The final day of Cape Town creative conference Design Indaba featured talks from maverick filmmaker Casey Neistat; Interlude founder, and creator of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone interactive video, Yoni Bloch; plus Dan Wieden and Emily Oberman.
Casey Neistat discussed how a lack of formal training and a desire to do things he isn’t supposed to has led to a successful filmmaking career and millions of online followers.
Neistat dropped out of school aged 15 – growing up, he said he was in “a permanent state of trouble. If there’s one mantra I can remember being fed to me, it was that I was doing something wrong … which meant I wasn’t doing something the way I was supposed to. I dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, but then I got a computer and fell in love with the idea of telling stories or sharing perspectives through videos… I didn’t know how you were supposed to make movies, or use a camera or distribute them,” he explained.
After making a series of short documentaries and a feature film, Neistat made an eight-episode series with his brother Van titled the Neistat Brothers, which he sold to HBO in 2008. “We made the show ourselves, paid for it and shot it, then sold it for a couple of million dollars. But I hated the process … it took two years to get it on air,” he said. It was this frustration at traditional distribution methods that led him to focus on putting his own films on YouTube.
After shooting an amusing film about the perils of cycling in New York’s bike lanes in 2011 – which achieved viral success within 24 hours – Neistat was invited to make videos for the New York Times and approached by several ad agencies, but became frustrated with following a pre-determined script or brief, and decided to convince clients to let him make his own ideas instead.
Nike was the first client to allow him to do this, he said – a collaboration that led to Make it Count, a film for Nike FuelBand in which Neistat and editor Max Joseph spent the entire budget they had been given by the brand to make the ad on travelling the world, visiting 13 countries over 10 days.
“I wrote an idea, Nike gave me the budget, then at the ninth hour I said, ‘lets just take the money, do what we’ve always wanted and travel the world. I showed it to Nike and they said, ‘Casey, what is this? You’re not even wearing Nike in the video?”
Nike allowed him to put the film on his own YouTube channel, however, and it has since had more than 13 million hits. After initial confusion over whether it was a hoax, it was widely accepted as a hugely successful piece of content for the brand.
Neistat did the same for 20th Century Fox after being asked to make a promotional film for Ben Stiller film Walter Mitty on the theme of living your dreams, spending the $25,000 budget on delivering supplies to people affected by a typhoon in the Philippines. The video was another hit, with over four million views on YouTube.
Neistat ended his talk with a series of videos documenting his proposal to his girlfriend (now wife), his wedding and the birth of his daughter, offering a funny and heartfelt look at the couple’s relationship and starting their own family.
Reflecting on why he chose to share such intimate films about his life with online audiences, he said: “I don’t think it’s because I’m a voyeurist. I don’t know how to write a rom-com or a film about science fiction – what I know are my experiences and ideas and stories. It’s only by nurturing and embracing that lack of understanding, and ignorance, that I’ve been able to do what I do.”
Yoni Bloch, co-founder of Interlude (which made last year’s interactive video for Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone) discussed using new technologies to create interactive film, ads and TV shows.
Bloch, a musician, said he started recording songs and uploading them to an Israeli social media site as a teenager in the 1990s, gaining “a geeky fan base of kids who were also early adopters of the internet”. He was eventually signed to a record label, released three albums, appeared as a judge on an Israeli version of TV show American Idol, and started making music videos for his own songs.
“When I started my career, music videos were dying, but it had become easier to make them, so I created them for my band. Then, a couple of years ago, we decided to do something different – we talked about making an interactive video … no-one had done it the way we thought it should be done.”
The video guided viewers through a house at a party in Tel Aviv. As new characters appeared, viewers could click on them to shape the course of the narrative, resulting in 256 possible outcomes. To make it, the group had to create their own software and as a result, founded Interlude. They also made an interactive film featuring the Israeli President and another in which viewers could create a personalised song for someone, before being contacted by Bob Dylan’s family and asked to create a video to mark the 50th anniversary of Like a Rolling Stone.
Since then, the company has created ads for Revlon, Subaru, Mac, Shell and clothing company Madewell and worked on music videos for Aloe Blacc, Whiz Kalifa and Coldplay. It has also teamed up with a company that develops eye-tracking software to create a humerous film which unfolds in response to viewers’ eye movements. Viewers witness a man trying to propose to his girlfriend, but can interrupt or disrupt his popping the question by glancing at other characters around the room. Bloch said the company is also working on interactive TV shows (including one with Flight of the Concords star Jemaine Clement and another starring a cat), and short films where viewers will be able manipulate narratives and interact beyond clicking and swiping their screens.
While the internet has led to huge leaps in the way we consume information and interact with others, Bloch said videos have, until recently, been relatively slow to catch up, but added: “I think now, video is in its most exciting form…we’ve started to look at new kinds of storytelling techniques, and are trying to create a new medium.”
After Bloch was a talk from Emily Oberman, who discussed her work creating graphics for Saturday Night Live (including the show’s new opening sequence, a book to commemorate its 40th anniversary and graphics for a documentary about the show, premiering at Tribeca Film Festival in April). She also spoke about the challenges of creating perfect parodies – from spoof commercials for a cookie dough drink made for athletes for SNL to designing the identity, packaging and a fictional ad campaign for Ablixa, a fictional antidepressant which featured in Steven Sodebergh film, Side Effects (some of which was filmed at Pentagram’s offices).
Dan Wieden also discussed what he thinks has made Wieden + Kennedy so successful over the years, and what he thinks are the biggest challenges facing the agency today.
Discussing the brand’s early days working from a tiny office in Portland, Oregon (“the only people who wanted to move there were kids right out of school or people who’d been fired from everywhere else,” he said), Wieden said there was never any grand strategy for the agency, bar a mission statement that it would exist “to make strong, provocative relationships between good companies and their customers.”
“We began as a ship of fools – that’s exactly why we succeeded,” he said. “We were struggling to figure out what an ad agency was, when it came to marketing we were incredibly naive … but sometimes stupid can work. When you don’t know, you try desperately to figure it out, but the minute you think you know it all, that’s when you’re dead.”
The agency’s ability to make weird, funny, touching and provocative ads was built on a culture of “giving people permission to fail”, he said, adding that the company thrived on chaos and weirdness.
“I love this agency when it’s off-balance. I’m addicted to chaos. The older I get, the more I like things that force me to look twice. Chaos does an amazing thing that order can’t – it engages you and issues a challenge, and shows you … all the weird shit order tries to hide,” he said.
As the company has grown to having offices in eight cities, Wieden said its biggest struggle was ensuring things didn’t remain static, and added that the agency is “in a period of extreme sensitivity”. “Digital is redefining the way people engage with the world, the kind of talent we bring into our organisation … these fluctuations are creating big ripples … but you either break down or break through,” he said.
Thirty-three years after it was founded, he said W+K remains fiercely independent and will never, “under any circumstances” be sold off. For an in-depth insight into the agency, read Eliza Williams’s feature from the 2012 issue of Creative Review here.
You can follow more Design Indaba events using the hashtag #designindaba or see designindaba.com for more info about the conference.