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The Directors: Sean Martin


Scholar director on his love for scripts that mix and layer live action with design, VFX or animation elements

The Directors: Sean Martin

As a director obsessed with storytelling in all its forms, Sean could be described as a highly functioning addict. His mental database of cinematic camera moves, third act narrative reveals, and boss battle climaxes inform his award-winning directorial work for Apple, Xbox, Verizon, Samsung, Volkswagen, Google, Target, and Mountain Dew among others. Coming from first-hand experience in performing, he loves developing trust with actors and non-actors alike, eliciting the right performance to capture genuine moments in front of the lens. Features of his camera work and cutting style are seen in the kinetic motion through transitions and a driving editorial pace. He has always loved using genre, both by playing into and then subverting conventions to arrive at something fresh and unexpected.

From his first work in the industry as a PA in a feature film editorial department to learning craft from and directing with the renowned founding partners at Psyop, he brings a seasoned eye and over 12 years of experience to Scholar. He has served as a judge for the AICP and Motion Design Awards, won the Muse Creative Awards, and his work has been featured dozens of times in Best of Behance selections, Stash Media, and Communication Arts magazine. While there are many creative tools in his toolbox, from character-driven 3D animation to technical VFX, as a director, he has the most fun capturing lighting in a bottle on set behind the camera.

Name: Sean Martin

Location: Los Angeles

Repped by/in: Scholar

Awards: The Motion Awards, Stash, Communication Arts, Muse Design Awards

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

Sean> As they say, “show, don’t tell.” I get most excited about scripts that show potential to communicate theme and character through visuals: art direction, camera motion, lighting, shot composition etc. Usually I gravitate towards scripts that mix and layer live action with design, VFX, or animation elements. The more visual potential embedded in the script, the more I can use the entirety of my cinematic language and technique to tell a story.

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

Too often treatment decks can feel boilerplate. The tried and true sections (Approach, Look & Feel, etc.) or the standard font sizes and text placement. I like to communicate the personality and tone of the vision I’m pitching not just in the style frames or references, but in the colors, layout, typography and graphic design of the entire deck. I’ll go to a good newsstand like Iconic Magazines in New York and pick up a handful of inspiration. There’s an entire world of fresh ideas in editorial layout and graphic design beyond rehashing other treatment decks.

Aside from the colors and layout, I like to come up with unique ways of presenting my ideas that are bespoke to the project at hand. For instance, a brand came to us with a script starring an animated cute animal mascot who they wanted to be adorable, yet cool, but not too cocky. We made a page that was a mashup of infographic and character design on a spectrum of personality. From left to right we had an overly cute design with huge watery eyes and chonky proportions, and on the other end, a smug version of the character wearing a leather jacket with gold chains and pouring a bottle of champagne on the floor. In the middle was the sweet spot, our *actual* design of the character that was confident and relatably friendly. We spent time illustrating versions of the character we had no intention of using, and laid out a graphic chart plotting those designs along a personality spectrum just for the treatment. But we won the job, and they knew that wasn’t copied and pasted from any other deck.

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?

Sean> Research is a crucial part of getting into the right headspace of a new brand. While it’s sometimes helpful to see previous spots they’ve made, I research to get a sense of who the brand is in the market, the process behind what they make, who their competitors are, and what tone they communicate.

It’s usually as simple as going down an internet rabbit hole of looking up industry-specific terminology, or the history of the founding of a company to its current market position. From there I can get into the specifics of bringing the particular campaign or script to life, but without that core understanding, visual executions usually feel arbitrary.

Starting from a common core of understanding and context makes for much richer, more specific storytelling.

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

Sean> In the wider partnership, without a doubt the agency / director (or brand / director) relationship is crucial. It sounds trite, but it truly is a creative partnership, and it’s important to nurture that throughout the process, not just in the early pitch stage. Every production has difficult moments, and it’s important to remember you’re on the same team, you both want to captivate the audience and creatively solve the problem in front of you as a team.

More specifically on the production side, as a director you have to be attached at the hip with your editor. The edit is simultaneously the end of the line culmination of all the hard work in prep and shooting, yet also an incredibly potent moment of creative discovery. A good editor sees your work with sober eyes to help you kill anything you’re too precious of, and fresh eyes to spot the potential of a take you’d forgotten, or the alchemy of combining shots never intended to be together. And unlike other stages of production, when you’re done, you’re done. The edit is your last chance to finesse and polish so that you can leave the edit bay fully satisfied.

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?

Sean> Stylistically I love trying to create in-camera magic, whether that’s using giant LED screens to add colorful lighting effects on actors’ faces or using giant robotic arms to choreograph a vortexing liquid rig. As skilled as we have become as an industry in visual effects and animation, there’s an extra whimsy and texture you can feel when shots have been achieved in a more practical, physical way. I’m always looking to create those perfectly balanced compositions, to make the lighting more dramatic and contrasty, to give the camera some sweeping motion, but always always always driven by the needs of the project, the message, and story being told.

And speaking of genre, whenever possible, I love working IN a genre. If a script gives a nod to science fiction, the rom com, a thriller, a heist, I get particularly charged. Rather than feeling stale or boxed in, when you’re playing in a space the audience has some expectations with, you get to deliver a satisfying shot composition or narrative turn, BUT you also have the ability to work against those expectations and surprise them. Genre expectations are like a shared set of rules that you can follow beautifully until you break them, and bang you’ve got attention, you’ve got eyeballs. You and the audience are both having fun.

