Darren Lew talks about taking 2010 AICP honors for innovative Levi’s commercial

Darren Lew shared top honors with Simon Duggan, ACS and Greig Fraser, ACS in the cinematography category of the 19th Annual Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) Show, The Art & Technique of the American Commercial. The 2010 show premiered at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan on June 8. The commercials are compelling examples of how 30 and 60 seconds of terrific cinematography can influence the thoughts and feelings that consumers have about products and services, and the companies that sell them.

“The winners were chosen out of 60 of the most artful and successful commercials that aired on American television in 2009,” says AICP CEO/ President Matt Miller. “It is an extraordinary achievement for Darren Lew to be recognized by our members. Good cinematography helps bring all of the elements of a successful commercial together. Great cinematography brings the concept to new heights.”

AICP was founded in 1972 as a forum where independent television commercial producers could share ideas and advocate for their art and craft. Miller estimates that AICP members produce 80 to 85 percent of commercials aired on U.S. networks.

Lew’s award-winning spot was for Levi Strauss & Co. Anonymous Content produced the 60-second commercial for the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency. It is titled “America: (Go Forth).” The spot features a fast-moving montage of Americans of different ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds. It was filmed in a variety of places and environments, including a moving bus on a hilly road, a vacant lot at high noon, a tiny apartment in a tenement building, and during a fireworks display over a lake at night.

There is no dialogue. The words of a Walt Whitman poem (read by the poet himself from an original wax recording) provides verbal embellishment, emphasizing words like “young, old, enduring, capable, freedom for all, law, and love.” The final word, “America”, is augmented with an image of a neon sign on the lake spelling the word in large, illuminated letters. The commercial ends with the Levi’s logo on the screen. The unspoken message is that Americans of all ages and walks of life choose to wear Levi’s.

It was Lew’s first collaboration with filmmaker Cary Fukunaga, and the director’s first commercial. They met by chance. Fukunaga was participating in the Screenwriters Workshop at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. Carter Smith, one of the other participants, showed Fukunaga a short film that Lew had shot for him. So, Fukunaga asked Smith for an introduction.

Fast forward to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival where Fukunaga won the directing award for his first feature Sin Nombre. “Cary was offered the Levi’s commercial shortly after he won the award,” Lew says. “He asked me to come on board, which was a huge honor, particularly because Cary is a great cameraman. I think the agency was a little concerned because Cary had never directed a commercial, and I had never worked with him.”

After a long conference call, the creative team at Wieden+Kennedy asked Lew to prepare a visual presentation of their vision for the commercial.

“It’s really unusual for an ad agency to ask the cinematographer to do that,” Lew says. “The creative directors asked very pointed questions about how we intended to translate their ideas into images that tell their story with the right emotions. One decision that needed to be made was what the media would be. I was an advocate for film for its grain, speed, latitude and a free way of working without the baggage of electronics, cables, and monitors.

“I was searching for that imperfect look, which comes from grabbing moments on the fly, that would make the commercial feel realistic,” Lew continues. “I was also searching for something people haven’t see before. That’s my litmus test: If it looks familiar, or like something I’ve seen in a film or another commercial, I don’t roll the camera.”

Lew carried his Aaton A-Minima 16 mm camera and a couple of prime lenses during initial scouting trips to practical locations in New Orleans and San Francisco.

“Sometimes you find things on scouts that you can’t recreate on the day,” he says. “I’ve learned that the hard way, so I am always prepared to capture images whenever I’m scouting.”

One scouting day in San Francisco, Lew passed a war veterans event where a large American flag was suspended in the air by a fire truck ladder. Hundreds of veterans were milling around the truck talking to one another in the shadow of the flag. He jumped out of the van and photographed a World War II veteran saluting the backlit flag.

“On the last day of the commercial, we were supposed to do a shot at a location where there was a three story tall American flag in a building atrium,” Lew explains. “It would have taken us hours to get across town and shoot it. Instead, we showed the agency dailies of the shot from the scout, and they gave us approval to forego the trip across town in order to do some other shots we needed.”

Lew shot the commercial in four days, two in Louisiana and two in California. His camera package included a three-perf ARRI 235, a set of Cooke S4 prime lenses, and an Angenieux Optimo 15-40 zoom. “A practical and aesthetic decision was made to film most of the commercial with a handheld camera in available light,” Lew says. “We took away more light than we added. There was just one exception to that rule. During the night scene filmed at Lake Pontchartrain, a pyro technician lit the sky with fireworks and the area right above us with flares.” The DP says he only used one LED panel and one pocket PAR to supplement light in the foreground of that unusual night shot, with batteries powering both units. Several times Lew’s AC, John Clemens, had to extinguish burning pieces of material that had fallen from the flares on Lew’s hair.

“I was running at full speed in thigh-deep water trying to avoid tripping over the ruins of houses, twisted steel beams, rusty bicycles and other carnage created by Hurricane Katrina,” Lew recounts. “My key grip, Mike Smith, once grabbed the suspenders on my waders, preventing me from falling face first into the lake. We were warned to watch out for water moccasins. We had a medic with us just in case someone got hurt or bitten by a snake, but thankfully everyone made it out okay.”

Fukunaga gave Lew the freedom to trust his instincts while finding different perspectives. “There’s a shot of a guy riding in a bus on curvy roads in the Twin Peaks area of San Francisco,” Lew continues. “It would have been easy to put the camera on sticks and sandbag the tripod, but Cary and I agreed to move around the bus handheld. We treated the ARRI 235 like my old Leica M still camera! I remember once while filming a riot scene, I saw an extra waiting to run in the middle of the smoke, and we just grabbed the shot.”

Lew has blazed a non-traditional career path. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, where his father was a dentist whose patients included working filmmakers. Lew met some of them while assisting his father, but he had no boyhood interest in entering the industry. Instead, he became a philosophy major at NYU, where he won photojournalism awards for pictures taken for the student newspaper. That led to an opportunity to intern at Magnum Photos.

“When I was at Magnum, one of my jobs was to create a display of the recent works of the photographers,” Lew remembers. “I would work with them to put together selections of their photographs, and there would be discussions about which ones to display. It was a great experience talking to the photographers about their pictures.”

Lew says he also spent time looking through the contact sheets of Henri Cartier-Bresson, locating the master’s iconic images, and then examining the frames surrounding that perfect moment. “It took a lot of the mystery out of the way those images were created,” he says.

There was even a chance meeting with America’s most famous portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz. “Walking down Broadway, I saw Annie in a furniture store,” Lew adds. “I went in and told her how much I admired her work, and she invited me to her studio! About six months later, Annie offered me a job as her assistant. I worked for her for about a year, and have subsequently shot commercials for her.”

Later on down the road, Lew became New York-based fashion photographer Steven Meisel’s first assistant for 12 years. He invested in purchasing a Bolex 16mm camera to shot films documenting Meisel’s fashion photography projects.

Lew launched his career as a cinematographer in 2003, and has compiled an eclectic collection of credits that includes commercials for Target, Nike, Calvin Klein, Microsoft, and K-Mart, music videos and short, dramatic films, including shorts directed by Demi Moore, Kirsten Dunst and Carter Smith, which were honored at the 2008 HollyShorts festival. His documentary work includes a recent collaboration with director Alex Gibney on Freakonomics, where he flew to Japan to shoot visual metaphors illustrating corruption in the sumo-wrestling world.

“What I find most satisfying about commercials is that every day on every job is different. I have lit beautiful people wearing the latest fashions, shot funny spots designed to make people laugh, dramatic and cinema verite type commercials spots that look and feel a little imperfect and as realistic as an Alex Gibney documentary.”

By Bob Fisher