Jimmy Vi opens up about diverse cultures, team relationships and some of his favourite work to date
Jimmy Vi is a Toronto-based director with a reputation of telling stories with a purpose, through the lens of diversity in cultures and backgrounds. His short film ‘Malcom’, a Visual Poem, was recently featured on CineAsian Films. Jimmy Vi’s background in advertising has allowed his work to be rich in art direction grounded by insight, and has worked with clients such as Footlocker, Manulife, Universal and Sony Music.
Name: Jimmy Vi
Location: Toronto, Canada
Repped by: FRANK Content Inc.
Awards: 2020 Malcolm - Shorts Program - CineAsian Film Festival; 2020 Malcolm - Shorts Program - Philly Asian American Festival; 2020 Malcolm - Shorts Program - Edmonton Film Festival; 2018 Suburban Tea - Short Film - Maekan; 2018 New Wave Director’s Showcase – Director Showcase – New Wave; 2018 POC Film Showcase – POC World Wide; 2018 Claire Mortifee, Wide Open Ocean – Fader; 2018 Claire Mortifee, Wide Open Ocean – Ear Milk; 2018 Claire Mortifee, Sea The Signs – Ear Milk; 2018 Claire Mortifee, Sea The Signs – Colours; 2018 Joyia, Legends EP – Complex; 2016 40 Artists to Watch for from the OCADU Grad Exhibition – BlogTO
Q > What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Jimmy Vi > What sets a script apart from the others are the elements surrounding the script. A brief from an agency comes with the script and a deck. The deck expands on all the elements of the spot from their potential score choices to the art direction and locations. When I look at the deck I imagine the script is the 'body' of the piece and the art direction as the personality which makes the person. These notes really help me take words on a screen and visualise what the creative team has put together. What gets me excited is when I see a rich deck and a script written from insight. These two elements start my brain firing with ideas as I begin to feel the spot and mentally shoot the spot in my mind to translate into the form of a treatment.
Q > How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Jimmy > When I create a treatment the first thing I do is really read the deck and brief. Look for all the details and elements the creative team is highlighting and take notes on them. I then ask a lot of questions and I mean a lot. I get on a call with the agency team and we chat about it. I ask them any questions I may have to get a clearer sense of their vision for the spot. Questions like what was the pacing of this scene? Why did you write this piece? Where was the inspiration for it? Why this location? Can you expand on the type of person this character is? Throughout this process of reading the brief and asking questions, I begin to form images in my mind of the spot. This is when I begin my image search. I look for images that resonate with the spot and what I was seeing in my mind as I was mentally shooting the spot. I know since I asked a ton of questions and really got to understand the brief I can truly understand the spot. This allows me to be extremely feelings based. Meaning I curate images that feel right for the spot. I create an entire image bank of images and then sort them. This is when I begin to connect the dots on the piece and string it all together in the form of a treatment. I realise that the image of the portrait and the way it’s lit is perfect for the cinematography slide. Or the photo of a grassy hilly landscape with a quaint brick house resting atop a mountain is a beautiful shot for the locations page. Once the treatment feels fleshed out I go back to the brief and my notes to look over and make sure it all aligns. The last element I really look at is how I can bring elements of the brand into the spot? How is the brand living in the piece and how does it connect to the spot?
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?
Jimmy > I believe it’s super important to become familiar with the brand and its market. As a director, we have to understand what the target market is interested in to create a spot that appeals to them. I take a lot of time researching the brand and what they have done in the past that has or hasn’t worked. I look into their colour palette, what their photography looks like and the tone of their spots. I use this knowledge and build upon it to make this spot better than the last. In the briefing call, I also ask for things like brand guidelines which give me insight on their photography and their ideal look and feel. What does their design look like? What are the other elements of the campaign? Are there billboards? Online content? What do those look like? How can I bring those design elements into the spot we have? Can I do it through colour, photography, style or even end slates? The last important ask is what the creative team is planning for future campaigns. What can I do in this spot that can help bridge and connect this piece to future campaigns?
Q > For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Jimmy > Besides having a strong connection with your production team and cinematographer it’s extremely important to have a good working relationship with the creative team. They’re the ones with the idea and the direct connection with the client. They have insights I may not have as they’re closer with the brand and client. If the creative team on the agency and I are on the same page the idea is clearer and the spot is more polished. They came to me to help bring their idea to life. It only makes sense they’re involved. Having an open communication line between us is what makes everyone happy and the best spot possible. We’re all creatives and we all have a sense of what works and what doesn’t and I believe we should always be using that to our advantage.
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?
Jimmy > What I’m really attracted to right now are pieces that are grounded in human insight. Pieces that have a lot of emotion involved. Explorative pieces that either dive into diverse cultures and backgrounds or personal pieces that visualise someone’s feelings. We’re living in the times of Covid and I think a lot of people are caught up in their thoughts at home. There’s something really interesting to explore there. How can I tell people that there are others feeling something similar to you and that you’re not alone? How can I use advertising and the commercial world as a platform to connect? I strive to make meaningful work that connects with people.
