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Rabbit Holes, Hand Animation and Cosmetic Surgery: Mackenzie Sheppard Talks Directing for the New York Times


Bonaparte director on the unorthodox process behind the Droga5 project

Rabbit Holes, Hand Animation and Cosmetic Surgery: Mackenzie Sheppard Talks Directing for the New York Times

BONAPARTE interviewed acclaimed director, Mackenzie Sheppard about the mind-bending, unorthodox process behind his latest video campaign, created at Bonaparte's hub in Berlin.

Q> What was your exact role on this project as a director, and how does it differ to your usual projects given its post-heavy nature?

Mackenzie> The project had a very unorthodox process, but this made it super exciting. Recently I’ve loved doing anything that turns traditional processes on its head. The amazing team at Droga5 gave us a solid 10 days to create an initial vision on a wealth of archival material from The New York Times.

This, I would call, was the ‘splash the canvas’ phase – throwing all our ideas at three separate timelines. We set up each edit in its own space and treated each room as a different project. At the end of each day, we’d compare all the edits. Pretty soon we saw where archival material worked and also where we needed to fill some holes with connectors.

We had a talented editor on each film, all with different tastes and skill-sets. David Gesselbauer led ‘Gravity’, followed by András Guti. Shane Lester led ‘Sneakers’, and Søren Schneider led ‘Time’. “The first aim was to tell a rabbit-hole story and to go overboard.”

This was in the knowledge that we would probably dial it back into something more streamlined, to fit within the identity set up before in other films for The New York Times, by the Droga5 creatives. After this ‘fill the sink’ phase, it was then about sharing the brush with the entire team and it became ultra collaborative.

Q> How exactly did you go about creating the visuals for this mixed-media project?

Mackenzie> Mixed media is a big opportunity but also a curse. We found ourselves loving the freedom it gave, yet simultaneously struggling with the box it put on what each part could be. You could have a visual idea, but then you would need to find out if it was even possible with archival material.

We could have done a day’s work, only to realize the material didn't exist to create what you wanted. So then, you’d have to start over. To save time, I’d often do a placeholder sequence with images that I’d need to make it work, and then a team member would see if it would be possible. Crucially, this was a New York Times piece and not an internet multimedia piece. As this was done, I then went analogue with other areas of the edit to fill in holes.

We were all very inspired by an archival way of looking at things in the form of ‘microfiche’ – a piece of film that contains tiny photos of newspapers and photos. In this case, I actually made a DIY microfiche, to feel like we were scanning the archives of The New York Times. I decided to print out digital images on film and transparencies to make it feel like I was archive-surfing, though it was all shot in camera.

Then there were other elements to the films, like the type. You might not realize on the first watch, but some of the digital typography of the subjects for each Times article, are actually shot on light-board as analogue printouts. I experimented a lot with printing out the type in different predetermined font styles by the Droga5 art directors and designers, and hand-animated them myself.

The goal was to give dimension to the text so that it didn’t always feel so digital, while still respecting the clean look of The New York Times app and experience and its established universe. This then led to the idea of seeing how else I could bring some tactile qualities into it. Droga really encouraged exploring this, and while not everything ended up analogue it led to a rabbit hole of other ideas that were then tastefully used in select places in other films.

“One such example is the Cosmetic Surgery part in “Gravity”. I filmed the typography on a light board with transparency paper and then put on some latex gloves. I then did ‘cosmetic surgery’ on top of the type, then inverting it and using it. These quick experiments stuck, and we used this in the final film.”

There was a point when the films were moving too far in the analogue direction, so we looped back. It was a healthy process to try and see how far you could push something until it went too far. For me the idea was to follow any visual rabbit-hole I had in mind, pick up the gems along the way and discard the rest.

Q> What was the biggest challenge for you in making these films?

Mackenzie> I think allowing a new kind of art-studio approach, versus the traditional commercial pre/production/post workflow was a constant learning experience for everyone involved. With mixed media, you can keep adjusting little bits here and there until delivery; again both a blessing and a curse.

Personally, I like how it forces you to remain creative till the end.

“There isn’t a shoot day where you get it and then retell it in the edit. 80% of what we had to work with was shot by someone years ago. The other 20% was done on tabletops 2 meters from an editing bay and shot in a matter of minutes from when we had the idea.”

Q> How does the result of the films compare to how you envisioned them at the start?

Mackenzie> I absolutely love them. When I watch each film, I see many different versions in my head, that all worked at one stage. We landed on these final versions because it took the best bits of all we discovered and honored the connected, rabbit-hole story the most.

The films are super simple at first glance, but a giant puzzle was constantly being reworked by the entire team every day. I applaud everyone and feel blessed to have been able to help tell the story.

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BONAPARTE, Mon, 08 May 2023 11:32:00 GMT