Dante Ariola has no plans to hit you on the head with his funny stick. In fact, if he does have one, it's probably the size of a twig. "If I had to say something about my work, it's that I try to err on the side of subtlety," he says. "I try to pay attention to the beats of the story, what kind of payoff it has at the end and not put too much on that payoff. I try to communicate that to creatives I'm working with: 'This might bring a smile to your face, but it's not trying to bring a laugh.' And I think that's OK. As long as it has a good flat ending and not a bad flat ending." That explains why when watching his spots - like Volkwagen's "Big Day," the celebrity-drenched campaign for XM Radio, or even comedy commercials for ESPN, Hewlett-Packard, or the 2000 Gold Lion-winning Cliff Freeman campaign for Budget Rent A Car - you're more likely to catch yourself with a raised eyebrow or a slight grin rather than a tear or a bellyache. At just 31, Ariola has been directing for only four years, but he's already earned top industry accolades as well as a DGA nomination. The New York native attended Music and Arts High School in Manhattan, after which he went out on his own creating logos for local hip-hop bands. By 22, he had his own graphics business that also extended into album covers and music videos. Ariola has rapidly evolved a style in which the humor is never allowed to get too broad, as seen, for example, in his direction on Nike's "Elephant." The Clio-winning spot from Wieden & Kennedy's "Why Sport?" campaign depicts cyclist Lance Armstrong taking a short break from his training to successfully administer CPR to a fallen circus pachyderm. "It was one of the most challenging things I've done," Ariola says. Besides the snags involved with getting the elephant to feign illness and dealing with circus performers, most of whom didn't speak English, there was also the story itself. "You read something on paper and there's a lot of ways it could turn out," he says. "I was just kind of able to make it my own, so it was satisfying. Giving mouth-to-mouth to an elephant can go wildly wrong; I planned to have Lance using the trunk at first, but that would really be the wrong direction." Instead, he opted for subtlety. The final spot, like much of Ariola's work, has an elegant European vibe and floats along almost dreamily, with none of the heavy-handed ER-type rush that could easily be forced onto such a scenario. Ariola's recent projects also include spots for the new Mini, out of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and at press time, he'd just finished shooting new spots for Lee jeans and was set to direct a cinema branding campaign for Sony Playstation. "I'm constantly trying to do work that feels different, whether it's comedy or things that may be just more visual. I wouldn't want to do 10 comedy spots back to back. That would just feel funny."