Since that first story, the now 37-year-old Usher has literally catapulted from the confines of edgy regional work to some of the most visible and talked about campaigns around. In the three years he spent with Smillie Films in Los Angeles-until June, 1996-he went from shooting smallish commercials for agencies like the now defunct Stein Robaire Helm to mega commercials for BBDO (Diet Pepsi) and TBWA Chiat Day (Nissan). More importantly for Usher, the work stands up to the size of its budgets.
Four of Usher's commercials, one each for Chiat and BBDO and two for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, won Lions at Cannes this year. Nissan's much-hyped stop-motion extravaganza, "Toys," won a Bronze; ditto for the unroyal Diet Pepsi spot in which a Queen Elizabeth lookalike takes dives into a mosh pit beneath her palace balcony.
Two GS&P spots won a Gold and Silver, respectively; Polaroid's funny story about a harried architect who suddenly dashes home for a quickie after finding a tempting snapshot of his wife in his briefcase, and yet another clever Milk Board spot in which a thirsty pilot uses a deadly maneuver to roll a beverage cart into the cockpit. Usher is also the director of the inspired Polaroid spot in which an innocent dog gets the goods on a guilty cat, the equally inspired animal spot for Nissan in which a dog hypnotizes its master into picking up every canine in town, as well as the ultimate Mountain Dew action slam, starring Jackie Chan.
All of this is a long way from Usher's salad days as a camera assistant on Roger Corman's The Killer Cockroaches, and it has arguably secured him the informal title of Hottest Commercial Director Around Right Now. And, of course, it begs the obvious question: How has success affected him? Well, besides trendy new Santa Monica digs and calls from Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the day to day rewards are, by comparison, fairly mundane. As Usher says, "I no longer have to triple-bid against other A-level directors. Now, people just call me if they want to work with me."
Positive word of mouth has kept Usher so busy this last year that he's taken little time off, not that Club Med holds much appeal for this admitted workaholic. A tall, commanding presence on the set, Usher explains, "I spent 10 years trying to be a director, and now I feel like it's my time to really work and expand my skills. It's like being a prize fighter. You've got to train to stay in shape."
More than just a star athlete, creatives also compare Usher to the head cheerleader, the kind of director who manages to rally his team with an enthusiasm and focus that never escalates into an ego-driven temper tantrum or show of control. "Kinka treats people decently," says former GS&P copywriter Harry Cocciolo. "He never gets stressed out and then screams at creatives to shut up and sit on the couch."
"Besides being unusually articulate with his ideas, Kinka doesn't have some obnoxious one-dimensional point of view that he sticks to," adds Jeff Goodby. "He's always initiating dialogue on the set."
People skills aside, Usher has also honed a multifaceted directing style that combines humor and humanity with an offbeat technical and visual precision, one that, not surprisingly, is tailor-made for agencies like GS&P. As he explains, "The appeal of complicated special effects is never as wide as a simple message. It's the human experience that people most relate to."
On film, Usher manages to make those experiences "mystical, surreal or charming, or all three at once," says Lee Clow, creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day. "And because he's such an eclectic and complete storyteller, his commercials always play like little movies."
According to Goodby, Usher's delivery is, in part, aided by his innate intuition and sense of pacing. "Kinka has the best sense of beginning, middle and end of almost any other director," says Goodby, who ought to know, given his own skills as a filmmaker.
Usher is also known for his meticulous finessing of details and casting, particularly in the "Got Milk?" spots he's shot for GS&P. In one, a guy rides a bus with a little girl and devours a box of cookies, only to find the nearest rest stop has been bulldozed to the ground. Goodby says it was Usher's idea to further tweak the spot by turning the girl into a devil, a la Rosemary's Baby, at the end. And in another spot where overweight lovers stuff each other's faces with cake, it was his ability to capture palatable expressions that made it funny. As Goodby points out, "This could have been kind of gross, but Kinka knew how to make it cute."
To someone like Chiat copywriter Clay Williams, who's worked with Usher since Williams' days at SRH, it's clear that the training has paid off. "The biggest change in Kinka," says Williams, "is that he's become much more confident in his abilities."
After earning what he calls his version of a master's degree, Usher gushes that shooting commercials "is still the greatest job in the world. I've come down a long road, but I still feel like a kid." But beyond the childlike veneer, Usher has also gained a more practical, almost businesslike view of his role as a director, according to Mitch Kanner, Digital Domain's commercials ubermacher. "Kinka really understands the entire process of advertising," says Kanner, "and this is what gives him such a good understanding of what motivates creatives. He's interested in being an ad guy as well as a filmmaker."
Usher, who, when first interviewed by Creativity described himself as "the caretaker of good ideas," would agree. "Learning strategy and how to best position a product within our target audience is a huge part of my job," he says, "and I'm much more interested in advertising as a whole than directing as an individual." In fact-however unlikely this might seem-during a lunch meeting with Clow at Cannes, the two talked strategy and positioning with regard to some upcoming Nissan work. Clow, Usher says, "turned to another creative sitting at the table and said, 'This guy's like a marketing guy,' which I took as a compliment. Being a solid director is being someone who can do more than just create good film."
And being a solid and hugely sought-after director in a relatively short period of time takes a certain marketing savvy, and Usher, hungry at the start, took very calculated career moves. Rather than merely job-shopping, Usher and his Stiefel & Co. reps targeted and stuck with agencies on the rise, like SRH-for which he shot spots for Acura, Ikea and Clarion-and GS&P, then mainly a West Coast boutique. In addition to cultivating a kind of in-house director status at these agencies, Usher nurtured his relationships with creatives, and in doing so, assured himself not only continued work but a consistent visibility that eventually attracted agencies like Chiat and BBDO.
"Jean Robaire, Jeff Goodby and Michael Patti are the kind of people who help build careers," says Usher, explaining his strategy. "As you come up the ladder as a director, you tend to work with junior creatives, but the higher you climb and the more you work steadily with respected agencies, the more opportunity you have to work with creatives who are actually in charge of the work. This kind of liberation is one of the biggest benefits that comes with success."
Another benefit of working consistently with a core group of agencies is being in a position to pick and choose plum projects, like Chiat's brand launches of Nissan and Taco Bell, which broke its first spots in July. "It's a lot more interesting to develop the style and look of a brand from the ground up," he says, "than to come into a campaign that's already been developed by another director."
The Taco Bell campaign is uniquely Usher, led by an absurd and colorful spot in which a fat guy lunges eagerly toward a refrigerator in the middle of a red round padded room-it's his stomach-screaming when he finds it empty. Usher shot two other visually similar spots for Taco Bell, yet he talks about his future in terms of moving forward into more dialogue-driven work. He also hopes to expand his commercials base abroad, and is currently pitching a Levi's project for Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London.
Moving forward, however, doesn't necessarily include Hollywood. Usher, who recently got rid of his film agent, says he wasn't ready when Bruckheimer offered him the upcoming Superman movie, a job that ultimately went to Tim Burton. While features are enticing, Usher says, "I feel like I've worked really hard to get where I am today and I just don't want to walk away from it. Besides, I've been on enough movie sets to know how horribly studios treat directors, and I'm not eager to go there." Sounding like the consummate ad guy, Usher notes that he feels a certain responsibility toward his clients. "They've invested in me, and I want to be available for them. I don't want to be looked at as a director who's using advertising as a way station until I get my first feature.
"Also," he adds "just because I've done good work in the past doesn't mean I've reached the place. It's like an endless mountain; you reach plateaus, but then you take another step. I'm still in a climbing phase."