MOCEAN’s Michael Smiy on the intricacies and challenges of crafting trailers for blockbuster movies and TV shows
Michael Smiy works in a corner of the advertising industry that weirdly doesn't receive a great deal of awareness. He's a creative director at LA agency MOCEAN, which is best known for its trailer work on blockbuster films and TV shows - think Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4 and HBO's 'Euphoria'. Earlier this year, Promax named them Agency of the Year for North America.
Michael has been a creative collaborator on over 75 campaigns during his time at the agency, including the development of conceptual A/V promos and full 360 strategy and campaigns – including work for HBO (‘Sharp Objects’, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’), Amazon (‘Homecoming’, ‘The Boys’), FX (‘Mayans’, ‘What We Do In The Shadows’), as well as Netflix and Spectrum.
Additionally, Michael has directed concept spots for a number of major networks, studios and streaming services, including AMC, Amazon, Marvel, HBO Now (Promax 2015 winner) and Fahrenheit 451 and TNT’s Animal Kingdom (Promax 2017 winner). He’s also directed content for Netflix’s ‘Jessica Jones’, HBO’s ‘Real Time With Bill Maher,’ TLC’s ‘Too Close to Home’ and Food Network’s ‘Worst Cooks & Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives’.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Michael about how wound him making trailers and the differences of doing so compared to traditional 'ads'.
LBB> Trailer creation is an intriguingly specific corner of the advertising industry - but one that's so important and can garner huge audiences. How did you end up doing what you do?
Michael> It certainly is. I never really considered a career in this niche part of the industry, it just happened upon me. There was a moment in my life, like many have, when I was crazy indecisive about what career path I wanted to take. I bounced between architecture, stage lighting, photojournalism, and advertising. Mainly, I wanted to make something, to build and capture. But underlying all this was my profound love of cinema. I love film and television and have always felt compelled to tell stories in that medium.
Unfortunately filmmaking never really seemed like a ‘practical’ career growing up. I made little movies in high school, but discounted this notion of working in this trade immediately whenever it popped into my mind, even though I realise now that urge was undeniable. For a moment in time, I determined that the route of traditional brand advertising was best suited for me. After all, that was the ‘practical’ solution.
Long story short, I had a crisis, abandoned that endeavour and moved from Michigan to Los Angeles. After buying some time to get my Masters degree from USC, I arrived at MOCEAN. And in my mind, I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do – that is, making little conceptual films for each client on each campaign. I’m building. I’m capturing.
LBB> Have you worked at a more 'traditional' ad agency? How do you feel that generating a campaign for a consumer brand compares to one for a film or TV show?
Michael> I spent some time working summers at JohnsonRauhoff, which is a phenomenal little agency in Southwest Michigan. But I never spent time developing a career within a traditional agency. This question is asked often – and I’m curious to hear from those on the other side of the line. In my view, brand and entertainment advertising can be very different but also remarkably similar. I see a show as, essentially, a predefined brand. The filmmakers have developed a tone that will permeate the entire marketing campaign. Our job is to simply translate that vision into pithy, efficient and gripping content that sells the promise of the show.
LBB> As a kid, were you a TV nut? Did you ever see yourself working in TV?
Michael> Absolutely I was. At one point, I was watching nearly every show on television. I had a spreadsheet to keep track of the schedule (this is before on-demand streaming!). Like I said, I never really saw television or any related industry as a viable career path. Didn’t occur to me.
LBB> And were you a creative kid? What were you like?
Michael> I was and I wasn’t. My parents say I was stern, often scowling or staring at people… constantly observing the world around me with scrutiny, then reflecting back my observations by a series of ‘what if…’ questions.
But in the traditional sense, I never really excelled in art classes or English. In fact, I was told I was not very good at either. That stuck with me, and even through college I never really felt that I fit in with the other ‘creative’ types. I felt miscast. Like a fraud. That certainly motivated me to harness my curiosity and embrace my own natural ‘brand’ of creativity. My own method.
LBB> You worked on DDD! As this piece suggests, I love Guy Fieri and watch DDD when I need to unwind. What work did you do with the show? Are you a fan?
