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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Kal Karman

The tinygiant director on why Milan is a ‘tiny island’, a holistic approach to production and how The Phantom Menace changed his life

5 Minutes with… Kal Karman

There can’t be many directors with the hands-on experience of the whole production process that Kal Karman has. He started out assisting a cinematographer and worked at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (he even has a production credit on Episode I: The Phantom Menace – but don’t hold that against him, Star Wars fans!). He worked as an editor – a craft that he loves – and these days is a director and stills photographer who has worked on brands like Gucci, BVLGARI and Nivea. Milan-based and Silicon Valley-raised, Kal might be best known for his beauty and fashion work, but he’s a creative with a lot more to offer - not least as a well-travelled early-adopting nerd with a pilot’s license and an acting course under his belt. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to learn more.

LBB> Your career route has been quite an interesting one – you started off as an assistant cinematographer and then moved to ILM (VFX) and also tried your hand at editing. Why do you think you were drawn to so many different aspects of the filmmaking process? Was it about trying to find your thing, or was it more about just loving every element of the process?

Kal> My sister knew a cinematographer who was kind enough to take me on as an assistant. I slept on sofas and worked for nothing. I got myself on set and a new world opened up for me. Being based up in the San Francisco Bay Area there are no real production opportunities. Everything is post-production. I got my foot in the door at ILM as an intern while I was still at UC Berkeley, and luckily they called me back a year later as they were ramping up for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Three years on that show helped me understand that I was more interested in editing than VFX. I did Avid Boot Camp and was off to Italy to try my hand at a new career, new language, new everything.

LBB> And how do you think this experience of working in these different areas has informed your approach to directing?

KAL> While at ILM I was lucky to be on Dennis Muren’s team. He was the Visual Effects Supervisor on Star Wars back in the '70s and is also a member of the American Society of Cinematographers. Sitting in dailies every morning was like learning a new language. Not only did I learn all the computer graphics stuff, but he also spoke in-depth on lenses, lighting, etc. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor to start me off. Fast forward twenty years later: as a commercial director repped by tinygiant, I see shots in terms of layers and strategy. 

LBB> When did you decide that directing and photography were what you wanted to focus on?

Kal> I was very happy as an editor. And I see directing as a way to get what I want into the editing room. Now that I’m writing as well, I see it all as the same thing. A holistic approach is the healthiest. Still photography had always been a desire, but I never had time. What’s happened recently is that stills photographers are being forced to also deliver motion content. And directors are being asked to also deliver the stills campaign. Declining budgets, the rise of the Internet and digital photography technology has created a perfect storm. We can’t just be great in one category and ok in another. 

LBB> You grew up in what is now Silicon Valley – what was that like? 

Kal> It was Silicon Valley back then too. I was programming in BASIC in the sixth grade. I remember I had a BBS email account and my sisters asking me what email was. I would ‘WOP’ messages back and forth to my friend across town, making me among the first to be ‘chatting’ I guess. I rode my bike by Steve Jobs’ house on the way to high school. I was playing with CAD before I could drive, and C++ and Unix by the time I was at UC Berkeley. Some of my buddies from back then are Silicon Valley giants now. From a lifestyle point of view, it was very similar to the movie American Beauty… suburbia, cars, bikes, skateboards, 7-11, adolescence and no clue about how to talk to girls. 

LBB> What sort of child were you?

Kal> I remember for a while they didn’t put a chair at the dinner table for me, because they know I’d just take a bite, run around the house, come back and take another bite, run around again, etc. I took our telephone and dismantled it, meticulously arranging all the bits on the floor. I couldn’t figure out what to name my cat, so I just named him ‘Cat’. I had airplane wallpaper and eventually went and got my pilot’s license. I played soccer but was crap at it. I built card houses, and loved Halloween.

LBB> What piece of advice do you wish you’d had when you were starting out?

Kal>Directing is not just engineering. Focus more on writing and acting. Shoot short films. Go to film festivals. 

LBB> Later on, you moved to Europe - what was it about Milan that attracted you?

Kal> There was a lot I was escaping from in my personal life. Milan offered me a little private island where I could start fresh. It was a great moment. Career was not priority. Everything about Italian culture and the challenge of reinventing myself was insanely gratifying. I’m lucky to have seen a lot of this world, and still I can’t find anywhere I feel more at home than Italy. 

LBB> I’d love to get your take on the local advertising and production industry in Italy – it seems to have faced a lot of challenges over recent years but seems to be regaining some of that confidence… What’s your view on things?

Kal>: We had two major hurricanes. The first was the economic crisis that started in 2008. The second is the recent advent of ‘digital content’, the decline of television and the thirty-second commercial. 

