With The Artist and Hugo winning big at the Oscars and Mad Men finally headed back to TV for a fifth season, it's hard not to be in a retro mood. Stalkr, the production company behind a hip new spot for Mazda that relies mostly on archival footage, has been feeling that way since 2008, when it first introduced its accelerated take on emotionally engaging found-footage montages in the "Nike Courage" spot produced with Wieden+Kennedy.
At the time, Stalkr co-founders Dan Kern, now based in New York, and Lizzie Eves, who is based in London, were freelance creatives brought in to lead a team of footage researchers on the Nike project. They founded Stalkr to bring the worldwide network of specialized researchers they had cultivated during that production—and the potentially unlimited group-sourcing reach of the Internet—under one roof. The collective has since lent its vision to similar spots for Mercedes, Chevrolet, GM and others, but it was that original commercial for Nike that led Mazda and its agency The Garage to tap Stalkr for "Mazda Revolution."
Much like "Nike Courage," "Mazda Revolution" cuts fast and loose across a a wide range of images held taught by one unifying idea, a web of related themes and a driving soundtrack. In Mazda's case, sound (Bo Diddley performing "Road Runner") and picture literally transform the car company's trademark Zoom-Zoom into a blissful state of mind.
To find out more, we tracked down Stalkr's creative director Dan Kern, who credits a great research team, stellar editorial by long-time collaborator Hank Corwin at Lost Planet, and a genius colorist with making footage from so many disparate sources look like it was always meant to be together.
StudioDaily: Tell me a little bit about Stalkr's history.
Dan Kern: We got going in 2008 as a result of the "Nike Courage" spot. I'm American but we started the company in London, where my partner Lizzie Eves is based. We were brought in as freelancers on the Nike job and it was that experience that made us want to found Stalkr as a company to specialize in these kinds of montage spots. We're sort of a non-traditional company and fit in-between a bunch of different categories: we're part production company, part post, part creative studio—a little bit of everything. Basically, we specialize in these 21st-Century mashups to tell different kinds of heritage stories. It's become our specialty.
Which of your past spots did Mazda and The Garage reference for "Revolution"?
They said, specifically, "We want you to do 'Nike Courage' for Mazda." They actually came to us through one of our most treasured creative collaborators: Hank Corwin, an editor and founder at Lost Planet. [Corwin also cut the creepy black-and-white trailer for Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs.] He edited the Nike spot and was a major creative force on this one as well. Lost Planet's Chris Huth took over the edit at some point due to scheduling reasons. But we worked with Hank to lay out the whole creative map for this around the theme of the "love of driving."
An extreme close-up shot from "Nike Courage."
Do you begin these projects with a specific track in mind? What's your creative process?
There were different scratch tracks we used, but that usually comes down from the agency. Obviously we're working with the agency the whole time, but our ongoing relationship with Hank is really our key creative collaboration. We essentially have free rein to go out and find everything in our imagination on a project like this. All we had to start with was a title: "Mazda Revolution." The agency gave us some images, which you could describe as boards, but no really firm direction. The idea is always to go in there and work with the grain of the wood: find everything we can that inspires us, then shape that into this kind of Jackson Pollack sort-of montage. We end up going through hundreds of hours of footage just to find those precious gems. On the Mazda project, there are 86 shots in the final edit and we considered over 4,000.
Where do you source from?
Everywhere. Vimeo is one of our favorite general sources, because we always go back to independent filmmakers. That's what Stalkr does that's different from say, a traditional stock footage house. We actually don't approach what we do as sourcing stock footage. Our approach is to work exclusively with independent filmmakers and find material we're passionate about, which we know the filmmaker is already so passionate about. The material we find, then, is so different from the kind of generic, b-roll footage you might find at most stock houses. Our searches begin by looking for what is specific and unique about the material, whether it's somebody on a road trip with their girlfriend in a Mazda shot in Super 8 or an old cartoon of a car. Those unique touches of real filmmaking, because that's where we find authentic material that isn't just a generic mishmash.
An archival shot from "Mazda Revolution"
How do you handle licensing when you're wading through so many hours of footage at once?
In commercials, the turnaround on these projects are so fast. We find the clip and select it and fall in love with it and then we have a team of people at Stalkr that handle rights and clearance, so we can finish on a commercial schedule. We're lucky to have six weeks.
Where does the footage search on a typical project begin?
We have a whole army of people scanning through hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of hours of material and then we select creatively, what we think will work best. If you did this with storyboards, then you'd have to go out and shoot it. You'll never find the perfect close-up or the perfect wide that you've boarded. The way it works best is when we can work from a theme, like courage or revolution, and you allow the material to tell its own story.
Early satisfaction behind the wheel in "Mazda Revolution."
Was there any particular piece of footage in the Mazda spot that made everything come together?
It's so much about the whole that it's difficult to isolate any one part. It's like finding every piece of a jig-saw puzzle. It's more about the texture and the taste and the magic that gels during the edit, and once that puzzle is together, then you've got one inseparable whole. The Garage came in with some great ideas and had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do, particularly with the titles and mixing in the newer footage.
What's the ratio of archived to new footage in the Mazda spot?
Probably about three-quarters of the commercial is archival. All of the new footage that you see is material that Mazda had already shot.
How do you manage all the widely different formats and resolutions when putting together these projects?
We work with an amazing finishing house in LA called Liquid. Jim Bohn is the colorist there, and he's just a master of taking everything we've got and making it look fantastic. It doesn't matter if it was shot on the iPhone; he'll make it look amazing. We're not going for the high-polished sheen of traditional advertising—we're going for a texture. For us, the more variation, the better, and we know that J.B. at Liquid will bring it home, as he always does.
Tell me a bit more about that great "Chevy First Car" spot you also did with Hank Corwin.
Again, we were working with real independent filmmakers but also dipping deeply into family archives. On that project, we actually had a team of people reaching out to Chevy collector boards and funneling down this material into the strongest set of images. It turned out really well and we got some incredibly authentic shots.
A scene from "Chevy First Car," which featured material sourced from die-hard Chevrolet collectors.
What are you working on now?
We're doing all the ads for Visa's Olympic campaign in a similar style, and the first of them will start hitting soon.
For us, it's a storytelling tool. We like to think what we're doing is actually producing footage throughout time and history. We may start with 4,000 different scenes, but that's our base to work from to tell this story that spans the whole heritage and history of, in this case, Mazda. The montage process also carries this whole emotional feeling along with it. So yes, that's what we've come to specialize in. It so happens that we've created this niche that as far as we know, is pretty unique. We're not aware of anyone else doing this in this way. And the Mazda spot has been getting quite a response. People have been emailing us out of the blue, like you. In fact, I got an email the other day from a Hollywood production designer who wanted to say how much he loved the spot. We're really happy with the way it turned out and the reaction it's getting.