is co-writing the screenplay and will co-produce the film with Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis.

Greenfield noted that even with Destiny and the aforementioned The Greener Grass series, he is making a concerted effort to leave windows of availability open for commercials and branded content. “Over the years, I’ve made 40 to 50 short films dating back to high school. I love being able to make someone feel a certain way or to tell a moving story within a few minutes, a minute, 30 seconds. It’s the greatest challenge to tell a story well and to make it relevant to audiences within such a tight timeframe.”

Travis Hanour
Like up-and-comer Ainsley, Travis Hanour too continues his gig as a creative director—specifically at ad agency Cinco Design in Portland, Ore. where he’s conceptualized varied projects and at times gone on to direct them, including assignments for Nike, EA, Microsoft, Smith Optics and Intel. Hanour recently signed with The Calvary Productions, Los Angeles, for broader representation as a director of commercials and branded content. He is looking via Cavalry to extend his directorial reach to different clients, agencies and narrative opportunities while he remains available at Cinco to helm projects in which he’s had a creative hand.

Hanour’s industry roots are in animation and design as he got involved in motion comics, helping to create a new animation form via Double Barrel Motion Labs in Portland. He then went on to serve as co-founder/creative director at design/creative studio Finn, later landing at Cinco where he brought his expertise in art direction, concept development and branding strategy to content for clients ranging from EA Sports to Intel, Anki, Gorgoro and Monster Cable.

The transition from design and animation to agency creative evolved naturally for Hanour. “I noticed I could design creative direction and get more into strategy and brand, using animation and design skills to help dictate what the creative should be. All along, it’s been a self-taught approach. Not going to film school so I could play college basketball turned out to be a backdoor approach to film and directing in general. My film school was through experience, landing in Portland to delve more deeply into animation, design, branding, strategy and eventually directing.”

Hanour’s visual sensibilities honed in animation and design can be seen in a music video he directed for Bethel Music that features a ballet dancer lofting colorful Holi powder during her performance. The record label came directly to Hanour to direct the piece which plays like a choreographed piece of art bringing the Bethel collective’s track “Seas of Crimson” to life from their new album “Without Words: Synesthesia.”

Hanour’s visuals combine a keen eye for detail, brought further to life with the animation prowess he honed early in his career. “My work is purposeful, it cues from a design background, a sense of strict composition and use of negative space,” said Hanour. “But my work also has cues to more authentic and free-form lifestyle. Obviously it depends on what the brand wants to communicate, but my personal aesthetic tends towards the austere. My background in design taught me there’s no accidents, you handcraft every visual and put every element where it needs to be.”

Via Cinco Design, those directorial pursuits include: a piece showcasing EA Sports’ Madden NFL 2016 video game featuring football players Odell Beckham Jr., Rob Gronkowski, Jameis Winston, Antonio Brown and Patrick Petersen: an EA Sports promo tied to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and starring soccer star Landon Donovan; a product video outlining the Nike Snow line of apparel; a stunning brand video for Smith Optics; and a short introducing Intel’s RealSense technology at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES),

Also impressive is a short for Seattle startup VICIS promoting its Zero1 football helmet, looking to address the concussion issue in high school, college and professional football. The highly designed piece articulates the conceptual and scientific underpinning for the helmet while bringing in the human aspect with observations from a nueroscientist as well as such football icons as quarterback Roger Staubach and running back Tony Dorsett.

Hanour was earlier repped as a director by production house Republic Content. His joining The Cavalry marks a new chapter in his career. EP Ross Grogan, who heads The Calvary Productions, described Hanour as a promising newcomer to the marketplace at large based on his mix of visual acumen, design sensibilities, storytelling prowess and agency experience, noting that the latter gives the director “a polished understanding of the advertising world.”