Jakub Laskus & Agnieszka Celej pinned down director and DP Robert Payton in Warsaw, at CHPTR, last month. To talk about building relationships with brands and agencies; redefining the director; and after shooting hundreds of commercials on traditional locations, his newfound love of Virtual Production and Mixed Reality. Here we try to pick the bones out of it!
Jakub Laskus: AI has been lately igniting our imagination. What do you think about creating assets using artificial intelligence? Perhaps, this is something that might be a game-changer, maybe even as soon as next year.
Robert Payton: Everyone wants to try it at the studio. All the guys I work with on the LED volume are playing with generating AI images and seeing what they look like on the LED Wall. For backgrounds, I think it works perfectly. I think there’s a real logic to using it for backgrounds; but at the moment, for foreground elements, or for creating everything for a commercial in AI – I don’t think we’re there yet.
J: I recently saw a super cool caustics effect (the patches of lights visible when the light shines through a glass with water) made by AI. Of course it’s not real, meaning that real caustic would look different, but it was very convincing. You look at it and you think: ‘Wow, beautiful‘.
R: I think there are many things currently difficult to recreate in AI. I remember traditionally, water was difficult to recreate in CG; because water is something we see so often, and we know so intimately the way it interacts with our hands, the way it interacts when you pour it. It’s just something that you can’t get that precise in CG. There’s still a way to go before we can create this level of authenticity in AI too.
Agnieszka Celej: A question that comes to my mind is whether we can say that AI is successful when it becomes so real that the human eye can’t find the difference between the real and AI-generated image. Is this what we’re talking about here? Or maybe the potential of AI lies in creating something completely new, out of our reality?
R: That’s exactly the same question that is being posed in discussions about Virtual Production at the moment. Currently in VP, if you wanna build a £D shop, or a kitchen in Unreal Engine or you want to do something that’s photo-realistic; you can do that. Using VP as a new way to achieve an old style production. But the real excitement is realising you can create something that couldn’t previously have been created. That Virtual Production can take you to a whole new dimension. And the same is true of AI – is AI about creating something that traditionally we’ve created through photography, painting or silver halides? Or is AI really about creating something completely unique?
I have some worries about our artistry getting too clinical though. That’s my fear with any piece of new technology.
A: What exactly do you mean by ‘clinical’?
R: Well, where there’s a lack of emotion in the end result. Where shots look sterile. Everything that we do surrounding food advertising relates to memories and emotion, to the physical being. And I get slightly nervous when you see stuff that’s becoming very, very clever and very, very clinical. Where there’s not really any emotions attached to the images.
A: There are no tastes, no smells…
R: I worried when the first robot appeared in the studio; that it would be too precise and too sterile, and that we would lose appetite appeal. And sometimes, that happens— the shot is very clever, it looks graphic, it looks very precise and it might even win an award in Cannes. But I’m not sure if it’s gonna sell any more cans of soup or any more cans of beer because it lacks emotion.
I just like the organic approach to things. And sometimes good things come out of mistakes.
I did a Christmas commercial once and this raspberry fell off a piece of cake – fell off, bounced in cream, rolled off, completely by accident. Yet, it made it into the final advert.
I like the organic nature of food filmmaking. Which is probably why I haven’t adopted the robot as much as many people have.
A: So how did it happen that, as an organic, documentary loving director, you ended up as a specialist in mixed reality?
R: I started playing with VP during covid lockdown because I saw mixed reality as a tool to bring the location to you. I just treated the LED background as a location. A location where you can have sun all day, where you can decide to time travel to a new location at the click of a mouse, where you can instantly take a tree out of shot and move it elsewhere. It’s that amazing combination of creativity and control that appealed to me.
A: Does it mean that, in the end, you travel less than you used to? I’ve read in your bio that you’ve shot in more than 60 countries. Does having all of these locations on a LED wall mean that you don’t travel as much now?
R: Well, the LED walls are going up everywhere. Recently I’ve been down in Cape Town; and I’ve just come back from a volume in Hungary last week. I’m seeing some people about an LED studio here in Poland, so the walls are going up everywhere and I travel to them. But I think that eventually, there will come a time when I will be spending less time in ‘aluminium tubes‘ at 10,000 metres.
A: Could you describe in more detail how a regular day looks like for Rob Payton? What do you do exactly?
R: I’m doing some more writing, I’m starting to get a little bit more involved in education and consulting; but the problem is, whenever I go to the studio and put my eye to the camera, I fall in love with it all over again. So it’s hard for me to remove myself from shooting.
There is just something beautiful about being in the studio with a set of lights, a camera and a box of lenses – being creative and playful with imagery.
You just can’t replicate that through teaching or through writing about it. Filming puts a smile on my face. However, there’s no average day. I mean, there probably is a normal day, but I’m not sure I’ve had one in the last forty years. That’s why it’s been fun.
A: Having shot so many different things – food commercials, documentaries, tv programmes – do you still have any challenges? Things you’d like to do?
R: I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing at the moment actually – loving mixed reality, and developing Virtual Production with pioneers like ARRI and NEP Group – but you always wonder what the next phone call is going to be. I am forever open to new ideas; as long as it’s not a phone call telling me I must stop!
J: There is one issue that has caught my interest very much, recently. Can we distinguish: narrative, visual approach – a kind of storytelling one; from content production? That question is based on a production and business approach. I have a feeling that we’ve found ourselves in a kind of schizophrenic situation; where we want to create an amazing, narrative story no matter what, even if it’s an 8-seconds or 4-seconds piece.
