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The Directors: Varsity



Stept directing duo John Marsico and Ben McManus on the importance of research and why comedy is the elixir of life

The Directors: Varsity

Directing duo, John Marsico and Ben McManus, AKA 'Varsity', are inseperable and have been writing and directing together since they were seven years old.

They are no stranger to shaping talent into characters we quickly identify with, as well as crafting genuine performances, all while shooting for the edit. They have written and directed a range of projects for brands including Funny or Die, Ikon Ski Pass, and Columbia. They’re currently developing an original esports series with toldright. Varsity also recently completed an original mockumentary series about a one-man boyband, based on a treatment by musical artist Lauv, which started airing earlier this year.


Name: Varsity

Location: Los Angeles

Repped by: Stept Studios

Awards: 2020 Telly Awards “Best Online Commercials” for Ikon Pass

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

Varsity> Character, character, character! We came up in the narrative world and one of our core strengths is comedic interaction, so we’re always looking for scripts that have developed characters with unique personalities because we still think of commercials as little sketches. A lot of scripts come in with a funny scenario but with underdeveloped characters, and we like to punch those characters up in pre-pro or the pitching stage. 

We also get excited about scripts that can justifiably build a visual style into their narrative. We’re fairly strict with ourselves about not moving the camera unless it’s motivated within the story. So, while we think there’s a time and place for locked off wides in comedy, we also feel that comedy has been in a bit of a visual rut and that more dynamic camera moves have a great home in the comedy sphere, provided those moves are justified by the narrative. This is why we feel so at home at Stept, because we love bringing an action sports aesthetic to comedic spots that allow us to create funny characters but build them out in a visually dynamic way. 


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

Varsity> Creating a great treatment is like being shown a picture of a stew and then asked how you’d cook that exact dish so that it’s perfect for millions of people. It’s tricky because you have your own ideas of what you want in the stew, but it also has to be delicious on a mass scale. That process begins by listening intently on the initial call with the agency and discovering why they’re making this campaign; who is it for, what are the core ideals it needs to demonstrate, and on what platform is it going to be released? You also need to gauge what they’re expecting from you because there’s a fine line between the agency wanting to see how you’d execute their creative exactly as it is on the page, and them wanting to see an entirely rewritten campaign. It’s always somewhere in the middle, but finding that middle is challenging. 

After that, it’s a lot of bouncing around a tennis ball and brainstorming why a core idea is effective or funny, and building creative ideas off of that - finding a vision for a piece and then confidently explaining that vision both in the treatment and on your subsequent calls with the agency. And throughout this process, we work closely with our trusted EP and sales team to discover what’s important to explain. Ultimately, it comes down to knowing your strengths and understanding why the agency was interested in you in the first place and then reciprocating that interest by collaborating with them to make something special.


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?

Varsity> Research is always important but especially if it’s a new market for you. We like to look at the brand’s target market first and think about what types of things they may find funny or interesting. We also work closely with the agency to understand whatever data or background they have about their market and then try to find references (both visual and thematic) similar to what we’re striving for.


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

Varsity> As a directing duo, we’re proud objectors to the auteur theory and believe that the best work truly, absolutely, 100% comes from collaboration. That word “collaboration” gets thrown around a lot, but it truly is the essence of what makes a piece great. The ethos of collaboration is imperative in every step of the process, from pre-production to post. Fortunately, we have a tight-knit crew we frequently work with, some of whom even grew up with us, and we like to think of our team as a huge part of what is the Varsity-aesthetic.

Beyond having a strong relationship with our crew; DP, PD, producer, etc., we believe in a strong working relationship with the agency/client. They know their brand better than we ever will and it's important to respect that. Even though you know they are interested in you for your aesthetic, you need to be equally as interested in their ideas or else the project will fail. Some of our greatest work has come from agency ideas we would not have thought of on our own. 

Lastly, it's about partnering with representatives who understand your strengths and needs. The whole team at Stept has been incredibly supportive of Varsity growing and we literally could not imagine working with anyone else.


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?

Varsity> Perhaps this is obvious but… comedy! We started making movies together when we were seven years old, and pretty much every single one has been a comedy. We believe comedy is the elixir of life and that it's genuinely the most effective way to connect with an audience and create memorable brand recognition.


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

Varsity> The idea that this job is easy. We often hear from people that we have a dream job - and we do! - but it also took (and takes) a lot of hard work. There were years of trying to break into the scene with only gradual success, and to this day, completing a campaign takes countless long hours from not just us, but our whole team. We mention this to encourage people trying to break into the commercial scene. Hard work pays off, so stay persistent.


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

Varsity> We haven’t worked with one directly but our EPs frequently do. The whole production team works tirelessly to make our vision work within a budget, and for the most part, that keeps specifics and cost-stress out of our heads, which we’re incredibly grateful for.


LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Varsity> Our first job working with a celebrity athlete was super challenging but also rewarding. First of all, it was our first project working with a celebrity athlete -- so the pressure was already on! Of course we wanted to nail it. Then, we had some limits on the time we had to work with them, even though they were in every shot. On top of that, we needed to shoot near where they lived, which made finding what had to be a very “specific feeling” location more challenging than usual. We wanted to bring an epic, athletic aesthetic to the piece given we were working with a living legend. 

