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Ryan Travis: “It Feels Like I’m at the Forefront of Technology and Storytelling”

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Havoc’s Emmy award-winning Director Ryan Travis sits down with LBB and shares why we should balance ground-breaking technology with the old tech, how Italy is his second home, and why you shouldn’t decide on anything until you really need to

Ryan Travis: “It Feels Like I’m at the Forefront of Technology and Storytelling”

Havoc's Ryan Travis is a director at the top of his game. He’s a multi-Emmy award winner, and has a hard-won expertise in big-budget action work. He first got into snowboarding at college, and you could say his interest snowballed from there… 

The very series that got him an Emmy - NFL 360 - returned to our screens last year with a new film, directed by Ryan, looking at the story of former NFL star Mark Pattison. Since then, Ryan’s beautiful Ode to South Central film set the stage for this year’s Super Bowl as it opened the broadcast for millions across the world. Meanwhile, a recent set of humorous spots for 24 Hour Fitness (from the Chicago-based agency Ten35 and produced by Havoc Content) showcased the director’s versatility with a lighthearted and off-the-wall approach. 

To find out more about what makes him tick - and how he managed to get a drone to the top of Mount Everest - LBB sat down with Ryan. 


LBB> Ryan, take us back to the start: What made you want to be a director? 

Ryan> I’ve been fascinated by film for as long as I can remember. I began asking questions about how they were made and thus my journey as a filmmaker began. I watched all kinds of films growing up and became a big fan of both Tony and Ridley Scott. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner. 


LBB> You began your career “in the mountains directing action sports films across the globe” - can you tell me more about that? What drew you to the genre?

Ryan> I went to film school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and I was on the snowboard team. It was a natural combination of documentary filmmaking and a sport I was passionate about at the time. And then I started working for Warren Miller Entertainment as an intern and then as a camera assistant. Warren Miller was a very unique company in that they made a feature-length documentary film every year with a very small team of people, and they also shot commercials for action sports brands and some snow running footage for car companies. I learned a lot being a part of that small team; I was able to be a part of all facets of production and post production.

One key lesson I learned was how to create a lot with a small crew. We travelled to many remote locations and told some very exciting and visual stories. It was at this point I really fell in love with travelling and experiencing different cultures, food, art, and people.


LBB> Are there any recent projects which have been especially exciting for you?

Ryan> Yeah, towards the end of last year we premiered the 5th season of the Emmy-winning documentary series NFL 360. I’ve won three Emmys with the show. The opening episode, ‘Searching for the Summit’, premiered in Sun Valley Idaho as a fundraiser and screening and then on the NFL network and digital platforms. The episode is a thirty-minute documentary that follows Mark Pattison, a former player, as he tries to summit Mount Everest as a part of his search for clarity and meaning in his life.

We filmed with Mark across nine months, but a COVID spike meant for the finale in Nepal we couldn’t be in-person. I scrambled to find a drone and camera film in Nepal and had to direct them remotely as Mark scaled the mount. It was no mean feat flying a drone at one of the highest elevations in the world. 

I also have two narrative films in the development process which are both exciting stories, and I hope to bring them to the screen soon. 


LBB> Ode to South Central - the opening film for this year’s Super Bowl - is such a profound ode to the soul of a city. With a project as ambitious - and as high profile - as this, where did you begin? 

Ryan> Yeah, it was a very ambitious project and for me it always starts with getting to the core of the story and figuring out how to tell it in a visual way. I wanted to convey the humanity and depth of the neighbourhood from a visual perspective, which required special touches from a cinematography standpoint. This included shooting Super 16 film which gave the short film an authentic and emotional feel. 

From the beginning, shooting film for this project was always ingrained in the initial concept from Julian Gooden, and I built our visual approach around this. As a mixed media project, it was shot on both film and digital mediums to lend a raw aesthetic and foster a feeling of sincerity to the viewer. 

I chose three film stocks, Kodak Vision 3, Ektachrome, and Black and White Tri-X. This trio of motion picture film stocks were crucial in conveying various aspects of the story, and making the film feel like it spanned many generations. Ektachrome really gave it the unique colour feel from the 70’s while the Tri-X gave us some gritty impactful images. Lastly the vision stocks we used for the lower light situations that really showcased some of the natural light and beauty we were looking for.


Above: Ode to South Central saw the Emmy-nominated actor Anthony Anderson deliver a moving tribute to the iconic neighbourhood which hosted 2022’s Super Bowl. 


