George Bellows: Modern American Life

May 3, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By DG

A vital depiction of real American experience from George Bellows.

George Wesley Bellows (1882–1925).

Riverfront No.1, 1915.

Oil on canvas, 45 3/8 x 63 1/8 in. (115.3 x 160.3 cm).

Royal Academy - Sackler Gallery

Until 9 June 2013

Admission: £10

 

George Bellows was a product of the so-called Ashcan School run by Robert Henri who "wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter."

There are few American painters that have captured the feel of snow better than Bellows, other than Andrew Wyeth, seventy-five years later. Bellows’ Snow Dumpers is a masterful painting, full of drama and dynamism, with the helmeted workers backing horse-drawn wagons up to the East River’s edge to unload their shovelled snow, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a steam tug chugging past. The same tug reappears in some of his other work, including The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island and Splinter Beach, and then again in Riverfront, No. 1, 1914, which was in the Washington and New York exhibitions, but, sadly, not in the London one.

This slice of urban realism is typical of Bellows’ work, as are his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, and a bustling composite view of New York painted in 1911. His most celebrated painting is probably Forty-two Kids, painted four years earlier, and shows, well, 42 kids, mostly naked, standing, lying or diving off a dilapidated wooden pier in the Hudson East River. Twenty years before that, Thomas Eakins painted The Swimming Hole, which displays, in a more stilted way, his fellow students swimming and diving off a rock in an idyllic river setting.

Whereas Eakins used photography to capture the various poses, Bellows sketched mainly from life. Both the British artist Henry Tuke and the German Impressionist Max Liebermann, had earlier painted young boys cavorting about in the water, although the former’s motives may have been more prurient than artistic. Bellows’ energetic boxing scenes are full of punch, literally, as well as beautifully observed spectators around the ring, and the most famous of these is Stag of Sharkey’s, depicting a prize fight at Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club, across the way from his studio in the Lower East Side. There is true homage to the old masters, Velazquez and Franz Hals, in his use of paint in his portraiture, as well as nods towards Manet and Whistler, and even Sickert. His seascapes have a great understanding of the way waves swirl, eddy and crash against rocks, as well as the calm and reflections off water. Although he was not in the Great War, he took it as the subject of five monumental paintings, four of which are included in the RA show, along with some truly horrific lithographs. These are stark, brutal images that drive home the futility and cruelty of war like a stake through the heart. He went to live  in a house in Woodstock, in upstate New York , with his wife and two daughters, a great success, both critically and financially, even more famous than his fellow student Edward Hopper.

He continued to paint until his untimely death from a ruptured appendix aged just forty-two, but his later portraits had acquired a stiffness, and his landscapes, like The Picnic and The White Horse, became very busy, with too many focal points, as though he was trying to cram everything onto the canvas at once. This is a balanced and well-curated exhibition which may come as a welcome diversion from the hordes flocking to the Manet downstairs.

 

Footnote: It is a puzzling thing that, exactly 20 years ago, the Royal Academy staged an exhibition entitled American Art in the 20th Century, featuring Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993. In the lead-up to the current show, the RA have been extolling the skills of this artist, stating that he was considered one of the greatest artists in America . . .  and he chronicled America’s pursuits and passions like no artist before or since.  Yet, neither in the 1993 exhibition, nor in its catalogue, does he feature at all, and only warrants one mention. ‘In terms of artistic rank, a Kenneth Hayes Miller, a Reginald Marsh, a George Bellows, were no more than visual journalists, reporters with the brush. They illustrated rather than shaped our times.’ Curious.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

 

Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite

January 21, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By DG

DG bravely delves into Brian Sewell's second autobiography.

Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite

By Brian Sewell

Quartet Books
ISBN: 978 0 7043 7291 7 RRP £25. 284pp. Illustrated

 

Well, I’ll be buggered. About ten years ago, when I was Chairman of Chelsea Arts Club, I wrote to Brian Sewell, offering him an honorary membership. He replied promptly and effusively but declined, saying that he was not a very clubbable person. I wrote back regretfully saying that, in view of his vituperative criticisms, there were a number of painters in the Club, including Peter Blake and Ken Howard, who would love to club him - to death.

