New Talent: Norton
Growing up in Lisbon, Portugal, Norton was fascinated by the way films were put together, a process he compares to magic. No wonder, then, that the young director’s work turned out to be so technically exciting. During a seven year career in post, Norton learned his trade and earned his visa before blasting onto the directorial scene with a possessed pair of shoes that won him a signing to Doomsday in LA.
While the newcomer to Archer’s Mark has always been determined to direct, Norton’s style is marked by his innovative use of visual effects and slick post-production. Nowhere is this more evident than Norton’s commercial debut for Nike, which has already caused quite a stir online, mustering one million views in the first 24 hours. LBB’s Jeannie Corfield caught up with him to talk Nike, Neymar and … dating Jessica Rabbit.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?
N> I grew up in Lisbon, Portugal, the youngest in a big family (we were 6 kids) and I wore glasses since I was 3 years old, so that should paint a picture. I was always fascinated by the world around me, especially dorkier things like science, spy gadgets and mechanical things. My older brother was a film buff and eventually became a director, so he had a big influence on me, whether he intended to or not. For instance, he owned a VHS copy of Alien, which was a forbidden film for my age but that I secretly watched one day while sick at home. Shhh.
LBB> What were your inspirations growing up?
N> Hitchcock was a massive
inspiration. I was always attracted to darker stories, murder, suspense and the
like, and his visual language spoke to me. My family was really into European
cinema, so I also was inspired by Polanski, Truffaut, Fellini, and Tati. Only
later in my teens did I discover Kubrick. But earlier than that when I was
about 6-8 years old, I was the biggest fan of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (I told
kids in school that Jessica Rabbit was my girlfriend... brilliant) and I
remember my parents calling me to come watch the “making-of” on TV. Being a
huge fan of magic — I used to perform magic tricks for the family — watching
how they used all these ingenious tricks to create the real world interactions
of the animated characters was mind-boggling. That moment changed my life and I
knew I wanted to be in filmmaking. Oh, Jurassic Park was also a big moment of
inspiration; I was 10 when I watched it in theatres and then when I got the
special edition VHS I would make popcorn and watch it every Friday night for
about a year (I was 12, ok? What else do you do Friday nights when you’re 12
and the Internet doesn’t exist yet?)
LBB> You were involved in post prior to becoming a director - what was your role in the industry?
N> I was the lead editor at a
post house in New York for 7 years. I must’ve cut hundreds of commercials. It
was great, I met some wonderful people, and it allowed me to stay in the
States, to have this job that sponsored my Visa, and the pay let me enjoy New
York the way you’re supposed to. But as the years went by I also felt stuck in
this company, postponing my dream because they “owned” me through my Visa. So I
began devising plans to quit, become a director and get a green card in less
than 2 years. Somehow it all worked out and here I am in Los Angeles doing Nike
commercials and giving an interview to Little Black Book. Cray...
LBB> How and why did you make the change from post production to director?
N> I had about enough of
postponing my directing dream to edit other directors’ work, and so I began
directing my own personal projects about a year before I eventually quit. The
first project was a short film that confirmed that I had the talent and the
second project was a music video for a Genero.tv competition. And that one was
a full representation of how I felt at the time. The video was about a
possessed pair of shoes that just went ape-shit in Brooklyn, destroying things
and partying hard, doing drugs, etc. I had this anger inside that wanted to
break out (and quit my job) and just do my thing, a massive desire to
accomplish this dream I’d had for such a long time. The video was called
“Killer Shoes” and it won best unofficial music video at the Los Angeles Music
Video Festival and basically got me signed to Doomsday in LA soon after I quit
LBB> What influence has your work in post had on your work as director?
N> I’ve always been a “making-of”
and “VFX-breakdown” nerd. It dates back to my fascination with magic, with
being transported someplace where incredible things can happen. Having the
opportunity to work in post, not only in editing, but also VFX compositing, has
given me great confidence in knowing what can be achieved with post. To give
you an example, while another director might freak out that there’s a spot on
the wall that needs cleaning and will hold back the shoot until it’s perfect, I
can go “right, that will take 10 minutes in post to clean out, let’s roll.” I’m
like my own VFX supervisor at times–it’s great. I also love being able to jump
in and edit myself or do VFX shots or even colour grade if need be. It can be
very freeing, especially for a control freak like me.
LBB> What similarities do you see between your promos and your commercial work?
N> I’ve had to think about this for another interview (there goes your exclusive), so I came to the conclusion that a common style might be the seamless transitions and the wrap-around shots. I like wrapping around, to show more depth and make up for the 2D limitations of our medium (for the most part).
LBB> Do you have a favourite genre of music to direct promos for?
