Looking at the work Aggressive produces today - elaborate ideas executed to the highest standard across multiple mediums - it’s somewhat difficult to believe that it all started with an interest in web design. No, really - both Alex Topaller and Daniel Shapiro, founders and executive creative directors of the creative production company, credit an early fascination with web design with what they do now, tracing a direct line between that youthful curiosity and the DIY attitude and creative hunger fueling them now.
Huawei, Amazon Prime, OPPO, Google, Carlsberg, and OnePlus are only a small selection of clients they’ve worked with to date while their work has been featured in Vogue, Wired, NOWNESS, and The New York Times, among countless others.
Carlsberg Garage - Reset
“We both felt that we could try and do something with the skills we had, make an adventure for ourselves. Our attitude was very ‘we can figure anything out’,” remembers Daniel. The duo first styled themselves as a visual effects team, lending their talents to music videos by day for the likes of Eminem, The Roots, and The Hives, while studying and trying to figure out their next step at night. Around 2003, they set their sights on the music industry specifically with a move to directing, honing the craft of making music videos with a simple motivation, “we wanted to work with artists,” they both laugh. Dan and Alex remember that period fondly, recalling how fun it was to collaborate with artists they loved and live through the on-set antics that, on reflection, feel fever-dream-esque.
“Directing music videos was our filmmaking bootcamp, the precursor to the kind of work we specialise in now,” says Dan; Alex adds, “Music videos are a playground for filmmakers to experiment and find themselves, establish a style - we got to play with a lot of different techniques, approaches, and influences during that time.” The pair are humble about those early videos, referring to them as “sentimental experiences” they wouldn’t change, but they also don’t think are exemplary of what they’re capable of now. “It was a great feeling to discover that we could do something pretty cool using just our computers all by ourselves from our small home office at the time.”
The small home office eventually evolved into a studio, complete with a creative team, and the expertise to do better, bigger things. In 2008, Aggressive directed ‘Me Enamora’, a music video for the Colombian artist, Juanes, infusing it with their distinctive VFX stylisation. That same year they won a Latin Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video. A decade later and with multiple music videos under their belts, Aggressive were tasked to create a posthumous video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Behind the Mask’ song, originally slated to appear on the album, Thriller, and which will be included on the upcoming 40th anniversary edition reissue, Thriller 40. The video is a considered homage to the artist’s illustrious career; each costume - a mask - honouring the personas invented and worn by Jackson.
Michael Jackson - Behind the Mask
With close to 20 years of experience and multiple successes under their belt, the Aggressive team has carved out a niche in the industry by bringing together live action, visual effects, design, and the latest technology like XR (extended reality) and virtual production, before mixing it all together in the right combination for any project at hand. There’s one non-negotiable: emphasis on the story; they always start there and then look to enhance it with the myriad of tech and techniques in their toolbox. “You could say that we’re the guys people call when they don’t quite know how to put a project together,” Dan jokingly offers - though it’s clear that existing in a “creative grey zone” is both comfortable and preferable to them both.
Though the pandemic ground the world to a halt, it didn’t stop entertainers from creating and releasing projects. What changed was the format they were operating within, calling for imaginative solutions that could give viewers at home the same sense of spectacle as a live show. The agency Momentum, whom Aggressive has worked a lot with since, brought Alex and Dan a challenge in 2020 - help Alicia Keys stage a launch show for her album, ALICIA, for American Express’s UNSTAGED series. The catch? They would have less than three weeks to get it done.
“We knew from the start that to make this happen we’d have to barrel through quite a lot of formalities and we said that to everyone involved at the time!’ We said, ‘The process might be a little crazy, a little painful; as soon as it starts going that way, remember that we’re trying to achieve the impossible in no time’,” says Alex.
Alicia Keys - AMEX Unstaged
Aggressive more than delivered on their promise with an hour-long live XR concert experience; Alicia Keys was quoted in Forbes saying
that it was her favourite performance to date. The show was shot on a pre-built LED stage with Aggressive crafting an arresting three-act digital world structure - a desert, a city, and an abstract architectural setting, with triggerable elements - which they directed in real time to match the emotional arc of the performance. Using XR to transform and extend the small space was the natural solution in Aggressive’s eyes - a visual feast for viewers at home. It was also visible to Keys so she could play off her surroundings during the set.
“It was a really exciting project that allowed us to play with different techniques and disciplines, putting them all together. Really, it was a perfect project for us,” says Dan.
