It is a label that Barber feels uncomfortable wearing. "I'm not afraid of special effects," he explains, "but I see them very much as a means to an end. Before we start filming I have a strong idea of the look and the feel that I want to create and I'm happy to explore any means that will help me achieve that." Devices like telecine, Henry and Flame often play a significant part in producing the look, and he works closely with particular operators "who are really finicky and love what they're doing," but it's not just pyrotechnics that recently put his name on the door at Rose Hackney Barber Productions.
For a 30-year-old director who joined the company in 1993, it's quite an accolade to become a partner in one of London's most highly rated production houses. It is, after all, only two and a half years since he was featured in Saatchi's New Directors Showcase at Cannes in 1993. Barber responds modestly when asked the inevitable "Why you?" question, but his work speaks for itself. "I guess I'm just lucky and I try hard," he says. "Not being a genius, I believe in collaboration, and my background as a problem solver means I've never been afraid to work with people cleverer than myself."
Barber is referring to his prominent work in television graphics, some of which is still on his reel. After graduating from London's St. Martin's School of Art in 1988, where he studied graphic design and made a short film, he joined Lambie Nairn & Co., creators of virtually all of Britain's major television channel on-air graphics.
Barber's graphics work advanced the genre from the conventional stereotypes of the flat and wordy or the standard computerized gimmickry. The identities he devised, with company principal Martin Lambie Nairn, had a more filmic quality, and even involved live action, a real breakthrough in the area.
In his five years at Lambie Nairn, Barber won almost all the awards going in the category, including a Gold Clio in New York for two BSkyB channel IDs and BAFTA and D&AD awards for his BBC1 and BBC2 identities. But, Barber explains, eventually he grew impatient with the laborious and long-term nature of projects commissioned by huge hierarchical organizations like the BBC, which are talked through endlessly and are saddled with strictly limited budgets.
Fortunately, he has never viewed lack of money as a problem. His BBC Nine O'Clock News ID featured interesting textural shots that originated as Super 8 footage of a garbage heap. Even after being telecined onto a digital format and colored, Barber's spot required only a fraction of the generous budget available for the project. But then he insists that he will work for nothing if a great idea comes along without the budget to execute it.
Energy doesn't seem to be too much of a problem for him either: while still working full time at Lambie Nairn & Co., he made the sensual and witty "Venus" commercial for Cussons Pearl soap with Graham Fink (now a director) and Tim Mellors (now at Mellors Reay) at Gold Greenlees Trott. Hardly the typical pretentiously empty toiletries spot, it features a modern Botticelli babe who emerges from her shell against a soundtrack of kitsch rock.
Barber also directed a later Cussons commercial for Imperial Leather soap, which has a strong traditional, if rather utilitarian, reputation. It was made with the younger team of John Anderson and Richard Stoney at GGT. They were slightly apprehensive when they saw Barber's script and storyboard, which was "rough to say the least," according to Anderson.
The commercial is based on an analogy between skin and fabric and is so sensuously filmed that Imperial Leather, formerly associated with cold, Spartan English country house bathrooms, will never be seen in the same light again. "Once we got together with Daniel, the collaboration worked like clockwork," says Anderson, "though it could be harder in the later stages of production, because he knows exactly what he wants and is totally preoccupied with achieving it."
If Fink and Mellors "discovered" Barber as a commercials director, copywriter Larry Barker and art director Rooney Carruthers, creative directors at WCRS, could claim to have established his reputation. Their first collaboration, a spot for The Daily Telegraph, was, says Barker, "an ideal brief." It offered Barber almost total freedom as a filmmaker, provided the voiceover could be clearly understood. In spite of minimal time and budgets, Barber produced what Barker calls a "lush, rich" spot that brought to life Monet's water lilies, beautifully colorized and shimmering with abstraction, while a VO praised The Telegraph's in-depth arts coverage and announced how the paper's travel offer could provide cheap access to the real thing.
Water is a recurrent feature in Barber's commercials: lovers shower in it, cruise ships glide on it, cars splash through it, children frolic in it. It also flows throughout the stunning trio of commercials that he created for Britain's Orange mobile phone system. Frank Budgen directed the Orange launch commercial, featuring a blissful orange-haired floating baby, for WCRS, and Barber has developed the theme without repeating any of Budgen's effects.
One of the Orange spots, "Per Second," emphasizing Orange's practice of charging callers per second rather than rounding up to the next minute, is a panorama of beautiful faces and bodies of all ages seen drifting across the screen, interspersed with the occasional amphibious watch and clock. Many knowing viewers undoubtedly imagine that the shots of water droplets with a series of numbers suspended inside them are the result of Barber's postproduction wizardry, but in fact they were done incamera; the lens was lined up to focus on the numbers on a background board as it shot the water drops, through which the numbers were refracted and magnified.
As Barber explains, "The same effect could have been achieved with hours spent in post, for five times the budget, but I would much rather achieve it on original film. If you can do things for real it almost invariably ends up better. After defining an idea of what I want to achieve, through a series of storyboard images, I'll go to the ends of the earth to create it, whether that involves obscure camera lenses or the latest electronic techniques."
Although "Per Second" creates an impression of aquatic color, everything is shot in b&w, apart from flashes of orange in the hands of a watch or the outline of a number. This subtle but effective coloring device, emphasizing the campaign tagline, "The future is bright, the future is orange," is carried through into Barber's other two commercials for the company.
Barber's seductive P&O Cruises commercial, for Still Price Lintas, combines a typically drenched and dreamlike series of images, with Flame used to maximum effect. Scenes bend, warp and blur, and the spot ends as an alluring nymph beckons sensually.
Currently, the track Barber's career is taking promises to move him stylistically beyond his creation of painterly if nonetheless surreal imagery. For example, he's become something of a car shooter, working on a series of campaigns that, while visually driven, are more realistic than fanciful. And his penchant for trying to create stunning effects in-camera as opposed to relying on postproduction tools has resulted in an amazing new spot for Sony Trinitron and agency BMP DDB/Needham. The spot purports to show a man experiencing a freefall from two miles up, and that's what we see-a casually dressed man, sitting in an easy chair, falling through space. He grimaces in horror, gapes at the fast-approaching terrain and watches a jet zoom past him. Suddenly, he's in his living room, still in his easy chair, Trinitron remote in hand. It's all been a dream, right? Some kind of video out-of-body experience.
The production was anything but. The talent, one of the world's top skydivers, was actually filmed falling from 12,500 feet in an easy chair (dozens of which were smashed during the shoot) by an aerial cinematographer who captured the action with both handheld and helmet-mounted cameras. "There are few composites in this spot," says Barber, who adds that his insistence on shooting this for real is what won him the assignment. "You get something different, something intangible, something you can't get by faking it," he says of the approach. "It adds a level of true excitement and drama."
Barber's "Art" commercial for BMW, also made with WCRS, however, does seem to depend heavily on technical trickery for its effect of a car driving round ancient urns and oriental ceramics, across a Mondrianesque canvas and into the picture frame. But as the tagline proclaims, "It's not just science" that goes into the development of a BMW. The same could be said of many Barber commercials, as far as the director is concerned. "Of course the new technological tools have had an impact on my work," he protests. "But I see them as toys to enhance and perfect the final image and produce seamless results. I would never look to them to provide an idea." So where does he look? What inspires these ravishing pieces of work?
"I don't have heroes," Barber confesses, "but, in advertising, I tend to admire and link myself with the new wave of younger people, like the Douglas Brothers. But I'm just as likely to be enthused by the Victoria and Albert Museum as by the work of Tarsem, and film, music and painting are all important influences. I see everything that's showing at the movies and I thought of studying fine art till I realized I lacked the personal, uncontrollable desire to create something purely for myself. I've always thought commercial art, produced for clients and the public, can be just as valuable-look at Toulouse Lautrec's posters, for example."
Barber's identification with the new breed of filmic directors doubtless contributed to Rose Hackney's decision to offer him partnership in the company. Strongly identified with the witty, British dialogue-based commercials of the 1980s, supremely exemplified by Graham Rose's work, the company was aiming to add a new dimension to itself. "I just want to keep learning and getting better at what I'm doing," says Barber, "and I don't mind where I do it as long as I'm working with good ideas and good people. I love the openness and freedom of America, for example, because it allows for so much diversity in imagery and creativity."
He greatly admires Joe Pytka's work, "though it is obviously very different from my own," and he is a huge fan of Nike commercials. As yet, he has not worked directly with an American agency, though his spots for the Estee Lauder fragrances Beautiful and Pleasures, starring Elizabeth Hurley, were made with London's Lowe Howard-Spink primarily for an American audience.
Barber, who is handled in the U.S. by Striper Films and represented by Timothy Hayes, has been sent scripts and projects from American agencies, but "none of them were quite right for me," he explains. "I want to give my best, and make clients feel they've got the best, by adding something to what they already have in mind. Although I'm happy for my work to be seen as modern, I don't want to be hired just for that. I'd rather it was seen as classic, too, with that timeless simplicity that is characteristic of all good applied art."
The film buff son of a film producer, Barber also confesses to a desire to make films one day, "and I will," he confides with impressive certainty. If he does, his aim will be to "tell a good story in the most striking and interesting way," which he doesn't see as a wildly different task from making a good spot. "Commercials may seem abstract, but the most important thing is still getting an idea across effectively."
Even so, Barber realizes that his filmic education has some way to go. He agrees that, while visually arresting, his work is still shy on character development, dialogue and performance-although that's changing, he adds. A spot he recently shot for Nissan in the U.K., he boasts, is all about "food, sex and cars"-a mix rife with dramatic opportunities.
Admitting his goal is to tell stories, he adds that for now, "I'm not so bold as to call myself a filmmaker." He considers commercials a fantastic learning ground for filmmaking, adding, "I'm still learning, I'm very hungry and I have an insatiable appetite to make images."
Barber's confidence is probably justified, according to his colleagues. "He's incredibly dedicated to getting it right," says Barker, "and to being famous." He may not have followed his mother's chosen profession, but few dentists achieve such a high profile as Daniel Barber seems set to do. That must surely have brightened her smile, even without the postproduction tools.