R: I have changed my opinion on this, actually. I’ve previously said that we’re all storytellers and that’s what we do; and it doesn’t matter if it’s a documentary or a feature film or a commercial – we tell a story within. Historically, that was right. But I think today, in the age of 4/8-seconds ads, and the number of montage-sequences that are out there; it’s not about telling a story as much as it is, creating an emotion. It’s a bit like a piece of music. You listen to a piece of music and you’re feeling really happy at the end of it. It’s not because you’ve learned the lyrics, it’s just that the experience has made you feel happy. And I think we must work like that with visuals too – especially, if you’re working with tik tok or other social media in mind.
There isn’t always time to tell a story, but there is always time to create an emotional bond.
J: I think what we’re talking about now is a very important topic. Back when we used to do TVCs, 30 seconds, narrative schemes were different and there was much more space for the director’s interpretation. It was totally normal to give the director freedom, to some extent, to create a story – a tempting, beautiful story, that triggered certain emotions.
But now, with this era coming to an end, when we are much more into several seconds short formats, maybe we should consciously redefine the role of a director and, somehow, equip him with a certain toolkit and new competences. I strongly feel that some directors have found themselves in a very uncomfortable position – wishing to tell stories and create super creative things that resonate inside them, but, unfortunately, finding that the media nowadays doesn’t allow it, or limits it, or requires a different approach.
R: Well, maybe that’s why there are a lot more of these, ‘vanity pieces‘. Directors are creating longer films, through self-funded projects; because they’re not getting the nourishment that they would traditionally get through advertising. They’re not being given that freedom to tell a story in a 30-seconds commercial, they’re not allowed to say, ‘but I want to do this‘. Nevertheless, via the internet, they are able to find an audience. However, they’re not advertising anything – they’re very much people’s ‘vanity pieces‘ – for lack of a better word. It’s almost like the director is becoming the brand. Yeah, ‘redefining the director‘ – that’s a good topic, isn’t it?
J: Yes, redefining the role and the competences that are needed and redefining the role and the position in the process; which is perhaps even more important.
R: That’s why forums such as Directory are so important; we have to engage with each other and set the ground rules during this new evolution… or is it, revolution in advertising?
I still don’t think the directors’ job is gonna change that much, because, ultimately, all successful advertising relies on the final piece resonating with the audience.
They’re either resonating with people because of a memory, or because of a history, or resonating with the audience because it’s aspirational. I don’t think that’s ever gonna change. Fundamentally, it’s about making the product resonate with the audiences so they’ll go out and buy it. So how do we make it resonate in 6-8 seconds? We can only make it resonate by creating an emotion. We just don’t have the time to tell a story any more.
A: Since we’re on the topic of a director’s profession; I have a tricky question. Would you want to start a career as a director nowadays? Do you think it’s more difficult than it was when you began? Or is it just different?
R: When I came into the business, there was a very clear structure. I came to join the BBC as a camera-trainee, I climbed up through the ranks. It was very hierarchical during those days – I became a clapper/loader, then focus puller, then a DP. It was almost like a military route. That’s now being put completely on its head; because anyone can afford to buy a phone and instantly become a filmmaker. Even kids are creating content and achieving an audience by posting to social media.
A: Somewhere in your references I’ve read an agency referring to your ‘relaxed control‘ as being a super valuable trait on set. What does it actually mean and how do you stay relaxed in such stressful conditions?
R: As a director you have to go on set with a plan and you have to go in confidently. It’s a reasonable expectation that a director knows what they are doing and what they want to deliver. So you’ve got to go in knowing that your plan is going to work – but be prepared to alter it at short notice.
I take the job very seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously; so it means that when I go on set, I can be relaxed. I think when you start shouting at people or when you start to be dictatorial about things, then you’ve lost your crew.
Some directors think that film shoots thrive on tension – I really believe the opposite.
On a good day film sets are a really fun place to be and you don’t notice the hours passing – you don’t notice you’re doing 14-15 hours, simply because you’re having so much fun and you’re creating great images and collaborating with the team. That’s the perfect film set.
A: And what are some other traits that help keep up good relations with agencies and the clients on set? Is there a perfect recipe for that?
R: I think it’s important to accept upfront that the agency knows the client better than you do; that’s a good starting point. They were planning the campaign for maybe 6-8 months before you’ve even got to see the script. So acknowledging that this relationship exists, and not trying to come in and change the world, is important.
Being able to speak directly to the client I think also helps to understand the product and to understand them better. I always try to have a direct relationship with clients… which agencies discourage… !
On a production there are different people with different agendas. You’ve got a client who’s trying to sell cans of fizzy drinks; you’ve got an agency that wants to win Cannes Lions; you’ve got a production company that wants to be making lots of money; and you’ve got a director who wants to prove to everybody that they should be making a feature film. So you’ve got all these people and all these agendas. Ultimately, you have to remember we are all there to sell cans of fizzy drinks, or a pizza – I think if you go in with that frame of mind, you should have a good relationship with the client and the agency.
A: Seems like the art of balancing between different interests.
R: Yeah, it is! Filmmaking is the art of compromise. Generally speaking, we’re all compromising to some level. I can honestly say, out of 300 commercials or whatever; I can probably count on one hand the ones where I wouldn’t do something differently, next time around.
A: Tough job.
R: (laughing) No, it’s not a tough job – I wouldn’t be doing it if it was a tough job! We spend too many hours doing this job to not love it. I don’t think people stay in this industry a very long time unless they love it. I can’t think of many of my contemporaries who do it just for the money.