Experimental Ad Filmmaking: Pushing The Boundaries of Normalcy
Experimental filmmaking is difficult to define, not because its guidelines are so abstract or even esoteric, but because it's such a wide-ranging genre that defining it almost defeats the purpose of the genre itself. In one sense, it refers to anything that defies the conventions of traditional narrative and documentary advertising.
It doesn't have to tell a story. There don't have to be characters. There doesn't even necessarily need to be a message of any kind. It can be visceral or mundane, engaging or a complete bore. It can be highly personal or overtly political. It can be literally anything.
Experimentation can be found in the editing, in the filming, in the subject matter, or in the manipulation of the camera and celluloid’s chemical and mechanical processes.
Why Dabble Into Experimental Ad Filmmaking?
Creative Freedom - ability to express emotions, ideas, concepts, and literally anything else through literal or abstract imagery, through juxtapositional editing, through creative use of sound design. You can disregard the technical, and focus solely on the creative.
Spontaneity - With experimental filmmaking, creative decisions can be well thought out choices made prior to shooting, or the shooting can be a spontaneous act of expression in and of itself. When you're not burdened with schedules and shot lists, and the AD isn't hassling you to get the next shot set up, you are free to make creative decisions as you see fit, right on the spot.
Personal Expression - A film is a reflection of the director’s own style and subtleties. By adopting an auteurist approach, each filmmaker etches out their own personality. Experimental filmmaking offers filmmakers the ability to express whatever the hell they want, in any way they want.
Social Expression - satire and subtlety are tools at your disposal and you can play around with them as you please. As opposed to conventional narrative films, experimental films can implicitly state their allegiance while sliding under the radar in the name of art
Defining a Unique Cinematic Voice - rather than losing out in the myriad of similarly styled (strikingly similar) ad commercials, an experimental take can offer the audience a taste of the extraordinary (albeit the decision of embracing the unconventional may be a little risky)
Here are some of the most revered ad filmmakers within the industry today!
Rodrigo Saavedra is a director of commercials, branded content and music videos. He worked as an art director, copywriter and creative director for various agencies, taking home several awards from the D&AD, One Show and Cannes Lions, before he started directing in 2013. Most widely known for his Heinekens, Nestlé and Scrabble advertisements - Saavedra has mastered the art of humanising commercial marketing. He understands that to create an impact in the age of media consumption, it is important to be more than just a simple ripple in the waters.
As can be seen in the above linked video, Saavedra has managed to find love even in the most mundane of places, and briefs. He understands the universality of companionship, and belongingness - and that is exactly what is reflected in his work. This film won him his first Cannes Lion, and was also termed as “The Perfect Love Story for Word Nerds”.
Narrating the story of two lonely people looking for a sense of love, Saavedra engages in word play and anagrams and signs off with a powerful statement - “There’s magic in words”
This Heinekens campaign is a shout-out to all the teetotallers in a group of drinkers - with the launch of their non-alcoholic, booze-free beer. With his film, Rodrigo Saavedra takes us on a voyage through history to see the embarrassment of raising a glass sans alcohol. By giving the brief a humorous agenda, Saavedra pokes fun at the conventional attitudes regarding alcohol, and does true justice to the campaign.
It’s not often that you see a corporate banking institution opt for an animated, experimental and obscure advertising. But the companies brave enough to take the risk, receive huge gains as well. Breaking through the noise of preachy campaigns, ‘Now You See’ shows you how monotonous and mechanised our lives have become. Nubank, with its digital banking platform - provides a solution to the long queues and daily commotion and “reinvents your financial life”.
When asked in an interview about one thing he could change about the advertising industry, he said:
“Thinking seriously about branded content. Not having branded content be the afterthought of a TV idea. I feel like everybody talks about it, and everybody wants to do it, but it’s usually the last idea in an 80 page presentation deck, so it’s the first idea to be left behind when budgeting starts.”
Ian Pons Jewell https://ianponsjewell.com/
Ian Pons Jewell is a luminary in the commercial directing world, being voted the #1 commercial director globally by industry producers for the second year in a row. He has directed spots for Apple, Oculus, XBOX, Jack Daniels and many more.
In the age of overstimulation and mass production of content, Ian understands the need to not only think outside the box, but to also remain grounded to the brand you are representing. Taking ordinary products, he creates content that imprints itself in your mind. Whether the brand is a well established one such as Nike or Disney +, or a telecommunication brand like THREE, his visuals and concepts stretch beyond the horizon, and explore the futuristic charm that has always been a subject of intrigue.
Be it rewriting history, or fabricating the future - his commercials never fail at leaving a mark. His surreal visual style and flinchingly uncompromising outlook towards life have influenced his artistic vision.
You learn so much in commercials, in terms of diplomacy and in terms of persuasion. Essentially, you’re bringing a lot of disparate people along to a place which might actually go against their own interests.
Three’s ‘Real 5G’ campaign is nothing short of a great endeavour into the unknown. Imagining what the future may look like is a hard enough task, but bringing that imagination to life, and showing it on screen - is another challenge within itself. With a visual language that stays cohesive throughout the film, and enhancing what the future may look like - Jewell presents a refreshing take on AI - one where humans and technology collaborate, not compete.
