Karim Naceur is the global head of TV production at creative agency BETC Paris. He started his advertising career as a post producer, before moving to the production side after years of learning about the niches of the field. After 15 years of producing commercials worldwide for the likes of Fred & Farid, Havas Production Studios and now BETC, Karim says that he is still “happy to do it again and again and again.” This year, he is jury president for D&AD’s Cinematography category, recognising exceptional cinematography for commercial design and advertising projects. LBB’s Zoe Antonov caught up with him at the D&AD Festival, where he spoke about emotion in film, his time working in Shanghai and what goes into judging cinematography.
LBB> Tell me what was your own pathway into production and how did you enter the world of creative media?
Karim> As we say in French, I entered through a small door. I was driving talent to the set, preparing the coffee and generally running. So I was learning from the very bottom and step by step, I began to understand all aspects of production. After that, I had the opportunity to work at BETC - at first, in their post production department, so that was really my first professional experience. From there, I understood very quickly that I wanted to move up as a producer - I had the desire to produce both commercials and films. That was my motivation. I practised for years and as I learned new things, I simultaneously grew my network. Soon I started at Fred & Farid in Paris, and after that I went to Havas, after that I went back to Fred & Farid - but in Shanghai - and I spent four years there. Following those four years, I returned to Paris, but there was a lot of back and forth between New York and LA. Five years ago, I returned to BETC and I'm happy to be there and I'm still enjoying my job every day.
LBB> Was moving from Paris to Shanghai a huge change to you? How did the work culture shift affect your own understanding of the industry?
Karim> It was very interesting, because it was not just a new country, but another way of thinking. Part of my job was to learn to adapt. I didn't expect the environment to adapt itself to me. I had to understand those ways of thinking, especially because this is what is expected from a producer. The process was not at all like in France. In China, you have to not only propose to do a commercial, but to also give an artistic view, to give a very precise framework. There is no room for misunderstanding. You have to be very precise about what you want to do - how much it will cost and what you are going to bring to your client for that cost. It's a different world of work, but it's a good one because at least you know exactly what you're going to do. In France it's more artistic. In China you have to be artistic plus financially proof. It was interesting to work in that way. And we made a few interesting pieces that have been awarded, so it was a very exciting challenge for me. I still keep in contact with the producers and artists there, so I'm lucky to have a worldwide network and it's not something I want to ever lose.
LBB> What is one project in your portfolio that always stands out to you?
Karim> I'm used to saying that my favourite one is the Louis XIII Cognac project I did with John Malkovich. It was very exciting because it was not traditional advertising. It was something more immersive for both the talent and the artists. The entire project was underlined by the topic of climate change, so we wanted to find somebody very involved with the issue, and John Malkovich had a good feeling for what we wanted to do. His idea was to shoot a movie that will be saved for 100 years and nobody currently alive would be able to see - hence the name of the film, ‘100 Years’. We instantly understood the meaning of the idea and why it was so special. For me, it was a great experience working with the entire crew and feeling how passionate everybody was for the project. I was very lucky to work with John. After that we recorded the commercial with Robert Rodriguez, so for me, it was a dream. It was one of my best experiences as a producer.
LBB> Since you started, how have the roles of head of TV and head of production at agencies changed?
Karim> Compared to my own beginning, we now need to be a lot more involved in the equation. Before you were just the guy at the end of the chain. It was like, 'Karim, you need to produce this script' - to which I would just say, 'OK'. Now, I am a lot more involved - the producer has a more heavyweight role in the very conception of the idea. You need to give your point of view, you need to give a framework, you need to make sure that this framework will be fully retracted, addressed and controlled. When we were at the end of the process we were tasked with finding solutions, but at that point it was usually a bit too late. This has changed along with the model change. And it's a good thing because we ultimately end up with better projects that flow easier. It's obviously better from a financial perspective, but it also gives you more time to execute an idea perfectly and to work with your team and find the best people to work on the project. Even for the clients now, production is more central than ever before, so the whole discipline is a lot more strategic.
LBB> When you're constructing your team at the agency, do you look to balance out the specialists and the generalists?
Karim> Yes and no. When I hire somebody, I want them to be in love with cinema, with film, with music. I make the team up of passionate people. But if they are just passionate and not educated about digital, new tech, or don't care about innovation, we can't work together. I need to have somebody who has an undying need to learn and evolve with the industry. I want you to impress me, I want you to keep learning and teaching me every day. We are looking for somebody who we know can produce, but still has an avid interest in all the developments in the field of production, not just their own production domain - but also music, photography, digital, and beyond.
LBB> And what are some current developments in the field that everybody should get to grips with?
Karim> Right now, it's undoubtedly artificial intelligence. It's taking up more and more room as we speak. In some ways, we always had it in small portions - for example, search engines like Google allowing you to reach your solutions with only one click. But now it's getting sophisticated beyond comprehension and we need to stay very aware of how that happens and follow it very closely. We are for sure going to work more and more with it in the production industry. I'm not so sure if it will kick the producers out of it just yet, because we still need somebody who thinks about ideas and projects in a human way, but I can for sure see how incredibly helpful it can be - particularly in post production as of right now, but only time will tell how far we can stretch it.
LBB> Let's talk about the D&AD category you're judging - Cinematography. What do you look for in the work?
Karim> When looking at cinematography, we always need to check the combination between the frames, the light and the technique of shooting. These are some techniques that many people have mastered, but what makes the huge difference is the emotion that cinematography has the power to carry. Is the cinematographer able to push the idea of the director and give more drama, more fun or whatever there is needed more of, depending on the topic of the film? We need to focus on what gives us that desired emotion. We had a big volume of work at D&AD and it was really interesting to put judges from all walks of life and from all over the world in front of the same screen and see their points of view. Judging the technique is one thing, but what is most important is how a film or a commercial leaves you feeling after you’ve watched it.
LBB> So what is the best way to convey the correct emotion through cinematography for you?
Karim> The emotions in both films and commercials are carried through in various ways, one of which is colour - thrillers are bluer, comedies are more colourful. There are many tricks related to that. The question here is: 'Will the cinematographer follow the rules or will they surprise us with their usage of these rules? Will they create an oxymoron?'. For example, we saw a film about the war in Ukraine, which is obviously a sad topic, but the cinematography was used in a surprising way - the light was a bit blurred, the framework was a bit cheeky - and it worked.
The general rule of thumb is, if you don’t have to think about the way it works, then it works. If I find myself analysing the cinematography for too long, then it’s too late. For me, if it works, you don’t ask yourself why.