Lance Acord could coast easily off the fumes of his stunning cinematography for some of advertising's most groundbreaking work: Nike's "Morning After," Levi's "Crazy Legs," Volkswagen's "Milky Way." One of the most respected directors of photography in the business, he's collaborated with many of the industry's heavy-hitters - Dayton/Faris, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, with whom he's been creatively conjoined since the two met in the early '90s working together on music videos. Since then their partnership has led to forays like Jonze's Oscar-nominated Being John Malkovich, his upcoming follow-up, Adaptation, as well the mind-boggling "Weapon of Choice" clip for Fat Boy Slim, which nabbed MTV's 2001 Breakthrough Video of the Year and earned Acord the award for Best Cinematography. But apart from being the choice lens through which other directors have chosen to tell their stories, Acord in recent years has busted out on his own, having successfully parlayed his visual mastery to helming his own breathtaking spots.
"Directing is something I've always wanted to do," says the 38-year-old director, who works out of Park Pictures. "Especially in the world of commercials directing and photography, the look and visual style of a piece are so interrelated." The Fresno-born Californian studied film and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. He eventually moved to New York where he assisted Bruce Weber in stills and film, and after building up a reel he became a DP on music videos for directors like Jonze, Stephane Sednaoui, Diane Martel, and Mike Mills.
Having found a passion for visually inclined expression early on, Acord, unlike many directors averse to being pigeonholed, seems keen on mining every crevice that can be explored in this arena. "I think that so many stories can be visually told, especially coming from the background I did in terms of filmmaking, where most of the films I did early on didn't even have sound. In school it was very much about film as a visual medium." Acord started directing his own spots about six years ago, traveling along the car and fashion route taken by most director/DPs, on commercials for ICB, Gucci, Saab, and Volvo. Today he continues to beef up his reel in those areas, recently in Volvo's "Building Life," which melds people's voiceover recollections of close calls on the road with scenes from the auto factory, made awe-inspiring through Acord's elegant photography. In the meantime, he's also added impressive character-based work to his repertoire, as seen in recent projects for Mercedes, ESPN, Nike and adidas.
Set to an anxious soundtrack of an orchestra tuning up, Nike's climax-building "Before" captures various athletes in the solitary pre-game moment, where mental focus is poised to become the physical act. Shot over two weeks, the spot features an eclectic mix of footage that Acord captured himself in actual games or setups, or that he culled from Nike archives and reshot onto a variety of film stocks. "Rather than make it look better or glossier than it was, or try to give everything the same look, I thought why not embrace the textural differences, and put them together in such a way that they work," he recalls. Another challenging aspect was deciding on the best "before" moments for the final cut, which he worked on with Rock Paper Scissors' Adam Pertofsky. "We often found that even in some crappy video footage that was shot at one of the sponsored track and field events, there was an authenticity captured in the athlete's face not found even in the best commercials."
Finding those real moments was crucial as well on a documentary-style commercial Acord shot for adidas, out of TBWA\Chiat\Day, centered on a moving pickup game that has b-ballers slam dunking on the back of a truck that roams through Harlem streets. Acord gathered together a posse of cinematographer buddies armed with 16mm, Arri and Bolex cameras, to help him capture the action, most of which was unstaged. "The idea was to just let it happen, to not try to get in and set too many things up," he explains. "We photo-storyboarded the locations, knew which stretches would work as wide, tableau-establishing shots that would really give the atmosphere of Harlem and that would work really well for getting reactions from bystanders."
As his reel reflects a stylistic balance through gritty, reality-based fare for the athletic giants, Gucci's supple multi-layered imagery and stark, design-inflected work for Volvo that turns the Bonneville Salt Flats into a white-cyc, it's apparent that Acord is not concerned with having a signature "look." Rather, he lets the idea be his guide. "It's not uncommon for a cinematographer to have a trademark stamp or technique, but I've never really approached my work like that. I approach each project very differently. I'm also a firm believer that more often than not, the simplest way of doing something is the best way of doing it. Technique is incredibly important, but the less time you spend on that, and the more time you think about what you're actually shooting, the better. "
Moreover, even as a director, Acord remains most inspired by the photographic foundations upon which he built his rep. "With a camera, what I love is the first-hand response and the visual interaction that takes place with a person or with some thing," he points out. "There's an excitement in that moment that I keep coming back to. Sometimes in writing or directing, you spend the least time actually in the act of capturing that. Whereas as a cinematographer or a photographer, that's what you're doing all the time. If you look at filmmaking in terms of processes, be it writing, directing, editing, shooting, I think it's the excitement of that photographed moment that appeals to me most."