As an art critic, he has been reviled and hated in equal measure by artists, gallery owners, editors, fellow critics and Royal Academicians, particularly Royal Academicians. In fact, in 1994, thirty-five art world ‘worthies’ wrote to the editor of the Evening Standard demanding that he be fired. One of the signatories, Sarah Kent, ‘the silly woman who was the despised arts editor of Time Out,’ gets it right between the eyes, literally - Sewell wanted to bequeath her his eyes, ‘who is not blind but cannot see.’ Sandy Nairne doesn’t fare much better - ‘servile lackey of the Tate . . . now the unctuous Director of the National Portrait Gallery.’ The music critic Norman Lebrecht, also gets the full treatment: ‘Never was a favourite so puffed up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee.’

He found Emma Soames ‘as sexually attractive as a saucepan of boiled socks.’ All delicious, snobby stuff, and if said with his plummy, dowager voice, described by one commentator as ‘making the Queen sound common’, all the better for it. Having worked at Christies for nine years, he finally asked for a department of his own from Sir Alec Martin, ‘a vile, arrogant and ignorant old martinet’, but his chances were scuppered by the Hon Patrick Lindsay, whose ‘blindness and obstruction’ led to his resignation. He was then told ‘we’ve got one homosexual on the board; we don’t need another.’

His promiscuity is eye-watering in its detail and numerousness, from being gang-banged in Chelsea Barracks, or the Royal Military Police barracks, or shagging anyone who came along on the tow-path by Hammersmith Bridge and ducking down to avoid being picked out by the searchlight on the river police boat, to observing pretty Bruce Chetwyn alternately fellating two other pretty boys in a New York steam room.

Central to the book is the unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as a Russian spy, and how Sewell tried to hide his one- time tutor and mentor at the Courtauld from the press. It seems that loyalty to one’s friend was more important than loyalty to one’s country. In the first volume of his autobiography, he states that an early ambition was to become a priest. In the light of what has been revealed in the Catholic church in recent years, he may well have been better off.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

Is Advertising Bad for Society?

August 6, 2012 / Arts and Culture

By Rory Sutherland

One leading economist thinks so, so we asked advertising guru Rory Sutherland to consider the proposition.

In How Much is Enough?, the radical economic thinker and renowned biographer of John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, (writing with Edward Skidelsky) offers the view that the modern obsession of government policy with economic growth is wrong. The Skidelskys argue that economic growth should not be an end in itself and instead we, and governments, should focus on increasing happiness. That is through identifying what makes one or society as a whole happier and focusing on that, rather than on growth and consumption.

Some of the ills of the current system are laid at the door of advertising, with growth relying on consumer demand driven by making people unhappy with their current lot and/or made to feel that the route to happiness is buying more stuff we don’t need. Advertising is identified as the engine by which that is created.

So we asked renowned advertising thinker, Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, to consider those arguments and tell Beak Street Bugle readers what he thinks of them.

Says Rory Sutherland: Although I would place myself to the right of the Skidelskys politically, and don't agree with many of their prescriptions, or, indeed, their insane upper-middle-class horror at the act of watching television, I agree with the central tenet of this book.

At least I agree with their central point that the single-minded pursuit of economic growth, to the exclusion of any other measure, is at best senseless and at worst dangerous.

I might even take their argument a little further and say that the single-minded, direct pursuit of any numerical measure, though it may be valuable for a time, will lead to harmful effects. Goodhart's Law (Google it) broadly states "any metric which becomes a target loses its value as a metric." Even if you don't believe we should switch to some other, broader based set of measures (such as "Gross National Happiness"), I don't think it's difficult to make a case that the obsession with GDP, which was conceived as a necessary measure to track the rise from desolation of extremely poor countries immediately after WW2, has probably had its day.

There is a secondary suggestion in the book - which is that, following the assumption of J. M. Keynes, prosperous countries should, at some undefined point, abandon their greed and acquisitiveness and, content with everything they need to meet their physical needs, give themselves over to a life dedicated to the higher pleasures rather than a base preoccupation with consumption.

