From cultural traction to commercial trends: The entwined worlds of film and commercial creativity

How film influences advertising is a classic industry conversation that tends to evoke either enthusiastic discussion of directing heroes or waves of nostalgia for childhood cinematic moments. But it’s probably the cross-fertilisation between the two industries’ talent and techniques that makes it a dialogue people never tire of.

Few such conversations fail to acknowledge the influence of Ridley Scott and his creative rise from Hovis to Alien; David Lynch’s trademark surrealism; Martin Scorsese’s classic atmospheric drama or Wes Anderson’s technical precision. Be it a borrowing of Christopher Nolan’s iconic sequencing in Inception or the realism of Paddington Bear’s fur, the craft of film has enduring commercial appeal.

One of the reasons for this, according to Gravity Road founder Mark Eaves, is that the ‘breakthroughs’ of film make it easier for art directors to “win over their clients on a particular creative idea”.

“There’s already that cultural traction,” he says, and when films invest so much in cinematic novelty that they just break even, or even make a loss, brands can be a saving grace by following through and making these into commercial trends.

Director and writer Ben Dickinson, known for inventive music videos for LCD Soundsystem as well as his work for Google and Puma with Brooklyn-based creative production company Ghost Robot, also identifies with brands’ needs for creative justification. “There tends to be a lot of bureaucratic pressure in corporations that requires justification of all creative decisions. It can make the storyboards become some sort of contract,” he says.

But it is in advertising that directors often get to trial novel camera rigs or technical infrastructure. Dickinson recalls that it was with Ford he first experimented with an aerial crane that could pan and tilt with unprecedented fluidity (an experience he draws on in his latest film Creative Control) while designer and director Gavin Rothery honed his technical skills projection-mapping for Toyota. “What is exciting about brands is that they are looking for new ways to engage,” says Rothery.

Using the technique, which renders objects fluid, morphing and changing in structure, Rothery turned a dark east London tunnel and an Auris model into a luminescent and futuristic piece of robotic theatre. Although he admits that the projection-mapping was a “technical ball-ache”, seeing it become a trend in experiential marketing globally was testament to its visual power.

While some directors tend to veer away from a commercial approach for fear of creative compromise, sci-fi obsessed Rothery is certainly not shy about the possibilities of product placement. “When it’s done right, it really works well,” he says, referring to Luc Besson’s Fifth Element. “There’s that scene where the characters drive up to the futuristic McDonald’s drive-thru. The set is fantastic – even the workwear was designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. You get this lovely layering across the film, which becomes an entire world.”

Gravity Road worked with Bombay Sapphire on its ‘Imagination Series’,  which included the Bafta-winning short film Room 8

Rothery, who worked with producer and director Duncan Jones, as well as this issue’s guest editor Trevor Beattie, on the 2009 space mission story Moon, is currently working on his own feature film, due out in 2017/18. As part of the creative process, Rothery finds himself more influenced by real-life, closely following advances in military equipment, robotics and technology.

“The world today is sci-fi,” he says. “I mean, you’ve got the US military agency DARPA working on specific requests for soldiers like making robots to carry their backpacks. Or you have mind-controlled Scalextric, or nano-technology invisibility cloaks like something out of Harry Potter. It’s already here. What’s being created in real-life is stranger than fiction.”

As such, his aim is to team up with robotics manufacturers and computer-aided software firms to explore how they might be brought to life in the film.

While Rothery is enthused about the sci-fi trajectory of technology in real-life, Dickinson is more concerned with its darker side. Drawing inspiration from his own experience in the world of advertising and technology, his sci-fi satire Creative Control, first screened at the 2015 SxSW Film Festival, is a cautionary tale about an overworked ad exec and a high-profile campaign for augmented reality glasses. Things begin to go awry when the lines between reality and augmented reality blur. The look of Creative Control is highly influenced by luxury advertising with, for example, Scotch poured beautifully in slow motion. Rather than evoke desire, however, the intention is to highlight addiction.

“Our lives are mediated so much by technology these days,” says Dickinson. “There tends to be this shiny, utopian selling of technology as a game changer, but until we address some of our basic human problems, technology will only magnify and amplify those problems. I really wanted to use the language of advertising to show the character’s addictions – the technology, the substances, the alcohol. It metaphorically cuts across – the irony is that, be it an app or tobacco, an addictive product is a winning product.”

Creative Control may be a cold and cautionary critique of the reality of technology and advertising, but brands and agencies can take some cheer from the campaigns that strike a rare commercial and creative balance, such as Gravity Road’s work with Bombay Sapphire on the Imagination Series.

The 2013/14 campaign supported five budding filmmakers to each create a short-form piece around Oscar-winning writer Geoffrey Fletcher’s script. Stripped of stage direction, the script allowed the filmmakers to put the power of their imagination to work.

One of the films, the surreal Room 8, was not only chosen as Vimeo’s Staff Pick and won a Webby award, but scooped Best Short Film at the British Academy Film & Television Awards – unprecedented for branded content.

Still from Gavin Rothery’s current feature film project The Last Man

“I think what really made the Imagination Series work for the brand was that it was a full through-the-line campaign – you had the recruitment assets, the events, the judging panel. It was a subtle yet very powerful brand proposition. Sometimes that’s what’s missing from these brand films made by big name directors,” says Eaves.

Right now, the classic film/advertising conversation tends to be dominated by a generation of creatives whose influence is pre-mobile and pre-internet. But the frames of reference are changing. “It used to be all about the beautifully shot wide angle in film, but we’re seeing more and more how shooting for mobile – the vertical or square shot – is taking precedence,” explains Eaves. This will contribute to a whole new filmic language and cross-fertilisation driving tomorrow’s cultural conversations.

This piece was first published in The Drum's 20 April issue, guest-edited byBMB co-founder Trevor Beattie.

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