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The Directors: Omri Cohen


Spy Films' director speaks to LBB about his favourite projects, the importance of trust on set and his pre-production processes

The Directors: Omri Cohen

Omri Cohen is a director repped in Canada by Spy Films. His work is driven by instinct and heart and he thrives on creating a heightened cinematic experience out of real life situations. With a knack for finding magic in people, he actively engages in casting with an inclusive eye that challenges ad norms, and pushes briefs beyond their potential. Omri has shot award winning work for brands such as Nike, Gatorade, PUMA, Amazon, NBA, X-BOX, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, NFL, Verizon, Comcast, Coors, Microsoft, alongside the industry's top agencies. 

Name: Omri Cohen

Location: Jerusalem, California 

Repped by/in: 

Canada - Spy Films

Spain - Zeitgeist

Germany- Cobblestone

LBB> What are some upcoming projects that you're excited about? Tell us a bit about them!

Omri> Really excited about a secret narrative project I’m working on at the moment. Its the wildest visual ride I’ve ever created. Currently being produced out of Spy Films with EP Marcus Trulli. I’m also collaborating with my life partner and multidisciplinary artist @Malien.s on a long-form project - a music video trilogy and art installation series.

I also have a Japanese surreal docufilm project in the works and I’m really excited about my ‘Ode to the Game’ film about street basketball. But… I’m most excited about my collaboration with my girl @malien.s - we created a human baby.

LBB> What excites you in the advertising industry right now, as a director? Any trends or changes that open new opportunities?  

Omri> I love advertising right now. I feel like everyone is thirsty for new visual styles and voices. Creative agencies are really collaborative and looking for directors to push the bar, my clients in the last stretch have been supportive and kind. I think we are in a moment where nothing is holding us back. 

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

Omri> For me there are 2 types. I love a script where the idea is fully conceived with all of its body parts and limbs intact. Where somehow the magical, surreal and off-beat moments have survived the approval process and everyone is very excited and precious about what they’ve made. A script with a strong visual and creative identity where we all know where we are going with it is very exciting to work on. I love the way that kind of pressure makes me and everyone around me perform.

Agencies will come to me with a broad idea or a script with good bones. My task is to visually interpret the idea and most of the time I will create the film as I go. I discover scenes as we find locations and casting sometimes moments before I shoot them.

My two latest films for Estrella Galicia and Nescafé were created this way. They both had scripts but the agency and client really wanted me to push them further, and we had very tight preproduction, so I had to create much of it on the fly. It’s become one of my trademarks. When clients like Nike have a big moment to meet and no time to do it, they call.

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

Omri> I begin preparing when I first receive the boards. If there is time, I look for inspiration and references and I listen to music and try to get lost in the world of the idea. I allow my mind to find images or references that live in me. In the briefing, I listen and take in as much as I can from the creative team. I ask a lot of questions and some are very obvious because I want to hear from them directly “What is the heart of the film?”. 

I feel out how far I can push the script or how close they want to remain to the original idea. Then I write. This is the moment where I have the most freedom as a director. I write an extended, very ambitious shot-by-shot version of how I see the film. Then I edit and focus it down to what I absolutely need and include some additional scenes or moments that are new and can push the film. I’ll look at similar films or films I’ve shot and do a scene count to get a sense of how many scenes I need to achieve my pace and the size of the cast and number of locations I want. 

Then I focus on every other aspect of the film. Camera, art dept, wardrobe, locations. I look at all of it holistically as Mise-en-Scène. The way the colour of the wardrobe works in a particular location is part of art direction for me. I research the brand’s previous work, and I look at what its competitors are doing or have done recently. Then I design the layout. Every treatment I make is like an art book and I enjoy every aspect of it. The concepting, the writing, and the design; it is the process that prepares me for directing. Once we get the green light there is no time for that, it's all execution.

LBB> How important is research to you, and what does your research process look like?


Omri> In almost every case, agencies come to me for authenticity. I was tasked with creating the first Nike anthem for Taiwan (until that point, they were forced to use Chinese ads) so it was a big moment. It meant really understanding the culture and language nuances that make Taiwan unique and the delicate balance of showing its independence and resistance while respecting the politics of it all. Recently, I made a film called ‘New Swings’ with Nike for Hank Aaron. We did a deep dive into Hank Aaron’s historic impact on black athletes and researched how baseball is played and perceived by youth right now - a mix of historic, cultural and live market research.

For Nescafé’s ‘How the World Says Coffee’ we had to authentically capture the coffee culture of over a dozen countries and the way they speak. It had to be real and feel authentic for each market. 

