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Using motion to move the needle. Part 2: Live Action.
James Young in conversation with Adrian Elliot

James Young, Principal

James Young in conversation with director and writer Adrian Elliot. With an interdisciplinary creative background spanning photography, graphic design, writing, and acting, Adrian brings a uniquely diverse skillset to his directing and filmmaking work. He has written, produced, directed, and edited narrative, commercial, and editorial works in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and internationally for clients large and small.

Using motion to move the needle: Live action from Tangible on Vimeo.

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Video Transcription

James:
Today I have the honor of talking to Adrian Elliott. Give me just a little bit of your background, Adrian, and tell me a little bit about yourself.

Adrian:
I am a director, a writer, an editor. I also do creative direction and design and branding. When I went to college, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute and got a BFA there. One of the things that I felt like I was missing from high school was that collaborative art-making, and film is kind of necessarily a collaborative process. That passion for collaboration has really carried me through into where I am today, having been self-employed now for eight years and working in a lot of different disciplines creatively, like I said. But filmmaking really is my… It brings me the most joy because it is such a collaborative process.

James:
What’s the difference, or what’s the importance of live-action versus say animation, a Disney animated film versus a live-action film? Why do they make those choices? Maybe that’s something that in business that’s important to think through as well.

Adrian:
We’ve really seen kind of a shift in the sort of proportion of live-action versus animated work because animation is so much easier to do remotely because you don’t have to have a set. You don’t have to have a whole bunch of people in the same place. I mean, I’ve seen huge brands with millions and millions of dollars who have chosen to shift to… I mean, these are Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, household cleaning products, commercials that would always have been live-action before. I have seen them shift to animated pieces that are good.

Adrian:
So there can be an efficiency to animation. There can be a cost savings. It can allow you to decentralize the work and have it be distributed all over the state, the country, the world. And there’s a lot more room for making really sort of playful and fun creative choices, a world that is created specifically to be entertaining and to be fun and to look stimulating. So that is certainly a huge advantage of animation.

Adrian:
But live-action is still the closest thing to real life. When you look at a screen and there’s real humans there, you can really feel like you’re looking through a window. And that window, we’ll call it, can again be, to continue the metaphor, the shortest distance between your audience and whatever it is you want your audience to feel, right? That window of live-action. And again, that’s not to say… I don’t want people to get upset and say, “Oh, well, Pixar and animation can be so compelling.” Of course, it can. Of course, it can. I mean, you could argue that some of the best films that have ever been made in the top 100, some of them could be animated, right?

Adrian:
But when we’re talking specifically about commercial work and less about movies, we’re talking about commercial work, that window, especially if you only have 30 seconds or a minute or 120 seconds, you want your audience to be able to drop in right away to your message or drop into the world that you are selling to them. And typically, you’re going to have an easier time doing that with live-action in terms of delivery.

Adrian:
Another trade-off is that in terms of actually producing live-action, it’s always going to be more expensive. You have to get people in the same place. It can take more time. It has to be centralized. If you’re shooting, you’ve got a set and you have a director and a cinematographer and producers and actors and the production designer, and you have everyone together, right? There have been Zoom productions where we’re cutting together different people’s Zooms and things or distributing cameras and people are shooting themselves. But that’s just a stopgap until we get back to being able to shoot freely. So I would say that-

James:
I would assume that live-action is less forgiving than animation, for example. I mean, you can take series of cuts and get different kind of pieces and compensate for that. But once you’re done, getting the band back together is not going to be as easy. So I think that’s why… again, another reason to hire somebody who really knows what they’re doing and knows how to get that and think through that ahead of time.

Adrian:
Yeah, exactly. Shooting live-action commercially is an investment, one that very often pays off. But that’s something the client has to have to really understand. This is an investment. And this is again, like I said, to use that metaphor, this is a window. We’re creating a window for customers, potential customers, your audience, to see into the world that you create with your product or your service, and live-action is going to be, again, the shortest distance between your potential customers and seeing what that world is that you’re creating for them. And that takes time and money to do right. But when it’s done right, it can’t be beat. That’s why the majority of Super Bowl commercials are live-action because I mean, that’s most valuable advertising on TV every year. And that’s always the best advertising that’s on TV. And brands spend hundreds of millions of dollars cumulatively on making that window for people to see into their brands.

James:
How do you make something or realize what the story should be and stay on brand? How do you think through that?

