Can you tell me a little about your background?

I went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and I majored in photography. So I came out of Art Center as a photographer, and I found my place to be with automotive culture. I started in editorial photography for Road and Track Magazine, and then advertising. I was very much into high action photography, so I ended up shooting for BMW, Porsche, and Mercedes Benz. That led to doing other things besides automotive. I got certified by the military to fly back seat of F-18 Fighter Planes, so I did photography missions with the military for advertising. I did Budweiser with unlimited Hydroplanes, and Marlboro with racing teams.

What was your first commercial shoot?

The first production company I signed up with was essentially what Radical became. I joined Henry Sandbank, whose executive producer at that time was Jon Kamen. It became RadicalMedia. I was the first director within RadicalMedia, and I’m still here. I was shooting a still advertisement for Porsche. When we started shooting, we looked at each other and said “This is so amazing!” We thought it would make an amazing commercial and that photo shoot turned into a live action shoot just a few weeks later. Porsche said yes, let’s make a commercial of what you just shot in a still, and we went back to the same location. At that point there was no turning back.

Did RadicalMedia approach you?

That was an interesting situation, because I was kind of “the” high action photographer in the world at the time, doing automotive campaigns for the most part. The must read photography magazine at the time was called American Photographer. The magazine did a twelve page feature story on me. So out of that cover story for American Photographer came three offers to direct. So that was the way it worked out really.

What’s the hardest part of doing what you do?

When you transition from a still photographer into a film director, you’ve gone from having a couple of assistants, a location manager, and a studio producer with you, to forty, sixty, to eighty people in a crew. As a still photographer, you’re responsible for the location scouting, the art direction, and the wardrobe. When you have a big wagon train following you on a shoot, it’s hard to change direction. There is one defining thing in our business and that’s sunset. Suddenly the lights great in another area, or the car suddenly looks better in a different position. It’s a big wagon train to turn around, so you need to kind of be quick on your feet, and quick in your commitment, because every time you make a decision in film it affects a lot of people, it obviously affects the agency you’re collaborating with, and it affects the crew, who you’re expecting to deliver something for you. The whole schedule of things, the scheduling, the production, the movement, is based on that definitive time when sunset happens.

You’re like the Terrence Malick of car commercials. (Laughs) When you transitioned to live action, did you give up your photography career?

What actually happened is once I did two commercials, I was booked solid in commercials and I didn’t have time for print anymore. I really wanted to commit to this new craft, so I had to scramble and figure out what to do with my old studio, and my mass of people that were involved with me for many years in the still world, and decide to move forward with my work in film. So it was a decision I made and I never looked back. I didn’t want to dabble in two mediums. I just wanted to focus on live action.

Was there a lesson you learned early on that you still carry with you today?

There’s a whole ocean of things. There’s a lot of constant change in this business, and you want to feel fresh and new, and you always have to look at things differently. I have raced all over the world at very difficult events, long distance events across Russia and Central America, Mexico and Australia, and also raced at Pike’s Peak at the international hill climb every year. My perspective comes from racing, and that first person experience I have at racing. Putting a car absolutely on the edge, driving it absolutely to the limit is something I constantly want to integrate into my own work in film, because it’s a true experience that I can apply to it. What I try to do is use my driving and racing intuition, which I’ve had so much experience on outside of the film world and apply that to my craft now.

Very cool. I didn’t know you raced. What makes a great car director?

What makes a great car commercial is something that appeals to the enthusiast. The person is already into the car, because such a nuance of what you’re looking at is expanded in a thirty second commercial. You are impressed that somebody else notices the insider side of things that you’re into. From a visual standpoint and a story standpoint, it needs to captivate people  who aren’t even interested in cars. Because it’s a car commercial, and not everyone is interested in cars. But if you can bridge the enthusiast side with the storytelling or visual side with someone who is fascinated by those ingredients, then you’ve done your job, and it becomes a successful commercial.

Is most of your work mainly high performance, live action car work?

Well I did the Porsche Panamera launch, it was all about the car and the history of Porsche, and it was a spectacular event. We had forty-eight significant cars racing through the desert. So that was more about the car. Then last year I went around the world with Cadillac, and did the Cadillac ATS launch. We went to Chile, Morocco, Monaco, and China. We told stories in each place, we came back with twenty short films, and ten commercials, and that was all about the environments and the car performing as well as taking an American car to the far edges of the Earth to prove its worth. Then the most recent campaign which is airing now, which is the Xbox One Forza Motorsports 5 campaign, that was all about accomplishing something at very high speed with a very exotic car, and doing something that hadn’t been done before.

Was there a director that influenced your visual style?

The people that influenced me in the stills world were the first people that really influenced me. Photographers at the time, like Jesse Alexander, who was also capturing high action around the world, these people were all influential, but it conformed around racing and high action. When I moved into the commercial world, it was really about taking what I had learned in stills, and expanding on it and getting the moving camera more involved. As a kid I went to movies and generally those movies were really high action, and had a lot to do with racing. John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, who went on to do many other great movies are still some of my favorites. Ronin was very influential. When Steve McQueen’s Le Mans came to the big screen, the movie was really engaging because it was about Porsches and racing. I started shooting racing stills, and started going to formula one races around the world, and these things really influenced me.

If your children wanted to get into film or commercials would you discourage them?

I’m a very fortunate person in the business. People ask me how did you get to be you? How do you get to do what you’re doing? There isn’t a clear answer for that. It’s about taking advantage of things that were given to you, and making the best decisions of situations in front of your camera. There’s not a defining path to do this like there are in so many other careers. I love it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But I don’t have good answers on how to get through the process today. That said, I am constantly amazed at people that are shooting content these days, and putting things on Youtube.

Cars are reflective surfaces. How do you hide the lights and crew in the shot?

Being that my background was stills, we shot pictures for a living that you could hold in your hand and you stare at, that you put on a light table and looked at through a magnifying glass, and you examined every single detail. So the discipline of lighting that car and to make sure that every part of that car looked beautiful, that discipline translated well to filmmaking with me, because I already had the discipline to make sure the lighting worked, and I could walk through the location and say “Well, okay, if the sun rises here and sets here, this time of the day would be best to shoot certain shots.

You’re at one of the biggest, if not most successful commercial production companies around from the start. How has the industry changed since you first commercial at RadicalMedia?

Well that’s a fairly complex question. When I came into the business, the focus was totally on the thirty-second spot and massive Super Bowl commercials. Today we shoot a lot of content, and we do a lot of TV programming, and that’s where it’s changed. We are on to much bigger projects with much bigger stories to tell, and we look for a 360 experience to spin off every project, so we aren’t just limited to the thirty second world, it’s something that is delivered through content, it’s something that is distributed through potential TV shows, and all these different things that can be developed.

Lets talk about your transition from shooting 35mm film to digital capture. Do you like shooting digital?

In my career I have transitioned from 100% film to 100% digital. When I put my eye on the eyepiece of a film camera, I knew what I was looking at, and what it was going to look like when it was done. When we transitioned into the digital era, there were some limitations of what you could do. Now the digital era has evolved so quickly, that I have that same confidence as when I first looked at film. So that feels really good, and honestly nowadays, I am totally comfortable shooting with any camera system.  It’s whatever it takes to do the work, and what’s the best tool to get the job done.

What’s your favorite movie?

The movie Ronin I really like. The film looked magical to start with. You had so many levels of engagement with it. You had great chase scenes and great choreography. It’s one of those things that’s never as good as the first time, but it’s something you’ll always want to go back and look at.

Name

Jeff Zwart

Place of Birth

Long Beach, CA

Occupation

Director / RadicalMedia