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The Directors: Tim Wheeler


Farm League's Grammy-nominated director discusses genuine collaboration, striking cinematic visuals and authentic moments

The Directors: Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler believes life is complicated and messy, but there is great beauty, empathy, and humour that exists within the chaos. Comfortable with both real people talent and professional actors, Wheeler’s work draws out honest performances with authentic moments and levity, all while keeping a keen eye on capturing striking, cinematic visuals. He knows that great work can only come from strong relationships and genuine collaboration. 

Bring him a broad theme, a challenging task, or just sheer enthusiasm for an undeveloped concept, and he’ll deliver you a impactful story with elegance, efficiency, and enthusiasm. He’s earned a reputation as a respected and reliable storyteller with a client list that includes Google, YETI, Ford, Garmin, and YouTube, among others, a Grammy nomination for his Green Day feature documentary (¡Cuatro!) and, rumour has it, even Guy Fieri owes him a favour.

Name: Tim Wheeler

Location: Hermosa Beach, California

Repped by/in: Farm League

Awards: Grammy Award nomination (Best Music Film), SXSW nomination (Best Music Doc), Silver Clio Award

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Tim> Scripts with a clear story and compelling characters get me the most excited. I can be drawn to a particular creative for so many reasons, but usually the characters and their experiences are what draw me in the most. Scripts that are too open-ended can seem enticing because they are presented as a way to have more creative freedom as a director, but often I’ve found it means clients may not know exactly what they need and that can create indecision and creative ambiguity. A clear objective or story, even if not fully developed, informs and inspires creativity. 


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

Tim> Every project is different, but it always begins with a conversation with the agency to hear how they got to where they are with the creative, understanding the brand and what they are truly trying to say, and then just diving into the writing. Researching and writing tend to happen simultaneously for me. Reference images often comes later in the process, although I will jot down notes of ideas as they come to me, but a majority of my time is spent writing. I overwrite in the beginning and then I try to synthesize the idea into something digestible and impactful. I really use the treatment process as my opportunity to lay out the vision for the campaign and to begin a collaborative discussion with the creative team.

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, 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?

Tim> Research is key whether you know the brand intimately or not. I always like to research the visual and storytelling history of the brand to see the evolution of their tone and style throughout the last few years. Part of that research involves looking through old film and print ads, as well as listening to the agency give their perspective on the brand and their vision for how to tell the brand’s story. The more you understand their overall vision - the story they are trying to tell - the better you can craft your own creative perspective and still achieve their ultimate goals. 


LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Tim> All relationships throughout the filmmaking process are important. You can’t downplay any one person’s personal contributions. That being said, the process starts and ends with the agency creatives. They are the first to bring me into the fold and to share their vision, and ultimately they are the ones who see it through with me to final delivery. So that relationship needs to be the most harmonious. If it is, then every other relationship throughout the process benefits.


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?

Tim> I like character-driven stories that are an honest reflection of real life experiences. Life is complicated and messy, but there is beauty, empathy, and humour that exists within that chaos and I jump at any opportunity to showcase those elements in my work. Even better if the work shines a light on social or environmental causes, or somehow can make a positive difference in people’s lives. I like to entertain and to tell stories, but it means so much more if there is a purpose or meaning behind the work. 

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Tim> I have a pretty diverse body of work, which sometimes can be viewed as challenging because everyone loves to label and pigeonhole directors to make them more 'sellable'. Some people probably think I only really do documentary-style work, particularly in the outdoor space, because that is where I got my start and probably what I’m most known for. But I have also done performance-driven work, large set builds, car shoots, product heavy spots, animation, celebrity talent, etc. So my filmmaking skills and experience are more diverse than one might think. I view every project as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to hone my craft as a filmmaker. 


LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been? 

