Brent Bonacorso directs high-profile commercials and music videos. In recent years he has created a highly cohesive, surprising and fresh body of work. If the term “auteur” were used in the short content world, he’d undeniably be labeled it. His work feels like a throwback to the dawn of filmmaking, wizardry and illusions, as best exhibited in early George Melies. Far from the commercial norm, some of his stylistic flourishes include the blending or collision of two distinct universes as well as recurring motifs of creation and technology, assembling and disassembling, influenced by his interest in the process of dreams. Watch his car spots (for Ford, Hyundai and Mercedes) or his Wireless Minds spot for The Wireless Association, and you’ll see different takes on a similar theme: the blurred line between reality and fantasy, the actual emergence and visualization of ideas, the externalization of internal thoughts. Most recently he has directed two back-to-back music videos, arguably for the two biggest names in pop, current and established generation: Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” and Elton John’s “Home Again.”
DE: Because of the vignette format, you are not bound by narrative constraints, and your work exhibits a freewheeling, whimsical dream-like dazzling tone. Is that what attracted you to short content, commercials and music videos?
BB: Absolutely. One thing I’ve found working with short format is that each project is different and offers a completely different set of challenges, circumstances and constraints. This keeps it fresh and interesting. For instance, sometimes on commercials work I’ll be approached with a board already fleshed out and I put my ideas and spin on it. And sometimes it’s an open brief with only a sense of where the client wants to go. In which case I come up with the concept and the execution. Furthermore, each project probably last about four to five weeks, so you can move quickly to something else.
DE: I am particularly interested in the way you juxtapose a very slick, Joseph Kosinski type look with a much more retro-feeling CG and animation. That’s best exemplified by your Infiniti spots. Where does that style come from?
BB: I find it’s good for one to have one’s own style. That particular campaign for Infiniti, which was done ten years ago, was a very open brief. They wanted something that had a very holiday, winter feel and showed all their new models of cars. But beyond that it was completely wide open. My overall broad idea was the snow globe, as if it all takes place in this miniaturized looking, precious snow globe. I did not want the commercial to look like 100 million dollars worth of high-end CG. I wanted it to have a certain collage feel, to feel humanistic and personal. This was done for the holiday season and for family audiences so it was important to stress those features. Yes, we make the car look slick and beautiful but the world they’re caviling in has a handmade quality to it. And, actually, on that particular spot I did all the post myself.
DE: Your background is in design?
Yes I started in graphic design, and worked in the agency world for a few years when I got started. The post and animation-side of it, I’ve taught myself. In my early time as director that was incredibly useful. Because when you control the post, you control the end product. You can shoot on the cheap and then, if you’re doing your own post, do that for free. So – starting out – it allowed me to make my projects look like they had a much higher production value than they actually did. And if I had a piece of advice for anyone in the business, I’d say this strategy makes a good angle. But there’s a huge difference between doing that and making your reel all about special effects, which seems to be what a lot of people do these days. Their reels are FX demos, and that’s not a good place to be. There’s more to directing than that.
DE: In fact you’ve also written and directed a short film called West of The Moon. It’s based on people’s recollections of dreams. Was your intent to approach dreams from the humanistic side as opposed to the somber, nightmare side, which has been trending lately?
BB: That was exactly the intent. West of The Moon came from my desire to make a short film about children’s dreams, which I researched. The question I wanted to answer was if children’s dreams were in any way different from adult’s dreams. Because dreams are based on experiences and concepts that have evolved in our mind over our whole life. And children have a very limited set of that. They don’t yet share those experiences. And adults look at concepts in a fundamentally different way than children do. That was my core concept. I ended up finding a psychologist in Spain who had interviewed thousands of children about their dreams. His approach wasn’t interpretive in any way; simply writing his interviews down and having illustrators create visual work for a book. And that book heavily influenced the format and look of the film. I wanted West of The Moon to have a tableau feel, to be tactile like a children’s book or pop up book coming to life. And when you move from scene to scene, it’s almost like turning a page.
DE: And going for a pop-up book structure each scene is a different setting, mood, genre. That can become jarring for an audience. How did you still keep it cohesive, what was your through-line? The main character, the soundtrack?
BB: I always knew I wanted the story to flow following the “dream logic.” For instance, in a dream, a place can feel very familiar to you yet it’s different in a fundamental way. It’s like that feeling, trying to describe a dream to someone that you can’t describe? ‘I was in my house when I was a child, but it wasn’t my house.’ Or you’ll dream you are in a certain place then you’re in another one, and one person has become something else. It can be confusing. But, to me, it feels like it makes a great amount of sense. I wanted to construct the film with that free-associative flow. I always knew it wouldn’t be edited conventionally, and scenes wouldn’t necessarily flow together in a classical way. I wanted to create a film that felt like watching a dream rather than watching a film. So I threw out the window all cinematic devices, transitions and rules, and made the film around my own recollection of the way dreams play out. Of course it still has a narration to go over it.
