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5 Filmmaking Marvels from Australia

London, UK
LBB’s Delmar Terblanche examines some wonderfully-directed commercials and promos and asks just what it is that makes these pieces so impactful

David Fincher. Michael Bay. Ridley Scott. Alex Proyas. Spike Jonze. Tony Scott. Michel Gondry.

What do these acclaimed filmmakers have in common?

They all started in commercials.

Well, commercials and music videos. But, crucially, the two forms served as the foundation for these visual iconoclasts' careers. And why not? If you can tell a story within the extremely limited time and concept constraints of a commercial or a music video, the world is your oyster. As Alex Proyas said when we spoke to him last year, “Commercials are nimble, much more so than feature filmmaking. There, you're always at the mercy of the story, and the studio, and the finances. With ads, it's much more about the immediacy of one visual and a narrative statement. That’s all that matters.”

That flexibility has meant that even directors who didn’t start in commercials or music videos (the likes of David Lynch and Wes Anderson should be invoked here) have turned to the form as a means of testing new ideas.

Thus, when we find storytellers who, as we speak, are pushing commercials and music videos in exciting new directions and telling exciting and impactful stories within that short space of time, it's only right that we celebrate them. Here are five recent pieces of masterful storytelling from the world of commercial creativity in AUNZ.

Dropbear: Qantas Health Coalition

Dropbear has made quite a splash across the world of Australian ads these past years, with his mesmerising “craft directing” that incorporates found objects, puppetry, and animation of multiple sorts.

His work has a tactile, handmade feel to it - and that’s because it often is. For this piece, for Qantas Insurance (created by agency SLIK), he operated figures no more than 2.5 cm tall.

He arranges his figures in precise, neat, charming tableaus - reminiscent of a children’s book illustration. He colour co-ordinates every element of the frame. And he refuses to compromise on his aesthetic choice - even when it makes it harder.

For the miniscule diver. Dropbear explains that the team 3D printed each individual action so that the figure could be inserted through “replacement animation”. Would pure CG have been easier? Possibly! But the risk of it being incompatible with the rest of the piece’s visual style was too great.

This is as close as an ad may come to being a truly auteurist work. No one but Dropbear could have made it.

Uncle Friendly: Genesis Owusu - GTFO

Genesis Owusu burst onto the Australian (and global) hip hop scene in 2021, and he’s maintained that momentum - in large part through smart creative collaborations, like this, with Uncle Friendly and produced by AIRBAG.

GTFO is a song about self-doubt and anxiety, which ramps up over the verse to an explosive chorus. The music video’s premise (Owusu tries to destroy a cockroach but ends up destroying his apartment) is a clear enough visual metaphor, but what really elevates the piece is Uncle Friendly’s unobtrusive but compelling direction.

He favours a tight 4:3 aspect ratio, perfect for enclosing your subject. The space is coloured and lit like the greasy bathroom in one of Michael bay’s nightmares. And wide angle lenses make the tiny frame feel massive, while never losing the constraining effect, and also distort all visuals they show. 

Uncle Friendly’s camera also starts stationary and grows handheld as the song moves from verse to chorus, mirroring the escalation of the track. None of this is revolutionary, but all of it is effective and intelligent filmmaking. And then there’s the exceptional shot at 1:41, which displays Owusu’s identity fractured in three different mirrors. That is how you do visual metaphor.

Michael Gupta: Winter Swim - Easy

This music video for the Aussie indie band Winter Swim, produced by Photoplay/Playtime, is a haunting piece of modern vampire folklore. Like the one for Genesis Owusu above, it is shot in a tight, constrictive 4:3 aspect ratio. But that’s where the similarities end.

Where Uncle Friendly’s work is an intensely subjective portrayal of self-doubt and anxiety, Michael Gupta’s work here is elegiac, subtle, and extremely objective in its storytelling.

As he put it, “it was important that the tone was grounded, utterly realistic and not heightened. We shot over several dusk evenings, always with an eye to letting the scenes unfurl with restraint, drip-feeding the story gently to draw the audience in.”

This steady approach results in longer takes with the camera often far away from the subjects. The mood and environment become just as important - the story is as much about a twilight netherworld of rural life as about the vampire at the music video’s centre.

Gupta cites Miuchael Haneke as a key inspiration, and it’s right there for anyone to see. Haneke likes to shoot violence objectively and from a distance, as though things were doomed to happen this way. In under four minutes, Gupta manages to evoke precisely the same sense of doom. What an achievement.

Jonathan Nyquist: The Best Wool in the World

This piece by Jonathan Nyquist takes a rather more expansive view of storytelling. It traverses through multiple environments - the mountaintops, a bushfire, an apartment, and a sheep paddock - and in doing so needs a visual approach that reflects the scale of its journey.

Handheld close-ups that emphasise (what appears at least to be) natural light and physical texture call to mind the work of the great Emmanuel Lebeski (aka Chivo). The way these images seem so real and tangible they can almost be touched is something right out of a Mallick or Inarritu film.

Funnily enough, then, a major centrepiece of the ad (the bushfire) is, unsurprisingly, shot on the LED volume now commonly used for blockbusters. It’s a seamless illusion, made all the more effective by Nyquist’s insistence on keeping the same casual visual style during all scenes.

The Best Wool in the World, which was created through Hogarth AU, is an arthouse epic in miniature.

Jordan Watton: History is Calling

Jordan Watton is a great director and a Kamilaroi man. And he’s brought both that skill and that cultural awareness to this piece for The Monkeys’ campaign for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The piece is a powerful call to let “the first people” have a voice, and it achieves its cumulative power through Eisensteinian montage. Watton layers image after image after image of people telling the story of the voice, with cameras which slowly push in on the storytellers - storytellers across cultures.

Cross cutting between them implies unity and commonality, while the push ins ramp up anticipation. The ad climaxes with faster and sharper editing, and match cuts of tattoos to pins, of jerseys thrown to jerseys caught - all this drives that unity and call to action further. There is rhythm now, there is purpose - the story is reaching its climax.

And what is its climax? A boy asks if this story is true. The camera does something it hasn’t done since the ad began., It simply holds on the face of the storyteller, as you watch him contemplate. You see the bated emotion of the whole piece written on his face as he pauses.

“It could be,” he replies.

Now that’s filmmaking.

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