Pictures, however, are another story.
In her relatively short career directing TV commercials-she reluctantly fixes her first efforts in the late '80s, preceded by her first music videos only a few years before that-Walker has established a reputation for creating simply breathtaking visuals. Time and again, as agency creatives and producers discuss her film, the word "vision" keeps recurring. Clearly, Walker has that vision thing.
While her work, as evidenced by both her music video and commercials reels, reflects a range of visual styles, from the gritty realism of pieces like Lou Reed's "Dirty Boulevard" video to the austere simplicity of her Lubriderm spot of a few years back for J. Walter Thompson/New York (remember the alligator?), what people tend to remember most about it is the way it looks. Again and again, her commercials capture soulful views of gorgeous individuals stylishly dressed, all moving to their own peculiar rhythm: A spot for Joop fragrance, for example, is a pas de deux
between two smoldering lovers in the desert; in a campaign of French commercials for Nestle chocolate, men and women indulge themselves in sweet tidbits that result in explosions of almost violent abstract imagery; in a German spot for Amaretto di Saronno, a woman's seductive fantasies about love are acted out in a fast-cut romantic sequence involving horses, mansions, beaches and, of course, water.
Like music and dance, both of which usually combine to provide the rhythmic foundation for her visuals, water figures heavily in much of Walker's work. These elements combine beautifully in her b&w "Way of the World" video for Tina Turner, in which elegant, tightly cropped scenes of two nude lovers gently writhing underwater are intercut with Turner's breathy rendition of the song. What's behind this aquatic fixation? "It's a way to create an almost visceral quality, to pull people into the work," says the director. "It also became another way to diffuse the film, to give it another quality, another dimension. It's like another time and place."
This desire to draw viewers in is a recurring theme for Walker, who describes her age as somewhere in her mid-30s. Working in close collaboration with Kestermann, whom she married in 1985, she seeks to take her audience into an otherworldly place: "The whole thing about filmmaking is that you're trying to get away from reality, you're trying to abstract it or dissect it or create an alternate one, so that people are seeing something different." Water, she adds, is just a means to an end, and an ambiguous one at that. "It can create a feeling of purity, health and vitality, but it can also create feelings of darkness or oppression. And it can also be very sexual."
B Y A N T H O N Y V A G N O N I
The lyrical, languid images of Paula Walker often suggest an otherworldly place. With a background in dance and music video, and her fascination with faraway cultures, this timeless quality even extends to her own life
Taking a chance on dance: Walker's Lycra vision (far left) of a 'theatrical troupe' stranded in the desert; and a sensual pas de deux for Joop fragrance
PHOTO BY SUSAN GOINES
Here, of course, she's hit on another element of her style that you can't avoid. "It's a huge topic," she admits of the sexual overtones of her work. "What we've tried to do is deal with it in a way that's more about the senses, and I think that's what the Tina Turner video is. It's about creating moods and moments and points of view. What we try not to do is really obvious sexuality, like babes and bimbos."
If anything, Walker's treatment of sex seems more out of some modern dance or performance art context than anything else, as opposed to being lewd. And her background as a dancer-she admits to being "obsessed" with it from an early age-leads her almost involuntarily to expressing herself with movement, color, shape and texture. "When you're dancing, you're thinking in terms of space and geometric patterns expressed through space," she says, getting at the essence of her approach. "I think a lot about patterns and shapes moving through space-it's part of the way I think in terms of composition."
This talent is what brought her last year's DuPont Lycra spot from BBDO/New York. Aimed at changing attitudes about the well-worn stretch fabric, the spot urges women to, "Let yourself go, live in Lycra." Part of the brief was to show women in different kinds of Lycra garments, not just bathing suits and workout clothes. Says Walker, who developed the spot's visuals with the agency, "we had these ideas of this shipwrecked theatrical troupe," so she filled the spot with a bevy of nimble dancers and acrobats, all of whom take the tagline literally. The result is almost Felliniesque, as the women prance and strut in their Lycra duds to an unusual soundtrack built around an Australian instrument called a didgeridoo.
