SHOOT’s spring ensemble of up-and-coming directors includes: an obsessed skate video filmmaker who made a breakthrough at Sundance; and a helmer who established herself in London, has turned out some initial notable U.S. campaign work and is just taking on her first representation in the American ad market.
Also in the mix is a prolific music video director who has since diversified into commercials, branded content and shorts. Not quite a year ago, he garnered his first U.S. production company home for spots and videos.
And rounding out the field is a filmmaker whose work in fashion, music and dance has struck a responsive chord with brands and audiences.
Here’s our spring collection of several promising directors to watch.
Bing Liu is a breakthrough director, literally. This past January Liu won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking on the strength of his feature documentary, Minding the Gap, which tells the story of three young men—including himself—who bond with one another via skateboarding to escape volatile families in their Rust Belt hometown. However as they grow up and adult responsibilities take hold, unexpected revelations jeopardize their decade-long friendship.
The poignant film marks a stirring feature directorial debut for Liu—one which also recently landed him representation for commercials and branded content through Nonfiction Unlimited, a production company known for helping documentarians diversify into the ad arena.
The backstory for Minding the Gap dates back to when teenager Liu began filming skate videos. “It became an obsession,” he related. “It also allowed me to connect with other videomakers across the country. We’d give each other tips on upping our game. Over time, the skate videos became more and more experimental.”
Then some five years ago Liu started going around the country, interviewing skateboarders about their relationships and personal lives. “I found a pattern of family dysfunction and over time I settled on making this a character-driven film in the town I grew up in, Rockford, Illinois. I grew up with these guys. We had similar issues and situations—and I slowly worked my way into the film [as an on-camera subject] over the past couple of years.”
Liu developed the film with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, and as a co-production of POV and ITVS. He not only directed and co-starred in Minding the Gap but also was its DP, co-producer (with Diane Moy Quon) and co-editor (along with Joshua Altman).
Additionally, Liu’s presence at Sundance extended beyond Minding the Gap. He also served as a segment director and DP for America to Me, a 10-part limited series which chronicles a year at one of Chicago’s most progressive and diverse public schools, located in suburban Oak Park. The series—under the aegis of director Steve James (Hoop Dreams and this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail)—is both intimate and epic in its storytelling, exploring America’s charged state of race, culture and education. America to Me made its world premiere as part of the Sundance Fest’s Indie Episodic lineup. A Kartemquin Films project produced in partnership with Participant Media, America to Me was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate’s Starz network ahead of the show’s Sundance debut.
James and Liu share a connection on fronts other than just America to Me. For example, James was an exec producer on Minding the Gap and his spot/branded content representation is also at Nonfiction. James’ affiliation with Nonfiction goes all the way back to the company’s inception. He was the very first director signed by Nonfiction partner/exec producer Loretta Jeneski, aka LJ, back in 1995 when she established the company.
Liu met Jeneski at an after party following the screening of Minding the Gap at Sundance. Liu said he was attracted to Nonfiction Unlimited by Jeneski’s “enthusiasm for my creative voice and her willingness to work with me to develop it for the commercial realm. It was also comforting to know that she has an understanding of my scattered schedule as a filmmaker actively working on and developing new projects. She has worked with my trusted advisor Steve James since his Hoop Dreams days.”
Liu regards James as a friend and mentor. Liu described himself as “very self taught, working as a grip, electrician, camera assistant, camera operator, all while I kept making skate videos. I didn’t go to film school. To be able to sit down and have coffee with Steve, who’s encountered seemingly every situation, has been a wonderful education. He’s helped me balance things, putting the work into perspective. You’re a person telling a story, which can be very personal. Where do you draw the line between exploitation and bringing an important story to light that’s worth telling? Steve has helped me work through different issues and been a great sounding board.”
As for his becoming part of the story in Minding the Gap, Liu said it was helpful “to have skin in the game as a filmmaker. I was less a protagonist in the traditional sense and more in the character of filmmaker, being the camera itself. I also became a bit vulnerable as I interact with my friends, which helped serve the purpose of touching on the issues involved more deeply.”
Regarding what Minding the Gap taught him, Liu spoke about “not going into a project with a set idea of what a story is going to be. You have to let the characters’ lives lead the way, and you’re there to capture it in a way that’s true to them, that doesn’t get in their way.”
There are other lessons that Liu would like Minding the Gap to impart to certain viewers. Alluding to the abusive father figures that the main characters endured as youngsters, Liu shared in his Artistic Statement for the film, “What’s clear from doing this project is that violence and its sprawling web of effects are perpetuated in large part because these issues remain behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively. My hope is that the characters who open doors in Minding the Gap will inspire young people struggling with something similar—that they will survive their situation, live to tell their story, and create a life of causality for themselves.”
