Director Adam Lisagor on the Art of the Soft Sell
After a Short (but Valuable) Career in VFX, a Former One-Man Band Finds His Niche
When Yahoo recently acquired Summly, an iPhone app that uniquely aggregates and summarizes news from across the Web, the sale turned the app's teenaged creator Nick D'Aloisio into an instant millionaire and rising tech star. D'Aloisio launched Summly last fall in a promo seemingly tailor-made for his talents: With the presence and laser-like focus of a young Steve Jobs, D'Aloisio eloquently explains how his app works, showing you why but never quite telling you outright just how cool it is. He's helped by an endless flow of device-like graphics hovering above and around him and by a surprising yet perfect foil, author/comedian Stephen Fry.
Those familiar with popular tech start-up brands will also recognize the sly hand of director Adam Lisagor, the founder of Sandwich Video in Los Angeles, who has created and directed launch promos for AirBnB, Square, Flipboard, Jawbone's Jambox and many more. Thanks to Lisagor's deft pacing, art direction and understated style in the Summly promo, it's easy to see what all the fuss is about.
It's not so much that Lisagor undersells a product, but rather that he keeps the whiff of hype completely out of the picture. In his signature spots, often characterized by regular people interacting with floating, oversized graphics from their device interfaces, there's no need for blatant sarcasm, either, though it's there in that referential, post-ironic way that underscores so much on the Web these days. He lets the product sell itself by keeping things muted but real. The motion graphics show what the app or product can do, and Lisagor's on-screen talent show you how they use it.
"No matter how accessible I'm trying to make the message, I always try to lean away from current commercial trends," he says when asked how he defines his directing style. "I think an audience can smell when something is done in a certain way and its primary objective is to get you to spend your dollars." What is consistent about his style, he says, is how he directs his talent. "I try to get as much humanity from the performances as possible, within the context. I mean, it's not like I'm directing these dramatic roles or anything. It's very rare that the characters or dialogue go beyond emoting a little bit and trying to convey a realistic expression in a reaction to a product. But I do get bored easily, so I tend to want to change it up every time I do them. Usually in the conceptual phase, I'll figure out how I can do it differently than I've ever done it before."
Lisagor has starred in seven of his ads, including the one that started them all, a promo for Birdhouse, an app he co-developed with Cameron Hunt. On camera, he plays the part of the Brooklyn/Silver Lake hipster, simultaneously conjuring the droll humor of Zach Galifianakis and the understated, deadpan demeanor of a younger, cooler Ben Stein. "It's an interesting conundrum that came up right away when I put myself in the promos," he says. He was trying to save money during production on his earliest videos, and he says he also didn't know much about working with actors. "I thought, 'I like telling people about new tech and things that I'm using, and I don't have to deal with fragile actors' egos either.' But then people started thinking that I had founded these companies. Seriously, there was a time when more than a few people thought that I had invented Square and also invented Flipboard!'
The bigger problem for his business, he says, would be forcing new clients into a corner because they expected he'd be in every video he made. "How would that make their product stand out? They don't want to be just another company with this same bearded hipster dude on camera," he says. "But in the beginning, a lot of them requested that I be the guy. I wanted to get away from that very quickly because I knew it would hamper my ability to bring in new clients if they assumed I only do videos that I appear in. As soon as I could get away from that, I started casting actors to be essentially me, the spokesperson. It ended up being the right choice, because that expectation went away pretty quickly."
Schooled in VFX
Trained as a director at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Lisagor's first job was actually in visual effects. "I was the low man on the totem pole as a visual effects coordinator on a Warner Bros. picture," he says. "That's where I cut my teeth and learned about the visual effects industry, which, incidentally, I knew nothing about." After taking a job at Greg and Colin Strause's cutting-edge VFX facility Hydraulx, one of the vendors on the movie, he began learning about that side of the pipeline. "But I got bored fairly quickly with the administrative stuff," he says, "and I think the facility had me on a track to become a junior producer, which I wanted no part of. I was more interested in actually creating the stuff and using the software tools."
When he found a copy of Apple Shake lying around, he says he learned "as much as I could about that until the point that I was actually accomplishing feature and commercial shots that they would hand me, which were usually the leftover shots that somebody had to do but they weren't the ones that required a high-level artist. I learned effects that way, doing my own roto and doing my own cleanup, then actually comping and doing color on my shots." Pretty soon, he says, "the Brothers Strause, who are directors as well, started having me do previs and then on-set editing for commercials they were shooting. It was here, using Final Cut on a laptop, that I learned to edit quickly, because I was cutting with clients standing behind me wanting to know how their money was being spent. This was 2005, before most people were doing any kind of on-set editing."
