campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 25 June 2010 12:00AM
As the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase prepares to celebrate its 20th birthday, it can fairly claim to have reflected a filmic world that is currently proving a bit of a contradiction.
Of course, new techniques have transformed film-making over the course of the showcase's existence. "When we started, everything was so sedate in comparison with today," Richard Myers, the Saatchi & Saatchi creative director, global culture, says.
This year, however, as Myers and his fellow creatives sifted through the hundreds of contenders for inclusion in this year's showcase, they detected an unexpected phenomenon - the old craft skills appeared to be making a comeback.
"It's ironic, but we've seen quite a few examples of classic film-making," he says. "There's been something of a return to beautifully constructed and well-told stories, rather than lots of hand-held camera work and gratuitous use of soft focus."
Why has it happened? Myers is not entirely sure, although he rejects the popular notion that tough financial times have caused people to retreat into their comfort zones.
"I don't think that's the case," he says. "The work we've seen is living proof that creativity has not been a victim of the recession. Maybe it just reflects a sense of tedium about the whole idea of art for art's sake in some film-making."
Nevertheless, the process of paring down the work from about 100 to a final 14 pieces did pose some fundamental questions - not least the issue of what direction actually is, given how much film-making has changed.
Tom Eslinger, the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide creative director interactive, cites a striking film featuring a son-et-lumiere display as an outstanding example of the conundrum. "Most people around the table were captivated by it," he says. "But then we realised it was really a digital projection set to music, and we asked ourselves what it had to do with direction."
Myers senses the start of an ongoing debate: "We are on shifting sands when we try to classify direction. It is not as pre-determined as it used to be."
It is clearly an issue that won't go away, and it may become more contentious now that the showcase's presence on YouTube - intended to transform it from a one-off event at the Cannes festival into an all-year-round experience - has increased tenfold the number of contenders. That is partly due to the showcase's sponsorship of Bug, which searches for the best and most inspiring music promos, and the fact that aspiring film-makers are starting to submit their work directly to YouTube for consideration.
As a result, the selection process, which used to involve Saatchis offices around the world identifying emerging talent, is now less straightforward. Those offices remain on constant alert - but now they are not just looking at what is coming out of the local production companies.
As Eslinger puts it: "YouTube enables you to go fishing with the biggest net in the world. But you also find that, sometimes, the best-tasting fish are the hardest ones to catch."
However, the growing democratisation of the showcase has not been without its problems. One is the number of young film-makers submitting their work without having read the entry rules. These state that entrants should not have been directing commercials for more than two years and should be currently available to direct a commercial.
Another is the quantity of online complaints about the questionable taste of some of the work.
"There are people who make a career out of whinging, but I suppose I should take it as a compliment," Myers smiles. "At least people are being motivated by what they see. If we weren't getting any comments, I'd be worried we were doing something wrong."
The overarching theme this year, "nothing is impossible", is apt. Not only has it been the defining philosophy of Saatchis - soon to be 40 years old - but, as Myers points out, it should be the motivation of any young film-maker craving success.
The showcase is marking the double birthday by breaking with its tradition of not awarding prizes. Working with Aniboom, which creates online opportunities for animators, the organisers asked around 200 young animation directors to encapsulate the theme. The winner, announced at Cannes, will work on a creative project at a Saatchis office.
Meanwhile, Myers wonders if, with so much emphasis on the way film is used, rather than directed, Saatchis' contest should now be called the "New Direction Showcase".
There is no prospect of it happening, he says. But you can see what he means.
An idea that has its roots in Patrick Jean's past now holds out the prospect of an exciting future, with several Hollywood studios showing interest in turning the Paris-based director's short film, Pixels, into a feature-length movie.
Pixels, in which video-game characters from the 80s invade New York, was inspired by the games Jean played as a child. Now, after more than seven million internet viewings since April, Adam Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, has picked up the rights to it.
"If you'd looked at the script, you'd probably have thought that only maybe it could work," Myers says. "But the way in which the idea has been brought to life is amazing, with so much care going into every last detail."
A graduate of the French digital arts school Supinfocom, Jean began working as a 2D and 3D graphic designer for advertising and feature films before honing his directing skills by creating credit sequences for TV shows.
T-Shirt War is a collaboration between Joe Penna, the Sao Paulo-born director, and the comedy duo Rhett McLaughlin and Link West, who make a living through sponsorship of their web videos. The film, in which the designs on the pair's T-shirts come alive, reflects Penna's visionary style and playful content that he hopes will help transform YouTube videos from mere user-generated content into independent art.
Myers describes T-Shirt War as "a 2010 version of Laurel and Hardy. It's such a simple idea with no clever cinematography. It is what it is."
Penna began producing online videos while at medical school, dropping out to concentrate on music videos and commercials in and around Boston. He is also a guitarist and established the YouTube channel MysteryGuitarMan, which rose from obscurity to become the 13th most-subscribed-to of all time.