Georgia Hudson has made her first mark in the American ad market and is now looking to continue that with her recent move to Park Pictures for representation in the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands. Park Pictures is her first career stateside production house roost.
A prime example of Hudson’s alluded to initial inroads into U.S. fare is her work on Under Armour’s global “Unlike Any” campaign from Droga5, New York, produced by London-based Agile Films, Hudson’s former production house affiliation. The campaign enlists accomplished spoken word artists to craft poems unique to the story of individual athletes. The poems are read by the artists as voiceover on each of the respective films, resulting in powerful odes to celebrate female athletes’ unwavering spirit.
A centerpiece film in this campaign features famed ballerina Misty Copeland. The camera follows her poetry in motion—unfolding to the words of Saul Williams. Hudson’s directorial touch in this poetic campaign is evident, additionally reflected in other individual spots profiling stunt woman Jessie Graff, Harlem Run founder Alison Desir, world champion sprinter Natasha Hastings, and actress/Taekwondo Black Belt artist Zoe Lanxin.
“It was beautiful to work on that campaign,” shared Hudson. “It had a lot of heart, especially with Misty who has a beautiful presence and an amazing story. The campaign was a hunt for conveying the right feel and emotion for each athlete. We had these beautiful poems. But also the body and its movement can explain life’s secrets that we don’t have words for.”
Testament to Hudson’s work is the repeat business it generated as Droga5 returned to her for a Dick’s Sporting Goods anthem short tribute to a collection of female athletes. The piece is marked by cinematic elegance along with some music video sensibilities, a discipline in which Hudson has made an indelible impression with clips for such artists as Pink, Loyle Carner and Glass Animals. These garnered nominations and wins in multiple categories at MTV, Ibiza VMAs, Berlin MVA, UKMVA and the MOBO Awards. The Pink music video “What About Us” earned Hudson a nomination for Best Director at the 2017 UK MVAs.
Hudson grew up in London and attended Camberwell Art School where she studied ceramics. “I’d work with clay, put it into the fire and watch the alchemy take hold,” she recalled. “In a way it translates into how I wanted to work on film, taking the elements and transforming it into something of its own, a pure form of art to capture emotion and tell stories.”
Hudson also made 16mm performance art films. After graduating, she started working in fashion, art directing runway shoes and creating short fashion promos. Sought out by I-D magazine, she went on to write and make documentaries and art films for them.
Hudson then extended her creative reach into music videos. “I loved taking on other people’s concepts, the pace of the industry, being entrusted with their music. Working in music videos, I was able to develop a visual language of my own, which still comes across in the commercial work I’ve done to date. There’s a common misconception that music videos give you the ultimate freedom creatively. That’s not how I found it. You’re always working with a brief of some sort, respecting the music and what it stands for.”
For commercials and music videos, Hudson related, “I like the people aspects of the job as well as making art with the potential to reach a huge audience in a democratic and fair way. I try to learn from everything I do. I am constantly exploring how to communicate, shedding light on people, their emotions and stories. Commercials are now really exciting and attractive to me. Traditional formats are changing. And I’m hopeful that barriers are breaking down—where women directors get more opportunities to work on what in the past were considered ‘male brands.’”
Hudson was drawn to Park Pictures on several levels, including it being a company with a woman at the helm, partner/EP Jackie Kelman Bisbee. “Production companies are waking up to diversity but Park Pictures has always been naturally diverse in terms of its leadership and talent,” said Hudson. “And I was very much attracted to all that filmmaking talent and their body of work at Park Pictures.” Hudson also liked the continuity of having the same company handling her on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the shorts front, Hudson is currently developing Temper, an artistic documentary on youth culture and grief. Hudson described Temper as “an experimental project, made on a shoestring budget, that informs what I want to continue to do—to tell stories about real people as I figure out how to harness the emotion of those stories and tell them through the moving image. At the same time, I want this imagery to convey emotion in a way that is never preachy.”
Temper is slated for release later this year.
In a relatively short span, director Yoni Lappin’s career has extended its creative reach from music videos to commercials and shorts. On the latter score, he recently completed Model Citizen, a documentary for Vogue about fashion models from Sudan. Lappin profiles several models whose only connection is that they are all from South Sudan, a region embroiled in civil war for more than two decades. “To come from such a volatile place and make it in the fashion industry is such a contrast,” said Lappin. “I was intrigued by their different stories and wanted to do justice to them. They are all unique characters.”
Slated at press time to soon make its debut, Model Citizen is the latest example of how Lappin’s filmmaking exploits continue to diversify. It’s his second short documentary, the first being the Nowness-commissioned Love the Time, a piece that revisited his roots in Israel, delving into different subcultures, capturing such protagonists as the Jerusalem Skater Girls who empower Jewish, Muslim, Christian and atheist women in the country as they come together and skate in a way that is unforced and instinctive.