Unexpectedly, given this assertion, I would recommend that people in marketing and advertising read the book. Not for masochistic reasons, or for the purpose of "knowing thine enemy", as you might expect, but because it might well make you better at your job. If nothing else, the discussion of what constitutes "the really important things in life" it may provide advertising planners with a few useful philosophical concepts which will make a welcome replacement for Maslow's overused "Hierarchy of Needs", which by now has become the tritest PowerPoint triangle in the account planning repertoire. 

And although the book contains a brief, predictable attack on advertising - along with the proposal that the practice should effectively be taxed - it will also come as quite a welcome and pleasant surprise to many people in marketing (though I'm sure the authors weren't expecting this) to read that other people, in this case two distinguished academics, also experience the same frustration marketers do in their daily working lives: quite simply in being oppressed by an autistic approach to business and economics which defines success or progress purely in financial and numerical terms without any reference to human psychology at all; effectively banishing any non-financial measures from consideration and ascribing to the finance function the ownership of the only information that matters.

I am reading this just as commentators have been plunged into gloom by a 0.7% fall in GDP. The fact that this fall was partly the result of a Diamond Jubilee holiday, which perhaps brought considerable happiness to millions of people, is not seen as a valid excuse. The fact that people may prefer a day of leisure with their friends to another 0.3% on GDP is no defence. The fall is simply evidence of failure. You don't have to be a philosopher to see that this is silly. In fact anyone other than an economist would be slightly sickened by it.

The economic models which dominate business thinking today (think of the shareholder value movement, for instance) are similarly hostile to human values - and hence to marketing and to brands - since they foster a dehumanised approach to business which is blind to any consideration of values, ethics, common purpose or what Adam Smith might have called "moral sentiments". The Skidelskys' distaste with the complete monopolisation of business and economic thinking by a single, and woefully simplistic model is probably shared, at least unconsciously, by almost anyone working in our field.

Should businesses really simply maximise shareholder value while remaining within the law - and consider nothing else? Are brands unaffected by their owner's basic decency? Is it a coincidence that so many of Britain's enduring businesses were created by Quakers, a tiny group in numerical terms whose motivation for starting businesses was as much high-minded as it was self-interested? Who would you rather buy a car from: someone who loves EBITDA or someone who loves cars?

In fact it is a pity that the Skidelskys did not think to talk to anyone in the advertising industry before they wrote this book. It might have made for an interesting extra chapter.

Account planners, who will be particularly well disposed to many of the conclusions in this book, will be interested in the authors' debate about the ultimate "goods" in life. And, interestingly, they will recognise in this list of "ultimate goods" what we in advertising call "Higher Order Benefits". The strategies for Coke, for Dove, for Persil, are among very few pieces of communication people are exposed to today which could be considered to have some philosophical content at their heart. "Friendship", "Respect" and "Personality" would be at the heart of those three brands' philosophies. Interestingly these three qualities are among the fundamental values the Skidelskys see as necessary for "The Good Life".

The few pages that cover advertising in this book are what you would expect. There is the usual (and, at some level, obviously true) assertion that advertising creates new wants. There are also a few claims that are obviously wrong. For instance the claim that you do not need advertising to sell things that people need. Most advertising is for products in categories that people need. I get the impression that the Skidelskys spend a bit too much time reading the FT's "How to Spend It" and not quite enough time watching the ad breaks in "Take me Out" on ITV3.

I would counter that almost all the advertising that ad agencies produce is for variants of things which people can't do without, or would be very reluctant to forgo. Broadband. Washing machines. Food. Drink (alcoholic and not). Detergents. Holidays. The Skidelskys say you don't need clever advertising to sell essentials - but it is usually the luxury goods category (just open a copy of Vogue), which creates the dullest advertising of all. No agencies are employed to create this kind of thing.

Indeed the advertising industry, if it knew what was good for it, would favour a rather egalitarian society. We don't want an underclass, because they buy commodities on price; but nor do we much like the very rich, since they have odd spending patterns, buying Veblen goods which do not require advertising, since the high price is the advertising.

