Loud Music, Loose Concepts

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Don't be surprised if the music is blasting when you're on set with Peggy Sirota. Turning it up helps to create a comfort zone for her performers, which is quite helpful for the fashion and lifestyle spots that agencies admire her for. "There's a wonderful thing that happens when people lose themselves in music or dance," she explains. "Music is a pretty key element to me. Sort of the classic photo shoot with the music blasting, that's me."

That scene has long been familiar to Sirota, 44, who also doubles as a fashion photographer and has shot celebrity covers for magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. For the past seven years, Sirota has directed commercials as well, for clients like Banana Republic, Blue Cross and Acura. "I started as a photographer, so I think that's the primary vision I bring to whatever I do." Full of rich hues or just neutral black and white, the frames of Sirota's spots would on their own easily make well-composed photographs. Sirota, who directs out of HSI, often finds herself having to make things happen for talent in front of the camera. " I like to take away all the elements that might make someone uptight. Sometimes I have to literally close the set down and play music and talk to them and distract them. I'm always kind of encouraging them to let loose and be crazy and just let it all happen."

As a director, Sirota's own creativity thrives on openness. She recently shot a pair of spots for American Airlines that involved flashback scenes developed around the general idea of family and friends. "Beyond that there was nothing really specific," she says. "I'm not someone who really likes to do the sort of thing where everything's planned out, here's what people say, people have to move from point A to point B. I think I'm a lot better at a looser sort of concept."

Like other top helmers, Sirota's work transcends genres. She's directed a slew of car commercials for Acura, BMW and Buick and at the same time she admits she has a "knack" for lifestyle, but what she's truly proud of isn't exactly dripping over with the syrupy, maudlin moments that are often associated with the category. Take the recent campaign she shot for Clinique fragrance Happy. The black and white spots juxtapose energy and austerity, showing actors reveling against a plain backdrop. "You'd imagine that these people, creating all this chaos in front of the camera, would be in someone's kitchen or living room, or in a bar or a nightclub," she notes. "But there's nothing, and that's the thing that makes it so cool. One guy has a water balloon explode on his head and you see every split second of his reaction. It's like a portrait on a white backdrop and the person is absolutely coming to life. All these dramatic moments happen in a totally void space, and there's something that's unbalanced about that." Sirota believes that imbalance is what nailed it for her creatively. "There are elements that have to weave in for me to feel content with something that I've done, and I think those elements involve some sort of whimsical aspect or dark, austere side. That's what inspires me and what I aspire to."

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