South African director Jeana Theron‘s latest spot for whiskey brand J&B (which is committed to the Free The Bid cause under global drinks giant Diageo‘s pledge) is a celebration of all that can be achieved through collaboration.
Musicians, painters, fashion designers, and other artists come together, creating a unique work of art in the shape of the J&B logo that sprawls across a huge industrial space. Jeana’s direction leads the camera through the dynamic set, showcasing the team efforts that make the project possible.
Of course, commercial filmmaking itself is an essentially collaborative art form, too, and this spot represents what can be possible when a pledged brand (J&B) and agency (McCann Johannesburg) team up and provide a woman director the opportunity to show off her skills, alongside a talented and supportive team.
We spoke with Jeana about the process of envisioning the set in 3-d before building it in real life, her Cannes Lions-winning work for the Jo’Burg Ballet, and working across different international territories.
J&B is pledged to Free The Bid, under Diageo’s global brand pledge. What was the experience of working on this spot with a brand that’s committed to giving women directors an equal shot at commercial opportunities?
Jeana Theron: It was so refreshing, because Diageo doesn’t just pay lip service. They have a gender progressive and diversity policy, which is amazing. Suddenly, people who are traditionally marginalised are being listened to, celebrated, and, most importantly, TRUSTED. It allowed me to confidently fill as many roles as I could with women, from PAs to key crew. I got the job on merit, for sure, but the pitch door was opened for me thanks to Free the Bid and Diageo’s commitment.
The spot features an elaborate set. Can you talk us through the set’s construction, the vision for the space, and the spatial decision-making that went into figuring out the shots you were interested in?
Julie Bonnet, my amazing Art Director (yay, a woman!), Colin O’Mara Davis, a very talented designer and 3D artist, and myself designed the set in 3D. We had an incredible location to work in as a canvas – the old Johannesburg Station – with lots of elements already there, like the columns, beautiful textured walls, doors, windows. In 3D, Colin recreated the location EXACTLY (poor guy), and we were able to work out the set dimensions, look and camera move. It’s incredible how close the reality looked to the design. This was vitally important to do beforehand, considering limitations around the job; namely, budgets and time. It also allowed for more than what I could imagine, and enabled us all to see, change and fix in a virtual world where time and space didn’t matter as much.
The final shot was the only shot that was designed specifically. I had a rough idea for the rest and really wanted to shoot from the hip, grabbing cool things. I love to mix planning and spontaneity – that gets the best results.
What was it like to work with a cast of this size, with so many different moving parts?
It was really amazing and surprisingly simple, probably because we used a lot of “real” people. J&B has an initiative called the “Hive,” where they develop creative young entrepreneurs, so people who are really musicians, fashion designers and artists were in the ad. This meant that no one was really out of place. I just shot people doing what they really do, so there was no need for acting, and I think that everyone was so excited when the saw the set lit and ready – they knew they were doing something special, so it seemed like it all fell into place.
What were some of the biggest challenges posed by the shoot?
The same old: not enough time, not enough money. But we did it! Regarding the shoot, my wardrobe stylist Jess Lupton was daunted by the dress, poor thing. I think she sweated – but she did it! Overall, the shoot went really well. The client was so excited by the treatment, but maybe for a moment didn’t believe I could do it. I remember being asked in my pitch if I really could deliver such an ambitious undertaking. But I had done my homework, and I knew I had Julie Bonnet on board – one of South Africa’s foremost Art Directors – and my amazing creative team, my producer Saskia Finlayson and the huge back up of Darling. There was no way I couldn’t do it. By the time we had the 3d renderings, we were all salivating.
Did this job allow you to explore any aspects of filmmaking that particularly excited you, or that felt new?
Yes – I loved using 3D to aid pre-production, not hamper it. It was used to plan, not to finish. Everything was done in camera. This was incredibly cool and it was awesome to see the imagined artwork come together (Colin cried when he saw it in reality). I had riggers for the dress – I have never had that before – real professionals and a big crane, a toy that is usually first to go on today’s budgets.
What elements of the final project are you most excited about?
The dress moment. I love it. It’s absolutely epic and feels like a bit of a signature for me. A lot of people who have seen the ad have said that it’s so up my alley.
This summer, you took home Gold and Silver Lions at Cannes, for Jo’Burg Ballet’s #BreakingBallet. Your work on #Breaking Ballet also more recently racked up a Gold, Silver and Bronze at the Clios Awards. Can you share your thoughts on working on this unique project, and being celebrated for your work with some of the highest accolades in the advertising industry?
It’s a rush – it’s addictive. I also had the very unique experience of working with my husband, going to my first Cannes with him, and then going up on stage together! We didn’t know it was going to win. It’s incredible to do amazing work with amazing agencies and amazing daring clients. What was really cool was that we broke all traditions. I wasn’t the sole director. I directed episode 1 and 8, while various other Darling directors did the other films, including Chloe Coetsee (yay, a woman!). Each film has a different mark due to different directorial styles, and each film was a comment 0n, ode to, or celebration of a news worthy story. We had no time (and I mean NO TIME) and no money (and I mean NO MONEY), just a whole lot of dedicated, forward thinking dancers, artists, stylists (including Melissa Maxt – yay, another woman!) who put everything into this campaign because we knew we were hitting on something unique. This could not have been done without anyone who was involved. A special thanks to my Darling Execs, Melina McDonald and Lorraine Smit (yay, women!), who had the vision and the guts to see that.
You’re based in South Africa, but have recently signed to Annex Films in the UK. Do you feel like your filmmaking vision is shaped by your experience as a South African director? How does this play into your work?
Yes, I just signed to Annex Films which is very exciting; #BreakingBallet opened those doors for me. Of course where you come from shapes your direction. Everything you do shapes your direction. Personal pain, struggles and challenges shapes direction as much as things that inspire and enthuse. I think those experiences are universal, that’s what is incredible about storytelling. It allows you to step into any kind of shoes. I also have the privilege of having grown up in Australia, so I have a broader worldview than I would have if I solely lived in South Africa.
I have noticed that different territories are looking for different things. South Africa seems to want diversity in your reel, as does the UK, while France looks for a very definite theme. I find this fascinating. Different markets respond to different things – but something iconic like #BreakingBallet cuts through it all, because it was about reflecting back what was going on at the speed of culture. It’s true and relevant.
What projects are coming up next for you?
I am pitching two exciting jobs, one local and one international. Of course there are no guarantees! I’ve also written a screenplay adapted from an old South African novel. I’m just polishing it before I dare to show anyone. Of course, like every director, I want to shoot a feature film!
Any final words of advice for directors just getting started in their careers?
It’s tough. The hardest part is doing so much work and being rejected – and also going unnoticed. Be ready for this and know it’s par for the course. If you know that this is your dream, however, do not give up. Grow a thick skin. Success, or failure, remain steady and go for your goal. Also, help people, even if you find them threatening. Directing is not something you do alone. Coincidentally, this is what the whole J&B was about: collaboration makes something better, Better Blended.