What is the root of creative inspiration? Answering a question so big requires a return to the theoretical foundation of everything we know about design through innovative thinkers like Jane Fulton Suri, Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames, and the Bauhaus school. We also need to return to nature, for so often it already holds the answers to the complex challenges design is trying to solve.
In ‘Making Material You’, the film from Google Seed Studio, directed by Britton Caillouette with cinematography from Farhad Ghaderi and production from Farm League, the voices of the design pioneers are brought to life by Mexico City’s artists, designers, florists and chefs to reflect and ground the film in its location. The film was shot on a combination of 16mm and 35mm film (amid a film shortage, Britton notes), plus other forms of mixed media, to bring a true sense of craft and texture to the visuals.
In the hero film, images of nature are presented harmoniously with different objects and expressions of design, asking the viewer to consider how the elements inspire and converse with one another, beyond the typical tension of objects versus nature. It’s an artful and purposefully abstract look at the creative process behind the development of Google’s new democratised design and ultra-customisable UI, called Material You.
Over the course of two years, Britton worked with the Seed Studio design team to develop the idea into the film we see today, while Farhad’s cinematic eye helped to communicate the conceptual approach visually.
Below, we speak to Britton about how design thinking informs his work as a filmmaker and why, for him, this film was personal; and to Farhad on the instinctual way he worked with Britton over the course of weeks to bring his own ethos to the film.
Britton> Design thinking has been core to my education as a filmmaker, so when this project came up, it was right in my wheelhouse. I was approached by Philip Battin at the Seed Studio at Google, which is a design incubator within the company. He had seen some of my documentary work, some of my work that I'd shot on film, and he resonated with the overall vibe. So we got to talking, and it began as a very informal process. He mentioned that he had a project that he was about to launch.
Design thinking has always had a huge role in the way that I work, especially when I'm working with a client or working on a commercial project. A lot of my friends are designers. My mother was a designer. Many of my early films were actually design films and fashion-related films. So when I'm approaching a project, I always try to think like a designer would in terms of how to approach the problem. For me this is both aesthetically – when it comes to thinking about how to compose shots and the graphic sensibilities – but also in terms of how to tell the story, including how we build a team, how we develop ideas, and how we go out and execute them.
Britton> Seed Studio had been working on this whole new design infrastructure that informs a lot of the UI and the software behind their devices. Because the concept of design thinking is so abstract, the Google team wanted to make a film that told the story in a visually dynamic and intelligible way that would communicate the roots and intention of this software. We came up with a really interesting visual language to explain what they were doing in a way that was conceptual, that gave a nod to the history of design, and where this project stood in the history of design…while also just feeling really fresh and original and beautiful at the end of the day.
So immediately, I jumped on this opportunity and was super inspired. It was a different way of working for me too, because there was no agency involved and it was just me working directly with the client from concepting through post. Both the team at Seed Studio and I come from a creative direction background, so we put our heads together to come up with a concept for how to tell this story in a way that was cool. From the beginning, I was inspired to really push my aesthetic and the techniques I like to do on camera, and I'm proud of where we ended up.
Farhad> It’s probably one of the most collaborative projects I’ve done recently in the realm of advertising. The nature of the project lent itself to that since it’s all about adapting and transforming, following feeling instead of a one size fits all. So as long as we were following the core vision, they allowed everyone in the team to bring lots from themselves into it.
Britton> In a lot of ways, filmmaking and design are parallel professions or parallel crafts. I'm working on another project about Charles and Ray Eames – I've really dug into the history of their work and the Eames' office. Any good designer, like any good filmmaker, would acknowledge that both are team sports. They're both a major collaborative effort and it's all about empowering people to do their best work together. The most important thing for both is a sense of really embracing curiosity and seeing where it takes you, trying things that maybe you don't know whether they're going to work at first, but having that courage to experiment and iterate or come up with new ways of developing how you approach a problem. I think that's the biggest thing.
So for me design and filmmaking are almost like two heads of the same coin. Charles and Ray were also filmmakers and were inspired by film. They visited film sets, shot behind the scenes and ultimately some of their biggest impact was through the films that they made because they were conceptual. For Charles, a film was a model of an idea. It was an expression of a problem and an idea put in a format that was easily understood. I've always been inspired by that. And I think it's something that has informed my work for sure.
