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The Directors: Michael Lawrence



Arts & Sciences' director on being open minded, the need to be 1000% honest and being deeply interested in the human experience

The Directors: Michael Lawrence

Award-winning imagist Michael Lawrence originally hails from Buffalo, NY. His multi-platform work seeks to transcend advertising buzzwords like: authenticity, kinetic, and presence. He is currently compiling his first monograph, entitled 'Lost Along The Way' and preparing to release his docu-prism 'Contact'. Working globally, he splits his time between LA, Paris, and Portugal.

Location: LA

Repped by/in: 

Film: US, UK Arts & Sciences, FR Phantasm, DE Anorak, NL Halal, ESP Algebra247, SWE Diktator, CZ, CN Stink, ARG, BR, MX Rebolucion, AUS Filmgraphics

Photo: FR Phantasm, NL  Halal, MX, ARG Fauna


Oakley 'It’s OK'

Cannes Lions - Silver, Original Music; Cannes Lions - Shortlist: Cinematography; Les Club Des DA - Gold, Original Music; D&AD - Yellow Pencil, Cinematography; D&AD - Graphite Pencil - Original Music; D&AD - Shortlist - Direction; Cristal Festival - Bronze - Cinematography; Cristal Festival - Shortlist - Direction; Cristal Festival - Shortlist - Use of Music; EuroBest - Gold - Cinematography; EuroBest - Shortlist - Direction; EuroBest - Shortlist - Use of Original Music; EPICA Awards - Bronze - Use of Music; CLIO - Shortlist - Original Music; CICLOPE - Gold - Original Music; CICLOPE - Silver - Cinematography; LIA - Finalist - Cinematography; LIA - Finalist - Direction


Show Judge, Cinematography

Nespresso 'Dream Today' (The Quest)

Les Club Des DA - Shortlist - Cinematography; Creative Pool - Bronze - Film; New York Festival - Shortlist - Cinematography; New York Festival - Shortlist - Direction

Reebok '25,915 Days'

Clio Sports - Shortlist; Cannes Lion - Shortlist, Film; Communication Arts Annual - Showcase

Powerade 'Just A Kid' 

SXSW - Panelist - Advertising Film

CIBC 'In Her Shoes'

ADCC - Silver - Editing; ADCC - Merit - TV Single; ADCC - Merit - Direction; ADCC - Merit, Cinematography; Applied Arts - Digital Single; Applied Arts - Branded Content; Applied Arts - Craft Cinematography; Applied Arts - Craft Direction; Applied Arts - Online Single; Applied Arts - Cinematography; AICE Awards - Best PSA; The Bessies - Silver, Digital Single; The Bessies - Silver, PSA/Cause; The Bessies - Silver, Casting; The Bessies - Silver, Direction; The Bessies - Silver, Editing

Mizuno 'Super/Natural'

Shots - Best New Director - Shortlist

LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Michael> Lately, I get very excited to shoot projects that have more of a conceptual backbone. I like when I can see strength in the writing coming from the creatives, and when you see an opportunity to get a sense of ownership or input. Those are always the projects that are truly and genuinely collaborative, like we’re all making this to go at the top of our book. I’d much rather do a project with slightly fewer resources but more ambition.

LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Michael> My treatment process is super intensive. I take handwritten notes on our phone call and little sketches and doodles and things, basically reminders of the inspiring moment before I'm locked away alone for five days or whatever. For that initial call, I generally come into it with a lot of ideas. I’ve already read the script and thought about it. I try to kick off with the agency my intentions for the project after hearing theirs from the beginning and you begin to get a good sense if you’re on the same page. 

Then we begin to pull a bunch of references. I'll look at these over two days, sometimes also creating references from scratch. I try to get really into the world of the film and I invest a lot into writing and a lot into the treatment. Then you know when you win, you won for the right idea. When you lose, sometimes it’s because of how far out you pushed it. I’d rather take on or be awarded projects that we’re on the same page and really down to make it as opposed to being tepid or half-assed in the treatment, just to get your foot in. I'm okay to not land that job. 

LBB> If the script is for a brand that you're not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you're new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Michael> It’s super important to me what brands represent and where our hard work is going towards, because I don’t particularly want to support things creatively if I don’t believe in them personally or spiritually. There’s certain things I would never do regardless of the creative or budget. So yes, I do pretty extensive research because I want to understand how it all makes sense on a deeper level. 

And when it’s a new brand or product, I keep a very open mind. I’ll view a project from truly anywhere if it’s creatively interesting and aligns with what I'm interested in and what I think is right. 

LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Michael> I think with the ECD. I have a lot of close friends who also happen to work at agencies and we’ve spent years in the trenches together. I find that if the creative director and I are truly on the same page we’re invincible. I think that having a really good rapport with the people who are co-creating the idea with you is so important. That can lead to a really mutual relationship where as a director you can help contribute to writing and as a creative, they can be present and contribute on set. With creatives that I really respect, I will always consider that at the very top if I take a job or a pitch or not. Because I know if there are names on it and they’re good and I trust them, what they’re sharing with me is also worthwhile. 

LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about - is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Michael> I guess as a general thing, I'm deeply interested in the human experience - which sounds like a bit of a trope, but I’ve spent so much time on the road and in places that were foreign to me, wandering and having really detailed, deep conversations with strangers - and projects that allow me to expand my horizon or my field of view in whatever package they come. I find it very interesting as a human and that’s a big part of why I got into travel and this work to begin with. The best work, I come away from it feeling that I’ve learned more about myself and what we’re all doing here. As far as types of clients and stuff, I'm partial to trying to unearth untold or under-told stories perhaps. Frequently, if you dig a little deeper and look around, there’s a lot to see.

LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Michael> There’s two, I guess. One is - for a while, I heard a lot about my work being considered dark, and I think actually increasingly I’ve been attracted to color and brighter exposure in lights but with a sense of contrast either in the scene or in the photography. It’s not just one-dimensional. I think that’s one thing that’s misconstrued is that playing with light and shadow is not inherently dark. 

Another one I get sometimes is that my work is more visual that narrative. Working as a DP/ director, I think this is an easy knock, and it’s true that the majority of my work isn’t filled with dialogue, but narrative is ultimately about performance and the edit. Removing one layer of interference between myself and the talent by acting as my own DP gives me the chance to enter the performance space with them in a more intimate way. The shots I care about most in anything I make are when the camera meets the moment in an unexpected way.

LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Michael> I would say the majority of my jobs have cost consultants involved, especially because I work so extensively in Europe - it’s really built into the French and German production styles. Recently, on a job in Paris, the cost consultant had a long-standing relationship with the client and actually was very helpful in getting our edit and all of our approvals pushed through. If they’re good, they bring expertise. But you need someone who knows production and who has been there. I think people who come from backgrounds where they were client producers, agency producers who headed production and then go into cost consulting have a whole different appreciation and understanding for it. It’s an ally.

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Michael> There’s been many. I’ve had so many insane production experiences or life experiences on jobs so the list is long. Some are maybe more media-friendly and some are better stories at a party.

Way earlier in my career I remember being stuck in a foreign country with basically all of our equipment stuck in transit and so we had to rewrite the entire script in the airport and shoot. I had carried-on an Alexa and had a couple of lenses with me and we just shot purely with one camera, and using a wheelchair as a big dolly.

LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?

Michael> I’m just honest. Completely 1000% honest. I used to fight tooth and nail to the point of driving myself and everyone crazy to protect an idea and I realised that I got it and maybe I made the work but the process for me, and I imagine people around me, just wasn’t as pleasant as it should have been. The past couple of years, I became a father of one, two and now three and dealing with kids and having to have complete patience knowing that even when they’re frustrated with you, it’s just because they don’t understand, it’s not that they dislike you, has really helped me in dealing with agency production and in the world. I find that when you give logical, considered answers removed from emotions but just pointing back to what the mutual goal is, then the answer is clear. 

LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?

Michael> I’m heavily for the democratisation of film and giving learning opportunities to people. I think we need to open up our whole educational system too to make more embedded mentorship across departments and a culture of learning and forgiveness and not so intense for survival. I’ve always had a completely open mind and think we can learn a lot from the people we are opening our doors to. In a way it’s less of a shadow or mentor thing and more a collaborative thing where we include them in the creative dialogue.

LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work into the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time? 

Michael> I had only done a little bit of work remotely before because as a director/DP, I always found scouting and research to be really central to my process. Over the past year, I've done both a lot of remote preps and a handful of remote shoots for clients around the globe who I’ve never met. It made me have a whole different view of my extended crew across the world who were holding the camera for me and lighting for me and made me aware of the surrounding team in a new way, extending my trust and accepting less control but maybe greater output or greater freedom.

I think something that will stay for me is we’ve seen all these technologically good ways to prep jobs remotely. Like Zoom callbacks that don’t require talent to spend three hours commuting just to sit in a room full of lookalikes and then spend 10 minutes in the room. Zoom eliminates that and gives you a wider selection. And it allows you to scout more places, and we can do it from the other side of the world. I also think that some of these workflows have advanced in ways that help people to communicate more efficiently. I hope those things really stay.

LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats - to what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)? 