So I don't give the Skidelskys high marks for their criticism of advertising, which is in any case borrowed from Nicky Kaldor. I would also suggest that much of their horror of consumption is slightly elitist. I don't think the authors could confidently walk into a median UK household and tell the occupants what they should do without. Certainly there are stupid rich people who spend their money on trivia. But perhaps 30-40% of the UK population have already decided to work less and enjoy life more - through early retirement or through working part-time - it's just that most of them aren't using their new-found leisure to go to the opera - a bloody expensive luxury good, if ever there was one - they are bringing up children or playing golf.

They also fail to notice the elephant in the three-room semi - which is that most of our discretionary expenditure pales into insignificance alongside the rising cost of housing, and the monstrous mortgage debt burden under which many people live, and will have to live in future.

But, to give them their due, they do spot the inner contradictions in their proposal. They candidly doubt that any markedly better society can be created without religion. I'm not sure I agree, but it is at least a bold admission. The other thing they spot (which many other distinguished preachers of egalitarianism do not) is that status comes in forms other than the material. When you have a peerage and a professorship (or are employed by the King of Macedon, in the case of Aristotle) it is a bit easier to preach against material forms of status than when material status is the only kind you have.

And, like Keynes, they also spot that consumer capitalism does have a valuable role to play as a damage-limitation exercise. Better for people to compete to own nice cars than to fight each other to the death. It's worth acknowledging the value of capitalism in this regard - that the alternatives may be far worse: if Sir Martin Sorrell had been born in Soviet Russia, not Britain, perhaps he wouldn't have ended up running WPP - but he'd be running the secret police.

Should you agree with everything this book says? No. Should you read it? Definitely, yes.

The Great Olympic Con Trick

July 3, 2012 / Arts and Culture

By Steve Davies

Well there's no beating around the bush now I've started with that headline. How did we end up here?

Photography by edvvc

From when we heard that London had won the right to stage the Olympic games to today, Londoners' views fit within four categories: enthusiastic about the Olympics coming to London and remain so, enthusiastic at the start and now disillusioned, never wanted them and still don’t and did not want them but now keen.

I started out keen. The Olympics is something I have always enjoyed, from the great battles on the track years ago, like Coe v. Ovett, to watching sports that I would never normally make time for, like canoe slalom, made exciting by the fact that for every competitor outside the sports that always have a high profile, like football and tennis, an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of their career.

Not only did I start out keen, I want to remain illusioned. It is becoming increasingly difficult though.

Bullying of small traders and kowtowing to sponsors at the expense of the public are repulsive and the advice dispensed to Londoners irritating.

The 75,000 companies (mainly British) who have worked on the Olympics are banned from mentioning the fact for 12 years. They are even obliged to prevent their employees from mentioning they have done so on social network sites.

If those companies had been able to reference their work on the Olympics, it would have helped them during these tough economic times and enabled the government spending on the Games to translate into a benefit for the UK economy.

Small traders are being picked on too, either by Locog or trading standards officials enforcing rules on their behalf. Dennis Spurr, a butcher in Dorset, was threatened with action for displaying a sign showing the Olympic rings made out of sausages. Joy Tompkins, the 81-year-old who embroidered “GB2012” and the Olympic rings on to a doll she had knitted and planned to sell for £1 at a charity fundraiser was warned that she was breaking the law. Lisa's La Rose Florists shop in Hanley was threatened with prosecution unless they removed an Olympic ring paper tissue decoration in their shop window.

The justification for all of this is twofold. First, these businesses might grow into bigger businesses, which could compete with sponsors.

Alex Kelham, a brand protection lawyer at Locog (London Organising Committee Olympic Games) says “The main risk is that McDonald’s [an official sponsor] was once a sole trader . . . you don’t want one of these [small] businesses to grow and become a major competitor in the marketplace, which certainly would strongly undermine the rights of our sponsors”.

So Locog were concerned that the Olympic Café (now Cafe Lympic, having changed its name to avoid legal issues) in Stratford might become a global hamburger chain in time for the Olympics and threaten the dominance of McDonalds.

The second reason given is that sponsorship is critical to the funding of the Olympics, so the rights of sponsors must be protected.

