The Presence director is a proponent of a concise treatment, helped create the racing game Need for Speed and isn’t as expensive as many assume he is
Jason Smith’s reputation as one of London’s finest Commercial Director exports precedes him and has been repeatedly endorsed by countless awards in the UK and internationally: Cannes Lions, D&AD, AICP, British Arrows and a featured appearance at MoMA New York to name just a few.
From a foundation in documentary filmmaking, through to many great commercials for the likes of Nike, Coca Cola, BMW & Audi, Jason has produced a heap of award winning work. He is adept at not only visuals, but seamless VFX, properly funny comedy, food and automotive…the list goes on.
Above all, he remains a genuinely good guy to work with. We’ve followed his career throughout and are absolutely delighted to have him on our team.
- Name: Jason Smith
- Location: London and Los Angeles
- Repped by/in: Presence
- Awards: D&AD , British Arrows, Cannes Lions, AICPs (MOMA), Clios, Promax,
Q> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Jason> A good creative idea is what sets scripts apart from each other. An idea that is fresh, original and/or quirky. This could be a new visual technique, an interesting human story, offbeat humour; something that sets it apart from the masses. All of this excites me and more and more I like creating little pieces of cinema with a compelling narrative and human emotion.
Q> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Jason> My first thought is to map the idea out in my head. I’m often sent scripts that need problem solving. This could be that I’ve been asked to create a new post production technique or the narrative needs fleshing out or actually creating from scratch.
I then try to think of a way of making my treatment stand out from the competition. What can I bring to the treatment that other directors may not have thought of?
My treatments have become shorter rather than longer. I believe creatives don’t have the time to sit and read ridiculously long treatments. Agencies are stretched. I try to stick to 20 concise pages max including visuals etc. bringing as many fresh ideas to the party as I can.
I also like to offer a different visual approach. This could be the usual pictorial references as well as storyboards, GIFs to showcase a technique and I’ve even done 3D applications.
Q> 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?
Jason> Understanding a clients’ strategy and what they want to achieve from the film is a key part of my creative process. I do like to know what the product is trying to do and who it’s aimed at.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to create my own visual style and then bring that to brands. I get sent very few commercials where the visual style is already set in stone or there is a signature aesthetic. I’m usually asked to bring that aspect to the project. I research brands by looking at previous commercials and trying to get an idea of who the brand is aimed at and offer up my visual approach based on this. I also try not to get too bogged down by what’s been done before or constrained by expectations. I like to approach projects with a clear head and fresh eyes.
Q> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Jason> As a lot of my commercials are predominantly visual, I’d say the DOP is the most important person to me. I work very closely with the DOP. I like to give a DOP lots of visual references, often using my own photos. Sometimes I will give exact lens sizes, camera angles, camera moves etc. but I also like to have a DOP’s input and together create a distinct visual style for each project. A close second has to be my producer followed by the casting director.
Q> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Jason> While I don’t like to be pigeon-holed it’s tough to avoid it especially now. I do like each project I work on to be cinematic. My work is often stylised visual narrative in genre. This approach has lent itself to sports brands such as Under Armour and Nike, car brands such as Audi and BMW and drinks brands such as Pepsi, Guinness, Coca-Cola and Cravendale.
Q> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Jason> Throughout my career I’ve been told that agencies haven’t approached me because they think I’d be too expensive. The opposite is often true as although I have been involved in many big budget productions I’ve also made small budget projects look expensive by bringing my cinematic style to it. My training ground was music videos often with minuscule budgets. For example I filmed a commercial for the NRL in Sydney that we shot in one long day with a cast of hundreds. It should have been a two to three day shoot plus a pre-light. I’m proud of the results as it looks like the budget was far larger than it actually was.
Q> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Jason> Yes I’ve worked with cost consultants for years as many of the commercials I direct are for large brands who always employ them. As we all know budgets have decreased significantly over the past few years. However I work closely with my producer in order to make the creative idea as good as possible and put the money on the screen. Whichever country I’ve worked in, the cost consultants have almost 100 percent agreed with our approach and haven’t questioned the budget. I believe transparency in budgeting is key to a happy and successful production.
Q> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Jason> Productions often throw up unusual problems. In my case it’s involved many things from cow wrangling for Cravendale, to throwing a 40 ton truck off a mountainside for Nike with Lance Armstrong to name a few.
