STORY, LITTLE ELSE
By: Gaurav Puri Dated: February 01, 2014
“We constantly evaluate and use a barometer to measure how far removed we might be from reality. The consumer is critical of advertising by and large, and so it’s important for brand custodians to operate within the parameters of portraying ‘unrealistic claims’ or being too ‘fantastical’ that we alienate audiences,” say Prakash Varma and Sneha Iype of Nirvana Films
Varma and Iype, founders of Nirvana Films, and much feted for their iconic Zoozoo ads, are our Personality of the Month. In an interview with Creative Brands, they reflect on the underpinnings of their craft and aesthetic universe.
Creative Brands: “Where the inner eye sees the truth. And we see stories come alive...” you mention on your website. What does Nirvana look for?
Varma & Iype: To ‘tell it’ as you would ‘live it’ is extremely challenging. Our endeavor is to stay true to real life and keep things relatable. Advertising needn’t be about being fake or about hard sell. It can also be about liking and identifying with what you see and hear. The constant effort is to keep our work attractive but not far away from reality.
CB: What to your mind is the relationship between an ad agency, a brand, a consumer and a production house?
V&I: The ad agency/brand/consumer and production house are all part of one big joint family. We can’t do without each other. We have a supportive role to play, though we may not agree with each other at all times… We are all part of the food chain and feed off each other too.
CB: On one hand, Indian cinema is emerging out of the shadows of Bollywood in terms of sensibilities. As a communication tool and a cultural product, how do you see TVC production evolving in this light, purely as a visual story?
V&I: There isn’t any norm about following a particular trend/or aping another culture. The right ‘sensibility’ is what the ‘story’ demands. The question to ask oneself is – “How do I do justice to the narrative?” Ad film production has over the years become far more experimental and is also probably in some cases creating trends or standards for Bollywood to follow. There is a certain edginess, style and overall finesse that is visually appealing to the eye in most advertising. The visual story in advertising rarely shows the grim picture but manages to make most visuals, even the grungy ones, appealing or appetizing.
CB: Prakash, as a director, where do you draw your ideas from? What do you think is the life of a director, off the sets?
V&I: If I weren’t making films, I don’t quite know what I would do. I am very lucky to do what I love, and am very aware of that blessing. My inspiration and ideas come mostly from what I see around me. People and their stories, their struggles, their triumphs fascinate me no end.
CB: At what level of ad conception does the director enter? What is a brief, to a director, like?
V&I: It depends. The norm is to involve the director when the story/script has been finalised by the ad agency team and the client. We have been, however, approached in several cases at a stage when a rough idea is drafted and the agency writer feels that a cinematic perspective on the story can help sketch out a better visual narrative for the client to understand nuances, mood, flow, performances etc better. A ‘brief’ consists mostly of the way that the writer has arrived at his/ her story. It consists of what is crucial in the narrative and needs to be highlighted. I (Prakash) enjoy it when creatives brief me in person and pass on their energy and passion to me face to face. I find sometimes that the written word can’t express ‘intent’ and underlying layers well. That is something I get from a person’s eyes and body language.
CB: What makes for a storyboarding session at Nirvana? What background work goes into visualising a TVC for a targeted audience?
Varma: I storyboard all my films. I find it’s an idiot-proof method to ensure that all teams working on the film are clear about the structure and flow of the film. Mostly nothing is lost in translation because of this. However, I don’t necessarily follow it like the Bible. I do allow myself room to improvise till the last minute. Storyboarding sessions are generally long. Sometimes it just flows and sometimes I can get stuck for hours or days when I am not happy with my structure. My team references and gives me inputs prior to my storyboard. Mostly this process helps me discard things I definitely do not want to use or repeat or try.
CB: How has the highly competitive brand-led environment (where a new deo brand is launched every month), impacted the production of commercials, economically and culturally? What challenges does such an environment pose a new production house seeking a foothold?