“We like working on projects that push our creative boundaries and let us play with the latest technologies, constantly honing our craft and finding ways to make the new tech work for our clients, like XR and experimental,” explains Alex. Aggressive mix and match filmmaking mediums instinctively; the “medium agnostic” approach is one the duo have developed from the very start and one they’re maintaining with every project that crosses their path.
Without preconceived solutions, the idea is to find the best approach for the creative challenge at hand. “We’re always figuring out what will be cool, creative, and impactful. Looking at any brief, we immediately think ‘can this be CG, can this be live action, or stop-motion’. Without experimentation, there’s very little momentum forward and we like trying new things to deliver exciting outcomes.”
OnePlus - Nord 2 5G
The medium-agnostic approach might look like a blend of CG and live action for Carlsberg’s stylish Reset spot, involving choreography, cable-work, and futuristic visuals. In the One Plus’s Nord 2 5G ad, the duo suggested practical set filmmaking and LED projections to create a boundary-breaking remixed collage environment. It’s mind-bending and innovative, with a retro-futurist flair. Thinking about the creative value they offer, Dan says: “Having different approaches available to us means we can advise clients on what will give them the best outcomes.”
Sometimes that means advising against what the client has turned to them with. Because Aggressive works at the cutting edge of tech innovation, they’re often bringing the newness to clients who “don’t yet know what’s being developed” or can’t yet imagine how it can apply to their brief. “Sometimes a client will come to us looking for a live action shoot and we will suggest a fully CG approach instead, which the client maybe didn’t even consider a possibility,” Alex explains.
This approach also works in reverse, with Aggressive employing ‘traditional’ filmmaking when it feels most appropriate. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum came to Aggressive with a project to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks - the client envisioned it executed using CG. “We’ve both lived in New York for a long time and that approach didn’t quite sit right with us. We asked if we could visit the museum, see all the elements, and find a way to really showcase the artefacts displayed. We were able to convince them to go the live action route and ended up going to film at the museum, which was a completely different outcome compared to what they came to us with.” The resulting film takes a sensitive look at what the disaster left behind 20 years on, attending to the materiality of the objects and the setting, not adding or subtracting gravitas - faithfully conveying it. “To have an impact, it had to be real,” they both agree.
9/11 Memorial & Museum - The Never Forget Fund
“Keep Having Fun”
“Our aim is to do three things: play with new tech, keep making commercials because it’s fun and we really love it, and - since we’re filmmakers - make some films too,” Dan says. Aggressive’s next adventure is in the TV realm, having developed and shot a pilot of a planned six-part series based on the sci-fi novel Escape Attempt by the Soviet writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Bearing the same name as the novel, the pilot is faithful to the novel’s plot, bar one of the gender-swapped main characters (Ana in place of the novel’s Anton) - a decision that gives the story a more contemporary edge. The self-funded project is “an exciting next step to try, based on our love of film and sci-fi,” says Dan. “We wanted to do it on our terms. It’s a story we love and wanted to bring it to life with our mix of design and technology,” Alex adds.
Escape Attempt - Trailer
Escape Attempt’s pilot is moody and sleek - Aggressive made sci-fi elements like a spaceship look eerily organic when surrounded by nature, while the ship’s interior is a stylish evocation of mid-century futurism. Dark, spare, haunting - and with a dramatic orchestral score - the pilot introduces the show’s main narrative elements: the discovery of an uncharted planet where civilians are cruelly ruled by machines. Set among a violently ravaged landscape, it’s unflinching in its depictions of human suffering under despotic rule, and feels even more prescient today in light of global events than when Aggressive shot it back in 2021.
For Aggressive, being creative, thoughtful, and having fun while doing it are all one and the same. Surrounded by a team of talented artists, and with an even wider network a phone call away, the Aggressive family is all on the same page: “Everyone is eager to work on cool, fun, interesting projects,” according to Alex. “We always want to make sure that what we’re working on is exciting to the whole team, that it’s work on our reels we can all be proud of. We go ‘all in’ all the time because we could be doing this interesting thing or we could be selling real estate,” both conclude with a laugh.
Dan and Alex’s ‘can do’ attitude, enthusiasm, and sheer excitement about what they get to do every day is palpable. Aggressive in name only, the personable pair can not only make the impossible happen, they’ll make it look effortless too.