Los York director on the organised chaos of film sets and a director's duty to prioritise diversity
Matt Vega is a multi-disciplined director and filmmaker. He combines a relentless work ethic with creative instinct to deliver real, honest human portraits that resonate on a global scale. Born and raised in NYC, Vega is passionate about telling underrepresented stories that reflect a diverse range of people and perspectives. He launched his filmmaking career at VICE Media, where he learned to tell relevant, cutting-edge stories with a clear point of view. While juggling a day job in the ad world, Vega spent nights and weekends honing his still photography and video skills. This unconventional path to directing helped shape his uniquely multi-disciplined approach to commercial ads for digital and broadcast, documentaries, and music videos. He has created for international brands that include Nike, Cisco, Asics, Google, and Sapporo. His work has landed official selection status at the 2019 Verve Film Festival and featured on sites such as Blackbook, Booooooom TV, and VICE.
Name: Matt Vega
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Repped by: Los York
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Matt> I think a project that places story first will always stand out. What I mean by ‘story first’ is a clear arc and through-line, where every scene, action, location and bit of dialogue propels the story forward in a meaningful way. As filmmakers, it’s our north star and, if followed, almost always results in engaging and memorable work.
It’s obvious when a lot of thought and attention to detail has been put into the creative, even if it’s not in its final form. That’s definitely an attribute I’ll immediately notice, gravitate towards, and get excited about. When I get the initial materials for a project, I immediately begin looking for the magic hook, that special sauce that will connect with people on an emotional level. After I find it, I start thinking about interpreting and styling everything through my lens. It’s fantastic when a script allows for amendments and evolution, and I always have a blast working closely with the brand or agency to evolve or build on an idea.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Matt> It’s a bit of an amorphous process, but typically I start with a kind of mood board and some research to help me find the appropriate tone. Really, it's my time to brainstorm and record any instinctual ideas, words, and images that I can revisit later. My favourite thing is getting lost in an idea and going down a rabbit hole of reading and research - when there’s time for it, of course.
Upfront, my initial chat with the agency or brand is a big part of the process. I like to think of it as a ‘creative handshake’, a first impression that gets everyone creatively synced where I can fill in any gaps or questions and get a sense of where everyone’s head is.
Then comes the actual build-out of the deck, which usually starts in my chaotic Notes app. Let’s label it ‘chaotic good’ for now. I’m generally running around or on set, so I’ll just start jotting in there and continue to rewrite, refine, and pull into Keynote or InDesign later on. It’s essential to hook anyone reading it in the first few pages and keep the deck’s scope succinct and easy to digest. This also translates to the design and layout, and for me, this usually means clean yet striking. Building a treatment is almost always a bespoke process, but I’ll always try to look holistically at the project and themes and find a way to pull that into the overall aesthetics.
LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Matt> For my sanity, I need to wrap my head around the how and why behind a project, which means that ‘homework’ is always a part of my process. But I think that the brand or agency team is genuinely the best starting point. After all, they’re the experts, aren’t they? Behind exceptional creative is a trove of background and context. So before anything else, it starts with a conversation, which in my experience, always ends up being rewarding and fruitful. Then I’ll go off and fill any remaining gaps with my own research. I’ll get deep in the weeds of it all, looking at past campaigns and references - anything I can get my hands on.
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Matt> Tough one! I’ll often be working closely with the creative team, jamming on the vision and making improvements to our concept. But it’s also a team that I’ll keep an active and open dialogue with throughout the project’s life, especially on set. Of course, I have to be in lockstep with my EPs and the producer, and we’ll be in constant contact, chatting through each layer and problem-solving to deliver on the vision. But I think the most important relationship for me thus far has been with my DoP. The camaraderie that comes with this relationship is like nothing else in the world, and I absolutely love it. A great DoP frees up some of my mental bandwidth to focus on things like rehearsals and performances. But here’s the thing - no relationship is singularly essential. Instead, it’s more of an ebb and flow of intensity depending on the phase of the project. Regardless of role, I expect everyone to bring great energy and ideas to the table.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Matt> I’d like to think that I’m a bit of a chameleon, so I’m really drawn to a wide array of genres and styles. Honestly, I think my versatility has been the thing that’s moved the needle for my career the most. But it also keeps me energised creatively. That said, I’m super attracted to commercials that allow for action and energy. I love movement. Also, multi-dimensional projects that combine live-action and VFX allow for a canvas-like nothing else.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Matt> A film set is a form of organised chaos and even when you cross all your t’s and dot your i’s, challenges pop up. All. The. Time. I remote directed a spot for Cisco in Guangzhou, China, a massive blade-runner-esque city with 65 million people. This scene, in particular, was shot on a pedestrian-only shopping street that was quite empty during our scout. By the time our team was boots on the ground, there was a massive influx of people and literally hundreds of people had gathered to watch along the sidewalks, which posed an enormous challenge based on the shot. We huddled and came up with the idea to act as if we were packing up and about to move so people would disperse. And it worked. We had a tiny window for a solid take, but we got the shot.
