*Originally published by Little Black Book (lbbonline.com) on March 1, 2023.
Sean Davé's love of film started early. Growing up in Hawai'i meant that movies were always shooting nearby - and soon enough, he was filming his own shorts with the school camcorder.
Nowadays, he's based out of Nashville, TN, tackling everything from headphone commercials with pro gamers to baby formula spots with Olympic gymnasts. His collaborations include clients such as Chevy, Trojan, Sony Pictures, and many more.
Sean> I love when the creative in a script takes place outside of 'real life'. Whether we feel that through the setting, the action, or simply how the characters interact - it’s just so much fun to create a little world that doesn’t actually exist.
The challenge of doing all that in a commercial is always exciting to me. You might only have 30 seconds with your audience, so everything has to work together to get that 'world' feeling right.
Sean> I usually try to distil the core of the project into one 'big idea' first. What’s my overall take on what we’re doing here, in one thought or one sentence? When I feel confident with that, it makes the rest of the treatment process flow much easier. Later on, when I’m writing about how I see the cinematography, or art direction, or character tones - I can always return to that idea. I can ask myself “how do these choices serve the big idea?”
I also like to bounce my thoughts around with friends sometimes. I find you don’t get overly attached to things when you’re just barfing out half-baked ideas over the phone. It’s freeing, there aren’t any stakes yet. You can get creative in a way that might be tough if you’re just bottled up alone in your office.
Sean> I always like to check out the brand before I start writing, whether or not I’m familiar with them yet. I think it’s necessary to get an idea of what that brand feels like. I dig through commercials, Instagram posts, what people are saying on reddit… it all depends on what’s out there.
Context for what you’re looking at is also super important. If you watched an older spot for the brand - are there parts of it that the client or agency really loved? Are they intentionally trying to do something completely different this time? I like to ask a bunch of questions before diving in if I can.
Sean> Oh man. The easy way out is to say that every member of the team is important, because it’s true! Commercials truly are collaborative art, you can’t do it alone.
But if I had to pick one role, I’d say the producer. I can have the wildest dreams of things we could do on a project - but if we can’t make it a reality with our resources and schedule, then it just lives in my head. And that doesn’t do much good for anyone.
Sean> I’ve always been drawn to work that has a tongue-in-cheek element to it. It doesn’t have to be outright zany comedy or anything like that, but I dig creative that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Maybe that’s the lasting effect of cartoons being burned into my brain when I was a kid.
I also love working with VFX. It’s like solving a puzzle - what can we pull off practically, what should we do in post? What’s the best way to make this effect feel right for the project?
Sean> Probably the same misconception that I bet a lot of up and coming directors run into - that because you haven’t worked on a specific niche of work before, maybe you can’t or shouldn’t do it.
The thing is, I totally get it. Agency creatives might be working night and day on a project for months before we ever get a glimpse of it. They want to be 100% confident the director they team up with can make it shine.
But some of my favourite projects have been when someone takes a chance on me, when someone says “hey - they haven’t shot cars before, but I like what they bring to the table.”
Sean> I haven’t worked with one directly, but I’d be down if given the chance! Where we choose to put our dollars is always a big discussion. And it’s interesting, sometimes a small bit of budget can make a massive impact on how the finished product feels on-screen. On the other hand, a ton of money can be sunk into something that doesn’t really change that finished product in a perceptible way.
Sean> I had a commercial shoot that required us to basically crash a garbage truck into a bedroom. I wanted to do as much practically as possible, which meant getting an actual garbage truck and ramming it through a breakable wall on set. Turns out, garbage trucks are massive, and most couldn’t even drive onto our soundstage properly.
We ended up going through a bunch of different garbage companies, and finding one that had a half-size garbage truck. It fit perfectly. But the shoot day hits - and a full size garbage truck shows up outside. There was some sort of miscommunication, and the driver thought he needed to bring the big boy.
We were on the verge of switching to full CGI and removing the breakable wall entirely, but after a few calls we sorted it out. So the big garbage truck pulls out… revealing the mini truck parked behind it all along. It was a scene straight out of an Edgar Wright movie.
Does that count as 'solving' a problem? It kind of solved itself in the end. I think I just really wanted to tell the garbage truck story.
Sean> I think it’s key to just remember that everyone has the same end goal. We’re all on the same side, trying to make the project the best it can be. Nobody sets out to make something that straight up doesn’t work.
Being upfront about the overall tone and vision right from the jump is important. Figuring out creative notes in pre-pro is easy. Figuring out creative notes on set with the camera rolling is a little harder.
Sean> I’m all for it. There are so many voices out there from so many backgrounds, it’s important that everyone has a chance.
Mentoring honestly sounds like a great idea. The job of a 'director' can feel like such a mystery from the outside looking in. I know a bunch of us started out PAing to start learning, but anyone who’s been a PA knows you can be a million miles away from the actual directing in that role. A more intentional mentorship would be really cool.
Sean> Getting used to Zoom calls is probably going to stick! I don’t think those are going away anytime soon.
Just getting comfortable working remotely on different parts of production has been big. For instance, I prefer being in the room with people during casting. I feel like it’s easier to bounce ideas and direction off of people and mix it up. But pandemic work has taught us all to make things work, even if we can’t be there in person.
Sean> At the end of the day, I don’t think you can ever truly control how your work gets seen. Someone might be watching your project on a calibrated home theatre with surround sound, or they might be watching it on a four inch seatback TV halfway through a 12 hour flight.
One time I was filling up on gas, and a spot I directed was playing on one of those tiny screens at the pump. Seriously, if it can play there, it can play anywhere.
I think you just have to prepare as hard as you can, make the best project you can make, and then set it free.
Sean> New tech is fascinating. I’ve worked a bit with LED volume walls and agitos and things like that. At the end of the day, they’re all just different tools. I try to just use the best tools we have for a given job, and not go into a project dead set on using a certain piece of tech.
One thing in particular that I tried out recently - using AI to generate treatment images. Last week, I was searching for an image of a “toilet in an empty warehouse under a heavenly beam of light”. Apparently that’s difficult to find online, which is crazy, but I used AI to make a quick reference picture. Wasn’t perfect, but I think there’s potential there!
Sean> Audio-Technica | Elevate Your Game feat. Summit1G
This was one of the very first spots I directed, which means it’s ancient in ad terms, but I still have a soft spot for it. I loved playing with the trope of the mystical-monk-mentor from every fantasy movie ever. Especially when we put him alongside pro gamers who had never acted before.
Chevy | My Chevy Truck
This campaign was Chevy’s first foray into TikTok. I’m stoked that we were able to embrace the format and go totally self-aware with it. Why is the mechanical bull in the middle of the racetrack? It doesn’t matter! It’s an ad on TikTok, there are no rules.
Varonis | New Best Friend
This was one of those 'take a chance' spots that I mentioned - I had never worked with dogs before, even though directing animals is a genre unto itself. We had nine dogs on set for this one, so we did a ton of research & prep, then went straight into the deep end.