Locog say: "In order to stage the Games we had to raise at least [$1.1 billion] in sponsorship, and we cannot do that if we do not offer our partners protection.”

Ah but did we really rely on that income from sponsors?

We put in £9.3 billion – that was the total public sector spending on the Olympics. That came from central Government,  £6.2 billion, the National Lottery, £2.2 billion, and London (GLA and LDA), £0.9 billion.

So we are paying around 90% of the cost, for the privilege of seeing British companies and knitting grandmothers bullied by Locog.

That takes us on to the next issue, the distribution of tickets. Tickets for the Olympics, particularly what we think of as the big traditional Olympic events, such as track and field and swimming, were always going to be in a demand exceeds supply situation but that shortage has been made much worse by sponsors getting so many tickets.

If sponsors are paying 10% of the cost, then the most they should get is 10% of the tickets but in fact they are getting significantly more, particularly for the most popular events such as the 100 meters final.

For that event, a combination of sponsors tickets, tickets for the “Olympic Family” and tickets at prices beyond that which any ordinary person would be willing or able to pay, mean that something like 15,000 tickets in the 80,000 capacity Olympic stadium are available to the public at less than £250.

Getting precise figures on ticket distribution is impossible though. Locog are keeping those to themselves. Seb Coe says releasing them now would be “dangerously misleading” but, despite their refusal to release them, asserts “we are being entirely transparent here”. Who would have guessed he was once an MP?

We would have been much better off, in fact, telling the Olympic organisers that we did not want any sponsorship, that the UK would pay for the Olympics in their entirety and that all or nearly all the tickets should be available to the public for less than £100. That would recognise the fact that we have already paid for the Games.

And there is more! The Olympic park, which again we have largely paid for, won’t belong to the British public after the games end but to the Qatari Government.
Some London roads will have special lanes exclusively for the Olympic Family and companies that have bought the most expensive tickets. The Olympic park is to have the world’s biggest McDonalds, prompting questions about the role of the Olympics in promoting health and fitness.

On top of all this, we have the patronising Government advice on posters around the capital. You know the sort of thing: “Tubes may be crowded during the Olympics”, “Try travelling on a different route to work” or “Can you work from home?” Like most people, I imagine, I try to travel the shortest route to work. Would a longer route really help? And how about working from home? Would people who could work at home really not have thought of that for themselves?

If Locog had set out to alienate the British public from the Olympics and create ill will toward the sponsors, they could scarcely have done a better job. “Their maniacal focus on logo fascism has ensured that LOCOG has completely missed the bigger branding picture” is the view of Professor Mark Ritson from the Melbourne Business School. A.A.Gill put it even more simply, telling the New York Times “the British people have collectively, osmotically, decided that we hate the Olympics”.

Despite all that, I am determined to enjoy them when they happen. I think we should have a rebellion in the meantime though and to do that we should take our lead from a small town in New Zealand called Otorohanga. In 1986 Harrods’s threatened the owner of a shop in Otorohanga who was called Harrod with legal action unless he changed the name of his shop. In response, other shop owners in the town changed the names of their shops to Harrod’s and the town decided to change its name to Harrodsville.

So grannies get knitting, butchers create rings from sausages and florists put up rings made from tissue. They can’t sue everyone and we can communicate our message to the Olympics – the Olympics belong to everyone, not just some companies Locog have decided to sell it to.

Music: the language in India

February 24, 2012 / Arts and Culture

By Rajeev Raja

“2 ones are 2, 2 twos are 4, 2 threes are 6, 2 fours are 8”.

