Studio RM, the creative studio specialising in colour grading and post production across film, print, and digital, is partnering with Little Black Book to sponsor The Directors channel. It’s a space for celebrating directors who create aesthetically beautiful and nuanced imagery, the creative potential of technology, and diving into the trends in contemporary culture which these visionary minds so often spark.
In this series, we’ll be highlighting directors who have a distinctive creative voice, and who are championing new and exciting visual styles through fashion, music, and culture. Today, we speak to Neels Castillon, represented worldwide by the Ridley Scott Creative Group.
A Paris-based film director and artist, Neels has built a reputation directing visually rich and emotionally engaging films in challenging environments. He has directed award-winning shorts, music videos, feature documentaries and has brought his love for creative challenges to top brands including Louis Vuitton, Nespresso or Audemars Piguet. He is also co-founder of Motion Palace - a creative studio, producing original content for brands, agencies and the arts.
LBB> What were your influences growing up in France and how did they help shape your creative voice?
Neels> It's a tricky question, I think growing up in France may have influenced my vision of what a director is. In France, cinema is more considered as an art than as an industry, like it is in the US for example. I don't know if it's good or bad, but of course when you start directing, people expect you to have a strong cultural opinion in general and not just focus on the technical aspect of the craft.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre, subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Neels> I have made documentaries, commercials, music videos, and dramas and I have enjoyed each. Regardless of the style, I think it's the subject or the emotion captured that interests me most.
I’ve had a very busy year in terms of commercials, mostly for luxury with truly high-end visuals, and now I’m keen to select scripts with more storytelling. I shot my first short film ‘Whale’s Song’ with very talented actors like Ella Rumpf (Tokyo Vice, Succession). It was a very personal story but my favourite part was actor direction. How to get the best performance from them, how to craft something with emotion and meaning, that’s the most passionate part of my job.
LBB> You have built a reputation directing visually rich and emotionally engaging films in challenging environments. What have been some of the craziest places you have filmed or craziest problem you’ve come across during a production and how did you solve it?
Neels> As a kid coming from a low class family, I didn’t really travel that much, but I grew up compulsively reading National Geographic and dreaming about all those crazy places. So, I ended up writing ideas that would take me away. We shot in Iceland during an ice storm, we shot on giant dunes in the oldest desert of Namibia, we shot diving with singing whales, with a full crew hanging on a mountain cliff in the Alps… I can tell hundreds of other travel stories. Most of the time it’s not production friendly at all but I love it because you go with a smaller crew and everyone is super excited to live an adventure - and because of that I end up getting more freedom on my creative.
This year we started by shooting a campaign in an active volcano in Chile, it was so energetic. And I’ve just come back from China which hides the craziest treasures in terms of landscapes. It kind of became a signature of my work, but I think it’s because I’m way more inspired by nature than cities, that’s the kind of story I want to tell. As an artist I see it as a canvas, a bit like an impressionist painter. I certainly don’t choose a location for the risk, the distance, or the exoticism but more for the shape, the colour, the emotion it gives me, it’s only very visual in my head.
LBB> Speaking of colour, how important is the role of colour in the overall look and feel of a film? And how do you use things like colour and grade to accentuate your vision?
Neels> I see it a bit like a painter does. So colours are very important. I’m very sensitive to all the details, wardrobe, set, etc… A lot of unconscious emotions come from colour. It’s completely part of the narrative and the storytelling for me. When you find the right look, an image can become hypnotising. I want to work with the best colourists because I want the perfect colour harmony for every different project. I do a lot of R&D on my free time. There is so much to say about colour, maybe in a longer interview!
LBB> You have won numerous awards over the years and in 2020, your meditative dance piece ‘F-Major’ premiered on Nowness, becoming one of the most viewed pieces of content ever featured on the platform. In your professional opinion, what do you feel makes for a highly successful and engaging piece of work?