Michael> Since I’ve worked in both still and moving formats, I’ve always viewed each frame as being unique in its storytelling capabilities because I have working aspirations as a photographer to tell a whole narrative in a single shot. There's a complete story behind it and it’s immediately seen even though you lack three-dimensional space or sound. 

I think that something that’s been a through line in my work has been this photographic clarity. When I'm looking at the moving image I’m hyper aware of how the camera moves in time and space to illuminate angles, which is really subconsciously me as the photographer wandering the world. I’ve also started to look at the power of how each and every single frame of the film has a story-telling capacity and whether that’s frozen as a still image or shown in the sequence of 36 moving frames over a few seconds, it needs to have the same impact. I’m always looking for there to be a certain photographic immediacy rooted in the world of reportage and experienced as a kind of truth. 

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?

Michael> I think the idea of exploring AR and VR space in terms of how it can bring the moving image off of the screen and into something that’s interactive or three-dimensional can change the way that we tell human stories, especially moments in which we’re trying to draw people closer or liaise between different backgrounds. To see the person actually there is a very different feeling than to watch it as a voyeur. 

There is a large-scale project that I’ve been doing for seven years now called “Contact.” It’s a series of interviews on a white cyc compounded with ultimately large format still photographs, compound objects. They might be five or six-hour one-on-one interviews between me and the subjects with a moving camera but they’re cut down to a distilled 90 seconds of first-hand what it’s like to live through their story or their world, ones with - for instance the story of the bank robber and you’re so empathetic and like him a lot by the end. Another one is someone who’s escaped a cult, another one is the story of someone retelling their escape from El Salvador to the United States through the snow and desert carrying his sister. In each of these, they’re so different from what we might imagine we could experience in our lives. You say, “This will never happen to me” but ultimately, we are all one moment away from having anything happen to us. This project was impactful when people viewed it in its interview or episodic form or stills, but it takes on a whole new meaning as we project it in space and allow people to have sound channels and different objects interact with. I think bridging between the film that exists in two dimensions on a screen and real three-dimensional space where we can physically be will change the format of storytelling drastically. I think it will hit the fine art world and the photographic world earlier than it’s fully embraced by advertising. But I think that the smart advertisers and smart creators have the opportunity to lead the way.

LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why? 

Michael> Oakley 

It was the ultimate collaborative effort between myself, agency and client. Some of the shots were huge in scale, shutting down blocks and having hundreds of people and other shots were captured as the sun was setting with me, the client and the creatives running up a hill in the Palm Desert carrying lens cases to the top to get a shot. It just felt like we were all in it, and it shows. With the people that we cast, we constantly re-wrote the film to take their truth and put it into it. It was like a six-month engagement, fifteen shoot days around the world but it was amazing to basically take what could be a feature project and put it into a two-minute commercial. I love too that there were so many film deliveries and different formats and also a stills component. For me, that was really rewarding. 


I did this a few years ago but it was with some of the best creatives I’ve worked with including Alice Rice who I just worked with again a month ago. It was a super ambitious job to try to connect these eras and cast so that the people matched over the course of seven or eight scenes. But it was a circumstance where the creatives stuck with me and even when it was pouring rain in the woods in Squamish and we thought no way we’re going to get the shot, they stuck with it and I'm really proud of how the end film came out. 

Nespresso spot in Costa Rica & Switzerland

There’s a Nespresso spot that I did in Costa Rica and Switzerland years ago, part of the French market but a global campaign, and I just rewrote the entire thing from scratch with the blessing of the client and the agency. What came in in the scripted form versus what the film was in the end was drastically different but it was really cool to research so heavily on a specific process in the case like coffee making and how all the geography would influence it. I was already a coffee fanatic but to understand and research it further and understand the product pretty well and to then incubate ideas based upon that I thought was a good exercise and something I'm proud of as far as being able to find enlightenment or inspiration in obscure places. 

Last piece?

There’s a book of photographs that I'm releasing in October with a small publishing of a few thousand books. It’s called ‘Lost Along the Way.’ It’s all the photographs for six, seven, eight years culled down to just 93, that vibe and feel the best set is the moment after the moment, frequently captured on production and the scouts between moments before and after shoots and just as a exercise to push our minds outside advertising. I really like looking at personal and artistic work and somewhat a sign to get an understanding of me, that is my bleeding heart and it says a lot in-between the lines even. I think when that comes out in a few months, it will be something I'm very proud of to show some of myself beyond advertising and in the new medium, yet at the same time I think it applies and somehow feels congruent to my efforts and commissioned work.

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Arts & Sciences, Mon, 08 Aug 2022 09:03:55 GMT