LBB The Directors: Seth Epstein
Los York founder and director on a culture of collaboration, how he’s adapted to the pandemic and how a director’s appetite should always be bigger than the budget.
LBB> What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?
Seth> I’m most drawn to scripts that are unexpected or inventive. I’m always looking for the surreal, the surprise, or the magical. I want a script that allows for collaboration between myself and the agency – in order to elevate it – that’s the ideal.
LBB> How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?
Seth> When I receive a creative brief I listen in deeply, to hear between the lines. To dig into the roots of it. What is it that the agency wants to bring to life? What really matters? I also like to have a very coherent understanding of how far I can push so that I’m proposing creative that’s aligned with what the agency and client truly want.
I approach my treatments with the assumption that people don’t really read them, so I try to be concise and get to the point quickly. I work to make them visual and easy to understand, staying away from wordiness for wordiness’s sake. I maintain an uncomplicated vision to ensure they are clear on what it is – exactly – that I want to do. I stay away from generalities and fluff, instead, I illustrate what I will literally and realistically do for them.
LBB> If the script is for a brand that you’re not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you’re new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?
Seth> It is super important for me, whether it is a brand I’m unfamiliar with or one that is important to me. To best understand the product, I try to approach my research innocently – putting myself in the shoes of a consumer who has very little knowledge of the product in question. I search the internet at large, the various social channels, YouTube, etc. to see how the brand lives online and presents itself to its customers. I also ask myself, is the script a departure from the brand identity and history? And if it is, I want to make sure I comprehend why with their creative team.
LBB> For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?
Seth> Your producer. They are your ally. Their network becomes your network. If you want to push and innovate, they are the ones to move resources around to make your creative vision happen. They ultimately are the ones that facilitate executing the ideas. They are the ones to help you pull off amazingness.
LBB> What type of work are you most passionate about – is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?
Seth> In the last year and a half, I have been most drawn to stylised mixed media projects because they offer the biggest creative challenge.
LBB> What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?
Seth> You’d have to ask my reps that one.
LBB> Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?
Seth> Yes, I have. Usually, it’s the producers who deal with them, and I’m generally very shielded from it; however, as the owner of a production company, I’m very aware of them. It makes sense, from an advertiser’s perspective, to ensure that a budget is fair. If the cost consultant is experienced, they generally know what things really cost. You only run into problems when they are less experienced and get stingy with the wrong things.
LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of production – and how did you solve it?
Seth> I once did a shoot in Hawaii for Nike where the roads needed to be closed and wet down. The issue was, the water truck didn’t feel like showing up and neither did the policemen. So, we could only close one side of traffic. We worked with what we had and made it work.
Generally, every shoot has some sort of challenge or some impossibility. It’s just the nature of what we do. I’ve had locations or a permit not go through. There are so many small, little things that happen on a shoot. It’s always something! A great producer and a great director improvise and figure it out – that’s what is so cool about this business. It requires speed, improvisation, and creative problem-solving. It’s not IF there is going to be a problem, it’s what is the problem and how will we solve it?
LBB> How do you strike the balance between being open/collaborative with the agency and brand client while also protecting the idea?
Seth> It starts early in the process. No one wants surprises, so in order to push boundaries, you need to do it early on. If you really want to push it, you can arrange to shoot something that is safe and also shoot an ALT. Talking them through it is harder, so I prefer showing them what I’m thinking (a reference, boards, gifs, etc). It tends to be much more effective. It all boils down to communication.
LBB> What are your thoughts on opening up the production world to a more diverse pool of talent? Are you open to mentoring and apprenticeships on set?
Seth> I think it’s great and it’s core to what we do at Los York. We’re founded on a culture of collaboration. I’m at a point in my career where I’m all about mentoring.
LBB> How do you feel the pandemic is going to influence the way you work in the longer term? Have you picked up new habits that you feel will stick around for a long time?
Seth> Absolutely. The biggest ones for me are working remotely and from anywhere. I’m not going to work in an office again on the regular – I feel no need for it. The pandemic has also caused me to do a lot more planning. Remote shoots, restricted crews, and limited timeframes mean there’s a bigger onus on pre-visualisation and having an edit in mind before you begin. The feeling that you’ve shot it before you’ve shot it. The way I prepare now is different and it’s made me a better director.
LBB> Your work is now presented in so many different formats – to what extent do you keep each in mind while you’re working (and, equally, to what degree is it possible to do so)?
Seth> I very much do. From our experience, format has become a far bigger concern in the last two years. How we frame things on set has shifted, such as shooting higher resolution so we have horizontal and vertical accounted for. Resolution is now a huge concern, whereas before I never really concerned myself with it.
LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work?
Seth> I am a bit of a gearhead and dive into tech. I believe embracing technology is inherent to being a great director because it enables you to realise all that you want to do. As directors, many of us are instrument and technology agnostic, but you’ve got to be open to all of it.
LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?.
EVERYTHING IS DAME DAME – It highlights a great mix of the technical. The tone is humorous and it’s tuned into the zeitgeist of the moment. Being tuned in to what NOW wants is one of the most important things in our business.
YOUTUBE MUSIC DUA LIPA – It has a good sensibility. It’s very human and intimate.Brings a world famous celebrity down to earth.
eBay VERIFICATION- It’s playful, technical, and we needed to be really inventive to pull it off.
Jordan Brand | We Are Jordan – It’s so stripped away. The ability to be present with someone and lead them down a path during interviews is an exceptional gift, and I feel that I’ve really honed my ability to do this over time, even with celebrities.
My Son – I shot and edited this myself. To capture the magic of a moment in time cinematically, as simple as it is, is filmmaking at its best. It’s what you’re striving to get to with each piece you create – transmitting an emotion.
I believe that as a director, your appetite should always be bigger than the budget. Then you can work to find a creative way to make it happen. One of my strengths is range – I can make it personal, emotional, comedic, or get out of the way to allow the piece to shine. Another strength is that I’ll always make it happen – regardless of how much time you give me.