DE: Would you see this style of storytelling evolve into a feature film format?
BB: For West of The Moon, for that particular style, I’ve been asked before if I had plans to extend it into a feature. I never did, and still don’t. In a lot of ways my desire to make that short film was counter to the way a lot of shorts get made these days. I really wanted to make a self-contained short. Today a lot of shorts run in the structure of a joke, a brief set up preceding a punch line. Or they are stepping-stones to make a feature, a teaser or a snippet of an action scene of a bigger story. But I wanted to make something completely satisfying, beginning, middle and end, all within ten minutes. As far as features are concerned, my ideas for those are different.
DE: So it’s something you’re actively developing? Or are you waiting for the right material to emerge? You’ve directed commercials for the biggest brands and videos for top artists. The next step would be going into movies.
BB: I had a lot of offers for different films come my way, and I am repped for features by WME. But to make a film takes two years. And I feel you need to love the material. I think the audience can see whether it’s a labor of love or whether you’re going for a big paycheck. So it’s not something I’m incredibly actively pursuing, my commercial work keeps me very busy creatively. Films in development only represent a couple of irons I have in the fire. Naturally if someone sends me a script that I think is fantastic, and that’s happened, then I can engage with the process. But getting a film made is an incredibly complex, tedious and time-consuming endeavor.
DE: Fredrik Bond, an experienced commercial director who just made his feature debut with Charlie Countryman, also waited patiently before making the transition.
BB: Yes, it goes back to the nature of the process on commercials. Four or five weeks and then you move on to something else. There’s a high turnaround, you can make one movie over the course of a year and a half or you can make ten commercials.
DE: Your last project was “Unconditionally”, a music video for Katy Perry. How do you approach the process of coming up with your concept/treatment for a music video? Do you script it, like you would for a short, or do you go into shot-listing and story-boarding, which become a kind of ‘visual script’ since the videos are very aesthetic?
BB: For my music videos treatments I don’t do a shot-by-shot storyboard. But I’ll do very rough storyboards. For Unconditionally – and for most music videos actually – the brief was completely open. You have the song and the lyrics, and you have the freedom to propose your concept. But I don’t go shot-by-shot. I learned that the hard way, in earlier music videos. When I first got started I would write 15 pages of methodical and detailed notes. They made perfect sense to me, and I thought they were great. But the video commissioner would come back and say ‘this is a 35-page document; they will never read this. Bring it down to 3 pages.’ And that was a valuable lesson in learning about the ways other people look at your work and read it. A band, a musician, they’re typically busy, they may not have a huge attention span, keep it brief, sell the concept to them. Show some imagery that is spot-on and informs concisely what you want to do.
DE: That imagery, do you take it from other films or paintings? Or do you try to create your own, shoot some stills or cut together a sizzle reel?
BB: It depends project to project, and varies with the time I have. Ten years ago, in commercial world, everyone wanted you to do a test, a finished post test. People weren’t really educated in a lot of post techniques that involved CG. There weren’t as many tools and technologies. So you had to prove it could be created before getting the job. Which, of course, is a terrible catch 22. The job has $80 000 or more, and you have a DV camera and four days. It was incredibly frustrating because you could never exactly capture what you were trying to do. The best you could say was, “this is a really shitty version of what the commercial will look like.” Now, ten years later, with all the new technology, you can say, “it will be like what’s going in this spot, but with the feel of what’s happening in that film.” There are a lot more things you can point to. And music video treatments have evolved. Now I’ll write the treatment, find images from all over the place, to enlighten my vision of the tone, the cinematography, the composition, etc… In music videos, again speaking to the short attention span, people like to see something edited together. It helps them picture the end product as well as shows editorial choices.
DE: In a music video, when you are directing a massive ‘pop star brand’ like Katy Perry, to which extent do you actually direct her performance since her image is so carefully constructed?
BB: To take the Katy Perry video as an example, we went through several conference calls, with Katy, her label, her managers. We talked in detail about the content in the treatment, my vision and intent on how to execute it. And Katy was very responsive to my concept. So, when we were on set, I have her trust, and she lets me do my thing. Similarly, as far as her singing and her performance is concerned, I like to approach it more loosely, let the artists do their thing too, because that’s why they’re here.