Q > What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Jimmy > I believe one of the biggest misconceptions about my work that I encounter the most is my age and background. I’m constantly against directors with years upon years of experience in the commercial world. Clients and agencies feel safer knowing they can go with someone with a lot of experience. Although I’m young I’ve been working really hard to come to where I am today. Being a young Asian adult I’ve had to overcome a lot of barriers from skin colour to ageism to be where I am today. I’m constantly against the odds in this way. I’ve been preparing for the opportunity to come to showcase the work I’ve put in so far. There’s always the conversation in the advertising world for creatives looking for new and young voices. I’m super thankful for the people who’ve trusted themselves with me so far. I’m hoping there are more opportunities for me to share my contemporary ideas and knowledge with people. To bring my contemporary way of thinking to the advertising world.
Q > Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Jimmy > I haven’t worked with a cost consultant yet. I worked in the advertising world before becoming a director so I’m quite familiar with that world.I know their job is to trim the budget as much as possible on behalf of the client. The good ones understand production needs and are careful not to cut when it affects the creative. I’m sure the experience will be like any other. Budgets and producing or anything that makes the project come to life the better it will be.
Q > What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?
Jimmy > Big ideas, with small budgets. As we all know more money equals more time. One of my first commercial pieces was a spot I worked on for Footlocker in. We had a small budget but a big idea. We wanted to shoot in multiple locations with many different talents but not a whole lot of money. I had to work really closely with the producer and I had to scout all the locations and make sure they aligned with the vision but fit with the budget and production timeline. It was difficult because we couldn’t afford a location scout or a large location so the producer and I had to figure it out ourselves. Thankfully I’m someone who is always thinking about films and shooting so one of the things I do is take photos of potential shooting locations. I know the city pretty well so I went through my locations library and started looking for locations that could work. We then headed out and scouted them to see how they could fit together and if they aligned to the creative. In most locations, we were able to get a simple street permit for which allowed us to shoot freely without paying a hefty fee. for each location. It turned out super well and both the client, creatives and I were super happy with the results. The day also went super smoothly thanks to the great planning of the AD and production team.
Q > How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Jimmy > To begin with I’m a pretty collaborative individual. I’ve been on both sides of the world working on the agency side and speaking to the client and now on the production film side. Having this experience has helped a lot when it comes to protecting the idea. It’s fairly natural for me. I can speak to the creative side with the agency while pleasing the marketing and sales side of the brand. I listen carefully to what each party is saying and try to involve them where I can. The whole process should feel collaborative; they should feel like they’re making the piece with me. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to make it the best it can be for everyone involved.
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?
Jimmy > I think this is extremely needed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in rooms where the room is primarily white males and I’m the only POC in the space. The world is becoming closer with the internet and social media being so closely intertwined with our daily lives. Cultures and diversity are becoming more and more apparent every day. Our exposure to other backgrounds is becoming more and more normal but there’s still a lot of work to be done. If we want more diverse pieces they need to come from individuals with these backgrounds. That way the pieces stay genuine and authentic because people can smell something inauthentic from a mile away. I grew up with friends of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to learn about them. I want others to feel the happiness I felt growing up. With my work, I hope to normalise diverse representation in mainstream media and to connect people from different backgrounds and cultures. I’m very open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set. Wherever I can help, I’m all for it.
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?
Jimmy > This one’s a wild one. The pandemic is always changing the way productions are working. I think it’s made us look at the practices we have and remove those that aren’t completely necessary. One thing that I think will stick around will be remote shooting, editing and colour grading. We can get things done instantly without spending extra resources. The technology is there and I think the pandemic has normalised these practices.
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)?
Jimmy > All of it, since I have an art direction background I’m thinking about everything. It’s very important for me to know how the work will be displayed and showcased so that I can do my best to accommodate each format. The campaign as a whole in all aspects from the photography, design and print needs to be cohesive. Is the piece for social media? Do we need to shoot in portrait, landscape? Is it for the web, TV? All of these aspects affect how I approach the shoot from framing to colour palettes and end slates.
Q > What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI / data-driven visuals etc)?
Jimmy > I’m a bit of a techie myself so I’m pretty up to date with new technology such as virtual production, interactive storytelling, augmented reality, VR, etc. I’m always up to date with the newest camera censors and lighting technology. These things are all aimed at opening up the realm of possibilities with creative ideas. Wherever possible I hope to use it to make my work better. CGI and visual graphics using unreal engines are all elements I would love to explore in my work. Integrating film with these is common practices used in Hollywood that I would love to use in the commercial world.
Q > Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?
Jimmy > I feel like the following four videos represent me the most. I consider myself more of a visual artist who specialises in film. Art direction was my first love and a little bit of that still lingers within my work. I love being conceptual and diving deep into the look and feel of any work. Film sort of hit all those notes for me and tackled all these senses. While sound plays a large part my work is very visually-driven. At the core of these pieces, they all explore human emotions. Ambedo is an expression of me making sense of my emotions during the pandemic, Foot Locker is about resetting, suburban tea is about the stillness of time in suburbia and Malcolm is a film about an Asian American's journey from self-hate toward self-love.
Foot Locker - The Reboot