The spot was initially storyboarded with a set of stiffly composed scenes of women, says BBDO executive producer Peter Feld man. "When Paula got involved, she seemed to already be thinking of models who could move, so the piece became a much looser dance kind of thing." Further, Feldman confesses, at the recommendation of Kestermann, the entire thing was shot on 16mm, a suggestion the agency initially resisted. But Kestermann explained that with the film stock he was planning on using, and the lighting at the desert location, a 16mm camera would give him the mobility he needed to work hand-held, allowing him to get into the rhythm of the piece. "It comes from our music video days," Kestermann says of his flair for jumping into Walker's choreographed dance moves.
Indeed, by most accounts the relationship between Walker and Kestermann has played a major role in their success. They met while both were working in music videos-Kestermann, in fact, shot Walker's first video, for an obscure Warner Bros. artist long since forgotten. An Art Center grad who had previously studied in France and his native Germany, Kestermann apparently shared Walker's ideas about how things should look on film, and working together they began to develop a complementary style. "I came from dance," Walker says, "and he liked to move the camera, so we put that together." The versatility of this mix has not been lost on clients. "Rolf has a real idea of depth and light, whereas Paula has an idea of space and movement," says Wells Rich Greene BDDP CD Pat Flaherty, who shot a Dun & Bradstreet spot with them last year. "It's like working with one person."
Walker has spent much of her life straddling different worlds. "I was this young black girl from this middle class, black-bourgeois neighborhood in L.A.," she recalls (her mother was a writer, her father a doctor), but as the student of a Russian dance teacher she spent her days hanging out with mostly Eastern European performers-she even danced in Yiddish musicals. In this environment she was exposed to a world she says she didn't know existed, meeting Auschwitz survivors before she even knew what the Holocaust was. This early exposure to culture clash, she suggests, helps explain her current fascination with other worlds and the somewhat displaced feeling she seems to have in her own. "Dancers," she says wistfully, "are like gypsies."
Her introduction to filmmaking came in college, while working on multimedia dance performance pieces at the University of Michigan. "I was more of a theater dance person," Walker says, "and wasn't quite as involved in capturing it on film until I realized that dance and movement could be taken apart, put on film and altered. It was kind of like a stunning revelation." From there she moved through a succession of film production jobs, including a stint in story development with Columbia Pictures, until moving into videos, initially as someone who helped find dancers and work out dance moves. She formed Strato to handle her fledgling music video career, but first came to commercials light when she signed with HKM Productions in 1990. In 1992 she left HKM and began producing all her work through Strato.
Some of Walker's more recent American jobs (she works extensively in Europe and Asia) represent new directions for her as a filmmaker. In two projects shot last year for Wells Rich Greene clients Ford and Dun & Bradstreet, Walker was chosen because she represented an alterna- tive take on the more traditional corporate advertising creative approaches. For Ford, she shot two fast-paced spots that capture a sense of the automaker's global and domestic reach, while for Dun & Bradstreet she was asked to do something more dramatic than romantic: bring to life a CEO's nightmare. Tagged, "We see what others can't," the spot depicts, through title cards, voiceover narration and Walker's quick, jarring shots, the isolation of leadership.
What Flaherty, who art directed the spot, and copywriter Michael Mark wanted was someone who could take the staid format of corporate advertising and see something else in it. Indeed, in one quick cut, when the VO says, "If you could see who your friends are," we see romping kiddies, while a creepy shot of a snake coiled in the petals of a flower suggests "who are your enemies."
Both the Ford and D&B jobs get Walker away from the high-style world of fashion and beauty and into a symbolic landscape where objects, not people, are the focus. What's next, she indicates, is a move into dialogue and performance work, the natural progression toward her eventual goal of making a feature. She and Kestermann have been working on a script, a romantic thriller set in New Orleans, but there's no timetable for its completion.
In fact, about the only time Walker pays attention to time is when it has to do with the formats of her work. In general, she doesn't like how it's measured in Western society, "in such tiny increments. It feels like it's fighting you." In other cultures, she adds, time seems more friendly, less demanding. Is this the dancer talking, the world traveler, the film director or the free spirit? Sounds like the gypsy to me.u
In a German Railways spot, commuters become acrobats to illustrate