Top Director: Melanie Bridge

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Melanie Bridge.jpgIn a regular column Campaign Brief Asia is turning the spotlight on a hot director. Here, we talk to Melanie Bridge founding partner of The Sweet Shop.

With a fifteen-year history of creating visually rich and innovative spots, New Zealand director Bridge has made a name for herself by consistently delivering cutting edge spots that blend the fantastical with the real.  Named one of the “Top 100 Directors in the World” by Shots Magazine, Bridge’s background as a leading New Zealand commercial photographer combined with her extraordinary eye for fashion, art direction, and design has resulted in a bevy of international awards ranging from Clios to D&AD Awards.  Bridge is one of the Founding Partners of global production company, The Sweet Shop.

How did you get your start in the industry?

I was a photographer specializing mainly in fashion and advertising and was doing really well.  I’d never thought of doing anything else, but then one day out of the blue a film production company called Rolling Films phoned me up and asked if I had ever considered directing, to which I said ‘no’.  But then I went away and thought about it, and I started to realize that maybe it was a great opportunity, and perhaps it was time to get out of my comfort zone.  So I went and met with them and liked what I saw.  What appealed to me was the very collaborative nature of directing.  As a photographer, I’d had to do everything from budgeting to lighting and art department by myself, so the thought of being purely a creative – with a team around me to help make my ideas even better, and then help execute them – was actually what I had always wanted.  Back then, there was only one other female director in NZ.  Rolling Films spotted this gap in the market and I slotted into it nicely.  I think I was especially fortunate as I already had good working relationships with all the creatives around town, and they were all willing to give me a break.

What was your first big break as a commercials director?

My first big break was a Xenical (Roche) commercial for Mears Taine, and the creative on the job were Roy Mears and Jeremy Taine.  It was a dream brief – I was given a written V.O. (sort of like a poem) and I was told to go away and make a commercial based around the words.  The unbelievable thing was that they trusted me to do whatever I wanted, and so did the client!  They didn’t come to the shoot and they loved the offline, no changes at all.  That commercial was a game-changer for me; it was that piece of work that opened up the doors to me as a TVC director globally, and pretty soon all the creatives were asking for something in that style.  That was 15 years ago, and sometimes even now, I’ll get asked for that same style.  Yawn!

Nowadays I wonder how different ads could be with a little more trust, and a little more freedom for us directors to push the boundaries.  These days we regularly find our creative wings are clipped, and it’s a shame that often any sort of push back from us is frowned upon.  Surely it’s better that we care enough to want to take things further, and make the best TVC we can?  I do still care, a lot, and will do whatever it takes to make the best of each and every commercial.  I still just really love the work, and am constantly in search of the next game-changing ad!

MelanieBridge_1.jpgWhat do you love about directing commercials? Tell me about your most recent job and what was involved/the challenges of the job and why you like commercial work?

One of my most recent spots was for Ferrero Rocher.  It was for a French Agency and we shot it in Kiev in the Ukraine.  One of the things I love about my job is the adventures I have.  Kiev was somewhere I had never considered traveling to, but then all of a sudden I was there and it was an incredible experience – with wonderful hardworking, highly skilled crew, excellent locations and talent, it was just an all-round, surprisingly good experience.  This was just before the recent trouble in the Ukraine, which is so incredibly heartbreaking.

Sometimes these away trips to exotic countries can be challenging, but equally they can be amazing, and no matter which way it goes, they always give me fantastic life experiences to look back on.  Traveling together with the Sweet Shop producers makes things really easy.  We all just get each other, and are completely on the same wavelength in terms of coming up with innovative ideas to get the most money on screen with the least possible drama.  Ultra important as there is often full drama going on all around us!

Have you recently shot in Asia? Is this a region where you are actively seeking work? What appeals to you about working in the Asian market?

I’ve worked on and off in Asia for many years and I love it – the diversity is excellent with a wide range of locations (from CBD skyscrapers to beautiful, isolated beaches and jungles) and the people I’ve met have been wonderful.

While I’ll happily go anywhere in the region and have most recently had a great experience filming in Shanghai, I’ll generally always look first to shoot in Thailand, for a few reasons.   I’ve found the crews there have a good skill base (particularly in the stylist / art department / set building areas), the equipment and studios are world class, you have access to a large and diverse talent pool and the post facilities are solid.  Thailand’s obviously a bit of a production hub, which is why we chose to set up our Asian office in Bangkok.  However, I am also happy to shoot all over the continent.

As an added bonus, the time difference to Asia works really well for us New Zealanders, and also it’s not too far to fly there.  Plus I love Asian food and exploring Asian countries, so it’s a win-win situation for me.

