It’s no surprise to see Jackson Tisi rise to direct the types of projects he has of late. We’ve been following Jackson’s work since his early exploration into documentaries, with films like Hummingbirds in the Trenches and Leon being prime examples of the kind of storytelling he was capable of. Jackson’s commercial spots and music videos the past couple years have built upon this groundwork, take a quick glance at his portfolio and you’ll see what we're talking about. His latest project, Into The Mind featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, is a brilliant fuse of his refined commercial work with the heart & soul that have always been at the core of his docs. Jackson was kind enough to sit down with us and share some of his experience working on the project.
From a creative standpoint, this looked like an absolute dream job to be apart of. How does a project like this even come about?
I think these boards were a culmination of years of making commercial work while also making sure I continue to make short films and passion projects in my true voice. Often times in commercials we are given a prescriptive creative we have to follow and it doesn't always feel like a true extension of our style but we execute the vision expected. This was truly a perfect match for the type of work I love to do. It was really freeing to bring a lot of my narrative and short doc sensibilities into a branded space with an athlete like Giannis. I am super grateful to my team at FELA and my sales reps at Barrie Isaacson Management for thinking of me when they saw this brief and knew I would be a good fit for it. As directors we are really at the mercy of the people that represent us and I am super lucky that the people around me really understand my work.
How do you balance the need to please the client, do right by your subject, all while ensuring that you bring yourself into the project?
Every job is similar but different in this regard. Sometimes the visions completely align and the final cut is the same as what I've pitched. Other times, there are reasons for me to pursue my "director's cut," which just means I want to see my initial vision that won us the job through. There can often be changes in production, the edit, or usage of a piece for a client and so much of that is out of my control, but I make myself available to creatively problem solve and collaborate at all times. The client cut is pretty different in tone and story but is also a cool piece.
Our editor Nick Yumul did an amazing job making the footage feel like it could fit all of these different deliverables. In this case I feel like we really did right by Giannis but that is also a two way street. He showed up prepared, gave us so much in his interview, stayed a bit longer than promised, and brought an amazing energy and professionalism to set. I can only do so much when talent is difficult to work with which was why working with Giannis was a dream. Such a busy person being so trusting and collaborative is something I will always respect and be grateful for. It shows in the work.
What were some of the technical or logistical challenges you faced during production? Were there any specific moments of spontaneity where you discovered an alternative approach to what was originally planned, ultimately finding its way into the final cut?
This was severely under budgeted from the jump, and me and my team got into this knowing it would be challenging to accomplish, but the creative made it worth it. I donated all the 35mm film and my rate to make this project what it was. My DP Aiden Ulrich donated his camera and lenses. Our whole team invested in the piece because we wanted to make something artful. Everything was tough to be honest. Working against the resources and maximizing required us being relentless. I even helped weave the basketball chandelier. Post was a whole challenge as well. It took a ton of passionate people and us self investing to get our VFX ideas across the finish line for the longer cuts. Our post teams did such a great job. Despite the tight budget and challenges on this one, the team remained flexible and collaborative. Stuff like the halo only came up the day before when I saw that broken basketball hoop and asked my Gaffer Jake Lyon if he could make it glow. The statue, infinite chain, extended hallways, and our pool shot are all moments that were born from being inspired by our scout and prep in the 2 days prior to the shoot.
"Filmmaking is a team sport and I value the connections I share with people over anything else."
There’s no doubt a project like this takes a collective of creatives bringing their talents to the table. There are a few familiar names in these credits who seem to be frequent collaborators of yours. Can you talk about how important it is for you to maintain and nurture these types relationships?
I am super loyal. That loyalty pays off because when you ask for favors because you are passionate about something, these prior collaborators already have a sense of trust and shared vision. Someone like Gavin Brivik, I've been working with for years. He's a genius composer and we already have an understanding of our loyalty to each other. Often times my most special projects have the least resources. Gavin and I both do other work which pays the bills so when we come together on a project it is simply in the pursuit of being creative and passionate about what we do. It is a pleasure to watch him work. I feel the same way about Aiden Ulrich who is actually a childhood friend. So many relationships in life continue to evolve in the most amazing ways. Filmmaking is a team sport and I value the connections I share with people over anything else.