Adrian:
That is such a good question. I’m so glad you asked because not only do I have a very specific answer, but also, this is an area of sort of overlap in my skills because I have a branding background from agencies, doing branding and identity and then also filmmaking, right? So seeing the ways in which they overlap is super compelling to me. And I enjoy it because it’s kind of the synthesis of different skills and experiences that I have. I would say in general… This may be controversial. People may disagree. But my opinion is that in general, brands are more extensible than companies think they are. When it comes to shooting live-action, I would say, not in general. Apple should not be making ceiling fans, right? But in terms of commercial content or making a video, doing something that we’re talking about here, there’s very often more latitude to do something and brand it a certain way than a company or a board of directors will think that there is.

Adrian:
So part of our job is to help a client understand that there can be a new expression of their brands that they didn’t think of before. And this is a way for you to put a new stake in the ground and say, “Yes, we’re still ACME limited and you may know us for being this way, and we’re still ACME limited. But now, we have a very funny commercial or very dark commercial, or a very interesting video with real people that we’ve never seen before.” So it’s also not a science. There’s no formula. It’s not, “Here’s how to stay within your lane.” But there are ways to test it too. And you can test concepts. We can start by writing a bunch of different concepts and building them out and then saying, “Okay, you have three choices. Here’s one that really pushes your brand. Here’s one that’s pretty much the way that you are. And here’s one that’s really boring and safe. And your old board of directors is going to say, ‘Go with that one,’ but you’re going to tell them no because it’s a snoozer.” Right?

Adrian:
So when you give them range and say, “Here’s where you can land and we’d advise that you push the envelope a little bit because you’re investing all this money,” I have had positive experiences with getting clients to see that, that if we’re going to spend all this money, we need to make sure that it counts, and doing something that’s going to keep the line at the exact same place is actually not a good investment. The line has to move somehow. Otherwise, there’s no reason to spend this money, which is not to say that every piece that we make has to be some groundbreaking, unbelievable, maybe risque, or unexpected spectacle. No, of course not.

Adrian:
Very easy to make solid things that are on message, on brand, consistent, look and feel, everything, great. And we can deliver that, and we should deliver that. But there are opportunities to push that a little bit. And I think that part of our job as creative is to help clients see that there are opportunities that maybe they hadn’t considered or what the boundaries of their brand are. So if they can see what the boundaries of their brands are and they’re a little bit wider than they thought, then there’s a lot of room for creative magic there because you can push a client to kind of express their brand in a fun, new way that is still on brand. But on brand is subjective. And as long as we’re exploring a range of options and saying, “This is pushing you a little bit further, this is pretty much where you’re at, and this is playing it real safe,” then we can have a productive conversation about where they really want to land.

James:
Along those lines, I mean, you talked about pushing your brand. And I think what I would interpret a big part of that, and the reason why you’d want to do that, is to make things memorable, to make it stick. I mean, that’s why we do video in general, so that it will drive directly and very quickly into our consciousness and understanding. What are some ways that you make things more memorable or stick or punch, if you will? I mean, you talked about edgier, but are there any kind of examples that you can think of or any ways?

Adrian:
Let’s see. I’ll give you an example without using names. I had a client that was kind of a stodgy company, kind of known for having a company that had been around for a while. And everyone knew the name, but it was boring. It was like Whirlpool, like home appliances. Everyone knows Whirlpool. You’ve seen it on a dishwasher or on a fridge or whatever. Yeah. It’s a known name. But they wanted to do something that was focused on a younger audience. They wanted to target a younger audience. And I was like, “Well, that’s great because younger audience. And let’s be bold. Let’s do something that you haven’t done before.” And to their great credit, they understood. They were like, “Okay. We will do something different.”

Adrian:
And we crafted this spot for this kind of older, kind of stuffy company that was young and fresh. And the whole concept was, it was based around like millennial slang and jargon. And it was something that… It was risky. It was bold. But it definitely showed their audience that this company could kind of make fun of itself a little bit and say like, “Yeah, we know that we’re like Whirlpool or Kenmore, but we can be young and hip too,” in a kind of funny, self-referential way.

Adrian:
That’s an example of where there really were two very distinct paths for that project, one which would have been very safe and it would have been the same kind of, “Here’s our dishwasher and it works great and you should buy it at Sears,” which is fine. And the other path was, “We know who we are, and we want to show you that we know who we are and we can be a lot cooler. And here it is.” And it was memorable. And it was funny. And that again was about taking a risk. And a lot of companies are risk-averse, not just in terms of video and advertising, but in a lot of ways.