Lappin made his first filmmaking mark in music videos, collaborating with friends’ bands. He then worked at Warner Bros. Records for a few years in London, connecting with managers and artists, cutting his teeth on low-budget music videos. The big break thrusting him into the spotlight was his coming together with Mura Masa on “What If I Go,” which brought the conventions of Instagram to a music video. “What If I Go” was nominated for a U.K. Music Video Award in 2016.
Lappin and Mura Masa went on to become friends, leading to an enduring collaboration which his yielded such work as “Love$ick” which has garnered some 24 million views since its release and earned a 2017 U.K. MVA nomination for Best Urban Video. Featuring A$AP Rocky, the Mura Masa video elegantly portrays the youthful misadventures of three friends in London, marking a storytelling departure from the hip hop clip norm.
Among Lappin’s other notable music video credits are NAO’s “Girlfriend,” a dreamy, atmospheric depiction of young love; and Mura Masa and Charli XCX’s “1 Night” which explores the awkward yet exhilarating state of being in love.
Some 10 months ago, Lappin landed his first representation in the U.S., coming aboard the roster of RSA Films for commercials and branded content, and its sister shop Black Dog Films for music videos. He has already been active on the spotmaking front via RSA, first taking on a visually arresting client-direct campaign for a Converse/JW Anderson amalgam of footwear representing contrasts between iconic Converse silhouettes and JW Anderson’s design aesthetic. The spots feature young creatives discussing their perspectives on personal style and philosophy.
Most recently, Lappin directed another client-direct project, the “Impossible Happens” commercial for luxury fitness company Equinox via RSA. The spot features vignettes of eclectic fitness enthusiasts on their journey to overcome personal challenges, and how their trainers are the motivational forces that push them past what they thought was doable. Lappin captures the genuine dynamic between trainers and trainees in a humorous, heartfelt, and human way.
Halfway through a two-year program on producing at the USC School of Cinema-Television, Stewart Maclennan took a detour—not because he didn’t find value in the curriculum but because the curriculum had exposed him to another discipline that he valued even more: editing.
“The cutting room became my film school,” said Maclennan. A producer he knew helped him land his first job in editing. “It’s said you write a film three times—when you write the screenplay, then when you shoot it and finally when editing. That’s where all the elements of storytelling come together—visuals, sound design, performance, handling digital effects. Everything to tell the story comes together in the editing room.”
Maclennan went on to serve as both a postproduction assistant and an apprentice sound editor on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and later an assistant editor in London on the feature Half Light.
“My experiences in the editing room eventually gave me the courage to go behind the camera and make my own films,” recalled Maclennan. This was around the time dance films on YouTube had started to emerge, along with the increased prominence of short fashion films. And with digital cameras becoming more prevalent, making content became a less expensive proposition with Maclennan gaining experience and honing his filmmaking chops in dance and fashion.
Maclennan’s work began to find an audience and gain traction as he secured production house representation in the U.S. and internationally. He came aboard the roster of CoMPANY Films, the L.A.-based shop headed by EPs Robin Benson and Richard Goldstein, for spots and branded content. The director then branched out with representation in the U.K. via Odelay Films and in France through Satellite My Love. An indie directors agent also took him on for work in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Among the work building momentum for Maclennan are client-direct films for Levi’s and Tretorn. The former introduces us to 25-year-old, L.A.-based tap dancer Kenji Igus who’s evolved his art beyond his training in classical jazz to now encompass hip-hop and rap music. Igus’ tap dancing to contemporary music brings back an iconic American artform, paralleling Levi’s, an iconic American brand. Titled Rhythm Is My Business, the Levi’s interactive short champions the relevance of tap dancing to youth culture—and indirectly the relevance of the Levi’s brand to that coveted youth demographic.
Another heritage brand, Tretorn, made its initial mark years back as a Swedish shoe company in the U.S. Recently bought by an American conglomerate, Tretorn sought to reconnect with young American consumers, resulting in Maclennan directing The Tretorn Artists Series, branded content centering on such artists as American dancer Erin S. Murray and cellist Isaiah Gage.
Maclennan’s films have been featured in GQ, Vimeo Staff Picks, Nowness, Laughing Squid, and the San Francisco Exploratorium Museum. He’s also been nominated for multiple awards at the La Jolla and Millan fashion film festivals. Maclennan additionally launched 21, a micro fashion film series created exclusively for Instagram. He’s created commercials, dance films and branded content for clients such as LaCoste, AG Jeans, Moods of Norway, Fila, For Love & Lemons, Nasty Gal, StyleStalker, Citizens of Humanity, and Google.