From his roots in graphic design, Daniel has branched out to direct a wide range of live-action, animated, and trans-media projects. He brings a designer’s eye to his directorial work with a style that gracefully transcends the divide between animation and live action with clean lines, fluid forms and crisp cinematography.
I came into the business from the post side. I started my career at DDB, and I was doing mostly motion design and graphics. After that I had a company from 2002 to 2004 called Super-Fi. It was mostly a design and motion graphics boutique. We closed down in 2004, because my business partner started a family and basically couldn’t do it anymore. Instead of running the company by myself, I thought it would be better to shut it down and pursue my own thing. So then I just started working freelance. Since I kept the same clients as I did when I had the company, I just kept getting busier and busier. I started directing mostly animated music videos and animated commercials. Eventually, my timeline on those kept getting shorter, and I was like shit, I’m going to have to shoot this stuff. So that’s basically when I started shooting.
Professionally, its all been digital. In fact, I shot one of the first music videos I did on a RED. So I’ve always pretty much shot digitally. I have shot on film, but it was back when I was in school – just little personal projects.
You know, in the beginning I would edit my own stuff, and then as time progressed I kind of stepped away from that. I had a lot of different projects going on, so I needed to just focus on the creative part of it. Also, I usually approach all of my work in such a way that I don’t find things in edit, because I have an animation background and I already know the way it’s going to fit together when I’m shooting it. By the time it comes to edit it, I just need someone to piece it together. There are a few editors that I work with who piece it together and bring something new to the table. Usually, when I get involved on the backend, it’s more about the finessing, the final color, and the final tweaking.
I think it’s when they launched MTV back when I was in the 8th grade.
I didn’t know how to get into film, because it was such an opaque field. One of my friends, she was a bit older than me, was working at RSA, and she brought me in as an art department intern. But I think my first shot was technically with DDB. That’s who got me into the industry. John Yuiska, he was handling the motion and production department, saw my work. This was back when After Effects and Photoshop were relatively new. He needed some help in that department, and I was basically like yeah, I can do that! So I went home and read the manual, and basically did it. So, John is basically the guy who brought me into the industry. He’s also the guy I partnered with to form Super-Fi. My second break came from another guy. I pretty much owe everything to him. His name is Jason DeMarco, and he’s like the VP of Adult Swim. He’s the one who got me started on music videos. It started when I was working with him at my old company. He asked if I had ever directed a music video, and I told him that I kind of did one for a friend. Then he asked if I could direct three and have them in by next month. I was like all right, I’ll do it! So we did three animated videos in a month, and then from there it just sort of branched out. I did videos for LCD Soundsystem, Best Coast, Flying Lotus, and Killer Mike. Some of my videos won awards and went into the festival circuit. The first three videos I did were animated and the rest were live. I still do some animated ones; it just depends on the track.
The most memorable was my first real budget music video. It was one that I probably learned the most on. I made this music video called Get Better for a band called Mates of State. My friend knew the band, so he put it all together. Our budget was like $20,000 to $25,000, and I was so excited to work with a real budget, that I bit off way more than I could chew. We cast way too many people, and we had costumes involved. Then on the day of the shoot there was an ice storm, so I think the key grip was in a car accident and couldn’t make it. On top of all that, this was also probably one of the first music videos filmed on RED, and the camera was very, very glitchy. It would shut off on us in the cold. It was crazy. So, that was a horrible experience. All of this shit just kept happening, and I was just a ball of stress. I remember the DP I was working with was just telling me to smile and relax. He coached me through it. To this day, even when I have clients breathing down my neck, I just smile and joke and have a good time. Otherwise, you’re no use to anyone, and you stress out everyone else around you.
Well, it’s certainly a lot more democratic now, meaning that everyone is doing it. Everyone I meet is becoming a director now, they’re using Go Pros and using all kinds of different cameras you can buy or rent. So, it’s a lot easier to direct now. There aren’t any barriers anymore. It’s harder to make a living off of it, and part of the challenge is shining through all of the noise. That’s number one. And because everyone is doing it, there’s kind of a race to the bottom, because technology is a lot cheaper, and everyone is making everything in-house. It’s an interesting time, but I think the most important thing is that 70 percent of my job is about the people and my network, and then 30 percent of it is actually doing the work. So it’s basically like the network you have, who you’re working with and who your past clients are that keeps you getting more work.