Michael> Yes I did! That was one of my first campaigns as a creative director at MOCEAN. We were tasked with creating an original concept promo that played into the power of Guy Fieri’s fanbase and his DDD talents. I do watch the show from time to time now when it’s on. I feel a connection after that shoot!
LBB> One thing I noticed when looking at your work is that you work on TV shows that span loads of genres. How do you find the challenge of building interest for such varied work? Is there a particular genre that you enjoy working on the most?
Michael> It can be a challenge, especially when I’m working on a few campaigns at once. I’ll find myself experiencing a bit of ‘genre whiplash’ as I come off a call to discuss the mechanisms of a horror piece and then jump over to a gag-filled comedy spot. But that’s what keeps it fresh for me. It’s like I’m working out a different creative muscles each time. As for my favourite genre… I’d have to say either thriller or sci-fi.
LBB> Which pieces of work are you most proud of and why?
Michael> One from recent memory is The Walking Dead season 10 promo:
It’s the closest to a ‘mood piece’ I’ve been able to achieve in promo. I wanted to capture each of the characters in this sort of seemingly loose, ethereal portraiture. Like they existed together in a collective nightmare. The client shared that vision and I think it shows in the final piece. We shot each of the cast members at high speed on a BOLT rig in the middle of the forest with rain, fire, smoke… walkers… It was a logistical feat and I couldn’t be more proud of the work from everyone involved.
LBB> You're the same age as me and also find the fascination / confusion around advertising to consumers amusing. Why do you think advertisers and agencies struggle so much? Where are they going wrong?
Michael> I’ve thought a lot about this. And I’d like to think, as a millennial, I would have an authentic insight into the matter. But I certainly don’t want to make blanket statements for my generation. We’re looked at as a challenge – they have to figure us out! Speak our language! What do millennials want? How do they want it? Etc…
You have to remember, mass consumer advertising as we know it has only really been around for 100 years. You can trace it back to Edward Bernays, the father of PR. And since that time, I’d say this dilemma seems to be universal... cyclical. There has always been an older generation at the helm trying to adapt to the ways of the youth. They did it in the ‘60s with the counterculture. And some of the most innovative, influential work from that time was produced by those who were undeniably in-tune with what that generation was really saying. Maybe those artists were a part of the younger generation. Or on the cusp.
So my interpretation is this – mediums change but communication is universal. There’s no need to overcomplicate it. I think the only reason an agency would be struggling with this is because they’re not willing to break the rules that have been defined by prior generations. The simplest solution is this – hire millennials. There’s no one better suited to speak to a millennial than a millennial. Okay… no more using the word ‘millennial.’
All that’s constant is the big idea. How we birth that into the world? That answer will change from generation to generation.
LBB> In a nutshell, how CAN brands reach millennials?
Michael> Okay, one last reference to millennials!
That’s a good question but I think it’s impossible to answer. Because it depends on the brand, their goals, the energy of the zeitgeist, etc. My take is this – before all else, be authentic. Find a sense of humanity in the brand and be true to it. Own it. Don’t work too hard, don’t try too hard. Just be chill.
LBB> You're a pretty all-around creative - you direct, photograph, light, can do post. Where did you learn your craft?
Michael> I’ve mentored under a number of talented creative professionals over the years – Rob Regovich, Ben Pancoast, Greg Harrison and Andrew Turman to name a few. They are experts in their craft and were willing to share their knowledge through a relentless barrage of questioning from yours truly. I’m an evergreen student, my curiosity has always pushed me to seek new learning opportunities. This is where I learned to light, to compose, to direct, to look at the world in a different way. All from these mentors.
LBB> And do you flex any of these creative skills outside of work?
Michael> Absolutely, it’s a necessity! Whether it’s a photo series, a composite, short film, feature, cooking, making wine… it’s so important to ‘stretch’ creatively. I’ll admit, it’s easy for me to overthink and obsess about a project to the point of overt procrastination. But I have to remember, these creative pursuits are like sharpening the knife. The final destination is unclear, but each project brings me closer and closer to it!