Perhaps what separates design from film is that, in filmmaking, we really care about the storytelling whereas a designer may be trying to solve a problem or really care about an aesthetic. At the end of the day, a film's job is to take people on an emotional journey. It’s about the power of an image, and the power of putting images together in a way that moves people. So in this project, we tried to do a little bit of both. We tried to come at it with a very clear aesthetic sensibility or a really cool way of treating our images. But at the end of the day, we wanted to communicate what was new and exciting about this design architecture that the Seed Studio team built.
Farhad> The inspiration for the project came from everywhere. Usually when there’s not much time on a short project, you use other films or commercials as reference, but we were looking at architecture, industrial design projects, food, and music. To determine angles is a mix of instinct and what feels right to me in the moment, and making sure that Britt loved it too. Sometimes you can tell when a frame really works when the crew around you goes silent, or nods to each other, or smiles haha, it’s nice.
Britton> Right now, it’s one of the most amazing places to be. To me, it's like a thriving hub of creativity. I've worked in Mexico City over the course of many years and it always continues to evolve. The casting and talent are amazing now. The city itself is an incredible example for design. We wanted to go to a place that was going to be inspiring. The architecture is a mix of old and new. You walk the streets and there'll be a colonial building right next to a post-modern building right next to a mid-century building. Things feel vibrant.
There's a legacy of modernism in the city, which is something we were really interested in using and commenting on. There's also incredible brutalism, which plays a role in our film. And then there's richness and nature and colour and organic design and traditional design. I'm always interested in finding ways to clash the old and new, to create a little bit of an energy and juxtaposition between those two worlds. Mexico is like the ideal place to do that.
Farhad> Britt and I worked very closely for a couple of weeks before shooting, which is a beautiful and rare privilege when you’re working on advertising or short form! Since there was no agency, and Britt was creative directing and working directly with the team at Google, there was a lot of creative freedom for us. Britt was very clear with certain core elements of his vision, but he trusted me fully, so I could bring my own take to the ethos of the project. It was a very collaborative experience.
Britton> I love working in this industry because every job has challenges. This job was so open that we really had to put some constraints on it to get to a place where it was manageable. It was an interesting challenge of trying to take something that could be a lot of different things, and then trying to turn it into the vision that you hope it becomes.
I’ve also really embraced mixed-media filmmaking and mixing textures in my filmmaking over the past few years, so we decided to shoot this project on film and a mix of other media. We shot 35, we shot 16, we shot Alexa. And that's not easy. I mean, we had to hand-carry film on the plane down to get here. There was a shortage of film then too, so getting all the gear that we needed was a challenge.
Another element that wasn’t a challenge really, but time-consuming, was the attention to detail we put into assembling our cast. I wanted to push everyone to think differently about this project. I wanted to bring in a lot of real local artists and designers for the cast, so that became an unconventional process. We were reaching out directly to a lot of people. We were using friends of friends. It was a difficult task because I was pushing our team to go the extra mile, but everybody did an incredible job. The team effort was amazing and it definitely shows in the final films. We worked with incredible sculptors, fashion designers, florists, people who are setting a super high bar and doing incredible work down in Mexico City. I felt like I was witnessing a moment of real creativity happening. It felt so cool to be a part of it.
Farhad> I feel so happy to see the films out there after a long time waiting! I think the team in Mexico did an amazing job. I haven’t had the chance to use the new Google software, but I think we absolutely nailed the essence of what we set out to do.
Britton> I always love an opportunity to take a project all the way through. As a director working in commercials in America, it's a weird system that we have where we often get brought in late on a project and then hand over the footage after the shoot is done and wave goodbye and hope for the best. As a director, a lot of the times you feel like you put all this energy into something and then it kind of just leaves your hands. But this project was unique – I worked on it for seven months before we even went into production, and we had lots of conversations with the team at Google. It was an opportunity to really explore and develop the creative, in addition to taking it into production and all the way through.
Working with Cartel and Fernanda Cardoso on the edit was incredible. I feel like I've been able to be directly involved at every step of the process in a way that I don't often get to do, unless it's a passion project. I've really learned that when you take the time to develop an idea and you bring the creatives in from the beginning, and you embrace the collaboration between client and filmmaker, it only makes a project stronger.