Toy Story, The Simpsons and Zombies come to life in Disney’s commercial for promoting their OTT Platform - Disney +. A blend of CGI and live-action, this commercial film visualises the experience of watching our favourite shows, and brings home Disney’s core message of ‘timeless storytelling’. In a Rear Window type set up, we see into different apartments in a city block, and in each one the occupants are living out the dramas of a particular piece of Disney+ content. This also further ascertains that Disney + is not merely for children, and targets a wider demographic.
Ever wondered if phones set the human race back by a few years, or if they have a negative impact on us? Well, imagine how many disasters could have been salvaged, if only there was a cellphone in sight.
Jewell’s ad film for the brand ‘Three’ does just that - by reimagining how the trajectory of historical life events would have changed, if technology existed at that point in time. The Titanic would have sailed safely, because gps would spot the iceberg long before human eyes would. Rome would not be a fallen empire, because LinkedIn would help in recruiting a new ruler. Jesus walking on water would not be just a myth, because his followers would have recorded the miracle. So, phones actually do save lives - rather than the contrary idea of them harming us.
It’s about removing a sense of entitlement toward your vision somewhat. You’re all a bunch of humans with different interests, and you want to take everyone on a journey. You’re trying to convince people to go all the way up this mountain to this thing, which only you can see. There’s also these nice easy flat paths to the side going somewhere else that they all want to take, but only you can see the final film at the mountain top in your brain. No one else can. You have to paint the picture for them and bring them on the more difficult path. That’s what I try to do.
He believes that finding humour in the brief is of absolute importance. He enjoys subverting commercials to see if he can get away with the small subtleties. If he believes that something in his mind would fit the brief, he pushes for it ferociously, and in an unflinching manner. To have that sort of conviction in your ideas is pertinent to creating masterpieces. But this cannot come off as demanding. You need to prove exactly why your idea is perfect for the brief, and why it would work.
The art of persuasion requires you to put aside your entitlement and pride, and have a shared vision to create what's best for the brand.
I fell in love with filming... with the idea of being able to tell stories through moving images.
With a penchant for horror and satire, Sam Pilling’s commercials have created a niche for themselves. Not many would associate an AUDI commercial with a horror house and creepy sounds, but in Pilling’s commercial - it surprisingly works.
Ever wondered how exactly the tortoise beat the hare in the race? Well, it was all due to a good night of sleep of course. And for good sleep, you need a mattress that complies with your needs. An IKEA mattress provides just that. This film was a modern take on the classic 'Hare and the Tortoise' fable, with the tagline - Tomorrow, starts tonight
His campaign #WeThe15 to highlight the lives of those who may be differently abled, and focus on the things we share rather than the difficulties we don’t - leaves a mark on the viewers. With a slight hint of irony, and wholesome commentary - the campaign urges us to look at how wonderfully ordinary we all are - rather than the barriers that keep us apart. The film helps to shift the narrative around people with disabilities - away from one in which they are either stereotyped as objects of pity, or put on a pedestal.
Similarly, his Apple ‘Election’ Campaign with the tagline - Your Next Computer is Not a Computer provides a keen insight into the educational aspect of Apple Products by targeting a specific demographic - high schoolers. Creating an engaging and visually appealing narrative, he manages to highlight all the features of the I-Pad Air without sounding preachy or technical, or even advertising the product explicitly.
Kim Gehrig, an Australian director - brings a refreshing sense of wit and honesty to the work she creates. Her work spans over different genres, right from Apple and New York Times to AirBnb - and each film of hers creates a space for itself amidst the chaos of advertising. She understands the value of retention and familiarity, and her works provide just that. With an intuitive feminist perspective, Gehrig tackles sensitive subjects with vulnerability and emotions.
With each Apple product commercial - be it the iPhone 12 Pro with its cinematic lens, or the AirPods Pro with their noise cancelling features - Kim Gehrig transports us to another dimension filled with stunning visuals and soundtracks. With the AirPods Commercial, she breaks through the clutter by quite literally cancelling the noise. Apple rarely needs any introduction, much less advertising. But with films like this, the brand is elevated to another level - one of equal parts luxury and comfort.
In a world that's constantly under crisis, it is essential to have a sense of community, to believe that - we are truly in this together. We cannot simply live under a rock and wish our troubles away. Truth is Essential, and Life needs Truth. This campaign is rooted in unbiased journalism, in comfort and it responds to the idea that the truth can guide us through life and help us navigate the world we live in. In the format of a fast paced visual poem - created out of NY Times headlines - the film puts the infectious rhythm of the writing and the story in the viewer’s head.
Other commendable works by Kim Gehrig:
Key features of experimental Ad Filmmaking:
Choosing a unique angle to tackle the brief
Elevating the emotionality quotient
Playing with visuals and music
Ensuring that your vision comes through
Have fun with the brief
Experimental Commercial Cinema relies on the art of aesthetics to ensure that the viewer is engaged. In an age of monotony and incessant media consumption, a piece of content needs to stand out, to be noticed - to gain traction and attention. Commercial advertising, no matter how artistic and free-flowing, needs to sell a definitive product at the end of the day. And by creating a visual and sensory experience in the process, the director can try to retain the product in the memory of the viewer.