Branded Short Films: Intersection of Art & Commerce

Hello Ben and thank you for taking the time to talk with Lights Film School blog readers about your two most recent projects “The Reformed Troglodyte” and “The Gentleman Shaver“.

Both of these two shorts are branded shorts sponsored by Let’s take a look at “The Reformed Troglodyte” first:

Many people may not know this, but your short film “Apricot” was also a branded short. Can you tell me a little bit about the differences in the relationship between yourself and the companies from these two projects (Art of Shaving vs. Apricot).

Apricot was a filmmaker’s fund that was sponsored by a brand. The company was interested in supporting a filmmaker with an aesthetic that they like and related to and put their support behind it. A little similar to what Absolute did with Spike Jonze’s short ‘I’m Here’. It was creatively my concept, script and execution. Gentleman Shaver and Reformed Troglodyte are fairly different situation, as I didn’t write them. They were developed by the great team at BBDO NYC and I was brought on board to bring them to life. This structure is much more akin to the typical commercial process. With the Art Of Shaving films, there was a much more hands on approach from those who were investing in the project. Perhaps that is the difference between working in USA and France.

It seems to me that there is some potential for some interesting bridges to be built between the two worlds of short fiction filmmaking and advertising.

Companies that are sponsoring these shorts don’t want their product placement to be too subtle or hidden, but filmmakers don’t simply want to “sell out” by filming a product under a soft-box and throwing a commercial jingle in the background. These ads are somewhere in between those two extremes.

You made a really great point, during one of your other interviews with us when you mentioned that your philosophy is to “point at” the realities of your filming environment. When I watched “The Gentleman Shaver”, you made it clear that it was a shaving product branded short. I didn’t get the impression you were trying to hide that. However, with “The Reformed Troglodyte” the shaving component of the film, although it was present, was not as pronounced as in “The Gentleman Shaver”. Can you tell me how these two films work as one? There seemed to be a totally different narrative approach to both films.

They were simply written that way before I came to them. I think there is a huge danger in these sorts of projects and I am not keen to do them unless I feel like they are being done for the correct reasons. People shouldn’t think of them as 5 minute commercials, because they simply can’t be that. The story telling still needs to be the top priority and if it isn’t, then the project becomes very bland and dull to watch. I have worked on those projects when the aim changes mid stream and it never ends up successful for anyone. I wouldn’t say Gentleman Shaver is product or brand specific, in fact you never really get a decent look at the product at all. It is simply a story taking place around the ritual of shaving. There is no lingering or huge close up of a sparkling razor blade. That would really be pointing the finger at it! Reformed Troglodyte has more of a character arc, more locations and spans a greater length of time so if feels quite different to Gentleman Shaver.

Great point. Thank you. Next, when you start to work on these projects how collaborative and open is the process when working with a company? When you start work on a project like this and you meet the people from the company sponsoring these branded shorts, do you get the impression they are worried that a filmmaker may go too “auteur” with the short? Did you feel you needed to put them at ease letting them know you would be respectful to their desired outcome?

I’ve never met anyone from the brand for any of the project’s that I have completed to date. That is usually managed by my production company producers or the creative agency involved. Sure there is sometimes a push from someone for it to be more like some commercial, but when you do it and show them it the edit it is usually pretty obvious that it ruptures the integrity of the short film world that you are creating. Like anything, sometimes it is a challenge but if they are intelligent and smart people you can be very respectful and explain why you want to do it and they are happy to trust you. On some upcoming collaborations for potential projects I am looking at for 2012 I have met directly with the company, they have actually been craving the creativity and filmic qualities for their projects. You have to pick your battles and I have had meetings where both myself and a brand have realized that we are not right for what each other’s creative visions would be for the project, so you simply don’t do it. If you establish what you do, then people seem to come to you for that thing.

From the company’s standpoint, why do you think a company would rather go this route than a regular 30 second advertising spot?

It’s another way to connect with their audience. It delves into the ideas and philosophy of the company in a rich way that 30 seconds simply can’t. Your emotions are much more alive and stimulated.

Do you feel there is a potential shift in the overall advertising world towards more narrative ads? Do you feel that this is a better way to reach audiences?

