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The Work That Made Me: Ali el-Gasseir

Watts Media's Ali el-Gasseir on his obsession with Anton Corbijn, the guiding light of Gondry and an immersive haunted house event that didn't go to plan

The Work That Made Me: Ali el-Gasseir

Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir is a Seattle-based director, producer, and writer dedicated to creating the most imaginative, entertaining content. He crafts plays, commercials, screenplays, immersive events, industrials, and experiential exhibits. He’s also obsessed with the NBA, board gaming, and perfecting his fried rice technique.

The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…

In my high school days, I was obsessed with film director and creative director Anton Corbijn. Maybe not obsessed but if he had a music video out, I knew I would love it. It really started with the 'Enjoy the Silence' video For Depeche Mode.

Corbijn’s style was certainly unique but what latched on to my young brain was really the concept of “concept.” This video has a clear, simple, and elegant concept: A king has everything but must search the world to enjoy silence. Certainly, there were great music videos before this, but I think this one holds up really well. It inspired me to find out who made the video because I wanted to be like them. I am no Anton Corbijn but I certainly strive for clear concept-driven communication where form and function are aligned.

The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…

I got my degree in theatrical directing but right after college, my university needed Film Studies teacher assistants (TAs). I already had experience TAing courses and I had strong reviews, so I got a job in the film department TAing the 500-person Intro to Film Studies course. Not being a total cinephile, or even having the appropriate degree, I knew I had to cram, so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of the students. I read a lot of film history and technique books, and it completely changed me.

Suddenly, I was examining the editing and cinematography and sound of everything I watched so much more closely. And… right around this time, Palm Pictures started releasing their Director’s Series DVDs and I feel like everyone was going crazy over the Michel Gondry volume. The way he used camera movement, editing, choreography, and practical effects made me want to make video content. My theatre and live performance was definitely inspired by his work but he was really using the video medium in so many exciting ways and so, my interest was piqued. Pretty much every video of his is wonderful but this one definitely made my friends and I sit around for hours and discuss how this was conceived and executed.

I didn’t dive straight into making video content but Gondry’s whimsy, married to discipline, was and is a guiding light for me whether directing plays, concerts, or videos.

The creative work (film/album/game/ad/album/book/poem etc) that I keep revisiting…

There are two pieces that I revisit often.

The 'Aristotle’s Poetics' book is a roadmap that is just so foundational, so impressive, and forever relevant. And to be totally honest, Star Trek: The Next Generation, is my forever “go to.” So many episodes were brilliant sociological/philosophical explorations that provoked my curiosity while being really entertaining. I love the idea that the show synthesised really complex conversations on subjects like gender, race, AI, and eugenics into clear compelling stories. At this point in my career, that is my favorite task - boiling down complex information into a concise, clear message. So… thanks, Gene Roddenberry.

My first professional project…

I did some local, commercial acting work as a kid and I wish I could find some of those. Lots of public service announcements that I am sure would be terribly embarrassing to behold. Maybe I am lucky I can’t find them?  

The piece of work that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that*…

There are plenty of films that fill me with anger because of their sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic messaging. The 300 and Love Actually come to mind. This said, the now-banned Coors Twins ad from the ‘90s is maybe the most wretched and worst thing I have seen. It’s everything awful about American masculinity including fetishising incest. After seeing it, I certainly vowed to not be a part of anything like that in my career.

The piece of work that still makes me jealous…

Jealousy over other people’s careers is something I have never really felt. I feel very fortunate to have landed where I have. That being said, I am frequently jealous of dancers and choreographers. So many dance pieces really inspire me but also make me feel like I wish I had spent my life doing that - dancing/choreographing dances! That’s where I feel jealous of those great artists. I wish I could be like Pina Bausch, Baryshnikov, or Les Twins. But alas… 

The creative project that changed my career…

Well, I’d have to say my first project with Watts, where I now have the pleasure of serving as creative director. I acted in this one but also served as casting director. Most importantly, a relationship was born.

The work that I’m proudest of…

This is maybe the hardest question to answer. I am proud of my work in general but I have problems ever feeling completely finished with things. My mind often still rehashes choices made years and years ago. And I have had the pleasure of often updating my work or remounting it. I love revisiting past projects with fresh eyes.

I crafted a piece with an awesome team that was to be utilised as [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella’s walkout video at multiple live events. We designed it as an event video to be played in massive venues and so, the impact on the laptop screen is definitely not as palpable but imagine seeing this on giant screens in a crowd of thousands… Remember crowds?! This opening balances Satya’s confident, never-bombastic style while still feeling epic and if I may say… stirring.   

I was involved in this and it makes me cringe…

So many plays are cringeworthy. So, I have made a bunch of cringey stuff. Is there an artform with greater variance for quality than theatre? I don’t think so. This being said, I created an immersive haunted house event a few years back that was a total mess. It was a rushed process and I definitely underestimated the awful behavior drunkards could sink to as they wandered around a large scary warehouse. The actors were such wonderful collaborators on that project, and I feel for what they had to put up with. It was a learning experience, for sure. While I enjoy horror as a genre, I am far too naturally filled with optimism and silliness than spookiness.  

The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most…

I had the honour of helping Microsoft craft its content and strategy for its commercial campaign response to Covid-19. This meant working across many, many teams - across verticals and with so many stakeholders - to figure out how best to unify the company’s messaging across the web, in guidebooks, in ads, on owned and operated channels, and during the suddenly-digital events. It was an honour to work with and learn from so many brilliant people at Microsoft.

One example of our work was the landing page and video. 

The video in the second blade of the website feels very of its early pandemic time but shooting content safely in the early days of Covid-19 was tricky. We quickly adapted, captured content efficiently and with great caution, while utilizing stock footage and previously-captured content to augment our messaging with video within a matter of weeks.  

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