Working more closely with Greg and Colin Strause, he says, opened him up to experimentation and novel workflows."To their credit, the Strause brothers were always ahead of the curve with that tech stuff. They are gearheads. They always wanted to experiment with the workflow, where they had tools other people didn't have, or brought in resources like a really nice Canon DSLR on set so they could do color work for every frame of film that they shot." They discovered that having an in-house editor, where it's appropriate, is a lot more cost-effective than going to yet another outside post facility and spending all that money, essentially, for a lot of client services. I got to cut a lot of spots that way and ended up doing a lot of the comping in Shake as well."
The First Sandwich
With a healthy following on Twitter and as co-creator of the now defunct podcast You Look Nice Today, a humorous, three-person stream-of-consciousness "journal of emotional hygiene," Lisagor was already something of an Internet celebrity when he decided to quit his job at Hydraulx in order to pursue his software start-up dreams. "Working in the post industry and in the commercial side of things, I realized that there was kind of a ceiling to my trajectory," he says. "I went to school to be a director, and I didn't see that happening where I was, sitting in front of a computer for most of the day. All at once, I made a drastic life decision, with the goal of going into software. I knew I had to either go big or go home, so it made sense to me to use the money I had saved up to quit my job and to go full-time developing the app."
Then a funny thing happened on the way to promoting Birdhouse. "As the story goes, the app itself wasn't that successful," he admits. "It brought in some money, but the payoff was the video I created to promote it. I discovered, by accident, this whole niche for creating these promos for apps and tech start-ups." Sandwich Video was born, and Lisagor says he pretty much did it all, from concept and shooting to editing and motion graphics. "In the beginning, when I was doing everything, I would do the comping and graphics all inside of Shake, which is kind of ridiculous. Shake wasn't really optimized for graphics."
Today, Lisagor employs five full-time people: two directors/editors, a head of production, himself and a casting director (his partner, Roxana Altamirano, the creator of the popular Tumblr site Nerd Boyfriend). "We contract with a core group of freelancers who we work with all the time, sometimes as many as 50 people per project," he says. "These are just professionals in the industry, not necessarily in tech start-up. Since we're in LA, we're in the right place for it."
The evolution of his company, he says, was definitely gradual. "What wasn't gradual was that a few of my first clients were fairly big," like Genentech, his first. "I lucked out, because I basically already had this online persona and presence. Because of that, I had become known and was making friends in tech circles. The Genentech job was a fluke. They had seen my Birdhouse video and took a risk — for not very much money, but [they] took a chance on me. That's when something clicked in my head and I thought, 'I can actually do this as a living.'"
His next client, Square, founded by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, came through Square design lead Robert Andersen, Lisagor's close friend. "We were buddies, so I went up to San Francisco and stayed with him and met with Jack Dorsey. It was just me and my 7D, which was basically like buying a car for me. It was an investment towards what I thought was the next phase of my career, which turned out to be the case." The rest of his clients, he says, pretty much fell in line after that. "The reality is that, within the startup community and investor and VC community, they talk and find out who serves what purpose in that industry. Because I was tied in so early on— working with Jack Dorsey brought me work with Jawbone, for example, because he's friends with their CEO — it was a pretty easy transition. It's a very insular community. There are actually a limited number of investment firms in tech, and they tend to share a lot of the same companies in their portfolios."
Shooting the Summly Launch
Lisagor now owns a Canon C300 with Zeiss Compact Prime CP .2 lenses, which is what the recent Summly promo was shot on. Soon after he got an email from Summly creator Nick D'Aloisio asking him to create a promo for his iPhone app, he knew he'd lucked out. "I found out pretty quickly that he was a prodigy and how young he was. When I get an email, I always spend five minutes doing cursory research on the company before I get on the phone with them. I had seen an interview he had done fairly recently with some news outlet and I thought, 'Oh, this kid not only looks like he's in a boy band but he also speaks very eloquently.' When I got on Skype with him, he had the same mature cadence."
