10 Dec Featured: Commercials Director Tony Baggott | Celebrating 25 Years in Advertising
With over 25 years of experience in directing commercials and over 400 ads in his showreel, Tony Baggott is a well-known name in advertising here and abroad. Alongside Keith Rose and Kim Geldenhuys, Tony is one of only three South African directors to have won Gold at Cannes Lions and his long list of accolades include a ‘Best of Show Grand Prix’ at New York Festivals International Advertising Awards. He also co-founded Frieze Films, a South African production company that have been facilitating international productions in Africa for over fifteen years.
Tony’s respect and passion for his craft and the process behind perfecting it is just as striking as his portfolio. He says that “one has to be attuned to one’s environment for inspiration,” and explains that “the very best ideas revolve around a simple human truth or an aha moment.” As for the future of advertising, Tony predicts that, “as humans visual storytelling is hardwired in our brains and that will never go away.” As he celebrates a quarter century in the industry, Tony tells us about his journey thus far and what he has learnt along the way. To accompany this interview, Tony went through his chunky portfolio to choose 10 of his favourite ads and explains why each of them stand out. Enjoy!
Please tell us about your interest in filmmaking and your journey to becoming a commercials director.
I got off to a false start with an engineering degree but was already following my heart and working in the film industry by the time I graduated. Photography was my passion and I quickly worked my way through an apprenticeship in the camera department, here, in England and in Los Angeles. My roots are in film and I have worked on many feature films in Hollywood. At the time, I was the youngest union camera operator in LA before returning to South Africa as a director of photography. Commercials have been my speciality ever since. So I came through the door as a cameraman into directing.
What was the first commercial you ever directed and how has your approach changed since?
My first directing spot was for Rand Aid, a charity job involving very old people. I was also the cameraman in those days and had a very firm idea on how to shoot using augmented natural light. Nat King Cole’s ‘Smile’ soundtrack set the whole piece alight and it won a Loerie on my first outing.
My approach has not really changed since; I have just become more experienced and wiser, I hope! I still surround the job 100% on every level. I have learnt a few tricks along the way and have been in the game long enough to have seen shooting styles and fashions come around again and again. Everything is derivative, albeit with a contemporary spin, and very little of what one sees is truly original – I think that is true of the creative world in general. I think that what we were doing in the early days of television commercials was far more radical and adventurous. Certainly the clients were braver.
This funny 1994 ad, about an amorous husband who pre-empts his wife’s excuse, won Gold at Cannes and the Grand Prix at New York Festivals International Advertising Awards. “This was just a killer script, we shot an English and Afrikaans version of this in one day; the Afrikaans version is much funnier.” Sandy de Witt was the creative director.
Tell us about some of your career highlights thus far.
Difficult to say, there are so many of them. Over the years we have done a lot of amazing things in amazing places and situations. The travel. The people, both agencies and the crew. Having shot all over the world, I value the very special crews we have here.
Where or who does someone with your list of credentials look to for inspiration?
I think one has to be attuned to one’s environment for inspiration and Johannesburg is a really exciting place right now. There is a lot happening here all the time. I suppose it’s being connected that is important.
What are some of the challenges in your industry?
I see only opportunities. More competition with lower barriers to entry, but with more distribution channels. I am upbeat about the future. As humans, visual storytelling is hardwired in our brains and that will never go away.
What do you love most about what you do?
It’s hard enough to make someone laugh or cry or smile on screen, so directing a project that entertains or moves someone is enormously satisfying, particularly in a 30-second spot. Apart from that, I love the process and I love the variety. Each spot has its own challenges and no day is like any other.
“Graham Warsop and Ross Childs came to me in with an idea for Musica that they had very little money for. I said OK and this won the Grand Prix at the Loeries and became the commercial that set The Jupiter Drawing Room on their way – their first biggie.” Incidentally, the actress isn’t deaf and the look is totally created on film in camera, rather than achieved in post.