LBB> And did you feel any additional pressure because of the size of the audience or how much it means?

Ryan> Oh, of course. Whenever a project is going to be in front of that many people there is added pressure which always pushes you to make it even better. Fortunately we had an amazing group of creatives, crew and producers including Dustin Young and Lee Johnson. We found the strength and diversity in our team to make something great.


LBB> For the 24 Hour Fitness spots, a lot of work in this category is about intensity - whereas these ads are light hearted and inviting. What steps did you take to make sure that came across on-screen?

Ryan> I approached it in 3 main steps: acting performance, visual look, and the animation. The first step was making sure the actors' performances felt inviting, subtle and light-hearted. Secondly, I wanted the gym to feel realistic but also a little brighter and more open. To achieve that, we lit and shot it less dramatically than we normally might have. Lastly, we made sure the animated characters had a fun light hearted feel in both design and animation.


Above: Ryan’s work for 24 Hour Fitness eschews a serious tone in favour of laidback and upbeat feel. 


LBB> We see animated characters interacting with the actors in these films. Is it a challenge at all to work with animation which will be layered on top of what you’re filming?

Ryan> Animation and VFX are always a fun challenge on set. It is another detail that takes time and effort to get right. I have done a lot of VFX mixed with live action, and have developed a successful way of achieving great results. 

It all starts in pre-production working closely with the VFX team to do detailed storyboards, so that we know exactly what we need to implement on set. On this spot we shot numerous moving plates that the animated characters could live in, as well as frames where the live action actors interacted with animated characters. I always spend more time with the cast trying to give them real motivation to create performances that are authentic without real co-stars to perform with. We will mix up the performances as well so we have a lot of options in post.


LBB> Generally speaking, how would you characterise your style? 

Ryan> I would say my style is very visual mixed with strong dramatic storytelling. I love creating cinematic films with unique lighting and framing that sets a tone for the viewer before any dialogue is even spoken. I like mixing concepts with personal dramatic stories. 

You should be able to get a sense and feel the tone of the piece within five seconds, and directors should be able to hold an audience with how the story is being told too. 


LBB> And are there any specific directors or creatives who have inspired you?

Ryan> Ridley and Tony Scott, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan: they’re all filmmakers I draw inspiration from. They're all unique in their own way, but each brings an authentic real cinematic style to their films. One key thing they share that I try to bring to my filmmaking is the act of doing as much as possible in camera and on set. I feel this approach strengthens the use of VFX when you do use them and gives everything a more authentic real feel. 

I also like the boldness of Italian filmmakers both current and past who bring vibrant characters and visuals to their stories. Architecture, art, photography, and travelling are all things that inspire me creatively. I find looking at other art and artists outside of filmmaking can be very inspiring.


LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

Ryan> This is a question that gets asked a lot, and I do feel like I’m at the forefront with technology and storytelling. I incorporate new technology whenever needed to help advance the story I’m telling, but it’s also important to look to older technology as well. It all depends on what the story is and what the project entails. Everything should work to enhance that specific story and that means different things. 

I recently shot a project that used hologram technology to record two interview subjects in separate rooms and brought them together via a hologram. This was a solution to shoot around Covid protocols but also provided a unique visual element that enhanced the story. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I returned to an older style of tech and shot super 16mm film and used some vintage lenses to create a more organic grounded story.


LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Ryan> I like to start by pulling visuals that I think set the tone for the spot. This could be an image, a piece of art, an old film, an iconic place. This gives me a visual piece of inspiration to think about as I write the treatment. Once I have my creative concept I start thinking about approach and execution. Shot design, cameras, locations, cast - really it’s anything that will bring the script to life.


LBB> Finally, you’ve mentioned the importance of having an ‘immense understanding’ of the whole creative process. What makes that such a vital component of modern filmmaking? 

Ryan> As a filmmaker there is an immense amount of creative input after the film is shot. Returning to the subject of collaborations, I have my editor and colourist who I collaborate with frequently- this gives us a shorthand. Editorial and colour grade, sound design, mixing, and visual effects really define what the project will end up becoming. All of these elements affect the film and how the story or commercial is told. It also gives me greater flexibility in production knowing I’ll be able to tweak or adjust as needed in post. 

As a director, I think it’s important to stay involved so the initial vision is carried through to final delivery. 

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Havoc Content, Tue, 05 Apr 2022 18:00:00 GMT