It didn't take much convincing to get D'Aloisio to go on camera. "It's always great to hear about some new product from the originator. You don't often get that opportunity because most founders aren't that photogenic or that gifted on camera. They can be charismatic in person but still not great on camera. White guys in their thirties tend to speak with a familiar, business cadence that doesn't lend itself well to video. But here was a kid who drew you in. As I talked to him, I realized that he was just so good at explaining the spirit behind this concept that I said, 'OK, well, can we put you in front of the camera?' He said, 'Yeah, that's cool.' He's a kid, a millennial. He already knows what it's like being in front of the camera because that's what being that age is. It's a fact of life; he's not intimidated."
Lisagor, however, was slightly intimidated when Stephen Fry joined the project. "Nick told me there were some celebrity investors, including Lady Gaga and Stephen Fry. My ears immediately perked up. Nick is obviously British and so is Stephen, but anyone on the Internet knows who Stephen Fry is. I knew we had a really slim chance to sign Lady Gaga up, so I asked him, 'What do you think are the chances of getting Stephen Fry in front of the camera with you?' 'Oh, I don't know,' Nick said, 'I could talk to Stephen about it. But do you think Americans know who Stephen Fry is?' I said, 'Are you kidding me? Everyone knows who he is. He's a god.'"
Fry could only give Lisagor an hour in the studio on a soundstage in London, with 45 minutes of that time in front of the camera. "I told him that's all we'll need. I devised a concept on a plain background where we could bring him in and shoot all of his side of the conversation very quickly, because he's Stephen Fry and he's a pro, then spend the rest of the day shooting the other side of the conversation with Nick, who was new to all this."
With his editor, Gregory Nussbaum from Pictures in a Row, he flew to London and subcontracted the production to a company he'd worked with before. "I didn't fly with a crew, and it was cost-prohibitive to send my regular kit, so we just rented the C300 package I already knew I liked when we got to London."
The shoot went exactly as planned, though Lisagor was not without doubts. "Never having directed a celebrity before, let alone such a gifted one, it was a very surreal experience. It was really hard for me to ask him to change anything about his performance, but he was receptive. I don't think he paid me much mind; he was all about the business. But he was just such a pro and so easy to work with. We covered the dialogue as scripted." He took more time with D'Aloisio, he says, just because he could. "Nick's age aside, anyone who is on camera for the first time is never going to get it in the first take. We probably spent about five hours getting everything we needed from him, not because he was bad or anything, but because we had that time to massage everything and get it exactly right."
The set's white seamless background made it a breeze to comp the two performances together. "I sort of had a rule that I broke about shooting on a white cyc," he says. "I've probably done it five or six times among the 80 or so videos that I've made. I always feel that in the tech space especially, it's an easy way out, because the visual metaphor works so well: the infinite white space represents the digital void. I did this talk at a conference called UX Week a few years ago in San Francisco that was all about how do we represent the digital world through real, photographic imagery. One of the paradigms was in the first Matrix movie, when Morpheus and Neo enter the construct together. An entire rack of machine guns comes out and they are just sitting in this vast, white emptiness. So a lot of the video makers in the tech space picked up on that cue right away. Number one, it's cheap and number two, it's a tabula rasa. It's perfect for communicating what is essentially white space on the web."
The promo's other dominating feature is Summly's iconic blue Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair. "Nick's people told me he wanted to use the Egg Chair, which is the Summly logo. The logo was designed by a company called Pacific Helm in San Francisco, who happen to be friends of mine. We ordered a couple of those, but all we could get was in some muted blue, and there was some discussion about what the iconic color of the chair was going to be. We ended up just keying that chair and shifting the color until it was on brand." Nussbaum cut the final promo on Final Cut Pro 7, and all the post was done with Adobe After Effects.
In Lisagor's latest spot, which he wrapped a few weeks ago, he stepped back in front of the camera. What made him do it? "I'm really not so keen on doing it any more but the client requested it and was fairly insistent on it," he says. "To be candid, I've sort of let myself go, and I was not in a position where I wanted to expose my physical shortcomings to the world. I said to him, 'You think you want this, but I don't think you really want this.' And he said, 'No, I want it.' I really looked like crap, so I found the nearest mirror, took a picture of myself, and I used an iPhone app to comp the name of his brand on top of my picture. 'This is what you're getting,' I told him. And he said, 'I love it! Let's go for it.' It just happened that I was shooting three nights prior to being on camera, so by the third night, I was so exhausted that I gave myself a haircut and beard trim and everything worked out just fine."
Watch more of Lisagor's work at sandwichvideo.com.