Driving range

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"I don't like to do car porn," says MJZ director Nicolai Fuglsig (pronounced FUL-si). "I don't want to be pigeonholed as just a car wanker." That might be hard for someone whose reel is dominated by auto commercials for the likes of Mercedes, Peugeot, Audi and Toyota. But strangely enough, the impression his work leaves is far from sheet metal glare. Instead, more palpable is the 31-year-old Danish native's big, filmic storytelling-his spots seem like a series of movie trailers rather than ads. Fuglsig's most recent feat is a dazzling cinema spot for Mercedes Europe, in which a sun-worshipping hunk swerves his convertible through a South African desert, trying to steer out from under the ray-blocking fisticuffs between warring cloud gods above. The job was Fuglsig's most massive yet-he spent eight long months camping out at London's The Mill with the shop's artists and Campbell Doyle Dye creative director Walter Campbell, agonizing over achieving the photoreal look of the billowy titans, who were modeled after real-life wrestlers, dancers and bodybuilders. "I absolutely did not want them to look like Weather Channel marshmallow men running around in the sky," he laughs. Aside from poring over the effects, he also developed his own makeshift rig, the "Fuglsig/Horn Rotating Arm," which uses natural momentum to propel the camera 360 degrees around the car and capture dramatic swooping scenes from unexpected angles.

Fuglsig's intensity was not lost on CDD's Campbell, who has also worked on acclaimed spots like Guinness' "Surfer" and Volvo's "Tornado" with some of the industry's most celebrated directors. "Very few people have a real sense of what it really takes to get something right," Campbell observes. "They push on all fronts, and have a radar that's tuned into the fact that any element that's not done correctly will have a detrimental effect. People like Tony Kaye certainly have it, Jonathan Glaser certainly has it and Nicolai's got it." Beyond the epic magnitude of Mercedes, Fuglsig took a quiet turn for Audi, on a D&AD-awarded spot featuring a bull tamed to perform delicate, dressage-inspired prances. Another commercial he shot for Land Rover blends effects nuance and dramatic in-camera stunts to transform humans into animal-like prowlers. Recently, Fuglsig also directed splashy horror/comedy for Toyota and brought Tim Burton-esque whimsy to a Carrefour PSA, featuring earnest citizens trying to protect a cornfield from pesticides with vibrantly colored umbrellas.

For someone with such a full-bodied reel, surprisingly, Fuglsig has been directing for less than three years, with no formal film training. A graduate of the Danish School of Journalism, by his mid-20s he was a staff photographer at Denmark's largest newspaper and had documented nuclear waste in Russia, joined troops on the front lines of the Kosovo war and even spent time in a Yugoslavian jail. For his efforts, in 1999 he earned an Infiniti award from the International Center of Photography as well as the Kodak Young Photographer Award. Not until Fuglsig randomly decided to strap a videocamera to his bulletproof vest during a Kosovo assignment did he realize that he had a flair for the moving image as well. The scenes he shot impressed the Danish Red Cross, who turned the footage into a documentary that piqued the interest of ad agencies. Soon enough, he entered and won a BBH and Levi's-sponsored young directors contest, which led to the sultry documentary-style "Voodoo," featured in Saatchi's 2002 New Directors Showcase. Since then, Fuglsig signed to London's Outsider and in July 2003 he moved to MJZ.

"I like to run the set like a military operation," Fuglsig notes. "Not by being an asshole, but I like to have a big overview of the logistics and conflict engineering." That's a fitting M.O. for someone who actually did serve in the Danish military, but it turns out his method may be less barking sergeant than it is G.I. Joe. "Maybe I'm quite childish," he says. "On shoots, I bring a whole suitcase full of cardboard, small houses, dolls and toy cars. I set up the scenes as a game that we play out in real life." Instead of using boards or pre-viz, for Mercedes he took his videocamera to mini cars that he set up on his kitchen table covered with sand; for Carrefour, he shot toothpick parasols carefully positioned on a large swatch of Astroturf.

"There's nothing worse than going into something half-heartedly," Fuglsig explains of his approach, which he's now applying to Vodafone and charity work for Womankind, which will merge his documentary and fiction skills to explore issues like female genital mutilation. He's also about to shoot his short film Cow, and the admitted skate punk just completed a script for a skateboarding movie. Fuglsig has yet to book his first U.S. commercial, but that should change with his move from London to New York this month-if agencies manage to catch him. "He's going to very quickly transfer to doing features," predicts CDD's Campbell. "That's the problem I had with directors like Tony Kaye and Jonathan Glaser. But maybe you should keep that quiet, because I want to try and get another couple jobs out of him."

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