Lions behind the camera: Australia’s top ad directors

A flirtatious tradie, a flustered photographer, a gang of flaming skateboarders, a rock band with disabilities and a Caravaggio painting made from beer drinkers all helped decorate  Australia’s most prized ad directors. Robin Hicks interviews.

Garth Davis, Exit Films
Garth Davis went all the way to Mexico to shoot Ride, a long-form commercial for Coca-Cola’s new energy drink, Burn. Los Angeles had been an option for the cityscapes he wanted, but there was no way he could have got away with setting fire to skateboarders on busy city streets there.

Davis won a film lion and also a film craft lion at Cannes for a raw, smokey four minute video in which a gang of skateboarders race on motorways, dodge cars and jump off buildings with their clothing in flames.

A team of body fire experts were brought in from LA for the shoot, which took just over a week. Special suits enabled Davis to ignite his skateboarders remotely.

“Skateboarders love loose clothing, but they had to be wrapped tightly with fire suits,” says Davis. “They complained that they couldn’t bend their knees properly to do jumps, so we needed to practice a lot to get them used to the clothing.”

Davis’s key local contact was Sebastián Silva, the first assistant director on the Oscar-winning film Babel. “In the US, we would have been paralysed by restrictions,” Davis explained. “At times, we were working with skateboarders hanging off the back of cars without road blocks. Sebastián was able to manage the stunts brilliantly, and we were able to get shots we could never have expected on such a tight budget.”

The film was shot using Canon 5D cameras with roughly $400,000. “We wanted to unearth the theatre and humanity of skateboarding, and create a culture around the Burn brand that’s about doing things your own way. This meant that everything had to be captured in camera. We couldn’t cut during a stunt.”

One of Davis’s next projects is an ad for beer brand Tooheys Extra Dry.

Tov Belling, The Pound
Tov Belling is only a year into a career behind the camera, having started out as a cinematographer. His camera work is credited on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Superman Returns and The Last Samurai. But, he says, he was on a ladder he didn’t want to climb. “I wasn’t going where I wanted to go. I was in a velvet lined rut,” he says. “I had to shut down my camera career and go for what I’ve always been after.”

One of his first breaks won him a grand prix at Cannes. Working with a Melbourne rock band whose members are either afflicted with blindness, deafness, Down’s syndrome, autism or Asperger’s syndrome, he directed the ad See the person for disability charity Scope.

On a budget of around $5,000 and on a single day of shooting at Melbourne Motion Picture Studios, Belling made a music video of ‘Close my eyes’ by Rudely Interrupted. Beginning in darkness, the performance progresses to reveal the faces of the band, finishing with the line, “See the person, not the disability.”

Working with a charity is never easy. “We were running with hardly any money and calling in lots of favours. Our plan was to get the audience into the song before revealing the band, and we chose to do that with light. But we were very underpowered in that department.”

Working with a special cast meant special challenges. Using verbal cues to alert the band to changes in light (the lead singer/guitarist is blind) and careful explanation as to why the same track had to be performed repeatedly for a whole day, the film was shot in around 20 takes.

“The main problem was that they were impatient – though no more than any other band,” says Belling. “When you’ve played the song once, you don’t expect to have to play it again and again for eight hours.”

“The band had never done a clip like this, so I gave them detailed one-on-one briefings before we started. Once the trust and understanding was there, they performed brilliantly.”

Fiona McGee, Good Oil Films
An awkward moment of sexual tension between a tradie and housewife won a Cannes Lion for director Fiona McGee. The idea for the ad, titled ‘Do it yourself’ for adhesives brand Selleys, is that husbands shouldn’t hire tradies to do odds jobs – or else risk leaving their wives exposed at home.

The risk with a spot like this, says the director at Good Oil Films, is that it could have come have across as sexist – and there has been the odd complaint from the public. “On paper, the ad could have been sexist,” she says. “But we were very careful to avoid the execution being too cheesy and sexually overt. This is not a beer ad. We wanted to avoid sexual clichés.”