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Matt> Developing a solid rapport with the agency and brand upfront goes a long way. It builds trust. It’s my job to make sure that everyone is super clear on what we’re making, how we’re making it, and what the end result will look like. I’ll create storyboards, animatics, mood films, whatever it takes! My goal is to make sure everyone feels confident and armed with the vision heading into the shoot. But even with all the storyboards in the world, things come up, change, evolve and as the director, you need to be flexible. I think it comes down to tact. Knowing how and when to push and pull and really being smart about picking your battles.
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Matt> Unequivocally, yes to diversity! Could there be another answer? Film needs diversity to thrive, and more work needs to be made to make space for a variety of talent and stories. I’m constantly pushing for a diverse cast and crew on my sets. As the director, it’s your responsibility to make that a priority.
I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the generosity of people who passed on their valuable knowledge and advice. People who saw something and gave me a chance. This rings true for many of us, and as working creators, we all need to pay that forward.
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Matt> Prior to joining the roster at Los York, I was working as a freelancer, which I started doing during the pandemic. That was a really big adjustment for me at the time because not only did I need to adapt as a director thrown into the freelance world but also as someone who hadn’t navigated freelance life before. It was a bit harrowing at first, but it forced me to become more savvy and efficient in working and garnering new work. There were times when I felt procrastination creeping up during lockdown, so to combat that, I started setting small achievable goals for myself. This isn’t just a habit for me now; it’s pretty much a way of life.
Remote directing will be with us for quite a while, if not indefinitely, which really changes the director’s dynamic on set, communication, indeed everything. I remotely directed two great projects during lockdown. One was a scripted spot for Cisco that we filmed in China, and the other, docu-style branded content for T-Mobile, which was filmed in Florida. In a way, I feel lucky to have directed remotely on two vastly different projects because they each presented me with opportunities to problem solve in ways that I hadn’t had to before.
LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
Matt> Standard frame sizes will always have a place in my heart. But now I ask upfront: “Where will this live?” Vertical formats are everywhere, and every brand wants to get the most out of the work. As filmmakers, these new sizes and platforms like TikTok, IG and Snapchat offer us an opportunity to reach a much more extensive range of people and enjoy the built-in engagement. With that, I think there’s a fine line to maintain between the format needs for social and protecting the ‘magic’ of a traditional format. I’ll work closely with my camera team to consider those platforms and decide how to frame things to allow for the most latitude in post.
LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?
Matt> Technology helps me be the best version of a director that I can be. Maybe a bit cliche, but it's true. From pre through post, I’m using all sorts of devices and apps to draft treatments, sketch storyboards, write scripts, pre-vis, check our daylight… you get the idea. So technology is instrumental in every way, and I think it will only become more integrated into my work in ways I haven’t even thought of. The metaverse and virtual production are already changing the way we create, and the crazy part is that these platforms are only in their infancy. The implications for storytelling are massive, and world-building with tools like Unreal Engine create this almost limitless blank canvas. Look at The Mandalorian, for example. Stunning. Seamless. I’m incredibly excited for what film tech will look like in the next few years and how I can use it to build compelling worlds of my own.
LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Barclays x Unreasonable Group - Riversimple
Right off the bat, I’d say Barclays. This film is part of a series focused on sustainable businesses worldwide. I’m super into auto and tech (big F1 and Formula E nerd here) and was giddy with excitement about this film in particular because not only is the car cutting edge, but it was the first time I was able to work with a car on film. Not to mention I had the opportunity to interview this fascinating Welsh couple who built this business from the ground up. I can’t overstate how important this project was for my career in that it represented so many firsts: my first series as a commercial director, my first won triple bid, my first international shoot, and really the first time I was able to create a consistent visual language across multiple films with the budget to support it. The client and agency were immensely collaborative and supportive the entire way through, which I’m so grateful for. Barclays loved the series so much that they built a screening event in London around it and hosted about 100 VIP clients, friends, and family.
Sapporo - East Meets West
This was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever directed, hands down. Koharu is an incredible dancer with a pretty unique style. I wanted to bring the viewer inside that experience and personality and show a softer human side. So we shot primarily handheld, which I think went a long way in keeping the energy high and moments authentic. For the spotlighted dance sequence in the studio, I remember turning to my DoP Hans and saying, “What if you tried to dance with her.” We were elated with how that turned out. This piece is an excellent example of how to work alongside a brand to elevate and push a profile to a more stylised place.
Ørsted One Rotation
We had so much fun making it, but I think the best part for everyone working on it was that we weren’t selling a product and instead promoting a renewable energy source, something we desperately need more of in the US. From the jump, I had this idea to play with rotation as a visual device, and alongside DOP, planned for specific shots and moments that gave us the latitude for fun match cuts in the edit. It was an epic undertaking from a casting (non-actors) and logistics perspective.