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Paris-based Frederic Planchon is in L.A. shooting an AirTouch Cellular spot for TBWA Chiat/Day -- his first American gig. "L.A. is like this one huge suburb, and that's kind of foreign for a city boy like me," says the 32-year-old director in heavily accented English. "You can't even go to a cinema or a bookstore without a car."

This standard Los Angeles cliche not only sounds cute with a French twist, but it's steeped in irony coming from Planchon, whose European reel is almost all cars. However, Planchon's sheet metal shooting is light years removed from traditional Motown tire kickers. His reel is almost dreamlike, with artsy commercials at once realistic and otherworldly that seamlessly combine live action and stunning special effects.

For example, a spot for Volkswagen Golf puts the sporty coupe in the middle of a beautifully staged slow-motion riot. Another, for Land Rover, uses lush painterly effects to illustrate the truck's chameleonlike adaptability to rough-weather terrain. A Peugeot commercial features a driver who jams on the brakes, stopping just short of a bicyclist, while the rest of the landscape, houses and all, flies by in a surge of momentum. The most dramatic spot on the reel is a Peugeot costume drama that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood, as a big bad wolf huffs and puffs but can't blow the car down.

The son of a theater director and an actress, Planchon grew up in Lyon. Like Paul Auster and Wim Wenders, he can claim the distinction of having been rejected by the French National Film School. He eventually got a job as a features assistant and later wangled a grant to shoot a short film based on a story he'd written, "a dark tale," which was shown on French television and even picked up a prize at a national film festival. The film was seen by producer Patrice Haddad at Premiere Heure, who, along with executive producer Steve Horton, continues to guide Planchon's four-year-old career.

There can be little doubt that his AirTouch :30, which debuted on the Super Bowl, will serve Planchon as an entree to more work here. Though carless, the spot is remarkable for its effects, as a man walks around town while his shadow carries on like a kid in a candy store. Planchon didn't take the job simply because it was footloose; he pays no mind to the fact that his reel is auto-focused. Though last year he turned down an Isuzu job with Goodby Silverstein because of scheduling conflicts, his is not the kind of footage that gets a director pigeonholed as a car guy.

"The quality of Frederic's film is more like a movie than a commercial," says Duncan Miller, the Chiat/Day art director on AirTouch. "And he has the ability to add effects that look very natural and organic and don't take away from the idea."

"This is not to sound pretentious, but I can only shoot what inspires me," says Planchon. "It's difficult to become inspired if it's just some person trying to sell a product, or a car driving along a road." At the same time, Planchon doesn't just want to be known as a director with a new style. "New camera angles or effects don't necessarily interest me, because I'm not sure that, alone, they're enough to reach people. You need something more, like emotion or an element of surprise, to capture an audience."

Planchon, who was voted France's Commercial Director of the Year in 1996, says he's now ready to tackle a major U.S.-based client like Nike or Levi's. But he'll remain based in Paris, instead of moving to L.A. or New York. "I want to accept good scripts wherever they come from," he says. "But I'll be back."

We insist.

Illustrated Book Wiz Joost Elffers

Peel Me An Ape

Artist and author Joost Elffers, whose latest book creation (with "chief carver" Saxton Freymann) is Play With Your Food, is branching out -- as anyone who makes amazingly lifelike faces and animals out of fruits and vegetables must. His Sony display windows on New York's 56th Street debuted March 2, featuring new characters like Couch Potato and Artichoke Diva. So what's his least favorite carving fruit? An apple. "It's so round, it always stays like an apple," he complains. Word is that Elffers is working on a commercial, but he can disclose neither the agency nor the client. Chiquita? Delmonte? Watch this space, as well as your TV screen. (TK)

Celebrity Endorser Dan Mountain

Now See This

Rocky Botts and Woody Lowe of Sausalito freelance unit Rock & Wood were looking for interesting people who own NHT loudspeakers when they ran into their old Riney buddy Dan Mountain. Yes, the legendary Northern California hippie creative director, who's been freelancing the last few years. "Dan told us he'd just dropped eight grand on NHTs," says Botts. "What a weird coincidence! NHT culture is about passion; Dan is about passion." In the copy they simply called him an "iconoclast/writer." Mountain says he found the experience of minor celebrity "cool." After all, great speakers are easy to endorse, "as opposed to all of the things I worked on," he laughs. And not only did he get a model's fee, "but everyone in my family back East who has no idea what I do thinks I'm a hero now.

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