Casting was critical. Sixty people were screened – 30 men and 30 women – in three rounds of casting done in a week. “It was hard to find the right calibre of actors. We didn’t want people who have just done commercial work. The chemistry between our couple had to be spot on, so we needed good drama actors. We didn’t want a tradie who was too cocky or flirtatious. That would have been the opposite of what we were looking for. It’s not a sexual gag.”

Using actors who hadn’t appeared in an ad before, the spot was filmed in a house in Sydney using a 35mm camera. Though scripted initially, the final take was entirely improvised dialogue, McGee explains.

“I only do a few commercials a year where everything aligns. Usually there’s lots of toing and froing between the production company, agency and client, who sometimes gets cold feet. This was one of the few jobs where genuine mutual respect saw us through.”

Paul Middleditch, Plaza Films
Paul Middleditch has directed five TV ads for Carlton Draught, among them ‘Big Ad’, a now legendary parody of grandiose commercials that won over 30 awards globally in 2005. So it is not all that surprising that his latest ad for Carlton – ‘Slo Mo’ – should win yet another gold lion at Cannes. It also took home a bronze lion for film craft.

“The agency [Clemenger BBDO Melbourne] wanted to make a similar statement to Big Ad: a classic parody,” says Middleditch. “As soon as I got the script I knew that we were on to something special.”

The idea for Slo Mo, says Middleditch, who is a graduate of fine art, was to make a Caravaggio painting out of a bunch of ugly beer drinkers. “We wanted to make something that felt like a work of art, using content that was absurdly Aussie blokey beer drinkers.”

In the ad, the words of Nessun Dorma, taken from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, are replaced with nonsensical pub talk as beer drinkers horse around in super slow motion. The ad was shot in four days in four different Sydney pubs using Photron SA1 SD high speed cameras, shooting at 9000 frames per second to capture things like a peanut flying out of a man’s mouth and the flabby reverberations of a bottom hitting a bar stool.

“One of the toughest parts was waiting ages for the material to download,” says Middleditch. “We needed a lot of light and a great camera. We used no visual effects – everything was caught on camera.”

Casting took three weeks. “We wanted plain-looking guys but with interesting faces – most of them were not trained actors,” he adds.

So is Middleditch a shoe-in to direct the next Carlton Draught ad? “I would never presume that I’m lined up for the next one,” he says. “But it would be an honour.”

Tim Bullock, Prodigy Films
Tim Bullock directed the adland comedy 30 Seconds, and has built a reputation for being one of Australia’s best comedic storytellers ever since he swapped a career as an account man at Saatchi & Saatchi to the director’s chair in 2004. He has directed a string of recent ads for the likes of Kia, Meat & Livestock Australia and Le Snack Deli, in which a pair of Bavarian dancers do a jig to Run DMC’s It’s Tricky.

Bullock won a bronze film lion at Cannes for ‘no expert’, an ad for the Panasonic G2 digital camera. In the spot, shot in the lobby of a building in The Rocks in Sydney, an amateur photographer gives awkward answers to a gathering of critics, who ask him technical questions about how he managed to take such great shots. It finishes with the line “You don’t have to be a great photographer to take great photos.”

“It was a simple idea. And when things are simple, dialogue is key. The original script timed out and we had to refine it to the funniest moments. The actors were critical too,” Bullock explains. “We dug deep to find the right people. We had nine edits and shot two alternate endings. The one we didn’t go with in the end was more slapstick. We felt that a quieter, subtle ending worked better. We didn’t want wacky.”

In the version that didn’t make it to air, the photographer, flustered, runs away. “That was funny. But we felt that one of the lines we tried on the day, when the photographer (when asked how he coped with bad light) says ‘Very well, thank you,’ worked better. We didn’t want to try too hard to get a laugh.”

Bullock has a busy shooting schedule for the rest of the year. “The wonderful thing about this job is that you never know what you’re going to be doing next.” You could be in Asia, Europe or the US. Or you could be in a cold shed in the western suburbs.”


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