Photograph by Lewis More O'Ferall

 

A familiar sight in classrooms across India; children chanting their math tables in 26 odd languages across the country.
Learning through the ear. Not the eyes.
In India this emphasis on audio stimuli is the rule rather than the exception.
The great Indian epics,  Ramayana and Mahabharata have never been read by millions of children; wide-eyed, they’ve only heard the stories narrated at bedtime, by their grandparents, father or mother.
Indian classical music is learnt orally, by repeating the notes sung by the guru. Even the great rhythm players of Indian classical music, learn to ‘sing’ their rhythmic patterns before transferring it on to their ‘tablas’ or ‘ghatams’.
No Bollywood film is complete without a ‘musical’ erupting at key points of the narrative to express either conflict and heartbreak, or release and resolution.
To add to this, in a country of 1.2 billion people with literacy levels just over 50%, it’s not surprising that it is the spoken or sung word that has more impact than the written one.
Ours is an aural culture. Where the ear, not the intellect, is the shortest distance to the heart. And in India, wherever you go, you’ll realize that the heart rules.
Which is why music has such significance in our culture, not just for its         artistic and entertainment value,  but for its ability to tell stories and communicate things.
As in life,  so in advertising.
To the foreign eye and ear, there seems to be an overdose of music in Indian advertising spots.
But a deeper look into our traditional forms of folk theatre could shed some light.
A lot of the burden of the storytelling in any folk drama is borne by the song.   The ‘acting’ is largely in mime and brings to life the narrative being sung.
Here’s an example from Kerala, a state in the south of India. Here we see a folk tale delivered through dance and music, in the form of ‘Kathakali’, a centuries old art form.

 

Thus in Indian advertising, music has a role much larger than being just the background score or sound design; it is an integral part of the communication.
Music has the wonderful ability to convey a range of emotions, and in Indian cinema and advertising we see the gamut of it.
Extremely popular these days, is a particular brand of Indian humour which is satirical, self-deprecating and rejects all notions of subtlety.
Here’s a song from a soon to be released Tamil  movie, which has become a huge hit in the viral space, clocking a few million hits within a few days of its release on the worldwide web.
It relies on another oft used technique of fusing English with the local language, in this case Tamil  and creating a hybrid called ‘Tanglish’.

 

Talking of fusion, if you listen closely to the music in Indian advertising, you’ll realize that it’s a smorgasbord of Indian folk music, Indian classical music and Western classical, Jazz, Latin…all blended together to create a harmonious whole.
Here’s a signature piece created by the ‘Mozart of Madras’ , AR Rehman, India’s most famous composer and music director, for the mobile service brand Airtel.

 

In this piece of music you will notice various influences: a lilting Indian melody which is universal at the same time, a modern, western rhythmic approach, a bit of hip hop thrown in, backed by a western classical orchestra.
Now here’s a more recent Airtel commercial with a completely different song in Hindi extolling the virtues of  having different kinds of friends. Notice how the music director skillfully resolves the song  into  the original signature tune created by Rehman.

 

Here’s a commercial I did a few years ago. The music actually captured the evolution of music across different eras of Bollywood music. Again you will hear various musical influences and genres.

 

So great, by now you’ve gathered that in Indian advertising music is not just a support to the story; very often, it is the story. You’ve also learnt that there is a universality of approach that fuses various elements of music from around the world with Indian musical forms.


That’s all very well, you say. But how is this music created? Is there a process or is it another example of the ‘organised chaos’ that you see everywhere in India.
The answer really, is that it’s a bit of both.


The Creative Director and the film director very often brief the music director together. ‘Ah’ you say excitedly, ‘That’s exactly how we do it here too!” Not so fast, gentlemen. It’s here that there is a major departure, Most briefings are done say, on a morning, in a studio, and you’re listening to the composition by the music director, in a few hours (not weeks, not days).  The concept of referencing and hearing optional approaches by the music director hardly exists. Yet, in the 25 odd years I’ve been in advertising in India, this is how it’s been done. And the results have been more often than not, more than satisfactory.


But of course, there is scope for improvement, and that is one thing my new company ‘brandmusiq’ is attempting to do. To bring in a more brand based approach to creating music for advertising, so that the hit rate of the music goes up and isn’t left to the mercy of the music director’s mood on a particular day.


If any of you have any questions I’d be more than glad to answer them.

Mail me at rajarajeev@gmail.com or rajeev@brandmusiq.com

 

The author, Rajeev Raja, till recently National Creative Director of DDB India, is ‘founder and soundsmith’ of the sonic branding company ‘brandmusiq’.

He continues to consult with DDB India a couple of days a week, and lives in the suburb of Bandra in Mumbai with his wife Meera and two daughters.