My immersion goes very deep. I’m endlessly curious. I speak to everyone - people on the streets, tuk-tuk drivers and connect with anyone I can to understand the fabric of their culture. I quickly learn as much of the language as I can too and I pray that all of this curiosity translates into a film that will reach the audience in a deep way. This is one of my favourite parts of what I do because my desire to direct commercials comes from my love for people and my wanderlust. 

I’ve also made a career of helping really established legacy brands reinvent themselves and inject energy and youth into their visual language so I have to know where they come from to create a feeling of comfort as I push them to new heights.



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

Omri> For me, it's the DP. The energy between me and the DP sets the vibe of the set. I love to have fun and flow when I shoot. I rarely stand next to the monitor. I’m very involved in lighting and how the camera moves, but I like to work with people that I trust and feel a brotherhood/sisterhood with. I go hard and I need to know that I can trust that person like I trust my own eye. Trust is everything.


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?


Omri> I love Magical Realism. I love when art imitates life. I love when art captures those quirky, funny, human moments in life. When the universe is speaking to us through intimate objects or animals showing us signs. I love films about people, and I would like to bring my brand of humanity and life to genre films that can often feel detached like space, action, video games, sport and fashion.


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

Omri> Haha. I’m very good at directing actors and working with dialogue but it's not on the reel. I’m also very technical and love big art direction, costumes, and makeup but haven’t fully ventured there. I come from an animation/VFX background. I worked at Pixar after my studies...


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

Omri> Yes! I love them believe it or not. They are always thought of as these strict people meant to stop us, but I’m conscious of how I spend my budget - I don’t like to waste resources or my people’s time and I rarely go over budget. My jobs also tend to be big and I find that I have to be as resourceful as I did when I started. Cost consultants are people with lives, they are usually really cool when you bring them into the fold and show them you respect their job. I take the path of least resistance and reserve the fight for very specific moments where it's really needed to protect the project.


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

Omri> I had my camera catch fire just as the stars of Real Madrid walked onto set and we lost all of our motion control programming. Then the steady cam broke on the first setup and the players decided to cut our shooting time in half so I just improvised the whole film and made it fast. 

I shot a single take with Usain Bolt for Puma and I had to figure out how to convince him to run 60 seconds instead of 14 on concrete. He gave me three takes. The first two were fails, so my career was riding on the last take. 

I had to shoot 12 top NBA athletes and our 25 minutes with them turned into seven and, in one case, three minutes. So that was fun! You have to really know what you need and maintain a calm exterior. I’ve gotten myself arrested to keep the cops from arresting my music talent who were doing drugs. 

I could probably write a book on making my documentary ‘Native America’ in Dakota. I was following a group of 18-year-old Native American kids who were the horse-mounted security at Standing Rock. They had no idea who I am or what I do and they didn’t care. They expected me to be one of them and to move like them. The morning of the first day of shooting, they left me and drove to another state so I chased them for three years in freezing temperatures until one day, one of them found my Vimeo and then they would actually wait for me to load my camera or change a battery. 

I’m really cool under pressure, I love being in the eye of the storm… shooting is my favourite thing in life so I solve problems fast and I have fun doing it. 

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

Omri> I establish trust, I listen and I care about what is important to other people. But as the director, I’m very clear with everyone that it’s my job to protect the idea and I try to protect everyone from themselves. Sometimes, people panic and compromise under pressure. If we are behind, people just want to check boxes and it's my job to ensure that quality and execution aren’t compromised. I don’t let stress dictate how I move. I will get things I know are needed in the edit even when others don’t and I will be clear and firm about what doesn’t work when the clock is ticking. 

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? 

Omri> I’m so happy it's finally happening. It’s exciting to see my fellow directors shine. We always need new voices to be exciting and inspiring. I hear a lot of people complain too and that makes me sad. I’m proud to say that inclusion has always been a natural part of my team building since day one because I was hiring my friends and I wanted to feel more included myself. Diversity is an extension of my work and my way of life. It never made sense to me to have a diverse cast and not have the same thing reflected on my team. I’ve been on the outside looking so I know how hard it can be and even when you’re ‘in’, the corporate environment can be a strange place for us to navigate. 

I’ve been mentoring a female director and I actively recruit interns and help people gain access to some of the top shops. I’ve been doing that since I started.

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

Nescafe - World’s Coffee 

It’s global, full of different languages and shot on film. It was a big moment - the debut film for the new Canadian agency, Courage Ideas.

Nike Japan - Remember Your Place

‘Minohodoshirazu’ means ‘don’t know your place’ - an old Japanese idea. I love the way we shot this one.

Fruits - Teaser

An experimental docu-short about the man who captured the Harajuku fashion scene in the ‘90s and brought it to the world. This is the teaser for this culture mixtape.

view more - The Directors
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Spy Films, Fri, 09 Dec 2022 15:04:00 GMT