Having grown up the son of two illustrators, Austin brings a painter's eye for lighting and composition to his work. Trained at the New York Film Academy and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, documentary style has always been his passion, and remains a strong focus in his commercial work. Recently he has directed spots for Intel, Audi, EA Sports, Facebook, and Seventh Generation along with dozens of music videos and documentaries. In 2014 Austin's work for Nissan won a bronze lion at Cannes.
I grew up on a horse farm in the rural south just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. It was beautiful, and I think it kind of led me to wanting to shoot videos as a kid, because I was surrounded by such beautiful things and interesting details. I found a lot of inspiration out of that part of the world.
I guess I would say the way I got my start was by growing up with parents who were both professional fine artists, and I would always watch them at work. They were both illustrators, so they did large oil paintings around the house. They inspired me as a kid, and they always encouraged me to follow my passions. I remember my mom always had a VHS camera out, and she was always filming little scenes of my sister, my friends and me. So, seeing that and having that be a part of my life inspired me early on. My parents also allowed me to watch whatever I wanted, and I think that’s kind of unique. I remember asking my mom to take me to see Pulp Fiction when I was 12 years old, and she took me. I didn’t understand anything that was going on in the movie, but man did it blow my mind! It was the most adult, intense, amazing thing, and I just loved it. So, there was encouragement there that a lot of kids don’t get since most parents think it’s inappropriate. My mom was very cool about stuff like that. Then in high school I had a really innovative history teacher named Jeff Stewart, who, instead of assigning papers, assigned short films for our end-of-the year projects. All he would tell us was what the topic should be, such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and then we had the freedom to make our films however we wanted to. Each student in the class had to direct his/her own film and had to build crews from students in other classes. We would have like two weeks to shoot and edit our films, and then we would have a film festival at the end of the year. So, I made a film every year in high school, and they were all history-based, but when you’re in high school, it becomes about explosions, guns, and getting your friends together for these hilarious scenes. That experience was kind of what projected me into being a filmmaker. I loved the organization of it all and getting all of my friends together who had different talents and showcasing them in different ways. It led me to apply to USC Film School.
No. I guess I was the only one who felt like the experience made a big impression on me.
I did, and I minored in painting. I still paint from time to time, but it’s kind of taking a back seat, sadly, to my career. Nevertheless, it’s still a passion of mine. I love art, and I collect a little art from my friends and colleagues or people I know who paint and sculpt here in Seattle.
My friends and I had already done some corporate videos, so we went out on our own right after college. We were hired by an advertising agency in San Francisco called Heat. We did a commercial for Bank of the West, and we kind of shared a bunch of the responsibilities. There were three of us who were working together, and David Holm, one of my best friends and collaborators here in Seattle, was directing, and brought me on to shoot it. That relationship really made us learn a lot on that shoot, and it has grown a lot over the past few years. They still hire me. I’m actually flying down to San Francisco tomorrow morning to work on another project with them. It’s been a great relationship with them. So, I would say they kind of gave us our first spot. That commercial was one that they kind of took a risk on us. It was just three guys with 5Ds, and I was just trying to figure it out as we went along. I think it turned out really cool, and it was an awesome project.
There wasn’t any drama, but the thing was that we were trying to show that we knew what we were doing, and we were totally just making it up as we went along. We had to kind of pretend to know what we were doing a little more than we had on our very first shoot. But I think that’s such a great way to learn – to just throw yourself into a situation and just take things as they come. You learn super fast, and if you can adapt, be collaborative and keep that spirit of positivity on set, I think everyone will naturally want to succeed together. So, that was a big lesson we learned – to just be patient and be positive. Ultimately, you’ll be able to create something great together.
I was working on a project with a football player named Arian Foster. I had thrown out some crazy ideas in the beginning stages of that project about how we should shoot it. I really wanted to film him on an oil field, because he played in Texas. Some of my family lived in Texas, so I already kind of knew that world. There Will Be Blood had also come out about a year earlier, and I was blown away by that movie. I thought the oil fields really represented that world in a cool way. But when I pitched this idea, the agency said they didn’t really want me to do that. They said my idea seemed really cliché or something. So, we decided to go against my idea and just shoot at his house and at the stadium. But then we all had dinner with Arian the night before the shoot, and I got seated next to him at dinner. He was talking to me about movies, and he was asking me what kind of movies I loved. I started talking about There Will Be Blood, and he told me that he also loved that movie. He started talking about how much he loved the feel of that movie. So then I told him about how I originally wanted to shoot him in an oil field at dawn with the sun coming up and the squeaking of the oil rigs, and he said ‘Oh! We are doing that!’ So, we did it. That was kind of an aha moment, early on in my career. I should always push for things that I think work and things that I’m inspired to shoot, because if I have really positive and excited energy about it, the people whom I work with will too.