Thankfully, our producers and DP all worked tirelessly to make this happen. We spent about a week on location planning every shot and every company move down to the minute, so we could move the many technical pieces of gear we had in the allotted space and time and maximize our time with our talent. Thankfully, the athlete was an incredibly cool and hardworking person, and we got it done thanks to some impressive pre-pro from the whole team. 


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

Varsity> The main thing to keep in mind is that it was the agency’s idea in the first place, and you’ve been asked to direct because they value your input. That being said, it’s always project-dependent: sometimes what you’re being asked to do is execute their vision exactly, sometimes you’re being asked to completely change it, and sometimes you’re being asked to strike a balance in the middle. It’s important to know the difference here, both in the bidding phase and the pre-production phase. Be honest with the agency/client; express your vision and back it up with solid reasoning, but don’t be too precious. Production is about collaboration, and you’ll get nowhere refusing that idea.


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?

Varsity> Filmmaking is all about bringing forth new ideas from a diverse group of people. Without it, you’re just endlessly rolling around an echo chamber. So diversity in this industry is incredibly important both on a practical level and on a philosophical level. We look to bring diversity into every aspect of a job from top to bottom, including mentoring younger filmmakers. We wouldn’t be here today without the mentors we’ve had, and it's incredibly important to us 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?

Varsity> We feel like the pandemic has taught everyone in this industry a lot about restraint. We always enjoy working under restrictions, whether that be timing, budget, number of talent, etc., because restraints can actually be freeing and inspire new ideas. Some of the limitations we’ve faced during the pandemic have taught us more about our own style. Suddenly, it's like, “Okay, we can’t have a scene in a huge crowd” or “we can’t have this massive set with 40+ people building this giant rig.” So, instead, we’re learning a lot about how to execute an idea in its leanest, cleanest form, which (we’re learning) is sometimes its greatest form.


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)?

Varsity> It's crucial to consider your format during every step of the process. Besides the fact that there are different restrictions and parameters based on whether your running TVC or an Instagram ad, etc, you also have to consider HOW your spot is being viewed. We try to put ourselves in the mind of our audience and imagine how they are viewing it. Are they seeing this on TV during their favorite TV show? How can we actually engage them? Are they scrolling through social media and bombarded by this ad? How can we make them stay interested? Your agency or client chose the platform you're working in for a reason, so it's important to figure out that reason and then cater to it. 

On a technical level, this is true as well. It’s not uncommon that we shoot things multiple ways for different aspect ratios. It's a common mistake to fight this. Although you, of course, are envisioning it cinematically in the 16:9 aspect ratio, there’s a good chance that 99% of the people seeing it are going to watch the cropped 9:16 version, so you better be sure to make that look amazing as well. 


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.)?

Varsity> We believe that comedy has traditionally been too simple visually. As long as it’s motivated, there’s a great opportunity for dynamic, technical camera work in the comedy sphere. We’re camera/gear nerds at heart, and we constantly explore new cameras and technology, often testing them in between shoots, to discover new approaches to the classic structure.


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

Ikon Pass - Fomo: Marionettes - This is one of our favorite pieces. We love any opportunity where we can write creative from scratch, and Ikon has been so trusting with us and given us so much freedom for all the campaigns we’ve done for them. This one, in particular, is one of our favorites because it really involves a simple concept executed well, and at the end of the day, working with actors is our favorite part of the process. This one just came together in every regard to end up being extremely funny.

Twinspires - Bet Dedicated: This is one of our favorites because it employs a fast-paced approach to comedy with a dynamic visual aesthetic to accompany it. It also represents the truly bonding relationship we had with the agency, in which mutual trust supported ideas to make a piece stronger. It was an absolute blast to make and we’re extremely proud of the end result.

Ikon Pass - Dreaming Of Winter: The Test - This was from our very first campaign for Ikon and our first job with Stept. We feel it conveys a much beloved style of ours where we utilize a singular joke that becomes funnier as it's repeated over and over. Essentially, the man is seeing different ski images in the Rorschach test, but we utilize the camera to reveal more of his surroundings each time he does. First, it’s without context. Then, we move wider to reveal he’s answering Rorschach images. Lastly, we cut even wider to reveal his incredibly frustrated wife is also in the room. It was a definitive moment for us in understanding our tastes, and we’re extremely proud of it to this day.

Zip Recruiter - Sweet Relief: This spot is a favorite of ours because it utilizes a lot more moving camera than we’re accustomed to using. Because our character is providing a lot of exposition, we wanted to find a dynamic way of shooting this piece to make it feel more fluid. Because he’s doing yoga, we wanted camera angles that moved along with his bodily positions. Lastly, this piece required specific framing for graphics that moved along with the images. It was a fun and exciting challenge pre-editing and visualizing all of this with our cinematographer Bryant Jansen and we were ultimately very pleased with the results.

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Stept Studios, Wed, 23 Jun 2021 10:34:00 GMT