Neels> I’m very proud of this one. I think it’s an ode to freedom and nature, it looks like a dream but everything is real, there is absolutely no VFX. Maybe it’s the kind of content people want to watch in these weird times of AI and fake news - something beautiful, honest, and not over-produced. But I can’t speak for people, I was surprised at the success we had.
My advice for a successful piece of work is to collaborate with artists you love. I’m a huge fan of my friend Hania Rani, she sent me the song and I had goosebumps immediately. It's one of the most beautiful piano songs ever.
I’d also say, hard work. We did a lot of rehearsals; I had a clear vision about how it should be, but a sequence shot like this is very difficult to make even if it looks simple. The dancers were so talented and dedicated. Everyone accepted the 12 hour days to wait for the perfect weather conditions, you never see that on such a small budget.
And lastly, be ready to improvise. I can control some parameters but not everything when shooting outdoors, so you have to embrace the unexpected. When we started shooting, an ice storm started and it created beautiful golden textures moving on the ground. It was beyond all my expectations in terms of beauty. Only Iceland can give you that kind of raw poetry.
LBB> What is your niche craft obsession?
Neels> I think somehow it became working with choreographers. I love non-verbal emotion and everything you can transmit with body language. Even in my short film, where there is no dance at all, I worked with a choreographer to train the actors to use minimal dialogue and to tell as much of the story as possible with their actions. I’m just carefully following the advice of the master, Alfred Hitchcock. Now I ask for choreographers and movement directors all the time, even for Nespresso with farmers or with models on shoots, it helps me to create inspiring images and push creativity.
I have been a skateboarder for twenty years, I always like people who can ride with a good style rather than pure performance. So I think it introduced me to appreciate body movement, then when I started working with dancers I felt that we were speaking the same language. I don’t dance myself (except maybe a bit when I’m drunk!), so please stop sending me casting requests!
LBB> You are also a co-founder of Motion Palace, a creative studio producing original content for brands, agencies and the arts. Tell us about this offering and the type of projects you love to work on here.
Neels> We started this company a few years ago with Ariane Cornic who is an experienced executive producer. We wanted to get more freedom and creative control on our projects. It started in a very small office in Paris and now I’m amazed about what we have become, we partner with global brands, tv channels, agencies, and amazing talents.
We do film production but also creative and art direction, social strategy, and post-production. And of course, we are re-investing our benefits into creating personal and art projects.
It’s hard to describe what we do because we do so many different things. For example, at the moment we are doing a kind of « chef’s table » documentary series for a luxury brand, we shot a massive cosmetic campaign in China for the next Chinese New Year, we are working on the first opening title generated by AI for a French TV channel, we are creating an art piece in Scotland for a whisky brand and many other surprises…
Just call us, we will find a way to create something dope with you.
LBB> You have worked with some incredible brands but which pieces of your work do you feel show what you do best and why?
Neels> I love the Louis Vuitton sustainability campaign, because we got a lot of trust from the brand to create something really powerful. I like this kind of project because it’s not about selling the product but much more a statement for the brand. We love to contribute to brand storytelling.
For example, the Audemars Piguet brand campaign - it’s a premiere and you barely see any watches, it’s all about their spirit and philosophy. I also love the Renault Espace commercial, when the creative came to me with the tagline: « Space is the greatest luxury », it immediately clicked in my head.
Now with social media and digital you have less time to create an amazing campaign where you can take the audience on a journey and then they understand the concept when the tagline appears. Creating great stories is still the best way to connect people with your brand. Now with digital, I also always put a vision of cutdowns for socials in my treatments. Those versions have to be attractive, hypnotising, and play with the new codes to emerge among the millions of pieces of content published every day.
LBB> What’s next for you in your directing career?
Neels> Of course, like all directors I’m working on the development of a feature film. Besides that, I want to continue to receive amazing scripts from agencies to keep me entertained and take care of my team at Motion Palace and RSA films - they are the most amazing people.