Well, I definitely think that talent is the most important, but I would say that in my career I’ve always found really awesome people to collaborate with, and the support of the people who surround me has been incredibly important to me.
I don’t know if I would call this a ritual, but I would say that I bring a really relaxed feel to my sets, because I work a lot with real people versus actors. I also often film in cities that I have never been to before with crews that I’ve never worked with before, so I try to really set a tone early on with the way I address the crews. That helps create a calm work environment, and that’s how you’re going to get the best performance out of someone. Everyone on set should feel natural and calm. That’s something I always try to create on set in one way or another. And actually, we did have a ritual when we were filming in Alaska recently. My crew and I were staying at these wonderful little cabins, and there was a fire pit out back. Every night at the same time we would all meet at the fire pit and tell stories about what had happened during the day, and we would kind of decompress. It was sort of an informal pre-production meeting for the next day where we would just discuss challenges, and it was a cool way for us to not be at work, but still get things done.
I think a lot of it started when I would watch my mom film stuff with our VHS camera and kind of the way she went about documenting our lives as children. Somehow, that just stuck with me. Even early on in film school at USC, I chose documentary as my genre and filmed a piece on a friend of mine who was struggling with addiction. I have always been drawn to real people and their experiences in life. Even in the fiction pieces that I love, I feel like there’s an honesty and a kind of raw realism, which can be found in the works of some directors such as Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant. Their work is not truly documentary, but it has that feel.
Well, Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant were certainly big influences on me. I’ve also recently become a fan of a younger commercial director named A.G. Rojas. He and his business partner, Vincent Haycock, did these portraits called MainLine. They’re portraits of young people in different cities, and I would say the style in which they shot those pieces has also been a strong influence in my work in recent years. People who use a lot of natural lighting and handheld photography that feels organic and not overly contrived – those are the people I tend to gravitate towards in terms of being a fan of other people’s work.
I think that the quality of television continues to improve, which is really inspiring to the commercial world, because, personally, I want to rise to that level. I’d like to fit into the commercial world as well as into shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men or any show of that cinematic quality. I think that’s an interesting challenge. Right now, the bar is not low. As far as music videos, they’re kind of in a crazy place right now. It feels like it’s really hard to make music videos now, and it’s a shame, because I really love music and love music videos. They kind of get pushed down. It seems like you can only do one if it’s a passion project or if you need to add it to your reel to break into the business. But music videos are so inspiring, because you can be so creative with them.
I would say my dream project right now would be directing a show for HBO, like an episode or two of one of their series. I feel like that would be a good step forward before doing a feature. I think with features, you only get one shot to break into that world, and I don’t want to rush that. I’d rather wait until it’s totally the right project. I think I still have a lot to learn before I jump into that world. But that is the plan, to head that way.
Well, I have some commercial projects coming up. I just finished a spot for a bank in San Francisco. Then I’m shooting two more pieces the week after that down in L.A. I’m really inspired to do something looser and darker this year somewhere along the lines of Harmony Korine and the other directors I was talking about. I’m picking up their feel. I’m really interested in doing a portrait about the characters I met while growing up in the rural south.
I think Vimeo is a great tool for young directors, because there’s a community of filmmakers out there, a place where you can just lay your work for free and get feedback from peers. As a commercial director, one of the biggest pieces of advice that I ever heard, it’s kind of abstract, was that you just have to play. You have to really play, and you can’t stop and clean up your mess until someone makes you. Push people as far as you can and with whatever is fun to you, whatever you’re inspired by, or whatever you love. Don’t make something just because you think you’re supposed to.
Birdman really blew me away. I was totally in awe of that movie in terms of cinematography, performances, and direction. That movie kind of left all of the other ones in the dust. I also loved Under the Skin. I thought it was really cool. I also watch a lot of young directors online, like those I was talking about earlier. They did some spots for Beats by Dre that I thought were really inspiring.
I think it’s Boogie Nights. I don’t know if it’s the best movie of all time, but it’s just one that I love. It just has this quality to it, and it’s amazing how Paul Thomas Anderson, at 32 years old, made an uncompromising film about the porn industry. It should’ve won the Academy Award. It’s an insane thing to take on, and it’s just amazing what he did with it photographically and acting wise.
J. Austin Wilson
Director - Society