Davud Karbassioun, global president at Pulse Films, on banishing the trend for trends and allowing that precious space for the magic that can’t be put into words
The growth of film and episodic content over recent years has resulted in a rise of cinematic quality across advertising. As craft in filmmaking continues to push the boundaries of commercial content, Dublin-based post production powerhouse Screen Scene partners with LBB on the Meet Your Makers channel for a new series exploring the ever blurring line between entertainment and commercial film.
Speaking with heads of production, agency producers, production company owners and executive producers, ‘Craft Where Worlds Collide’ will discuss how entertainment and commercial trends are reshaping the quality of content that consumers expect from advertising, and what this means for production.
In this interview, Davud Karbassioun, global president at Pulse Films reflects on how advertising has lost its courage and how equal time share could be the key to elevating craft.
LBB> How have you seen film craft evolve over recent years and how has it impacted the advertising world?
Davud Karbassioun> We've been through so many cycles over the years where the craft process has been a quickly relegated priority in our industry but I think optimistically there's a welcome respect and renaissance for craft happening in filmmaking. As brands and agencies brought things in-house over the course of the last decade, the objective was simply to try to monetise and globalise production. Packaged up in a drive to unlock value and save time, it is really nothing more than an unapologetic drive for business to capture more revenue and it’s here to stay.
I feel like we've matured from that conversation, not least given the results, respecting that there are different gears to advertisers’ filmmaking needs. If anything it’s helped fuel a welcome respect for not only how best to make things but how hard it is to make something special.
It was similar in the early 2000s when YouTube’s introduction to UGC was quickly translated by the industry as an excuse to encourage cheap filmmaking that “will go viral” in a world where “we are all filmmakers now”.
Technology has advanced so much even since then and we do indeed have all the tools to create a cinematic masterpiece in our pockets. To quote the master himself Sir John Hegarty “Everyone can be an artist, but not everyone should exhibit”.
Talent is king. It’s not just what you make and how you make it, it’s WHO is making it that is everything and the foundation of any great production company. Sounds obvious but too often procurement focuses on the ‘how’ not the ‘who’, without ever the context of ‘why’...
Filmmaking is a collaboration of fiercely talented specialists, people obsessive about their craft and that live, breathe and sharpen it every day. That goes for directors and producers but also for all the incredible talent in between - the cinematographers, composers, production designers, stylists, VFX specialists, sounds engineers, colourists, editors, and more.
We are so lucky that our industry manages to attract the very best talent. Banksy even said, “The thing I hate most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us with the slow and self-obsessed to become artists”. With that in mind it’s complete madness to not take advantage of that. We must continue to attract that talent and ensure we do everything to set them up for success. Because that is when the magic happens, creating a feeling that can’t be put into words.
One of the very few positives about last year was from a production perspective. Everyone had to listen to producers again. Producers tend to be from a world where you just figure it out, you just do it. So, I think in the pandemic where there were so many restrictions, limitations, and things to bear in mind, it made us all much more creative in our approach and more disciplined and respectful of the production process as we had to work within new boundaries.
That goes for both the agency producers and the production companies. That partnership is the key to success. As someone who has sat on both sides of the fence, I have unconditional respect for both roles. When that partnership is fuelled with respect and collaboration everything else falls into place. Agency producers particularly have the opportunity and I believe responsibility to really embrace and protect the process of craft now. It's not easy but it's no accident that a lot of the best work is made when that spirit is unapologetically a priority.
LBB> There has been huge growth in film and episodic content over recent years which has raised the bar for craft in advertising too. Have you seen a change in consumer expectation and demand for cinematic quality in commercial content?
Davud> The investment in and quality of film and TV right now is extraordinary and that poses a challenge for brands. Consumers are much more sophisticated when it comes to storytelling and production values and as result they have elevated expectations. I don't think anyone's impressed with pretty pictures or special effects for the sake of it, for example. But if there are any cracks in the craft they are quick to notice and it breaks the spell. If something doesn't look and feel right, they won’t engage with it. Equally a beautifully crafted piece of film with no meaningful message or story falls flat on its face.
Then you have the awkward truth that hardly any of us are freely watching commercials - unless perhaps we're watching sports or reality TV. None of us are even in a place where commercials are interrupting us in the same way. So brands are having to work harder to earn attention and audiences time/respect. The good news is that all translates into brands championing creativity and the creative process to make work that is truly rewarding to its audience. I feel like the quality of work in recent years hasn’t been at its best but this reality coupled with the extraordinary circumstances of the last couple of years means that I optimistically believe we are about to enter a new golden age of craft and creativity in advertising. To be honest our audiences are demanding it so I think the profile and credibility of our industry is at stake, so we have to.
LBB> How has this demand evolved the way in which you approach your work as a production company?
Davud> At Pulse we really are a talent led business. We back our talent and we curate our roster of filmmakers very carefully. It's a huge investment for us and a unique partnership where the stakes are very high. But we are also a creative culture and community.
I grew up in an era where advertising was very director led. I saw the power of taking a strong idea from an agency, and then liberating it through the process of craft. Another seminal Sir John Hegarty quote: “Advertising is 80% idea, but also 80% execution.” I love that quote because it stresses the equal importance of both in a way that doesn’t make sense, because yes advertising at its best is art, it shapes and creates popular culture and it’s not a scientific process. You can have a really great idea but without the craft it can go so horribly wrong. Equally, craft will never compensate for a dull idea.