The Road Not Taken

February 16, 2012 / Arts and Culture

By Michael McDermont

An American poet once wrote: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

 21 years ago I arrived in China on a road very much not taken. Even my father thought I was crazy. If you had to go to Asia, you went to Japan. The top 5 banks in the world were Japanese. Japan Inc was busy gobbling up trophy real estate and big Hollywood studios. Japanese language classes in college were over-enrolled, while Chinese classes were being canceled for lack of students.

As it turned out this road was not a bad one to take, but who knew then that China, and with it my life, would go the way it did? Certainly not me. As a student in LA I had fallen in love with two things: film and China. Then, not surprisingly, with Chinese film. One night in the late 80s I was watching the master Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum” at an art house theatre. By the end of the film I resolved to go to China to learn Chinese. Within a decade I would attend the Beijing Film Academy, become a US diplomat, produce 2 feature films in China, and be asked by that same Zhang Yimou to work with him not once, but twice. I landed in Beijing on a sweltering summer day in August 1990, not speaking the language and not knowing a single person.

There were absolutely no visible signs that it might become what it is today. The place I found was a backward bastion of communism. Void of color, short on street lights. Buildings were dilapidated. There were few private cars on the roads, few private restaurants, too many people crammed into too few tiny, Communist-era apartments without hot water, showers or even telephones. Elevators were still manned by operators. Buses were packed like sardine cans. State officials had beds in their offices for a noon nap, and people called each other “comrade”. I was on Mars. Fast forward to today and the city gleams with over-the-top ultra modern buildings, new ring roads (1 has become 6), one of the world’s most expansive and busiest airports, a coffee shop on every corner and more Ferraris and Lamborghinis than you can shake a stick at. Just about everyone under 30 owns at least 1 Apple product (unheard of even 5 years ago). They watch movies in 3D IMAX, share ideas using enormously popular Chinese versions of Twitter and Facebook, and take holidays in faraway places (Paris is the #1 destination for outbound Chinese tourists – sorry London).

My life turned on a call I took in 1999. An Australian woman from Tokyo wanted production assistance on a big American commercial in Beijing. I called in my Chinese film buddies, and we ended up making one of the coolest commercials ever. We shot in spectacular places like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and a 400-year old Buddhist temple for director Ed Namour. I was hooked. I wanted to help directors from London to LA make TV commercials in China. I came up with a name, designed a website, and convinced my wife to leave Price Waterhouse to join me. In 2001 we opened Gung-Ho Films, and the rest as they like to say, is history. That path to today is littered with miraculous success stories and near disasters, many of which will likely never be repeated. We once cleared out the entire front gate of the Forbidden City to drive a Ford Transit through it.

On another project, we were given access to the City for an entire day. Not so Forbidden after all, if you knew who to ask. Those things could never happen now, but perhaps the most unbelievable piece of luck was gaining permission to shoot our talent physically interacting with the Chinese national treasure - a zoo bound panda - for 2 whole weeks. If you’ve ever been to a Western zoo with pandas (like the San Diego Zoo in California) you will know how unlikely that is. We of course respected every request made by the panda scientists, but we got to do it, and it all went off smoothly.

Other unexpected approvals included a group of Westerners rapelling down the side of a 40-story office building in downtown Shanghai for US TV show ‘The Amazing Race’, and UK director Kevin Thomas driving a huge 18-wheel, flatbed truck down the Bund in Shanghai with a New York City subway car sitting on top for a Carlsberg commercial. Kevin wasn’t driving it himself, you understand. So many positive experiences, but of course it doesn’t always go that way.

Over a decade ago, we were filming out in the wilderness and needed to build a bathroom/outhouse for the Hollywood actress Maria Bello. To build the outhouse we told our art department to construct one out of wood near our filming site. While we were gone, to save money, the assistant cut down a tree instead of buying the wood. In China trees are about as protected as pandas. The local official, seeing us as a choice piece of filet mignon, decided to use this transgression to demand a huge amount of money. Since there were no clear regulations, and one of our crew members had after all broken the law, he could name his price. It was pay up or end my film career in the Chinese pokey. Many rounds of drinking and begging later, I physically got down on my knees (the second time in my life I’d done that, both on the same shoot), and we were able to negotiate a more reasonable settlement.

