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Rosa Vodka "Worth The Journey" - An Interview with Scott McCullough

Please tell us about yourself. How did you start your career, and what projects have you worked on?

I started working with Prince on the projects associated with Diamonds and Pearls era and beyond, supplemented by many projects for local bands and crew positions on commercials in Minneapolis. I moved into commercials with a great production company that truly supported filmmakers – something that seems to be rare these days. Creating commercial content is more complex than it seems and fortunately, my background in broadcast television advertising had time limits of 30 seconds. These days, a commercial is allowed to breathe and play out with time and that’s exciting to create short films and storytelling of commercial value.

As an artist, who or what are your influences? In other words, what made you fell in love with directing?

Of course, Steven Spielberg, Ridley and Tony Scott, David Fincher…the pioneers for visual style and kinetic energy. It’s also fair to say David Lean and Hitchcock too…all the pioneers inspire, but it’s inspiration that creates something new and not to simply replicate.

I understand that you are also a director of popular commercial ads. How did you get into making ad films?

The work with Prince got me noticed and allowed me access to some agency work with clients of music industry. I was tasked to create ads for Musicland/Sam Goody and from there, I was asked to shoot a Target commercial to help the agency gain the account – which they did. The Target ad called “Single Step” was shot for under $22K and I used five different film stocks with three film formats inspired by the first film ever created by the motion studies of Muybridge. Creating a look and a style that define the phrase “It starts with a single step…and then it goes.” The commercial went on to win The Show award and many others.

How different is making ads from making feature/short films? Especially in terms of ideas, preparation, dealing with challenges on the set etc. Please take us through it, if possible. How did you make Rosa Vodka "Worth the Journey", for example?

In advertising, there is a litany of people who have created, wrote, art directed, and they lived with a project/campaign for months. This, on top of a client spending large amounts of money, justifies a lot of people having things to say and wanting to have their fingerprints on the project. The director in this situation is responsible for all these wishes and demands. The director is the conduit to create all of this for a whole lot of people. In this sense, it’s very much like dealing with studio execs and the team to make them all happy.

Preparation is crucial for me as a director and my process is helped by my “internal previz” that I can call up at any moment. For instance, knowing what an angle will look like and with what lenses (even depth of field I would get) and how the camera will move – all in my head. This “visualization” helps with speed and far less guessing and speeds it up. I think this was from my years in painting and architecture that I still call upon…and I can storyboard on the fly to communicate this with the team if needed.

Rosa Vodka “Worth the Journey” was almost the exact opposite. We literally had an iPhone and a great location. I brought my beautiful wife out to the desert, and we created something together. I knew what I wanted, and we took advantage of the opportunity of a beautiful location and great product and then, designed on the fly. No boards, no plan…just me, a camera, and my talent. From there, I knew how I was going to edit it and the music I had in mind while I shot it. The voice talent is a friend, and we did the whole project for under $100.

Filmmaking for motion pictures truly is a director’s medium. The decisions start and end with the director and the intuition must pair with the pragmatic elements on the set. I love working with actors and creating the moments, but this process of filmmaking takes time and money, so a director must be efficient and steadfast on the creative vision, or people waste money. We do have to work with a team and collaborate, but it's all on the shoulders of the director. I don’t understand how directors with minimal experience get opportunities to direct huge projects - this seems counter to the benefits of what huge advantages 'experience' offers. It seems short-sighted to me to gamble this way.

People consume and perceive media differently than before, especially with exposure to numerous online services and channels. How has the ad film industry changed? Is it easier or more difficult to make an ad film today?

The time restraints to advertisements online are lifted, not the concepts. A commercial can be 3 minutes now if compelling or based on a story that’s relevant. On top of this, clients and agencies want assets for print, internet, other projects with the same budget…so creativity suffers. In the past, a commercial needed to get the point across in under a minute or 30 seconds... or less. Along with that, cameras are advancing, and the digital world is evolving to allow production to be done in a more efficient way. But I strongly believe that a project still needs to have a skilled directed and shot with a filmmaker who knows their craft... guide a performance or a shoot with ability and creativity. Just because a new filmmaker has access to a good camera, apply a few LUTS (color grading look up tables) and plug in filters, doesn’t mean the project is a success.

What is your creative process? Does it change drastically when you take on different projects?

The preparation I do now is strikingly like the past…it all takes a notion and doing something different that relates to us all in some way or form. The human element of a story or the way the sunlight strikes a car to how an interaction with dialogue relates to others- All this needs to mean something. It can be simple or complex…but it needs to go “somewhere”. Everything matters... until you run out of money and time.

How can young professionals prepare themselves to enter the field of ad filmmaking? What are the challenges one faces when working on such projects?

The best way is to pay attention to the human nature and research existing projects. Then, find one’s own voice and start shooting.

What do you think about festivals and their role in promoting all types of projects? Please tell us about your own experiences and your festival runs.

Over the past few years, I have gained many directing awards. I re-edited a film I did and it’s taking top honors. This is good to show you can be successful as a filmmaker, but the powers that be needed to take notice of award-winning work especially at the advertising genre. It’s far too common for the creatives to look for a new filmmaker or fresh perspectives on a film and then, it's a problem shoot, or an attitude gets in the way. Unfortunately, many times those new directors are not prepared, and things go south quick, or they end up not having a strong vision because the creatives are mitigating the risk and then, controlling the edit. I know of so many great agency producers and creatives that have been “let go” in favor of new and less costly personnel and I always hear of how this affects the process in serious ways.

What are you currently working on? What can we expect from you in the future?

I currently have four feature films in development, three looks to be funded this year and three series projects. Of these, I have the Vietnam PTSD film with Martin Sheen "Captain for Dark Mornings" (22M), drama "No Right Way" (10M), dark comedy/road trip "American Saviors" (8M), road/heist "No Cops with Wedding Rings" (8M), and horror/action "26 Floors" (18M). Series projects include creator/director for the veteran-based dramatic series "Spent Rounds" and "Holiday Motel" and several other exciting assignments are the works.


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