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

Sean> Recently on a shoot for Peloton, we had a classic last-shot-of-the-day curveball. Long story short, the room we’d planned to shoot a treadmill in was too small to meet brand and safety guidelines. It was late, people were tired, and even if we were to take the time to move production to another bigger room, there wasn’t one available. We were running out of time, fast.

Constraints, as always, breed creativity. My co-director, Gerald Ding, and I came up with a plan, ran it by the client, and started cutting objects in half. We realized if we placed the camera juuuuuuust on the edge of one wall and tricked the sense of space with furniture, we could imply a bigger room was just out of frame. We got the props team buzzing as they cut everything in half: posters, rugs, lampshades, oh my! They broke down a table into just the end section. All of these half-objects were positioned on the right side of frame: chairs butted right up against a wall, sections of lamps crammed into the space. Standing there in person it looked like the wall had just appeared one day, bisecting all these objects where they stood. But through the lens, the sense of all these half things facing off to the right looked like we were in a larger space and only shooting half of it. Alakazam, that’s a wrap.

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

Sean> This is something that I think about constantly, and with our younger artists I try to foster the right approach to agency collaboration and handling notes or feedback. We’ve all had the experience of getting notes that feel at odds with our creative intention. On the one hand it’s easy to think “bah, they aren’t artists, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” especially if the note is very prescriptive. So a client-suggested note may be the wrong solution. But at the same time, I think it’s important to respond to the reaction they are having.

To make a really basic example, let’s say we get the note to make a certain shot twice as long in the edit. But that would compromise other shots and we think that’s a bad note. I’m always a huge proponent of trying to go deeper in conversation with the client to see what reaction this perhaps clumsy note is a symptom of. Maybe something is unclear in that shot, so they’re suggesting doubling the duration on the shot to read a character’s emotions. Aha! Now we can find another solve (a close up shot, a different take where their performance really telegraphs the emotion, etc.) that preserves our creative balance and addresses the real source of the issue. Clients are often not experts at visually solving a problem, but they’re a good test audience. If they’re feeling something is off, that’s a legitimate sticking point that we shouldn’t ignore.

At the end of the day we’re all on the same team, and I’ve found in most cases being open and honest about this kind of creative problem solving goes over well. It is a collaboration, and most of the time, there’s a creatively satisfying way to address feedback.

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?

Sean> Diversification of thought leads to innovation. We grow as an industry by bringing more creative minds with enthusiasm and fresh approaches to creative problem solving. In fact, the single most effective path to boundary pushing ideas is creative churn. People with different experiences and contemporary ways of looking at the world can problem-solve from fresh viewpoints which results in better creative decisions. I’ve been encouraged lately when attending graduate career fairs to see incredible students from every corner of the world showcasing their talent. It makes me excited for the next generation of directors. Though we, as established professionals, also need to go the extra mile and look outside the typical career paths and entry points to our industry. So in short, I love welcoming and mentoring our new young artists on the production staff, and likewise would love to bring that mentorship on set.

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)?

Sean> While in a perfect world I’d only be making content for a set aspect ratio and framing just for that, say, vertical composition, the reality is content I make is being used at different sizes and edit durations on 90% of the projects I take on. The good news is, with intentional planning in pre-production and smart mixed-media approaches, we’ve been able to deliver thoughtful executions across all formats.

Thanks to 6k and 8k sensors, I can shoot wide enough to include key elements in 4 different crops at once, with room to push in and recompose during the edit. I have a secret crop overlay that I adjust for each project before a shoot and load up on the monitors on set while framing things with my DoP. Also, in most of my work there’s an element of animation or visual effects that is added to live action, or mixed media elements layering on top of one another in such a way that we can nudge those layers in the compositing phase to fit varying aspect ratios at delivery.

Likewise, with deliverables of different lengths, I love to design shots with visual transitions in them so that different shots can seamlessly link up in the :60 edit or the :30 edit or the :15 edit. Instead of hard cuts, the shortest edits can still feel like intentional bespoke shot-to-shot transitions.

LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work (e.g. virtual production, interactive storytelling, AI/data-driven visuals etc)?

Sean> Looming largest in creative conversations these days with both fear and awe is of course AI generated art. There are important ethical conversations ongoing about attribution and compensation for the living human artists whose hard earned craft is fed into the algorithms to be remixed. Aside from that concern, in purely looking at AI art as a tool, I do believe it’s something worth experimenting with and gaining fluency in. Each of the rest of my sentences should probably start with, “For now, …” but here goes.

My current thinking on AI art generation tools is that they are both eerily effective but also cumbersome to refine with their telltale stylistic flourishes ever present. Where they excel is the early blue-sky concepting phase, where you have a broad idea of where you may want to go visually, but want to try out a handful of executions. It still very much requires a human to guide, prompt, prune, and curate the creative process, but it is in the rough concept image generation phase where AI makes the process wildly fast.

Where it’s cumbersome and unwieldy is in taking a promising rough concept image into finished, specific, usable territory. The latest versions of the technology have taken a noticeable leap forward in realistic shadow casting, sharp edges, and the touchstones of realistic rendering, with subsequent versions inevitably getting tighter and sharper still.

But if you want to adjust the camera angle slightly, or the colors or material of a surface, if you need to finesse an image that all-important final 20% to your specific needs, AI generated art just isn’t there yet. It would save time and your blood pressure to just open the image in photoshop and refine it yourself. I could be wrong, and I probably am, but having used a few of the latest tools, there’s something about that specific kind of work—call it finesse, tweaking—that feels particularly hard to brute engineer out. That point of friction doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that smooths out by simply bombarding the algorithm with more and more source content.

For now…

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Scholar, Wed, 12 Apr 2023 10:28:00 GMT