I’m sorry to say this, but talent is less important. It’s going to be more about connections, because basically, this craft has been around for well over a hundred years, even before there was theater and stuff. Some of it just boils down to where you are and who happens to be there when what you make blows up to critical mass. That’s luck. Talent is great if you have it – you can use it, and get as far as you can with it, but you’re really gonna need luck and a network to really make a living as a director. I know a lot of people who want to get signed by so-and-so, but once you get signed, the work doesn’t stop there. You’re signed. Great. But you can’t expect other people to get you work. So, that should be your prime focus – talk with people, work with other people, and find other jobs to do. Just because you’re signed, just because you’re on a roster somewhere, you can’t depend on other people to get you work. That should be your primary job.
There are a lot of people that I’ve drawn influence from. Basically, my first taste working in the industry was when I was working under Marcus Nispel. His shots were really graphically exposed. It was live-action, but the composition of every shot was so distinct. I drew a lot from that. Then I did a lot of sports work. In a lot of my first pieces, I wasn’t getting a lot of performance out of the actors. It was really more like using them as graphic props and positioning them behind a light or in front of a light and moving bodies in motion and what not. I used graphic references from 70’s style designers, which I really like. I also looked at a lot of photography. I can’t remember names of the photographers, but I was at Nike for a while, and I just looked at all of their art books and the compositions of the bodies in each sport. I drew a lot of inspiration from that, but I can’t think of the photographers’ names. They were really talented people. Current day, I just look at directors like Dario Argento. He’s a really big influence. I like a photographer named Bill Henson because of the way he uses color.
I’d say there are two things. I guess I would say that I excel at working with limitations. Some of my best stuff, some of the stuff that I’m most proud of, has come out of that – out of working on an almost impossible task. And then the other strong point, something that I think helps my work, is that all of my work is very narrative. I always bring narratives to the table, and give the piece a sense of movement. It gives it a story frame that works for me, and makes it worth watching. The character can transport you somewhere. Even if there’s no inner narrative to the piece, I will put a narrative into it somehow.
Well, I don’t think filmmakers are focused on that. I think that it’s something more that comes from above, meaning like a marketing department is interested in it, and distribution is going to be interested in that. I think as a filmmaker, you’re interested in selling the story, and everyone I know can vouch for that. Directors are interested in what they have to say, whether it’s filmed on a phone, a GoPro, an Alexa, or a 35mm camera. If there’s a new toy out, of course I want to play with it, and I’ll ask for it. But at the end of the day, it’s not the most important thing.
I think what’s interesting about Vimeo is that the content is all geared toward a certain audience, like the time-lapse videos. The content is usually very visually inspiring, entertaining, very trendy, and it’s usually something that’s no more than three minutes long. So, it’s usually something that you watch while wasting time at work, or fucking around somewhere on your phone. Whereas when you watch a film, you need sound, you need engagement, and it’s a little more difficult to ask that from an audience at work. Like when you go see a film, you sit down and have to be focused and willing to follow a story. So, I don’t think the stuff on Vimeo isn’t necessary, but stories aren’t going away. There are a lot more shorts and narrative films now. I think Vimeo is more for current trends or the flavor. When you look at it now, it’s completely different from two years ago. If I did something now that was a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2012, it would feel dated. If I put that out now, it would be invisible.
I’ve actually done three short films this past year, and I had very concrete motivation for doing them. I became a dad, and I was like holy shit, I’m not getting any younger! I’ve been around this industry, so I can do my own stuff. Here I am, twenty years later, and I still make music videos and commercials. So I better start doing shit. So my baby boy certainly increased my motivation and got me off my ass. The worse thing about being a creative is that I feel guilty when I’m not creating stuff. After I do them, maybe I’ll submit them to festivals. Some of them have been selected, but I basically just do them for myself, and don’t care about submitting them to festivals. I shot one of these films as more of a concept, because I’m trying to put together a feature based on it. I shot it to basically see how the characters are going to work and how they’re gonna move. It was like a little experiment for myself. With these three films, I learned something with each one, and that’s what I set out to do.
I get asked that a lot. My advice is to always learn a skill. That can be audio engineering, graphics or post, fixing cars, it can be in the art department – anything. Be a skilled technician. Learn what to do with your hands, because even you’re successful as a director or filmmaker, you’re gonna have a lot of downtime, and you use those times to do something to keep the cash flow coming in, or to just keep from going insane. So, just get a skill.
I like Death Race 2000.
I loved Enemy. That’s my most recent favorite film. The book is great too, and it’s got this whole separate thing to it.
Long Island - New York
Director - Decon