I avoided imprisonment, and instead almost lost my life in a car accident thanks to a Tibetan driver who believed more in ‘destiny’ than sensible driving. But that’s another story.

As the Chinese say, when the water level rises, everything rises with it. As the physical environment in China has improved dramatically, so has what you could call the software. Crews are better and better. The whole environment is moving forward fast. It’s been an amazing ride, and I’m ready for another 21 years helping directors from around the world to take the road less traveled with the security of someone who at least knows the way.

Don’t Think

June 19, 2011 / Arts and Culture

By Dave Trott

When Dave Trott met Alan Parker, the result was an unexpected yet predictably thought provoking piece of advice.

 Photograph by Julian Hanford

When I was a junior copywriter, Alan Parker directed one of my commercials.
He was the hottest director in the UK at the time.
At one point on the shoot, he came across to speak to me.
He asked me how I wanted a particular scene shot.
I was only a kid, I hadn’t been on many shoots.
I said “Give me a minute to think about it.”
Alan said “Big mistake.”
I said “Pardon.”
He said “When I started directing I learned the worst thing you can do on set is stop and spend time thinking about which way to go.
Because when you stop, everything stops.
And while you’re thinking, all the actors, the camera crew, the sparks, the sound crew, the riggers, are standing around doing nothing.
And the clock’s ticking, because you’ve only got the studio for the day.
So what you’re actually doing is burning time.
And after half hour’s thinking, you’re still no closer to knowing what to do.
All you’ve done is wasted thirty very expensive minutes.”
Alan could see I was confused.
I’d never had anyone tell me not to think before.
Especially not anyone in this league.
He said “Look, it usually comes down to a choice between two ways to go.
Do it this way, or do it that way.
And all the while you’re thinking about it won’t tell you which is the best way.
So what you do is pick one, it doesn’t matter which one, and go with that.
Then, one of two things will happen.
Either you’ll find it was the right way, in which case, brilliant.
You steam on in that direction.
Or you realise it was the wrong decision.
In which case you drop it quick and put everything into going down the other route.
But either way, you now know the right answer.
And what you haven’t done is wasted a lot of time doing nothing while you stop and think about it.”
That was great advice.
I’ve often thought about it since.
Not just on the film set, but in life.
Edward de Bono says the same thing in different language.
He says “The purpose of thinking isn’t judgement, it’s movement.”
When we’re stuck, the first thing to do is remove the blockage.
Get unblocked fast.
Like a car stuck in mud.
We sit there with our foot on the accelerator spinning the wheels, and we’re not going anywhere.
And the longer we do it the more stuck we get.
So the main thing to do is get out of the mud, fast.
Never mind if it’s the right direction.
Just getting free of the stuckness is the priority.
We can sort out the right direction after we get unstuck.
De Bono’s Lateral Thinking, his use of Po, his ‘six thinking hats’, pretty much everything he ever wrote, is about getting unstuck.
Alan put it differently, but it’s the same thing.
Move.
Do something.
Think as you go.
Peter Wood is the man who revolutionised the insurance business.
He founded Direct Line.
He sold it for a fortune, then founded eSure.
Made another fortune.
Then Go Compare, same story.
He told me his motto is “Do it, then fix it.”
In other words, don’t wait until everything’s perfect.
Nothing will ever be perfect.
If you wait around for that you’ll never do anything.
The problems will all be things you couldn’t foresee anyway.
But at least by being in action you can fix what’s wrong.
Fear of not having a guaranteed right answer is what keeps us stuck.
We’re so terrified of making the wrong decision we don’t make a decision at all.

And that’s definitely the wrong decision.

 

Dave Trott is Executive Creative Director of CST The Gate. He is the author of several blogs and a book about advertising and the creative process.

dave.trott@cstthegate.com

http://www.cstthegate.com/davetrott/2011/06/thinking-to-die-for/

http://community.brandrepublic.com/blogs/dtb/default.aspx

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creative-Mischief-1-Dave-Trott/dp/095643570X