The Little Minx and Bold director speaks to Addison Capper about car design aspirations, being the family’s “only artsy, kind of weird kid” and how cinemagraphs changed his career
When you look at Romain Laurent’s work, a blend of photography, film and cinemagraphs (which he cheekily dubs Not Moving, Moving and Half Moving on his website), it’s little surprise to hear that he “was always the ‘artist’ in the classroom” as a kid.
But the LA-based French director doesn’t come from a particularly creative household. His family was working class, both parents working at the same company for their entire lives, and Romain was, in his own words, “the only artsy, kind of weird kid” in the family. “None would really understand what I was into but all, especially my mom, were supportive,” he adds. “It’s a bit cliche but having a somewhat conventional upbringing keeps me grounded.”
Today Romain is repped for commercials by Little Minx in the US, Bold in the UK and Solab in France. Many of his professional relationships he openly puts down to meeting the right person at the right time with some definite luck involved. His late friend Audrey worked at a stills post production company and appointed him as an intern. She went on to be his photography agent. In the moving image world, he randomly met a few of the people from Solab at a dinner in Paris, and he’s been friends and working with them ever since. “And in the US, I moved to LA from NYC after six years there,” he adds. “I wasn't actively searching for a production company when Rhea Scott from Little Minx messaged me on Instagram. I am truly terrible at responding on social media so I unwittingly ghosted her… after a few messages from her and especially one where she ‘threatened’ to look for me at every French party in LA so we could meet, I finally answered her (full of guilt) and met with her over lunch. I knew right away I wanted to work with her.”
Romain’s childhood dream was to be a car designer but soon discovered it wasn’t for him after studying it for three years. “I also coasted during these first three years,” he admits, “following the course and the assignments without thinking about what to make of it all. After earning my degree, I was nowhere near ready nor wanted to join the design world.”
But while at school he also got really into photography, which led him to Paris’ famous Gobelins school of imagery. “There I had a very different mindset,” he says. “I essentially approached the two years as a creative lab, to experiment in the direction I wanted, while learning new skills, rather than just go with the flow.”
And he’s never stopped experimenting. His lockdown hobby for the past year has been to learn the basics of CGI, which he says has already opened a few fun doors in his creative process. What’s more, six years ago, while still known primarily as a stills photographer, Romain discovered cinemagraphs, a mix of still life with an element of endless motion. Most of the work in the field that Romain saw was beautiful, in his eyes, but very fashion orientated. “I felt I could explore a more surreal angle,” he says. “At the same time I was missing the constant creativity you get when you go to art school, just experimenting with things without worrying about what will come out of it. I gave myself the challenge of creating a cinemagraph piece every week, no matter what, even if I didn't have any good ideas. That allowed me to explore this new technique and freshen my creative mindset by just trusting my instincts. It created this natural bridge from photography to filmmaking, I started being followed more on social media and right around the same time got my first directing gigs. It really expanded my work and career.” You can check out of Romain’s visually satisfying cinemagraph work here.
Despite his time at Gobelins, Romain recognises his personal projects as the place he can best hone his craft. He tells me that he spends a lot of time thinking about his next piece, be it video, still or a mix of both. “It serves a couple purposes,” he says. “It keeps me sane and allows me to experiment with new ideas, techniques and challenges I otherwise would not come across in the commercial world.”
The past year has also seen him get to grips with the challenges of remote directing - his music video for K Pop sensation Monsta X was featured in an article that my colleague Alex Reeves wrote in the earlier days of the pandemic and remote production. He had a crew in Korea with two live feeds from the set back to him in LA - one of the camera monitor and one of the wide view of the set. “Which helped me direct people around and get the overall vibe,” he says. “I adapted my sleep schedule the week prior to it. I chatted at length with the production manager there, basically doing normal pre-production stuff, but repeating over and over what I had in mind, sending drawings to explain specific ideas.” The end result was as Romain imagined, despite being on a different continent to his set.
He misses being on set though, and enjoys the actual production process more than any part of what he does. “Seeing an idea blossom into a team working together to make it happen is always a pleasure,” he says. “That team feeling is amazing. But above all, shooting days are my favourite, the energy, seeing it all come to life, the intense physical aspect of it, it makes me feel alive.”
A frustration of Romain’s is advertising agencies’ tendencies to outsource art direction to influencers, “essentially not doing what their work actually is” and paying people low rates. “The ‘we have no budget but you’ll get exposure’ argument for ad work is one of the things that should not exist,” he adds. But on the flip side, he believes that the industry is eager to see more creative work, which in turn inspires more people to explore and try new things. “Mainly social media is creating a surge of amazing work and getting people excited about creating, which influences the industry to be more open to unique creative ideas.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s something I feel in my body and mind,” he says of his own creativity. “I have a need to create. If I don't, I get depressed. I like sharing what pops up in my brain with people. I love this process of making equally. There are always new things to learn and people to meet along the way.”