Have you ever ventured into short films or films? (If yes provide details)

I’m working on my first feature film at the moment.  It’s hugely exciting for me and feels like a culmination of my life’s work.  It’s a Hollywood animated children’s feature; whimsical, scary, funny.  We’ve partnered with Strangeweather Films in LA to produce it, and the EP and my mentor is Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame). As production isn’t due to start for a while, I’m still available to direct TV commercials in the mean time.

Sony_Tails.jpgWhat are the three most memorable spots you’ve directed? Why?

The aforementioned Xenical commercial that got my career started

Sony Tails – I loved the experience shooting this commercial in Rio de Janeiro, and I loved the freshness of the result.  Everything was just there, with almost no art department required – great light, great talent, great locations, I couldn’t have asked for more… (Apart from the fact that I did get mugged one morning on Cococabana beach – luckily only lost my snappy camera).

Finders Keepers for Schweppes – This was a wonderful brief, a series of short films by Sweet Shop directors for Schweppes, with the common idea being that all the films had the sound Schhhh somewhere within them.  The ideas were written by creatives from Mojo Auckland.  Mine was written by Nick Worthington.

OldSpice_horse.jpgWhat are your favourite three commercials of all time?

Very hard to choose my favourites, as there are so many. One of the first commercial
s I was truly inspired by was Jonathan Glazer’s Guinness ‘Surfer’ – I still love it now.  Another one of my all time favourites is Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ by Tom Kuntz, it still makes me laugh every time I see it.  For pure visual pleasure I adore Garth Davis’s ‘Burst’ for Schweppes. I also love Johann Renck’s H&M commercials – all of them.

What are your career highlights to date?

I’m lucky enough to have lots!  Starting our own production company The Sweet Shop is definitely a highlight.  Also, early on in the piece, I was selected for the Saatchi and Saatchi Young Director showcase at Cannes, which really got my career going.

I’ve travelled to so many incredible places shooting, but one of the highlights was definitely a 6-week stint in Budapest, directing a 90 second period piece.  The work ethic and production values there were incredible, and we made some life-long friends on the job.

I think the chance to work alongside Andrew Adamson as I direct my first feature film has to be the biggest career highlight to date.

Tell me something about yourself that not many people would know.

I’m a horsey girl, I live in the country, and my teenage son is a competitive show jumping rider.  So (work permitting) I spend a lot of Summer weekends in the horse truck trawling him about the New Zealand Show jumping circuit.

You’re also a Managing Partner of TSS – has it been difficult maintaining a balance between being ‘management’ and a hands-on director?

Of course it makes things busier, but Paul Prince, Sharlene George and I have a really wonderful relationship, and a great trust in each other.  I have always been given the space to dedicate myself to directing, while Paul and Sharlene handle the business side of things.  In the early days as our business was finding its feet, I was heavily involved and I spent a lot of my time developing the branding etc.  Nowadays since we are very established and have so many great managers in each of our global offices, not as much input is needed from me.  Of course I’m always kept in the loop and brought in when the really important decisions have to be made.

How has your directing style evolved during your career?

I started out doing work that was quite layered, very imaginative and post intensive, but if I’m completely honest even though I loved it, my favourite jobs always had a more natural style.

With my background in photography (people and fashion), I have always loved capturing spontaneous moments, in beautiful natural light, so my work has evolved more towards this style.  For this reason I always feel particularly excited when scripts come in for things like travel ads, as these types of jobs lend themselves so beautifully to this style.  I’ve always wanted to make a perfume ad, that’s something I feel I could do brilliantly, but for one reason or another I haven’t made one yet.

How have you adapted with the change in advertising during your career – from commencing with just traditional TVC work early on to being faced with today’s digital, mobile and technological revolution? 

I think it’s been really interesting to see the growth of new technology and mediums within the industry.  Obviously clients are able to target their audience more precisely now, and speak to them in so many different ways, tailoring their approach and messages accordingly.  For us directors, it’s an opportunity to extend our work – often now we’ll be asked to further develop a concept then roll out versions for online, viral etc to sit within the campaign, which is great fun and keeps your thinking fresh.

A lot of work in Asia has a different style to that in the west.  How do you manage this when filming in the region?

New Zealand is in the Asia Pacific territory, so we’ve all grown up exposed to Asia’s customs and way of life and I think there’s a general understanding across our respective cultures.  Doing jobs in every country across the world is different though, and everyone from the agency through to the crew and post houses will have their own quirk or style of working that’s just slightly different from your own.  I find that if you do your proper research and can get a handle on what’s what – and where the challenges might arise – you’ll be in pretty good shape for any kind of shoot.  At The Sweet Shop we’ve worked hard to build good relationships with production partners on the ground in Asia, which means we have reliable information and good cultural insight, ensuring our jobs run smoothly wherever we’re filming in the region.

Previous directors featured in this Top Director series.