It has always gone in waves. The same thing happened in music videos that is now happening in fashion films. Narrative comes and goes depending on what the audience’s current tastes are and what the technology facilitates. The role of and YouTube has a lot to do with the emergence of current narrative based advertising, the same way MTV had a lot to do with the boom in music videos.

Let’s talk a little more about the specifics of “The Reformed Troglodyte”.

Let’s start by talking about your choice of typography. What inspiration did you draw from to come to this choice?

Ha! That wasn’t my choice. But I liked it. It was masculine, strong and had a nostalgic throw back.

You’ve managed to find spectacular locations for these shorts. How long did it take you to location scout these properties? Did you have the help of the sponsors in securing or looking for these locations? For example I love the wide shot at :09 you opened the film with.

The locations were all found, managed and secured by my USA production company The Institute (

I landed in L.A. after flying in from Australia, had a shower, wound my body clock back 15 hours and began looking at locations in the car with my great producer on the job, Kati Haberstock. She knows the town very well and listened closely to what I was wanting to achieve. I am quite specific and vague at the same time when looking for locations so it can be time consuming. I am searching for a ‘feeling’ in the location. This might be found in the architecture, surrounding hills or choice of wall paper. Over 4 days I looked at dozens of file images from a location scout and we drove around looking at them.

Sorry. I know you probably get this question all of the time. But filmmakers are curious and need to know the answer to this question…What camera and lenses were used?

Oddly, that is the most common asked question I get asked. Which I find strange, because it would be one of my last. I guess I am always drawn to the more philosophical and thematic questions for filmmakers. But I certainly don’t mind. On Gentleman Shaver and Troglodyte we shot on the Arri Alexa with Cooke Lenses. Eigil Bryld (DOP) had previously shot some commercials with Al Pacino using digital technology that looked great in black and white. Take a look at it below:

I wanted to nod to the qualities of 1960’s black and white film image, shooting 16mm was out of our budget range, so we tried a few things to get an interesting look. I didn’t want to simply desaturate the image in post and call it ‘black and white’. Eigil used sepia and lime coloured filters to create a monochromatic image that captured a lot of mid-tone detail.  In post we drained saturation from the image. Then I wanted the black’s to be crushed so that the shadow detail was lost. Following this, I raised those crushed blacks so that it was actually a milky grey rather than true black. Lastly an over all sepia tint was subtly added. Old film prints transferred to different formats a few times seemed to get a color (either blue or sepia) creep into them over time. I wanted to try and give a healthy nod to that aesthetic whilst keeping other aspects modern.

How much did you light these shorts vs. using natural lighting? You seem to be a filmmaker with a great eye for natural light. This might be a weird question, but tell me a little bit more about your relationship to the sun.

Life doesn’t give you a nice back light on your head and some soft fill, so I don’t like the way over lighting looks on screen. I don’t quite understand my relationship to the sun, but natural light plays a huge part in driving the narrative. I believe you can advance the emotions of the story by miles with a shot of the light doing something particular versus pages of dialogue. I don’t know how to explain it, maybe I never will, but I am definitely aware of it. I think it came from years of teenage and university film making where we didn’t have many resources, just a couple of blown out windows in the location. So I guess you learn how to make that something you can work with.

Gentleman Shaver was lit through the outside windows with a strong source and then some softer lights rigged above the actors just out of frame. But it was all to simulate natural light in the morning. Reformed Troglodyte was very basic too. Very few lights, mostly bouncing some light around with boards. I really wanted that one to look very unpolished as far as lighting and camera work goes, yet the world itself such as the cars, suits and architecture to be very considered. That was what I loved about Godard and the French New Wave films, everyone was dressed impeccably, yet there was minimal lighting and the camera work was very raw.

Let’s talk about cinematography and design for a moment. I love the shot at :27 (above). I see the vertical lines in the wood panel wall. And I see the strong diagonal lines of the mirrors caused by the camera position. How closely do you work with the cinematographer to draw out these design elements? How collaborative is the director / cinematographer relationship?