Adrian:
When you have a lot of stakeholders or board of directors that wants to move the ship very slowly and safely, I understand. I totally understand. But again, I think that’s also about our job as creatives and as consultants is to, if not actually convince a client to do something differently, at least hold up a mirror and say, “You could do something differently if you wanted to. If you choose not to, that is fine. We will deliver whatever you want because you’re paying us and you’re our client.”

Adrian:
But I learned very early on, a very talented creative director that I worked for 15 years ago when I was right out of college, he always said, “Give the client your wildest and best creative thinking first so they can really get their money’s worth. And then if they need you to pull it back and turn it down, you can. But start big. Go big first and give them the best of your creative ability and the best of your creative thinking. They are entitled to tell you that you went too far. It’s totally fine for them to do that. And we will dial it back and we can do something safer. But we’re the creatives, not them. And we have to show them that we can be creative, whether it’s design or branding or advertising or whatever it is.” So that has really been a guiding principle for me creatively.

James:
So start at 11 and then go down from there in other words.

Adrian:
Start at 11. Start at 11. And if they say, “Whoa. We need you guys to be at six,” then we’ll say, “Okay, fine. We can work at six. We’ve been working at six for decades. That’s fine. But just know that you could also go up to 9, 10, 11 and do something really wild and can make a big splash that really is beneficial for you and your business. But if you don’t want to, we’re very comfortable at other levels too.”

James:
Tangible, like many other companies and organizations is, since the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice, we’re trying to figure out what is our part in that. What’s our responsibility as an organization? And we’re kind of groping along and working on that. Given that kind of social justice and those kind of things, do you find that organizations are more willing to be pushed towards more representation or accessibility? And as an organization, how would I think about that given the responsibility that video is so powerful?

Adrian:
Yeah. That’s an important question and it’s certainly one that within the past six months to a year has really kind of risen to the top of the public consciousness in a way that is appropriate and is overdue, really. It’s important to be discerning about when to use that lens through which to examine a project because I think there’s also on the other side, there’s a danger of a kind of hollow overemphasis on representation to the extent that it feels tokenistic, right? It feels like tokenism where it’s not really authentic. So it’s a very difficult… Or sorry. It’s a delicate balance that we have to strike. And we’re only really in the nascent stages of it now with this new public visibility. The need for racial justice and equality is obviously not new, but this new public awareness about representation is… It is new and it is important.

Adrian:
So I think that finding ways of representing minority voices whenever it is appropriate to do so is really critical in all creative work, but in particular, live-action because you’re representing actual human beings. So there’s no formula. Again, this is not a science. But with the right people and the right collaborators, you can intuitively know, “Okay, this is a piece where we’re representing a neighborhood. We’re shooting a neighborhood and this is a neighborhood that is in a particular area where it would be normal to see all these different kinds of people. So when we cast and when we shoot, we need to make sure that we are representing the way this neighborhood actually is.” And that is just one of a million examples of ways in which we have to be sensitive and just aware. The fact that there’s more public awareness about that now is good, but it’s also only the beginning, and there’s a lot more work to be done. So I am optimistic about the trajectory that we’re on in having all media more accurately represent a cross-section of our communities, which are increasingly diverse.

James:
Yeah. I always think a good example of this that always kind of hit me on this is… It was a show. I think it’s on Netflix or something, but it’s called Hollywood. And it’s a show that actually explores the idea of what if. What if in the ’50s, Rock Hudson had actually held the hand of his lover going to the… It all culminates to the Academy Awards. What if an Academy Award was given to a black woman back then? What if a black screenwriter actually created the story that they wanted to and it was paid attention to? And there’s all these kinds of things. And you think, “Gosh, where would we have been today had that happened?” And I think that’s kind of a trickle-down theory of like you say, “Oh, well, you need to see representation.” I think when you look at that, it’s like, that would have been earth-changing for millions of little boys and girls out there that if they would have been able to seen their own representation up there, it would’ve changed a whole lot of the decisions they made and opportunities they had.

Adrian:
Yeah, absolutely.

James:
So this has been great. It’s been helpful. It’s been really fun to talk to you. Love working with you, obviously. Our clients love working with you. And so there’s reasons why. But this really interesting getting insights on this. I appreciate you, love you taking the time to kind of talk us through that and give us even more to think about.

Adrian:
Yeah. Likewise, James.

James:
All right.

Adrian:
Yeah. Great. Thanks so much.

James:
Thanks, Adrian.