- SANTA MONICA, Calif.
With the high-profile debut of a film promoting NASA’s mission to Mars, a recent flurry of awards show honors for an Apple shot-on-iPhone short, and the addition of an Oscar-nominated cinematographer to its commercialmaking/branded content directorial roster, production house brother--founded by director Theodore Melfi and executive producer Rich Carter--has had an eventful stretch, bucking what’s otherwise been a pandemic norm of generally curtailed industry activity.
The Oscar nominee joining brother as a director is Lawrence Sher, ASC who earned Academy recognition for his lensing of Joker. The DP’s work on Joker not only garnered an Oscar nod but also noms for BAFTA, ASC and BSC Awards, and two wins at Camerimage--for the prestigious Golden Frog as well as the Audience Award. Joker marked Sher’s sixth film in 11 years for director Todd Phillips, the others including The Hangover series of movies, Due Date and War Dogs.
Sher is no stranger to the director’s chair, having helmed the comedy-drama feature film Father Figures (2017) starring Owen Wilson, Glenn Close, Ving Rhames, Christopher Walken and J.K. Simmons.
Sher is also well-versed in the ad arena, having lensed select commercials over the years for top-drawer directors and brands. Melfi can attest firsthand to Sher’s talents spanning feature and short film collaborations. Melfi directed and Sher shot The Starling (Netflix), a feature currently in postproduction and with a cast including Melissa McCarthy, Daveed Diggs, Timothy Olyphant and Veronica Falcón. Melfi and Sher bonded on The Starling, leading to the director asking the DP to lens Daughter, a short in Apple’s “Shot on iPhone series.”
For Daughter--which stars one of China’s leading actresses, Zhou Xun--Sher lensed sweeping panoramas, engaging closeups and single take ultra wide flashbacks on location in China, demonstrating the image-capturing prowess of the iPhone 11 Pro. Created by TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai, Daughter is an emotional story of a taxi driver’s (Xun) complicated relationship with the two most important women in her life, her young daughter and her estranged mother. The film examines the changing social norms in China and reflects on the generational differences between traditional families and modern youth. The intergenerational film is a touching drama of family reconnecting for the Chinese New Year.
Noting that Sher was deeply involved in Daughter spanning testing and realizing the iPhone camera's capabilities, scouting and helping Melfi in varied ways, brother EP Carter said of Sher, “He was so incredibly collaborative in that process, I was like, ‘Why aren’t you directing?’” Carter then learned that Sher had directorial experience, and brother reached out to him to come aboard its roster.
Daughter has thus far this awards season garnered an ANDY Award for Craft Film, an ADC Bronze Award for Motion/Film Narrative, and an AICP Next Award honor in the Web Film Over 15 Seconds category. Carter noted that having access to RadicalMedia’s Shanghai office helped brother fully realize Daughter. Earlier this year, RadicalMedia and brother entered into a collaborative relationship (SHOOTonline, 1/29), which enables Carter and Melfi to continue operating brother independently while tapping into Radical’s global operation and deep resources. Radical in turn gains access to brother’s coterie of talent, which includes Giovanni Messner who directed and produced an intimate, artful making-of-Daughter video.
Sher shared that over the course of working on The Starling and then Daughter, he developed an affinity for Melfi and Carter which in turn drew him to their production boutique. “Ted (Theodore Melfi) loves actors, has a beautiful way with them,” assessed Sher who noted that “directing has always been part of the plan for me all the way through my shooting career. But I wasn’t in any particular rush to direct. I got a chance to direct a movie a couple of years back, which was more enjoyable than I expected it to be.” Then Sher continued shooting, reuniting with Phillips on the groundbreaking Joker.
Asked what his alluded to unexpected joy of directing experience was on Father Figures, Sher related that one of his prime responsibilities over the years as a DP has been to take on as much as he could to free the director to focus fully on actors and their performances. While he worked extensively with actors as a DP, Sher wasn’t sure about the “unknown” of how it would be collaborating with them more directly. He wondered if he would have the patience for conversations with actors that are chipping away at the day’s shooting time. As it turned out, Sher found those conversations to represent some of the most “joyful” parts of directing, getting him closer to actors, their concerns and helping to capture more insightful performances and advance the story in the process.
Sher noted that he brought on a long-time camera assistant, Julie Donovan, on Father Figures as an associate producer. Sher shared that Donovan, who’s known him as a DP over more than 20 movies, said that when he was directing, he seemed “as happy and relaxed” as she’s ever seen him. In pursuit of further such happiness, Sher hopes to be active as a director in the commercialmaking and branded content space at brother. He was also slated at press time to direct multiple episodes of the TV series Rutherford Falls, an original show for NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service.
Sher joins a brother spot/branded content directorial lineup which includes Melfi, Messner, Dax Shepard and Tim Story.
The aforementioned NASA short, Perseverance--directed, produced and co-written by Melfi, and narrated by Octavia Spencer--heralds the planned launch later this month of the Mars Rover, named Perseverance, with a landing on the Red Planet projected for February 2021. Perseverance, which debuted on the Today show last week and is now proving popular on social media, provides an inspiring look at NASA’s storied history spanning triumphs, tragedy, ingenuity and resilience.
NASA gravitated to Melfi for the short given their fruitful collaborative relationship which yielded the lauded feature, Hidden Figures (2016). Hidden Figures garnered three Oscar nominations, including two for its director/producer/co-writer Melfi (Best Motion Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay); the third nod went to Spencer for Best Supporting Actress. Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures centered on three African-American women at NASA who made vital contributions to the space race. Their workplace is segregated (with separate bathrooms and drinking fountains) but the women’s incredible perseverance and smarts eventually make their mark. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Spencer portrayed, respectively, mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, budding engineer Mary W. Jackson and computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan.
Melfi recalled being approached by NASA a couple of months ago about the prospect of overseeing Perseverance. Citing his admiration for what NASA does as well as anything STEM or tech-oriented, Melfi, a self-avowed space junkie, immediately embraced the project, assembling a team which included EP Carter, producer/editor Messner, narrator Spencer, and sound designer Stephen Fletcher Dewey, with the support of RadicalMedia Post Production
Melfi felt a sense of purpose in Perseverance, noting that NASA needs to continually make its case for funding and its very survival. He sees the short as part of the ongoing campaign of “keeping NASA in the zeitgeist and in everyone’s minds when it comes time to fund these missions.”
Particularly gratifying for Melfi is seeing NASA’s hub being renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters Building, and the 300 block of E Street SW in front of that headquarters adopt the moniker Hidden Figures Way. Additionally, NASA’s Langley Research Center is now called the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Johnson passed away in February at the age of 101. Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 83.
“It was kind of surreal going there for the first time and standing in front of headquarters on Hidden Figures Way,” related Melfi who affirmed that the legacy of the Hidden Figures women lives on--both inside and outside NASA.
Client NASA Production brother Theodore Melfi, director/producer; Rich Carter, exec producer. Giovanni Messner, producer/editor. Sound Design & Mix Stephen Fletcher Dewey Music “Motion III,” written by Erwan Castex, Romain Allender; performed by Rone; courtesy of InFine Postproduction Support RadicalMedia Post Production
Client Apple Agency TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Shanghai Production brother, RadicalMedia Theodore Melfi, director; Lawrence Sher, cinematographer; Rich Carter, exec producer; Patty Tsai, Zoey Zhang, producers. Editorial Giovanni Messner, editor Music Varqa Beuhrer, composer. Actors Xun Zhou, Duo Duo Xu, Ai Li Zhang