“In a previous life, I was Chinese.”
For many non-Chinese people, the Middle Kingdom can feel like another world, but the first time Colombian director Nieto went to work there he felt like he had lived there forever. It was 2012 and he was directing a series of BMW commercials with Stink and formed an immediate connection with MD and EP Desmond Loh. “Ever since that day, I’ve felt like I found my lost family,” he says.
He’s also been on all sorts of crazy adventures, but perhaps none quite so mind-bending as his recent project with Social Lab Beijing. Grainmen is an epic journey that follows a gang of rice grains as they journey from harvest to dumpling… it… more or less defies description but what it does do is capture the sort of exuberantly silly creativity that there’s really not enough of in the world.
For Nieto, it was a gift of an idea. “The main thing I’ve learnt during all these years working in the creative commercial world is that ‘all the best ideas always end in the garbage bin’. So, when I saw this script for the first time I thought it was so epiphanic that ‘this is never going to happen’. And I still don’t believe it, but the miracle happened,” he recalls. Perhaps, he muses, the fact that it did get approved has something to do with the heart and guts in the Chinese market – a place that’s been snobbily sniffed at for its creative firepower for decades. “In China there is something new, I feel like the producers, creatives and even the clients, they are less scared to try things than in western countries.”
The ad may appear to be alive with vibrant weirdness, but Nieto is adamant that the whole idea isn’t really so odd when you sit down and think about it. In fact, taking the idea and the script and transforming it into something that made sense cinematically took him back to filmic traditions.
“When you realise that a grain of rice has a soul, the whole idea of this script is not surreal anymore,” he explains. “So when I talked to the grain of rice and it responded me, the film language became quite classical and smooth in a way.”
With an enormous cast and stunning sets, the spot transcends the oddity of its idea and becomes something pretty epic. Nieto’s fine art school background has imbued him with the philosophy that he should try to achieve ‘maximum effect with minimum resources’. The whole journey was shot in what Nieto describes as a ‘dusty blue screen studio in Beijing’. He managed to conjure up a range of vistas by making use of paintings – something that, as a wannabe painter himself, Nieto has been keen to incorporate into his work.
“My dream has always been to be a painter, I never achieved it because I’m too indolent,” he laughs. “That’s why I’m directing now, it’s much easier.”
But Nieto’s best tip for adding scale and cinematic grandeur within a modest budget? A bit of the old ‘fake letterboxing’. Bash a couple of black strips at the top and bottom of the screen and your quirky spot turns into a timeless quest.
One of the other challenges was working with a sizeable cast, coaxing them into character and persuading them to commit to some fairly elaborate costumes and moves. Fortunately they hired one of the toughest Shaolin Quan choreographers they could find. Not only did she guide them to their ‘secret coded dance performance’, she also trained the actors in a vow of silence to help them embrace the spiritual mood of the little Grainmen’s journey.
Of all Nieto’s Chinese projects this may be the one that pushes the limits of creativity to their furthest. But perhaps the strange creative alchemy isn’t so surprising – there are a growing number of Latin Americans, and particularly Colombians, working in China, and it seems that the two cultures just have an intangible fizz when they combine. Nieto has his own theory on this.
“I think there still definitely an underground tunnel linking Asia and South America, after the tiny Pacific Ocean gap separated them, that’s maybe why I felt like coming back home each time I enter into the Stink China office.”
And now that he’s been working with Chinese agencies for a good six years or so, he also has some advice for any directors working in China for the very first time. “Well, just pray to the God of randomness to make you forget everything you learnt at film school, otherwise you'll go mad. Second piece of advice: eat as much chicken’s feet as you can, it's very good for collagen.”