One thing I am struck by when I revisit the incredible work of my late dear friend Ringan Ledwidge, is that first and foremost, the craft behind every single piece is extraordinary. He was the master of assembling an extraordinary team and elevating the process in execution, but also the ideas on everything he did were simple and exceptional. He was very outspoken about that and he saw himself as “the guardian of an idea and of yours and the creatives’ vision”. He wrote: "I still believe that stories well told rise above the mediocrity and, in turn, provoke, inspire and financially deliver. And there are just about enough agencies, creatives, directors and clients to keep that alive. This kind of work is still the work that makes the difference.”
There was a time where commercials like those Ringan made overshadowed the film and TV they were interrupting. Both the production values and the storytelling. That just isn’t the case anymore, partly because the quality of film and TV is at an all time high but I worry that we are in a world that is playing it too safe with too much generic and repurposed work and a compromised production approach.
While filmmakers have a responsibility to protect the idea in our approach, I really hope that at the very least, as we celebrate Ringan’s incredible legacy, a new generation of talent sees his work and is inspired to raise the bar.
LBB> You worked on Ninian Doff’s “Out of Sight” music video for Run the Jewels which acted as a marketing piece for Ninian’s debut feature film Get Duked! Can you tell us about your experience on this project?
Davud> Ninian Doff is a brilliant talent, an incredible writer, and a true craftsperson. He grew in the world of music videos to really both sharpen his craft, but also really showcase it. He then moved into commercials but in his spare time wrote a feature film called GET DUKED. We were proud production partners on that film and leveraged our multidisciplinary business! We took the film to SXSW and it won the jury prize, next thing you know Amazon purchased it.
To market the film we had the idea to not just run trailers which we would do anyway, but to also do a music video for our friends Run the Jewels as they had both participated on the films soundtrack but had also just launched what felt like the album of the year RTJ3, a very provocative, outspoken album in the midst of lockdown capturing the spirit of that moment.
We made a music video for Out of Sight, starring the lead cast from the film along with the artists. We shot with Run the Jewels and 2 Chainz, all in different US States, and we filmed the cast of the film in London to create this beautiful example of craft - a crazy, psychedelic, trippy journey. Ninian made an incredible music video which was also a commercial for the movie all of which we produced. It’s a nice example of how at Pulse Films we can work as a production company across different formats and platforms in a complimentary, connected and innovative way.
LBB> Pulse is known for delivering high quality across multiple disciplines from advertising and music videos to scripted entertainment and documentary storytelling. With a holistic view across it all, what do you think that advertising can learn from these other disciplines when it comes to elevating its cinematic quality?
Davud> I think the big difference between advertising and entertainment is that brands need to make advertising and that it has and relies on a pre-paid audience. People don't need entertainment - people appreciate entertainment but only when they are rewarded by it. So the stakes when you are making entertainment are so much higher as if you don’t deliver or find the right home, your work will just be invisible. The challenge for brands though is that audiences are getting increasably impatient, they are so savvy, so sophisticated, that they are increasingly critical of work they don’t appreciate especially when it’s interrupting them.
Aside from that, so often advertising tries to do too much and is too controlling of the process. Too often it’s a box ticking exercise with too many stakeholders, compromising the overall impact. If you want to make something great, while you need to be disciplined about the purpose, there needs to be a moment when you champion the specialists and embrace some risk. As one of our directors, James Marsh, has said, “You have to leap. Look before you leap - but you have to leap”.
Nothing magic will happen if you mitigate all the risk. That is a learning brands can take from the world of film and TV where nothing successful is made by a committee, without trusting the specialists or without embracing an element of the unknown.
I think sometimes there's a feeling that the magic comes easy. A lot of producers (myself included) have this sort of masochistic relationship with making things, where when it's hard it's going to be special and when things are too easy and everyone's high fiving on set that's when the fear sets in. Not that it needs to be hard or it needs to be difficult, it just requires a lot of work and I think anything you see that's beautiful has an element of risk in it and you can often feel the love that has gone into the process.
LBB> Any last points to make?
Davud> Having worked on the advertising side, I have seen how long agencies and brands spend on the ideation side of things which is obviously important. But I think agencies are more on the backfoot than ever with their clients, giving them what they want rather than what they really need. They spend so much time and resources in development, but what inevitably happens is you eat into the craft process. So, you keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, but the launch of the campaign doesn't move. And then it’s the time spent on the craft process that suffers.
I worked with a legend called Mark Ready (Head of Art at BBH) a time ago, and he was a true artist behind so much of the great iconic print advertising posters and design. He would always tell the brands teams to give him HALF of the time available to make it. If we have 6 months, let’s split the development and production 50/50 and allow 3 months each. If we have 2 weeks, we get a week each. It aligns nicely with the Hegarty hypothesis that the best work is a balanced: 80% idea and 80% execution. Q.E.D
Time is precious and if you compromise it, even if you have millions and millions of dollars, it's going to have an impact. In a world where everyone's obsessed with budgets and process – lets just remember to protect time too, as often that is the core ingredient to excellence.