Prettybird's top talents shaped the year's biggest ideas
When Kerstin Emhoff and Paul Hunter opened the doors of Prettybird in 2007, things didn’t come easy. As a woman and a Black man founding a startup production company, they felt they had to be deliberate about their choices and their positioning. Hunter, though at the time already an A-List director, recalls wanting to avoid promoting Prettybird as a “Black-owned” business. “Kerstin and I were trying to fight against that, even though I was leading the charge as director because there was a limited amount of work, and the creative scene at the time was sort of dumbed down, which was a real issue,” he says.
More than a decade later, Prettybird’s storytelling is the furthest from “dumbed down” as you can get, all told from one of the most diverse rosters in the industry. The most telling example is Beat by Dre’s breathtaking, polarizing “You Love Me” from Translation, which brought into stark relief the divide between how the masses simultaneously adore Black culture while failing to protect and respect those who create it. The film earned “Idea of the Year” and its director, Melina Matsoukas, won the Director of the Year in
our Creativity Awards.
Translation founder and CEO Steve Stoute says that Prettybird’s expertise in creative and production problem-solving were palpable on the project. For one, there was Matsoukas’ uncompromising artistry. “Her images and stories have always had the highest level of quality, a strong point of view,” he says.
At one point, however, the Beats job had a hiccup due to COVID, temporarily halting the production. Stoute cites Ali Brown, Prettybird president, as the force that steadied the ship throughout. “It’s a very dangerous thing when you start production, break down and start up again. You really need a partner to have your back because that has implications on cost, talent. That was Ali.” As a whole, Prettybird demonstrated the professionalism and roduction ingenuity “that allowed us to navigate through the difficult COVID restrictions and make a beautiful piece of work despite all the obstacles,” he says.
Indeed, Prettybird is known as much for its resourcefulness as it is for its ideas and craft. Even before COVID hit, director Max Malkin helmed 72andSunny’s film-to-real-world kickoff for the Super Bowl, which saw the boy hero of the NFL’s pregame ad break out of the confines of the screen and onto the field.
After the pandemic shut live action production down, Prettybird delivered one of the first big brand spots to feature original film—Uber’s “Thank you for not riding with Uber” ad via Wieden+Kennedy, an outlier in footage. Prettybird rallied an army of directors and DPs around the globe to shoot intimate scenes of their lives at home (Director Calmatic, 2019’s breakout star of the year, for example, captured a sweet moment in which he does push-ups next to his baby boy). In June, when production was still at a standstill in California, Hunter himself drove all the way from L.A. to San Francisco in order to secure a film permit—apparently the state’s first in the post-lockdown period—ultimately paving the way for him to shoot Pereira O’Dell’s delightful, musical-inspired production for Stella Artois.
Once production opened up a bit, the ideas poured in from across the bench. The Daniels, aka Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, stepped out for Facebook’s lightning-paced journey to the polls from Droga5, part of what the company billed as the “largest voter information campaign in U.S. history.” Calmatic brought his spirited tale-telling to Apple’s Homepod Mini holiday ad starring rapper Tierra Whack and her Lilliputian doppelganger. Matsoukas, too, jumped into seasonal fare with Amazon’s inspiring ballerina tale of dreams come alive during lockdown.
“It’s bittersweet,” Emhoff says of her company and directors’ accomplishments in 2020. In the wake of the year’s racial unrest, Prettybird unexpectedly found itself at the center of the spotlight. “We’d been pounding on doors for 13 years, trying to break those glass ceilings and get people in front of agencies and clients,” Emhoff says, “It just changed overnight. Reps start calling saying, ‘I need all your Black and Brown directors.’ That’s not what Paul grew up with—it was the opposite.”
“There was a definite moment after George Floyd’s murder when everybody was calling because there was attention to this as an issue, and they were asking, ‘How did you guys get ahead of it,” Brown says. “But this is who we always were.”
From the get-go, Prettybird has played the “long game” of developing directors from the ground up, looking for talent where few were looking. “A lot of these people were filmmakers of color, who weren’t being heard properly,” Emhoff says.
Just as important has been protecting those voices. In the case of Matsoukas, for example, “We say no to more jobs than yes because when she does something she has to have a real connection creatively or socially,” Brown says. “So when you see what she does for Nike Equality, or the Mamba Nike spot, or Beats or Amazon and how she cast that, it’s her whole being in it— there’s nothing half-assed.”
Prettybird wants such opportunities to continue outside its own walls. Both Emhoff and Brown are working actively to ensure diversity thrives across the entire industry. Along with Shari Holly, Emhoff created Pipelines, a platform designed to connect underrepresented talents with opportunities across entertainment, creative and tech. Brown introduced “Double the Line” to the advertising production community, an initiative that aims to diversify commercial productions across the entire call sheet by asking agencies and clients to double the role of a certain crew member to create space for a BIPOC production professional who could benefit from the advertising experience.
“Looking at Calmatic, Melina and some of our other young filmmakers of color and female directors, I’m very emotional,” Hunter says, his voice cracking. ““I definitely wanted to have that kind of career where everything that was inside of me lined up with the creative, but that wasn’t my route. My route was about sacrifice, laying down the foundation for a bigger picture. Now our foundation has been set and it’s awesome to see all these filmmakers come out. I’m just happy we are here, that we are getting these opportunities. I hope the industry doesn’t stop at this point.”