Working with any person of significant influence brings with it a certain amount of added pressure. The stakes are no doubt raised. What was it like working with a premier talent like Giannis? How do you ensure you stay true to your vision and not let the circumstances rattle you?
I've been lucky enough to work with a lot of celebrity talent, and extra lucky that the overwhelming majority of those experiences have been positive. Of course I get excited to meet someone as iconic as Giannis, but I feel pretty comfortable in those situations now. End of the day I always want that creative easy flow between me and the talent but that isn't always the case depending on their state of mind. Regardless of that I still have a job to do, so I try not to overthink it and live in the moment. We were blessed with how collaborative and professional Giannis was. I have nothing but great things to say about him and this piece wouldn't be what it is if he hadn't been as collaborative. I am super grateful for his trust.
To shoot this type of concept, with this kind of talent, all on 35mm has to take an insane amount of trust between you and the agency/client. What is your approach to building trust?
The agency and client wanted to make something cool and they trusted us. I definitely pitched the merits of 35mm and how unique it would feel for a spot that was about headphones and tech. We all wanted this to be about storytelling and feel cinematic. I also think our donating of the film stock and Aiden donating his gear for free went a long way in them trusting us. It showed how we were all committed to the creative. With projects that don't have tons of resources, the reasons to do them have to be freedom and creativity. It's the entire reason we did this job.
"With projects that don't have tons of resources, the reasons to do them have to be freedom and creativity. It's the entire reason we did this job. "
What is your process like for concepting or developing treatments like this one? Are there environments you like to put yourself in, or activities you like to do, that help generate the creative spark you are looking for on a given project?
I listen to music first. I usually try to build pacing that sets a tone for me after I've fully read and understand the agency boards. I usually spend the day thinking about the spot and experiencing some sort of writer's block before eventually writing mostly at night. My first pass on the idea usually flows pretty quickly and then I spend the following days adjusting the scripts and designing the treatment with a designer.
"In any setting I try to connect with the talent on a human level first. Making space for them to feel free to collaborate and be safe enables a trust between our camera and them."
Much of your work has a very human element to it, which has always resonated deeply with us. What kind of preparation do you go through when you set out to tell these types of stories, ensuring you are well studied and equipped to put yourself in a place of being able to capture the performance, response, and tone you are looking for out of your subject?
Every person is different and every process and project is different too. In any setting I try to connect with the talent on a human level first. Making space for them to feel free to collaborate and be safe enables a trust between our camera and them. This looks different with every subject. With our interview, we actually had Giannis' manager ask him the questions and they even spent a lot of time chatting in Greek. I also showed Giannis playback of our video tap after our first shot with him and he was super excited with what he was seeing. From that point on he fully trusted me and my team.
You mentioned at the top how important it was to make shorts and invest in passion projects, as you did on this one by donating your rate and film stock. What fuels you to continue to do this?
Investing in myself and doing personal work is something that makes me feel like my growth is within my own power. I think it gives me autonomy. On some level, it is probably habitual due to the fact that to start my career, everything was self investing and passion project oriented. I'm actively working on considering when this is worth it now because I also don't believe in doing charity work for huge corporations and knowing your worth is important to me. It really is project by project based and a number of factors go into the decision to sacrifice to make branded work extraordinary if the means to do so aren't initially there.
When it comes to fully independent projects like films and music videos, I do those because I love making things. Commercials are amazing as a source of creative output but also financial freedom. This gives me the mental clarity to dive into projects that are purely my own and done because I love to make stuff. I've noticed it is all connected though. While we might make a short film or music video just because we want to, those projects actually might be the ones that catch the attention of an agency creative. I think it's a small industry and I am just trying to make every project reach its full potential regardless of if it is a documentary, a commercial, a short film, or a music video. One foot in front of the other.
Jackson Tisi a Wyoming raised, NY/LA based director.