From making a difference on FCB’s Down Syndrome Answers to developing popular web series, the up-and-coming freelance filmmaker is on a roll
Director Elias Campbell’s commercial career kicked off when FCB Canada contacted his playwright mother. She’d written a play that was performed by actors with Down Syndrome and the agency were looking for a young director with experience. Enter Elias. The campaign went on to win a number of awards, including a Cannes Gold Lion and a Webby Award – not a bad start for a freelance writer, director and producer who had spent the previous four years working his way up from an assistant position at a film and TV production company.
But Elias hasn’t abandoned his roots in the world of film and TV. He’s about to launch a new web series based on friendship, a project that brings together different directors and writers. And his previous web series, Just Cuddle, is in development as a TV show.
LBB’s Jason Caines caught up with Elias to discuss how his first ever advertising project won a slew of awards, his upcoming web series, and his experience and thoughts about the ad industry.
LBB> What were you like as a kid growing up in Canada?
Elias Campbell> I grew up in Toronto, and as a kid I was primarily focused on athletics - competitive hockey, soccer, baseball. Then about halfway through high school, I decided very suddenly to drop all sports and start playing music. I was a lead singer and guitarist in bands for many years, and got into filmmaking later on.
LBB> How did you get involved in advertising?
EC> FCB was looking for a young director who could shoot the Down Syndrome Answers campaign with a small, nimble crew. They wanted someone who had some familiarity with Down Syndrome, who had worked with performers with Down Syndrome in the past. They reached out to my mother, Judith Thompson, because she was the creator of a critically-acclaimed Toronto Fringe play called "Rare" that had a cast entirely composed of people with Down Syndrome, and she suggested they speak to me. I had been directing shorts and web series and had done videography work for "Rare”, so I was familiar and comfortable with the cast, many of whom came on for the campaign. The project went on to win a bunch of awards and that was sort of my start, I guess.
LBB> What did you study at Sheridan College? What did you learn there?
EC> After my undergrad, I did a one year post-grad program at Sheridan specializing in Screenwriting & Directing. I learned about the basic architecture of film & TV and had a chance to direct several shorts. The program also gave me a network of filmmakers to call upon after graduation and it set me up with an internship at a production company right out of school.
LBB> You're listed as a writer, producer, director? Which is your strength or the main role that takes up the majority of your time? How did you choose that to focus on?
EC> I've probably been more focused on directing recently, and that's primarily just because I've had more opportunities in that area. But I feel like anytime I'm doing any one of the three (writing, directing, producing), I'm using skills related to the other two. I feel like it helps to understand those other roles and how they influence one another.
LBB> You've been in the business since 2013. How has your workload and job role changed since then?
EC> I was nine-to-five at a film and television production company for just under four years, working my way up from an assistant to a development executive. I now work freelance which is an entirely different rhythm and pace, but it suits me. That job was centred around building a development slate for that specific company and now I'm focused more on my own work.
LBB> You've done a series of spots for FCB Canada? What's your relationship with the agency?
EC> I worked with FCB last year on the Down Syndrome Answers campaign and they brought me back for the CDSS' Anything But Sorry campaign. FCB does fantastic work and it's a privilege to work with them.
LBB> Tell us more about the Down Syndrome Answers campaign…
EC> The spot was essentially about letting people know that they don't need to tread lightly or apologise when parents have a baby with Down Syndrome; that in fact the only real misstep is to say sorry. Parents should be congratulated when they manage to bring a new life into the world, no matter whether the child has Down Syndrome or not. So, in the spot we have a group of people with Down Syndrome offer up suggestions for what you can say to a new parent, and to prove that you can say almost anything they get quite profane: "Congratu-fucking-lations", "I hope you're ready for lots of shitty diapers." We wanted the performers to have fun with it, to let their own sense of humour come through. We had a fantastic cast who gave us great material to work with.
LBB> What is the "Friendship" Web Series?
EC> It's a soon-to-be-released web series that I co-created and executive produced, and directed two episodes of. It was essentially about finding and working with new talent. We had this premise about true, memorable moments in friendships, told in five-minute black and white scenes, and because there was such an open-ended feeling to the premise we wanted to get different writers and directors in for each episode. With the nature of the concept, we felt the series could be almost anything and we were interested in capturing a range of new voices. We're currently in post-production and hope to start releasing it in the new year.
LBB> What's your favourite project that you've worked on so far in your career?
EC> I'm still quite early in my career so hopefully my favourite project is still to come! Every project offers a new learning experience and it's difficult for me to judge them against one another.
LBB> What advertising industry work or individuals inspires you?
EC> I found the Mercedes-Benz "Grow Up" campaign really moving.
LBB> Do you have any advice for budding creative people at the start of their career?
EC> Just keep making stuff, in whatever way you can. Focus more on what you're passionate about and less on what you think will get you a job. Hopefully those two line up at some point.
LBB> Do you have any plans that you want the people out there to know about?
EC> I'm hoping to do a lot more directing in the ad space. I also have a TV series in development with a company in Toronto about a professional cuddler, based on a web series I co-created, Just Cuddle.