What are some of your other creative pursuits and how do they influence or inspire your work?
Life is as creative as you want it to be and influences come from everywhere and anywhere. Travel, raising a family, photography, cooking, gardening, my dogs, playing guitar. My wife says I have too many interests and she is right, there is very little I am not interested in. It’s observing the details that is important; the way sunlight falls on a young girl’s face in the late afternoon, the way children play with a cardboard box, that sort of thing.
What is it that makes a commercial great?
A really smart script and simple execution are non negotiable. A great soundtrack will always help and of course this should all be brought together with impeccable craft. But it really rests on the script idea – the very best ideas revolve around a simple human truth or an aha moment.
In your opinion, what role do advertising awards play in validating great work?
Awards are very nice to win and I suppose they are important for the business of advertising and comparative rankings. They set the bar for great work as seen by the advertising industry and in that respect they are important. But some of my best work as a director has been to help rescue a problematic script for the agency and client – not an award in sight for that kind of hard work. Directors are both dependent on the quality script idea and also entrusted to elevate it. The working life of a director is not all about awards, as there just are not that many top scripts around.
What is your advice to young, upcoming directors?
Take time to learn your craft and gather the very best people around you, with the understanding that directing is not just about having a vision, it is about creating the space to execute in a very tough environment. Remember it is a team effort and be open to the contribution of others. Keep your eye on the next level. Have fun, it’s a lifelong journey.
Unsurprisingly, Tony says the biggest change in the industry has been how technology has developed and this ad puts that in context. “It’s from the start of computers, that’s how dated it is.” The humour is timeless though and Tony says the popularity of the ad was all down to the casting. “The guy at the end who puts his coffee cup in the CD-tray nailed it the first take.” Cathy Ireland was the creative director.
Tony shot this on Lake Kilpisjarvi, at the edge of Sweden, Finland and Norway, 200km north of the Arctic circle. The premise of the ad is that the Audi not only handles perfectly on the ice, but that its aluminium construction also makes it lighter than its competitors. “We shot in the European spring, and because the ice was melting round the edge of the lake, we were really apprehensive the ice would collapse.” He singles out Gavin Hong for praise for hand-painting the VFX shot of the competitor cars below the ice. “You had to get really clever with special FX in those days.” Tony shot the aerial footage himself, harnessed outside the door of a five-blade Finnish Air Force helicopter.
Creative directors Mike Schalit and Theo Ferreira came up with this story of a farmer who uses any excuse to drive his bakkie. Perfectly sound-tracked by The Breeders’ Drivin’ on 9, the long-running ad won Bronze at Cannes Lions.
To epitomise the gentleman’s game of cricket in this 2005 ad, Tony cast two Shakespearean actors from London, but he didn’t mention the physical performing they’d need to do at the end of the ad until they were on set. “They were complete pros but one of them said afterwards that if they had known what was involved they probably wouldn’t have done it.”
“The look of this was really rare for its time. We aimed to make an emotional spot that did not shy away from texture and real characters, making this feel more like a feature film than a commercial.”
This screened on TV for years in the early 90s, so expect that Enya soundtrack to take you straight back in time. Tony shot the hops in Germany and the barley in Northern Scotland, since there was no barley left anywhere in Europe at the time, in late summer. “There was more budget for travel in those days.” The shots of the stilt walkers were inspired by a photograph from the ‘30s, when the farmers would walk on stilts to cut down the tall hops. This was a beautiful idea in theory that worked less well when Tony tried to apply it to modern, hybridized crops that were so tall even the circus performers he flew in had to be rigged up and supported.
Tony doubled Johannesburg for England, shooting at Irene Dairy Farm and inside the old prison in Hillbrow that is now Constitutional Hill. “We used to shoot a lot of commercials there, back when we could still get access.”
Tony shot this with the Springboks just before they won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. “I made them run up and down that long, hot road so often, that they picked me up afterwards and threw me in the nearby dam.” It’s guaranteed to make any rugby fan nostalgic.