Time constraints are often a problem especially with large productions or those involving celebrities. It’s a case of getting very little sleep and remaining 100 percent focused on the job. I shot a large Mountain Dew campaign for the US market which required me to be in Hawaii shooting exteriors with a kayaker on location and on a set in LA shooting the interior that we built of a whale. The idea was Jonah and the Whale. The whale interior was filled with water and rocked on a gimbal rig to give the impression the whale was swimming and was life size. There was so little time in pre production with just a week to put the whole thing together that I ended up flying multiple times overnight between Honolulu and LA and then working through the day just to keep both ends of the production ticking over at the same time. I had almost zero sleep throughout that production!
Q> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Jason> As with the budgets I think the key to this is transparency. As the production progresses the agency and client gain more trust in you as a director and protector of their idea. In pre production I spend as much time as I can with the agency developing the idea and have recently spent a lot of time in direct contact with the brand client as well in order to ensure there are no surprises on the days we shoot.
Q> 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?
Jason> Of course there should be more diversity in production. I’m always open to having apprentices on set and have spent a lot of time mentoring young, aspiring directors and creatives in all areas of production.
Q> 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?
Jason> I think the cut in budgets due to the pandemic and the resultant recession will have a long term effect on the business as a whole. I hope that this doesn’t affect the creative output. I’ve developed my working style on music videos alongside commercials meaning I can work very quickly which I think will become more and more important with lower budgets and therefore less time to shoot. It’s a matter of maintaining high production values for less whether we like it or not.
Q> 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)?
Jason> I have to keep all formats in mind but I often try to shoot anamorphically at a ratio of 2.39:1 if possible, as this brings more of the cinematic aesthetic that I like. I am also fully aware of the needs for not only 16:9 framing but also 9:16 for social and so on. If we know early enough in the production what the requirements are we can plan our shoots accordingly and make the most of our filming days.
Q> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?
Jason> I helped create the Need for Speed (2016) video game in conjunction with EA sports. This was interactive, creating an immersive experience for the gamer. The ambition of the project was to seamlessly blend the CG world with the live action world to create an immersive authentic experience where the gamer plays a role with real life characters in each scene. It was fascinating to take the skills I have learnt in music videos and commercials and apply them to the gaming world. Similarly I learnt a lot from the gaming world and how they create a successful game.
Q> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why? (Please upload 4 videos to your company archive).
Jason> I think this shows how a simple split screen technique can work in a subtle way to tell a coherent story. This technique doesn’t detract from the humanity and emotion of the piece as other more complex techniques can. I was really happy with the casting, the look and the overall vibe and this ran as the main brand film for Rewe for six weeks prior to Xmas.
Jason> This was an incredibly complex shoot as I wanted to achieve the whole commercial in one seamless shot. It was a painstaking process. We shot using stop frame with motion control so every item had to be placed in shot or removed per frame. My approach was to use as little CG as possible so we shot everything ‘in camera’ apart from a couple of moments. This went on to win an AICP award and it was the US client’s favourite Audi campaign. It got a lot of airplay as they re-ran all over the US on multiple occasions.
Jason> I was really proud of what we achieved in this spot. This had a very low budget and we could only afford to shoot for one long day. By rights it should have been shot over two or three days with a pre-light as we had hundreds of extras and celebrity talent in every shot. We managed to pull it off as client, agency and myself were all exactly on the same page prior to the shoot. They trusted me to shoot as fast as I could with very little input from them on the shoot day so we could maximise the shoot time. I think the client was very happy and got real value for money on this one. I’m pretty happy with the result too.
Jason> This was the second Cravendale commercial that I shot. My approach to this commercial was to film the cows for real rather than creating CG cows which other directors had suggested. I thought it was vital that the audience never questioned the cow’s authenticity as this was key to the idea working. We filmed over three days in the middle of winter in Prague. It was about ten degrees below zero! We had a cow wrangler who had familiarised the cows to the urban environment for a few weeks prior to the shoot but we still weren’t sure what performance we would get from them. We had to build the interior of the supermarket around the cows, extending and widening the aisles etc. Turns out the cows performed well as it went on to win multiple awards including a Cannes Lion!