Cinematography & Brand Storytelling

posted by Kari Teicher

July 4, 2024

In the competitive landscape of modern marketing, cinematography is more than just a tool. It can elevate your story, connect to your audience, invoke memory, and drive clicks through the roof.

When it comes to the art of cinematography and its role in brand storytelling, who better to speak to then our friends and collaborators?

In conversation with the best in the business, Cinematographer Luke McCutcheon, Director / DP Scott Drucker, and Director / DP Ryan Faist discuss their similar approaches and their different takes.

In your opinion, what’s the role of cinematography in brand storytelling?

LUKE: Quality is currency in narrative storytelling. But in the branding world, it’s always changing. With TikTok, YouTube, Instagram reels - there’s a shift in audience expectations and brand desires for visual storytelling. It isn’t always about the best camera to do the job - it might be more important to be authentic and relatable than to be beautiful. We still have the cinematic high-polish superbowl level commercials, but the commercial world ‘middle class’ seems to be falling away.

SCOTT: Sometimes a really beautiful looking spot becomes memorable for the cinematography–but it's likely really beautiful because of how all elements of cinema came together: sound, writing, tone, editing, character, AND cinematography. It all needs to coexist and work toward the common goal: storytelling. That's the key word. And if it doesn't serve the story, it's probably detracting from it.

RYAN: For me, it is about committing to a tone that evokes a certain feeling, without the viewer having to analyze what or why that is. It's really all about presence.

How do you develop a visual style for a brand's story, as opposed to a creative project?

SCOTT: I take the same visual approach to telling a brand story as I would any creative project. When I get a brief I think: How can the visuals elevate the story? How can they make your audience feel or experience the work even more than what's on the page?

RYAN: I agree, honestly, it's no different. It's all creative and I'm lucky that I'm able to do what I would do with any other project for a branded piece as well, which is to make things that I find to be beautiful.

How do you balance artistic expression with the commercial goals of brand storytelling?

RYAN: By being transparent from the get-go. Reassuring the brand that if we commit to a certain feeling or tone, we can trust that it will pay-off. Communication and commitment is key for me.

SCOTT: By recognizing that whatever serves the story will make for stronger work. Work that resonates is as important as brand retention. It's the reason why a 30-minute branded doc where the logo only emerges at the end is often more effective than a 60-second YouTube pre-roll with the logo up front.

Can you discuss the importance of emotional engagement in brand storytelling and how cinematography contributes to it?

LUKE: Advertising can be a powerful emotional manipulator. I always think of the Spike Jonze Ikea commercial with the sad lamp. It is comedy, it is tragedy - you’re having such a strong emotion for the poor lamp out in the rain. The beautiful shots, the POV, the music - it creates a mood. We use camera and lighting to convey recognizable emotions that were not clearly present when the commercial was only existing in script form.

RYAN: I love to show, instead of tell. This always has more of an emotional impact on me. For me, even the right music and real people usually does it… whether we’re selling toilet paper or making a movie about death. I tend to advise: don't explain too much, but let people find their own way into it.

SCOTT: It's everything. You always want the viewer to feel something or else it's just another swipe––another missed opportunity at strengthening your brand's impact. Maybe you want your audience to laugh in a way that brightens their day. Maybe you want them to feel moved and inspired enough to share it with friends. Maybe you want them to cry and so you embrace intimate framing to further invoke the emotion. My cinematography choices are always informed by the approach. It really does trickle down from the creative.

Are there any cinematographers, or brands, or commercial spots that you feel are doing brand storytelling exceptionally well?

LUKE: I think in Toronto, the SickKids advertising campaigns have been so powerful and successful. Talk about super stylized cinematic work that you wouldn’t expect a hospital to do. You wouldn’t think they would go that far. It pulls on your heartstrings but it is also so motivational. They really aren’t afraid of production value and it shows.

RYAN: I always love the result when a brand hires a director and allows them to do whatever it is that they do naturally. That merger is never not successful in my opinion. It's double brand power. It's brand on brand.

SCOTT: Patagonia is a good example: it feels more like a collective of storytellers than a brand seeking clicks. They aren't afraid to let a filmmaker capture the content firsthand–to let go a bit–and I think it makes for more memorable work.  

LUKE: Sort of like the amazing NoFrills spot from Scott Cudmore - Haulers. Just the idea of hanging people from wires and creating a spot that feels more like a music video than a commercial. I really love advertising that is that bold - where the mere boldnress of it is what catches the eye. Some might call it a cheap tactic, but it works for me.

SCOTT: I think the niche pockets of brands do better than the global campaigns–like Adidas Skateboarding. They have fun videos like the Pop Academy, but they're also willing to place their logo on content that has a strong voice, like A Message From Tyshawn.

What advice would you give to cinematographers interested in entering this space?

SCOTT: Don't approach advertising like advertising. It's not a formula. Just tell a good story and make your cinematography as authentic as possible. That will resonate more with people than watermelon on a hot summer day.

LUKE: It’s a tricky world to get into. It can be a really vivid example of a catch-22. A chicken and egg situation. People want to hire you for what you’ve already done successfully. They want to feel like you can replicate and prove you can do it before the job begins. You can have the best reel in Toronto, but if there are no dogs in it, you’re not getting the dog food spot! So for your early career, it’s a lot of making something out of nothing. A lot of beg, borrow, steal. And a lot of game play and director’s cuts of your own work to suit every job you apply for.

RYAN: I'll give the same advice that someone gave me several years ago. They said: "Who gives a shit what camera you use." There's a lot of great gear out there, but what's better than great gear are great ideas and great instincts.

SCOTT: This space can be really competitive and discouraging – it can feel like you're always chasing. At the end of the day, all you have is your own voice. So make sure you like your work.

I've been at it for 15 years, and even after all of the Cannes Lions, and Clios, Atomic Awards, CMAs, Andy’s… I'm still figuring out how to make this a career.

So give yourself patience and give yourself grace.



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