N> I can’t keep up with genres, they’ve become so specific that naming the broader genre means nothing, like saying I like electronic music... So how about I give you some of my favourite artists? Sbtrkt, Flight Facilities, Tensnake, Disclosure, Tame Impala, Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, St. Lucia, Jamie XX, Chairlift, Grimes, Bjork, Gesaffelstein, Flume, Little Dragon, London Grammar, Electric Youth, and the list goes on, and on, and on. It really depends on how good the track is and whatever unexpected quality stimulates my inspiration.
LBB> How was it working with Nike for your first commercial? What is your relationship with the brand?
N> It was great working with
Nike, AKQA and Archer’s Mark. It was a first with all of them. Nike was really
straight-forward and clear about what they wanted and trusted me, AKQA and
Archer’s Mark to deliver. Same goes for AKQA, they were awesome to work with,
gave me a lot of freedom and trusted me a lot too. Nike’s dope and it’s every
director’s dream to work with such a recognisable brand that consistently puts
out great advertising. I had to pinch myself a few times during this project.
Mostly because I couldn’t feel my legs it was so cold in Barcelona.
LBB> You were working with Neymar in this spot - how was that experience for you? Are you a big football fan?
N> It’s not just working with Neymar, it’s everything and everyone that surrounds him at these shoots. The nervous anticipating atmosphere, Ferraris, new boot concepts for his approval, cell phones, assistants, personal friends, managers, BTS crews, etc. It was all a bit comical and surreal, to be honest. It must be exhausting to be him! But once it was just me and Neymar (and the DP and his assistants, since we couldn’t have anyone in sight for our exterior shots) it was a lot easier to get him focused. I found it helpful to keep him engaged in the process, by showing him takes or pre- visualisations so he was in on what we were trying to do. He enjoyed watching playbacks and did everything I asked him to do. The fact that I speak Portuguese probably helped. You know, I used to be a bigger football fan before moving to the States, but I still enjoy going to matches and watching it on TV whenever I can. Soccer, as they call it here. Makes sense since in their football they’re always kicking the ball with their feet. Wait...
LBB> You are essentially working with two creatives in Neymar and Bruno Big - how much direction did you give them? Or was it more a case of letting them do their thing?
N> Yeah, that was really cool. Two masters in their own art. I gave them minor directions. With Bruno Big we wanted to document the painting of the wall and the little extra moments he gave us, like honking the scissor lift when he finished the wall for instance, were all him being himself. We had more planned camera moves for bits of the journey and set ups, but those all required minor directions. For Neymar, once I covered what I had planned with him, I let him play with his buddies while we captured some more candid bits, with zero direction (new One Direction name?). The Nike clients were concerned with really bringing out the “Ousadia e Alegria” (Daring and Joyful) mantra that personifies Neymar, so that was crucial to getting Neymar more loose, being himself and having fun.
LBB> How did you achieve the jittery effect in the spot? Did you shoot moving image or is it a series of images pieced together?
N> Can I switch out the “jittery effect” for flow-motion effect? We actually did a hybrid, which hopefully feels consistent enough that you can’t tell what is a series of stills taken with certain intervals and what is moving footage converted to look like a series of stills with intervals. During our testing phase and while figuring out the production schedule and limitations, it became clear which sequences would have to be time-lapse and which would have to be digital cinema.
LBB> That style marks a difference from your previous work - how was it getting to grips with it and why was it the right approach for this?
N> AKQA came up with the idea of using the flow-motion concept to tell this journey, which was a great technique to fit all the beats we needed to tell the story in a short space of time. Flow-motion is not so much one technique, but a combination of techniques that make time-lapse journeys seem to flow smoothly through space. It involves some clever compositing, along with stabilization and other secret post-production sauces. Just to give you a taste, because in some cases we were crash-zooming into shots, in the final online/conform we had footage in 2K, 4K and 6K to allow for all these seamless transitions. With my knowledge in post and understanding of the techniques needed to create a flow-motion piece, together with two killer time-lapse artists (Ollie Larkin & William Bloomfield), our skills were combined to form the right team for the job. We did a series of tests, some to test out different techniques, and others for specific complicated shots, which were part of a very detailed pre-production to make sure we could hit the ground running at the speed that this shoot required. I would say one of the main goals from Nike & AKQA was to keep the energy and pace up throughout, which is why flow-motion was the perfect approach to fit all the exciting events (that in real life happened over the course of a few days) into less than 120 seconds for the viewer.
LBB> What does the rest of 2016 hold for you?
N> My crystal ball here tells
me that there will be more fun commercials and agencies to work with, along
with... what? I get to work with that artist that I’ve always loved on a music
video? And my to-do list says I need to finish this feature film script that
I’m dying to direct. And speaking of...