He has just directed his first national commercials for Coca-Cola and McDonald's.
It's an idea so simple - fashioning "live" versions of some of the best-known paintings in the history of art - that it's caused some commentators to ask why it's never been done before.
But it hasn't - and Myers can't help but admire the fun way in which L'Ogre, the four-strong directing collective, went about the music video promoting the Paris-based indie-folk outfit Hold Your Horses!.
David Freymond, 25, a former literature, cinema and quantic mathematics student, came up with the idea during a brainstorming session with his L'Ogre associates - Bruno Mendes, Olivier Tixier and Catherine Villeminot.
"The lighting is quite extraordinary," Myers comments. "This film could have been desperately po-faced by showing too much respect to fine art, but the group hasn't been afraid to have fun."
Myers tips Samir Mallal's "brighter mornings for brighter days" ad for Tropicana as a potential award-winner, beginning at this year's Cannes festival.
The Canadian documentary-maker, with BBDO Toronto, took a crew to Inuvik in the bleak Northwest Territories where 30 days each winter are spent in complete darkness.
The film records the reaction of the locals to the launch of a 36-foot helium balloon emitting 100,000 lumens of light, roughly the same amount of illumination provided by direct sunlight.
"It's such a sweet film," Myers declares. "It shows the value of documentary film-makers because they're comfortable around people."
MARLON KLUG AND CARLAO BUSATO
The idea of two men in ill-fitting white tights dancing - very badly - to Tchaikovsky while cans of Coke Zero float about them is, to put it mildly, risky.
Myers admits: "It could all have gone horribly wrong." What saves it, he says, is the spot-on casting, "which is just the right side of fun".
The film - one of the few genuine commercials up for consideration for the showcase - is by the Brazilian creatives Carlao Busato and Marlon Klug.
Busato is an award-winning commercials director, who has worked with major clients including Motorola, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, Unilever and Sony Ericsson.
Similarly, Klug, a creative and film director, has worked with advertisers across Latin America and Europe.
How soon before Who-Fu's innovative way of cramming 64 webcam mugshots on to the screen at the same time gets taken up by commercials directors?
The fact that the film has already been honoured at the Tokyo Type Directors Club and the Japan Media Festival suggests it won't be long. "The clip has already become a bit of an urban legend," Eslinger remarks. "I'm already starting to see things that look like it."
The spot, Hibi No Neiro (which means Tone Of Everyday in Japanese), is the work of the directing duo Who-Fu (Man and Wife). They are Masayoshi and Magico Nakamura, both graphic designers by background, who grew up in Japan but met in New York.
Their film is to promote Sour's first mini-album, Water Flavor, and the participants were selected from the group's international fan base. "It's been meticulously planned and beautifully executed," Myers says. "This is proof that community is an interesting place to be."
Luv Deluxe, Saman Keshavarz's dark and disturbing modern variant of the road movie, made on behalf of the British electro group Cinnamon Chasers, seems to belie its director's comically eventful past.
Born in Tehran 23 years ago but raised in California, he claims to have been expelled from school for peeing on a new football field, before making a buck or two by selling oregano weed for much higher than its market value.
It's all a sharp contrast to Luv Deluxe, in which a boy leaves home and hooks up with a girl. Together they hurtle into a life of crime and violence that ends tragically.
"This is a film in which every shot is made to count and keeps you wondering what will happen in the end," Myers points out. "None of it is studied or forced."
Having decided to major in film at 18, Keshavarz says he is now "trying to survive by winging my way through fast-cutting and provocative imagery".
Michael Langan's debut film, Doxology, has already garnered 14 awards and been screened at 80 festivals worldwide. Not bad for a 50-second combination of stop-motion, pixilation and altered life-action.
Indeed, Langan, a one-time actor and graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, admits that when he began work on the film, he had no idea what the end result would be. "The only rule I gave myself was to trust my intuition completely," he says.
Eventually, he adds, the bank of loosely associated short films merged into a commentary on the relationship between heaven and earth; the film takes its title from an English hymn.
Myers' verdict? "You can watch this film lots of times in trying to make sense of it. But you don't really need to. The pleasure lies in its randomness. Langan seems to have taken Nike's advice and just done it!"
Death To The Tinman began life as Ray Tintori's undergraduate thesis for Wesleyan University's film studies programme, but has since been hailed as a remarkable short-film debut.
Shot in black and white by the New York-based director, the film takes the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz and transforms him from a human lumberjack into a metal man without a heart.
Oz is replaced by a surreal version of the US Deep South, complete with evangelical mysticism and Christian fundamentalism. The work has been described as a journey from the depths of human tragedy to a renewal of love and hope.
"It's quite kooky but at no time do you feel the director is self-conscious about telling this amazing story," Myers says. "Filming it in black and white was the coup-de-grace - and it leaves you wanting more."
The son of a film editor and a script supervisor, Tintori writes motion-picture scripts and directs music videos for groups such as MGMT.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk