As a relatively normal-sized youth, Vaughan went to art school to study design, with an emphasis on packaging. "But I couldn't see much use for a portfolio of jam pot labels," he explains. "Come the diploma show, the other students exhibited nice cake boxes and things, and I put up the magazine pictures of bands that I'd taken at night with cameras borrowed from the college." Since he cleaned department store floors in the early mornings, sleeping was out, but his nocturnal activities helped him find student jobs as a production designer on Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sex Pistols videos.
On leaving college Vaughan worked as a runner and made his own first video, for Paul Young, in 1981. A few videos and a couple of years later he met Anthea, now 37, who describes herself then as a "disenchanted fashion designer. At college I was a rebel like Vaughan, but one without a cause." Attempts to set up on her own were "doomed to marketing failure" through lack of backing and a reluctance to schmooze up to magazine editors. She taught for a while until friends at film school told her she was in the wrong business and introduced her to Vaughan in the early '80s.
In the early days of their association Anthea mostly helped with design tasks; one day Vaughan played her a song from a band called Fiction and told her to write down the images suggested by the music. When they subsequently produced almost identical lists, he decided they should work together. There followed several productive years of making videos for the likes of Terence Trent D'Arby and Simply Red, whose award-winning "Chairs" clip topped both the U.K. and U.S. charts.
By the end of the '80s, the pair's ideas were outstripping the budgets that bands could afford to allocate to videos. Commercials, they realized, would not only put more money at their disposal but would also enable them to fulfill an ambition to work with actors and dialogue. Having earmarked the agencies and individuals whose work excited them, they approached eight creative teams in London with an offer to shoot a test film for free.
Chris Palmer and Mark Denton, then creative directors at London's Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson (see story on page 10), were the only pair who responded-"they'll take anything," laughs Anthea-and in 1991, over one long night in a New York hotel room, the four of them conceived the Wrangler rap commercial, "DJ." During the dual duos' collaboration on several more spots, Mark Denton remembers the directors' exceptional attention to detail. "We were four perfectionists working together," he explains, "and although like-minded, we could see things from different angles. It was like a mini-Hiroshima at times, but we kept going back for more, and not just because the results were commercially successful." Adds Palmer, "Working with Vaughan & Anthea was like playing doubles at tennis. There were lots of good long rallies and a few whacks on the buttocks, which caused a momentary sting."
The music in "DJ," very much of its time, is central to the atmosphere of the spot. Not surprisingly, in view of their background, this emphasis is characteristic of all of Vaughan & Anthea's work. "Creek," the latest Levi's spot from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is another hugely successful example. Praising the partnership's "total commitment," BBH art director Nick Worthington describes how, during the commercials-making process, "the work often gets slightly worse the nearer it gets to completion, but with Vaughan & Anthea the idea actually got heightened all the way along."
The two most obvious features differentiating "Creek" from previous Levi's commercials are its use of original music instead of a legendary rock track and its being shot in b&w. Both decisions were made by Worthington and copywriter John Gorse at the outset, but Vaughan & Anthea's interpretation was crucial. In the spot, a pastoral melody accompanies the
opening scene, in which two late l9th century Amish-looking girls are seen picnicking with their stern parents. When they wander down to the river and spy a hunky young male bather (possibly naked, but actually in his Levi's), the soundtrack bursts into a dramatic rock mode. Both pieces were written by Peter Lawlor, Vaughan & Anthea's longtime musical collaborator. He based the first track on "Summer Longings," a Stephen Foster tune of the 1870s, and the second on Smashing Pumpkins' "Today."
The visual brief for "Creek" was to make it look like the photography of Ansel Adams. Apart from it being "a gift from the gods to make Ansel Adams move," Anthea appreciated that b&w would lend edge and grittiness to a scene where the blue sky and lush landscape would otherwise resemble a picture postcard. Filming it in Yosemite National Park, where every blade of grass is protected, was no holiday, however. "Six park rangers accompanied us every step of the way," recalls Anthea, and there was constant apprehension that the young bather might pass out after his minute-long immersions in the glacial water.
"Creek" won D&AD Silver Awards for Best Cinema and Television commercial, and in many ways it epitomizes Vaughan & Anthea's approach. The music, or more accurately, sound, always constitutes at least 50 percent of the atmosphere, says Anthea, and the partners spend many hours creating their own effects. A similar preoccupation with casting has earned them a reputation for being difficult, which Anthea interprets as a compliment, meaning "We know what we want and we're determined to get it."
What they don't want, ignoring a current vogue, is ordinary people. "I hate so-called ordinary people," declares Vaughan. "We're in this business to work with extraordinary, or brilliant, people." He quashes the rumor that the older man seen swimming in the final frames of "Creek" (who possesses the pair of jeans the girls find lying by the bank) is a professional rodeo rider by explaining that he became an actor two years ago and confesses that they did look at hundreds of farm boys before casting a novice actor in the younger part.
Color-or rather, as with "Creek" and "DJ," the lack of it-is another Vaughan & Anthea hallmark. In "Gilbert," their comical spot for Ikea, which features an obsessive character named Mr. Gilbert and his fat, long-suffering wife, it is so vivid as to lend an air of surreality. Such effects are deliberate and almost always visualized before filming starts, although, says Anthea, "there is the occasional happy accident." Sometimes, as with Ikea, "the client thinks we are off our rocker," she adds. But with the support of their strong creative team at Abbott Mead Vickers, "Gilbert" emerged triumphant and chromatically uncompromised.
Advance preparation is similarly meticulous when it comes to equipment, film stock and the unorthodox camera angles that enliven much of their work. "About half of them are planned," says Vaughan. "We know in our dreams what the film will look like even if, as with 'Creek,' we only see the location the day before filming is to start." "DJ," for example, involved the use of nine different types of film stock, a resource that they consider vitally important.
Chelsea Pictures' Steve Wax, whose company represents Vaughan & Anthea in the U.S., says of the duo, "They clearly have a visual style, but they also have a good sense of working with actors, so there's an emotional base to the work-it's not all gloss." Wax believes what advertising is looking for now are "directors who can do emotional storytelling but with strong, sophisticated, contemporary visuals. Their Levi's spot did just that."
Vaughan and Anthea used to live together but don't any longer, though work still requires them to spend more time together than with their respective amours. "I really think it's been for the better of our work," Anthea reflects. "Now we both get ideas from all over the place and bring them to each other."
"It makes working more efficient too," adds Vaughan. "Now one of us can go to the States while the other is finishing an edit, or even take time off; we've never really had a holiday but we have advanced in that direction."
Success has enabled them to pick and choose what they do now-their U.K. production company is Lewin & Watson-but they're grateful to the clients and agencies who gave them their first opportunities. "Wrangler would never have been made if they hadn't had faith in us," says Vaughan, and Anthea adds her appreciation of the respect agencies have for their unusually exacting working methods. Only once, for example, have they been excluded from script development, in a Dorland commercial for Range Rover. Their lyrical film of a journey is accompanied by a rather bland voiceover; Anthea's more absorbing background would have been a row between driver and wife.
Though they miss the immediacy of videos, they have little nostalgia for them. While their passion is for film, Vaughan says, "That doesn't mean we had a feature script under our arm after making two commercials." Among British directors, they admire the well-crafted, witty and widely different commercials of Roger Woodburn and praise John Lloyd's classic comedy. They could, however, be lured away from the U.K. to work elsewhere for a time, but "in America, for example, things are often taken out of the director's hands, with in-house edits and so on," Anthea explains. "We'd have to be sure we had the right project with the same amount of control we've had here." That means working with people who will understand the painstaking way they operate and not just consider them "lunatic megalomaniacs." They've described their only American job to date, a relatively tame Saab spot for Angotti Thomas Hedge in New York, in which a car is rolled over to demonstrate its solid-body construction, as an experience marked by creative disagreements.
And beyond advertising, given the jackpot of a six-month sabbatical, what would they do? "Make a television documentary about something we were passionate about, shooting it just the way we wanted to," says Vaughan. Even TV drama is mentioned. "With brilliant actors you can do good things with less money-you just need to be more inventive," Anthea believes.