I get a strong idea of camera position and the design elements on a location scout. I don’t want to waste time on the shooting day and I need to have a plan before entering the shoot. But then I when the DOP gets involved at the tech scout stage I always want to listen to their suggestions. Often they will listen to what the elements are that I like about that angle I have chosen and sometimes take that and run with it for a while, searching for other angles. Then they come back with some suggestions that might improve on those elements that I originally liked. In the end it is just about hunting for good images that fit our storytelling correctly. This happens often in limited time, so there is no place for preciousness. It also is very important that you have similar tastes to your DOP. You want to make sure they don’t want to do some crazy shot in the middle of the world that you created which doesn’t reflect the personality of you or the film.

You have some great hand-held work. Not just in this short, but in your previous work as well. There is a very subtle and gentle “feather” to the edges of your frame. It stops the image from feeling too static but Eigil Bryld (the cinematographer for the short) controls the camera enough that it doesn’t appear chaotic or messy either. What are you using to stabilize the camera and what, if any, movement techniques are you using to get that gentle feathered look?

The ‘feather’ as you call it seems to put some people off and others really like it. I find you can really feel the personality of the DOP in their handheld work. On Troglodyte and Gentleman Shaver, Eigil Bryld was the Cinematographer. He is a very sweet Danish guy who’s demeanor isn’t chaotic messy, so therefore his work isn’t. He used a simple tennis ball on top of the tripod to rest the camera on for a few of those shots. It just gives a bit of rock and looseness to the frame with out making it hectic. Other than that, it is simply his steady hand and shoulder. I don’t do much ‘feathering’ or windowing to the image in grade for my work. In fact on these black and white shorts I didn’t want any.

How much of your sound came from the actual environment and how much was re-designed from the ground up?

Gentleman Shaver is pretty much how it was recorded on the day. Just volumes enhanced and diminished later.

As for Troglodyte, it just depended on what the quality of the real audio was. I like to over drive some of the more simple elements of my sound design at times. It is just a cinematic thing I like to do. So often basic things like footsteps or engine roars will be there, but i like them loud to emphasis that this is a kick ass car and our character is heading somewhere definite. My editor on the project Michael Saia at Jump ( had a big hand in the design of the audio, which was great because he knew the genre inside out.

Can you tell me specifically about a few sounds. Which ones were added and which ones were actual?

Footsteps at 1:09? (getting into car) – Added

Birds? (driving scene) – Added

Car? (driving scene) – Actual

Atmospheric sound? (on the cliff) – Added

You had a great team for these shorts. For these shorts you worked with costume designer Amy Westcott (Black Swan) and Production Design by Kiki Giet (Mark Romanek music videos). In our previous interviews you talked about how happy you are when you have design and wardrobe departments working closely together helping you achieve a really cohesive look. Can you tell me a little more about your relationship to these departments and their relationship to each other?

I like to have production design on board from a very early stage and with these shorts Kiki Giet was with me from the first day of location scouting. There is a bond that seems to form when you are driving around in hot cars looking at locations. We would just talk ideas, about what we liked or didn’t like at each location and got on the same page as each other pretty quickly. Coming from a music video background Kiki was really resourceful. She brought so much propping to the films that I was spoiled with choices in some instances. But like all my work, I always look for the inherent qualities in a pre-existing location which the aesthetic can resonate from. The references for the shorts is a much loved aesthetic that you rarely get the chance to do, so Kiki really ran with it. Amy Westcott was someone whose work I have admired for a while and loved that she put herself forward for the films. When working with someone at that level, you can talk to them in creative short hand and they just get it. She brought little touches to the films that really elevated it; the fabric of the suit, the style of undone bow tie. She had worked on Entourage, so she was clearly fairly familiar with how to dress men. Overall, there wasn’t so much of a dialogue between those departments as I usually have, but hopefully the vision was strong enough that they feel cohesive.

For filmmakers interested in getting into this line of work how do you approach companies or have them approach you? You worked with BBDO New York (A very prestigious ad company) for these projects. Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship to them and how they factor into the equation?

That is about getting representation. My production company in the USA signed me for commercial work and they had the relationship with BBDO NYC. It is their job to try and generate work from agencies and brands that might fit your profile. To get signed with a company, do the research on the ones that interest you and show ’em ya reel! You want to make sure their personality suits your own. If you work together and generally everyone is happy then chances are you will do it again on another project and those relationships build!

Thanks for the in-depth interview Ben. As always it’s a pleasure to share your work with our blog readers. Please keep us posted with regards to your future projects!

Ben Briand


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