Varma: There is the run-of-the-mill mediocre film that gets churned out with no thought or love going into it. However, considering that a lot of effort goes into the ideating and filming process, it’s most enjoyable if the film evolves as a result of some amount of time spent to think, research, and plan a film. Basically, ‘you reap what you sow’. The choice most creative people have to make at some point in their lives is whether they should toil over something worthwhile or just do something like a chore because of constraints. There will always be lots going on and tonnes to choose from, but to see what lies ahead and pick wisely is a knack. Also to turn something around and deliver a film beyond expectations is a great joy. The economics will fall into place if the intent and route taken are right.
CB: ZooZoos have been one of the best clutter-breaking ads of the decade. What creates this ‘clutter’? What went into the making of the ZooZoo – what was that ephiphanic moment?
V&I: The biggest reason for the success of the Zoozoos is the ‘risk’ we all allowed room for. The client ‘risked’ trying something new. The agency team ‘risked’ thinking new thoughts and I ‘risked’ trying a new treatment for the film. The room we allowed ourselves to think and execute freely is what allowed for us to break clutter eventually. The so-called epiphanic moment was when we said – why not make ‘real’ look like ‘computer graphics’. We normally constantly strive to make computer graphics look closest to the real thing.
CB: Where in the Madhya Pradesh Tourism commercial monuments emerge in the splash of colours, Bajaj’s ‘floating away’ is an idea taking shape (literally). What effect do post-production techniques have on storytelling (especially in 30 seconds)?
V&I: ‘Post production’ and ‘sound’ are the two pillars that hold the film together. Computer animation and graphics, if required in a film, should help enhance a narrative. It must be cleverly and judiciously used and with great care. I find it frustrating sometimes when I have to rely on a third person to execute my vision of something through graphics. Most people give up too soon. ‘The devil is in the details’ and that effort shows finally. I push very hard to get what we want and still I find I am not entirely happy in most cases. MP and Bajaj were tough acts in hindsight but everyone hung in there and gave it some shape and form close to what we had imagined.
CB: When creating a brand’s imagery, what factors/elements do you keep in mind? What went into creating the imagery in an ad like Incredible India-2013 for the Ministry of Tourism?
V&I: Experience India Society and the Tourism Ministry called us in directly to make the film for Incredible India 2013. We had done the earlier campaign (2009) for them too. In both films we showed the first-hand experience of a single traveller and moved away from showcasing only the sights and beauty of India as we had seen earlier through landscapes and scenic beauty alone. India is a sensorial experience for any traveller. That needed to come through in the film. That worked as people worldwide related to the experience and were seeing it as participants and not bystanders.
CB: As audiences we witness our aspirations and conflicts being played out visually, in 30-second brand-led resolution. How do TVCs influence consumers, beyond leaving a vivid brand impression? If I may ask, is there a point, at scripting/storyboarding level, where you say, “but the consumer might feel that the brand is over-exaggerating!”?
V&I: We constantly evaluate and use a barometer to measure how far removed we might be from reality. The consumer is critical of advertising by and large, and so it’s important for brand custodians to operate within the parameters of portraying ‘unrealistic claims’ or being too ‘fantastical’ that we alienate audiences. As a filmmaker I come in at a stage where most of the fears are already filtered through research or consumer studies and brought to the table. I just have to understand the learnings that the brand team brings on board and see how to optimise visually without offending or straying. Sometimes despite all the care we take, we end up offending someone. That’s inevitable I guess. It would be a boring dull world if we all thought the same.
CB: How do you see TVC creation evolving in this multi-screen environment? What would be your advice to young filmmakers trying to enter the arena?
V&I: TVCs need to innovate. We are at the crossroads of change. We need to understand the demands of the viral space. Quick turnaround time – yes, and yet achieve the visual finesse that a brand stands for. There has to be a balance, where quality doesn’t suffer. Advertising is not an Indian soap opera and we should clearly demarcate how we look and feel and sound. We must distinguish ourselves by not dropping standards. Most importantly we must ‘communicate’ what we set out to and not get carried away by the frills. Story is king. All else pales in front of a well-told simple story.