This paradigm shift is giving oxygen to younger directors who are super motivated to shoot on low budgets with tiny crews. Clients need lots of little videos to put in their social media on a regular basis, rather than the amazing thirty-second spot. Quantity has won over quality. However, longer duration films, and lower budgets are also allowing more creativity. The main exceptions are: cars, food and celebrity spots. You can’t escape the need for proper production there. 

Creative agencies now have in-house production, and production companies are focused more on events planning and also some direct-to-client work. Everyone has had to diversify. We’re all waking up to the new working landscape and trying to adjust. The shockwave that hit us these last few years in Europe is now happening in Asia as well. It’s a new ballgame. 

LBB> You work internationally – looking back, what have been your favourite locations to shoot? And is there anywhere you haven’t shot in that you’d like to visit?

Kal> Iceland is like taking drugs without having to take them. Everything is so gorgeous, especially in the winter when the sun hangs on the horizon all day. I loved Nova Scotia, Kenya, Vietnam, Sapporo, Beirut and of course Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Still on my list are Cape Town, New Zealand and anywhere in Polynesia. 

LBB> I was really interested to find that a few years ago you attended an acting academy – why did you decide to do that? 

Kal> I saw some commercial directors, who are way better than me, go on to make disastrous first feature films; amazing images, but no grasp of storytelling and flat performances from great actors. So, I decided to try to learn from their mistakes and learn as much as I could. Crossing the line and learning acting was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve done. I remember thinking ‘Oh… so this is what it’s all about’… I learned their vocabulary and process. It looks so easy, but good lord, acting is excruciating. I have so much respect for them now. It’s informed me so much as I work on my writing. 

LBB> Was there anything you learned that really surprised or helped you as a director?

Kal> I loved the definition of ‘listening’ that they gave us: “Listening is the ability to change your mind based on what the other person is saying”. And that acting is really just good reacting; being present in the moment and working off what the other actor is doing in your scene. Everything goes back to what the character wants. ‘What’s the action?’ is the question to ask over and over… What do you want out of the other character and what tactics will you use to get it? But it’s got to come naturally, without thinking, like a piano player forgetting about the keys. It’s amazing what actors do. I was crap at it. I shudder to think of my performances. But it was invaluable for me.

LBB> And would you recommend that all directors have a go at acting?

Kal> 100% yes.

LBB> You’ve worked with the likes of James Franco and Shakira - What’s the key to getting the best out of celebrities?

Kal> It’s hard to answer that. I worked with both on commercial jobs. Time is tight and they’ve got their mind on other things. As their director, I’m very focused on making sure production is taking care of them. If they are well and comfortable, they can do what they do best when it’s time to call action. If they’re pissed off, we’re all dead. Make sure they’re well, and get out of their way. I get everything rehearsed with stand-ins so they never waste a second on set. Once they feel that respect, they get on my side and enjoy a positive flow for the rest of the day.

LBB> How do you decide what briefs or projects you want to work on?

Kal> I like to challenge myself with projects that are as different from my reel as possible. I’m a travel addict, so if the spot will take me somewhere new, I’ll go for it. No matter what the product is, if the story enables me to transmit emotion and do good work, I’ll go for it. 

LBB> How would you characterise your work?

Kal> I’m sold as a ‘Beauty, Fashion & VFX Director’. But I wish we didn’t have these classifications. The industry needs more cross-pollination. I’d love to shoot more narrative, cars and tourism spots.

LBB> You’ve got a pilot’s license! How often do you get to fly and what is it about flying that you love?

Kal> Yeah, I was a kid when I got my license. It is amazing to fly a single-engine Cessna. To control a plane one has to push-pull and turn the steering wheel, and also push-pull and tilt the foot pedals. So, it’s like a dance you do in your seat just to turn right and soar higher. When you’re still a teenager and you fly out to the pacific coast at sunrise… then ride your bike to school… that was amazing. Opening the windows and feeling that rush of air. Mathematics and meditation. Loved it. But I haven’t done it since. It takes a lot of dedication to keep your license active. Who knows, maybe I’ll get back to it one day.

LBB> How do you refuel your creativity?

Kal> Aaron Sorkin says that to write you have to ‘be well’. And that’s really true. It’s mainly about removing stress factors in your life, so much so that your radar can open up and catch those great ideas that otherwise you might have missed. Living a full life is key. Get out there and make mistakes and get into trouble. Question everything. Success through failure. We need all these ups and downs to use as our colour palette when the time comes to paint. But we’re all different. I know some artists who need chaos to create. 

Genre: Strategy/Insight