Tim> Yes I have. I had one job where the cost consultant had more sway than any member of the agency. My experience was similar to Steve Zissou and the 'bond stooge' from the Life Aquatic. It started off rocky with me thinking this individual was going to make our lives difficult, but instead of pushing him away, I embraced him into the fold and he quickly became part of the team. It’s never beneficial to shut anyone out of the filmmaking process, even people you think are going to be a roadblock to creativity. I prioritise getting everyone on the same page early on and working together towards a collective goal. 


LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea? 

Tim> I am a firm believer that my best work has come from true collaboration. I believe in full transparency and I like to hash out all of the creative and logistical questions in prep so that when we get on set, we can be focused, in the moment creatively, and have the flexibility to improvise. I’m not so presumptuous as to think I have all the answers. Yes, I have my opinions and a vision that I will push forward, but I encourage everyone’s input because each new perspective can offer a great idea. I always say, I would rather find a solution in prep or on set than be in post and say “I wish we would have done this or tried that.”


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?

Tim> I think it’s great because it’s a real reflection of modern society - the more diverse the talent pool, the more diverse the creative output of work, which is great for creators and the audience. On a personal note, I have three daughters, and I look forward to a future where their gender has no bearing on their ability to follow their passions or whatever career path they want to take. I’ve always pushed to have diverse casting in the work I do, as well as the crew I work with. I want to surround myself with as many different real world experiences and perspectives as possible. All of us are too confined to our own bubbles, and that is so limiting in terms of life experiences as well as creativity. 


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? 

Tim> I am a big fan of zoom meetings versus the more traditional conference calls. I like being able to see people and feel like everyone is more engaged, plus meetings tend to be more streamlined and productive on zooms vs calls. Both during the pitch process, as well as communicating with key crew members.


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)? 

Tim> Depends on the job, but in regard to all of the different social media deliverables that tend to come with every job these days, I try and shoot specifically to those social framings when possible rather than just shooting a little wider and cropping the image out after the fact. I want everything to be as intentional as possible, even a 6 second social spot. It’s all part of a larger campaign, and I want that campaign to have a cohesive look and feel.


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

Tim> I try to keep up with all new technologies and I have extensive experience with virtual production. I tend to keep things a little simpler with camera equipment and filmmaking tools, but it really comes down to the project. I look at whatever tools best service the story and achieves our creative goals. Sometimes that’s just a hand-held camera with a set of primes, sometimes that’s a POV head-mount rig, visual effects, mixed media format, etc. It’s often a matter of what’s necessary and what’s elevating the story. Virtual productions have been key in keeping people working during the pandemic and have also become a beneficial communication platform during pre-production.

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why? 

Tim> Garmin - Communication is so fluid working with the Garmin team and they have been such a great collaborative partner on so many levels. It really makes a difference on the day. I love the casting, visual style, and performance in this piece. 

Drip Drop - This spot was a major production achievement with great collaboration across the board. We filmed globally and captured everything from underwater welding to a live volcano. It was a fun opportunity to work with real people talent who did extraordinary things. I also love creating a rhythm and flow in the edit with the music and natural sound design. 

Yeti Falcon - I’ve been fortunate to have a long creative relationship with Yeti, and being able to do comedy for a brand that is more known for outdoor lifestyle storytelling was a lot of fun. I co-wrote the idea and was able to see it through from initial concept to final delivery. We had lots of success with the first April Fool’s Day film for Yeti, which was called Melk (also one of my favourite projects) and this one was us taking what we learned the first time and pushing it to the next level. It was just so much fun to make and I loved hearing people’s reactions to it. 

Van Life - This was an opportunity to work closely with creative director Kevin Butler from Google on a very fluid creative. As we were filming, the engineers were still figuring out certain technical features for the Pixel phone - which was being released I think a week or so after we filmed these spots. So we had a bunch of bite-sized ideas scripted and in some cases we had to alter the scripts on the fly or come up with new ones in order to match the feedback we were getting from the engineers in real time about what the phone could actually do. It was a fun and creative challenge.

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Farm League, Mon, 24 Jan 2022 15:36:15 GMT