Making the Leap from Photography to Directing Commercials
March 14, 2019
Yousheng Tang operating a Steadicam during the shoot. “I’m very big on camera movement,” says Struck.
Kris Rey-Talley’s wife and Delgis Mustafa stepped into the acting roles. Mustafa also shared directing duties with Struck.
As a portrait and lifestyle photographer, Ryan Struck gets assignments that require him to capture seemingly unplanned moments. Recently, however, he’s been called on to contribute art direction and concepts on shoots that require both motion and stills, or motion alone. Struck explains, “I am mostly getting hired directly by clients these days.” Those clients want him to come up with ideas and put together a team that can help him execute them. On his most ambitious commercial assignment to date, he shot a 30-second spot for GREATS, the sneaker brand, that used actors, costumes and a set to tell a surreal story of scientists discovering the ingredients to produce the high-end athletic shoes.
Struck is a self-taught photographer, and learned about video production through on-the-job training, working as “everything from a PA [production assistant] to camera operator.” Before he moved to New York City in 2014 to break into advertising photography, he had photographed and made some documentary-style videos of surfers, both in the beach town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, near where he grew up, and in Tahiti and Hawaii, where he traveled on his own, photographing and filming as the action unfolded.
Once in New York, he supported himself as a photographer while taking jobs—paid and unpaid—on productions for broadcast commercials and music videos. He gained experience both in production and behind the camera. “If I can work with people who can teach me, that’s invaluable,” Struck says. “Some may scoff at PA-ing a job, but what that allowed me to do was work really hard and then talk to all of the departments, make connections, and really figure out the way things worked.” He also found that he enjoyed the collaboration of working with a crew—an essential part of filmmaking. “The hours are long, the efforts are tremendous. And when it’s a wrap, we can all high-five and be proud of ourselves.”
Struck assumed that as he gained experience in filmmaking, he would move up the ladder to roles as a DP or cinematographer. Instead, he says, “This direct-to-client relationship let me skip a couple of rungs.”
The majority of the clients who have hired Struck “want photography and video to come from the same person,” he says. In 2017, a photographer friend recommended Struck to shoot stills and direct a video of GREATS co-founder and CEO Ryan Babenzien as part of a promotion for a new watch co-branded by Timex and GREATS. After the video was released, Babenzien stayed in touch with Struck. When GREATS needed a 30-second spot to be shown on Hulu and the GREATS website, Babenzien asked Struck if he could direct it. When Struck said yes, Babenzien introduced him to GREATS’ marketing team.
Struck asked his friend Kris Rey-Talley, an experienced producer and director, to join him in meetings with GREATS’ VP of Marketing Jason Nickel, Senior Marketing Manager Kristin Sword, Art Director Julian Kan and marketing specialist Grant Goldman. “We had a series of meetings with them in an effort to understand what they needed, who they were targeting, what their brand means,” Struck says. Nickel and the team explained the qualities of GREATS shoes they wanted the video to convey. “It’s about accessibility, quality,” Struck says.
To help hone their pitches to GREATS, Rey-Talley enlisted Delgis Mustafa, another filmmaker, to serve “as a kind of creative director on the job,” Struck says. Together, “We worked hard on a treatment that looked excellent.” GREATS chose their idea for a simple, but whimsical narrative that would convey the uniqueness of the shoe: Two scientists are searching in a forest, and come upon elements growing on trees and logs that, when combined in a laboratory, produce a single GREATS sneaker. Struck says of Nickel and the team at GREATS: “I credit them with being easygoing and receptive. They allowed us to take the reins and dictate the idea.”
Struck and Rey-Talley worked with the production company MNML to handle production logistics and also hired a crew of about 20. Struck, who often works solo or with one assistant on his still photography assignments, notes, “On a film, it’s more of a team effort. And the teamwork keeps egos in check.”
Though the production was small, Struck felt the video had to convey a sense of drama. “A 30-second video isn’t long, but you want to show the scientists are on a journey,” he says. He decided to use a Steadicam and tracking shots to follow the scientists through the forest and into their lab. “I’m very big on camera movement. It makes you feel like you’re there in the story,” he says.
Rey-Talley hired Yousheng Tang, a Steadicam operator whose credits include commercials, features and award-winning documentaries. Struck had seen cinematographer Christopher Ripley’s reel, and suggested him to act as DP.
The mysterious forest was actually a wooded park in upstate New York. On its grounds, there is a geodesic dome which Struck and the crew used as their set for the science lab. The video required no professional actors. There’s no dialogue, and the scientists wear white suits and protective helmets that hide their faces (“Those costumes were previously used on the movie Outbreak,” Struck notes), so Rey-Talley’s wife and Mustafa stepped into the acting roles; Mustafa also shared directing duties with Struck.
The team shot the GREATS video on an Arri Alexa Mini, using Cooke anamorphic rather than spherical lenses. “I love the anamorphic look,” Struck says. While he likes the “weird, smeary” anamorphic lenses on the market, he wanted a cleaner, more polished look for the GREATS commercial. “The Cooke glass is really clean and adds a touch of character without being overpoweringly unique to the eye. Backgrounds appeared pleasingly out of focus and briefly otherworldly in some of the shots.” He also chose to use a half satin black filter from Tiffen, “which gave a nice diffusion.”
Struck, who is used to shooting lifestyle images in natural light, was pleased that he could shoot the forest scenes without bringing in any lights, just some bounce. “Most times our lenses were shot wide open so it let in plenty of lighting,” he says. “It had rained the night before, so it looked wet and perfect.”
The storyboard required “an ambitious shot list,” mixing Steadicam shots of the scientists hunting through the woods with quick cuts of objects like the shoe materials that appear to grow on a tree log, test tubes and beakers of chemicals. The final shot in the video shows the finished shoe being pulled out of an incubator. To get the shot, Struck says, they put the Arri Alexa on a track, moving the camera slightly as the shoe is revealed. The track, Struck says, “gives a smooth movement and adds to this holy moment.”
During the shoot, Sword, Kan and Goldman previewed footage on a monitor from a cinema village near the set, providing feedback on different takes and setups. After the shoot wrapped, Struck and Rey-Talley worked with an editor to deliver a final cut in October. GREATS released the video the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year, on Hulu.
In addition to the GREATS assignment, Struck has recently done an assignment for Clif that required stills and a documentary-style video, as well as stills-only assignments for Instagram and Mercedes. “It’s cool to be able to do something different,” he says. “Photography is my first love, but the challenge of filmmaking is pushing me to grow in such a way that I hadn’t expected.”
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