Like any good story, our careers often make sense only in retrospect. In the moment, the way forward is anything but obvious. It’s only when you look back that you can see how one thing led to another: how you were preparing for your next big move all along, without even realizing it. That’s how things worked for director Rob Chiu who’s now directed commercials for brands like McLaren, Lexus, and Toyota — just to name a few.
After getting his start as a graphic designer/animator, Rob worked his way into the director’s chair via a series of natural transitions. “I was used to being in charge if only because I was doing everything myself,” he told us. “I made all the decisions. So moving into directing live action was quite seamless.”
Once he was taking the lead on live-action projects, Rob didn’t waste any time establishing his own unique approach to one of the most cliché-ridden forms of all time: the car commercial. His very first spot — a film for McLaren, no less — set the tone for what would be a series of genre-busting spots and films.
We recently talked to Rob about his career, his filmmaking philosophy, and his unique approach to selling cars.
How did you get started?
I started as a junior designer at a company, and I got the company to pay for me to finish my degree in graphic design. While I was doing that, I started messing around with After Effects. I bought a video camera and started filming my own stuff to add motion graphics to. That’s how I ended up progressing into title design and doing a lot of work with Digital Kitchen before I eventually got picked up by a commercial production house called Stink. I fell into commercials that way. I never studied film.
How did you transition into directing?
Being a motion designer basically means you’re directing for animation. I was used to being in charge if only because I was doing everything myself. I made all the decisions. So moving into directing live action was quite seamless. Although, the first time I directed a commercial it was quite nerve-wracking to have a big crew. I’d never had that before. I was filming everything myself, editing everything myself, color grading everything myself. It ended up being a big change to let go and have other people do those things for me. Giving up editing was especially hard.
Have you seen any value in letting someone else edit?
Definitely. When you involve somebody else, they can see the project from a different perspective. They can find something that you didn’t think existed in the footage. You end up making stronger work when you edit with somebody else. There are more happy accidents. You can reinvent the film entirely. I love that.
Your car commercials don’t feel like normal car commercials. How come?
That’s very intentional. I try to make them a lot more film-y than others. A lot more cinematic. I don’t want to make a commercial that feels like a commercial, you know? I want to make commercials that make people feel something. I try to make things feel epic, which means not just shooting the badge, not just shooting the rear lights, not just throwing the Russian Arm everywhere. I try to approach it from a narrative point of view.
How did this McLaren commercial come together?
It’s super hard to get onto a car commercial pitch when you’ve never done car commercials before, so I guess a big part of it was luck. The brief referenced the mood of Drive, the Ryan Gosling film, so that’s where the inspiration came from. But the final product ended up looking entirely different, which is a good thing. It’s always good when you’re inspired by one thing, but what you make ends up looking like something else. The rain was in the visual reference that came from the agency brief as well. But mostly what they wanted was something mysterious that didn’t feel like it was shot in London (which is where we had to shoot due to budget restrictions). It had to have an L.A. vibe. When I wrote the first treatment, I wanted to see these shadows of people inside the trailer and near the phone booth — the shadow of a person dropping the phone and leaving in a hurry. But the agency wanted it to be even more nondescript than that, so the people got nixed and we ended up with just a dog.
What is your process like when you get a brief? How do you turn that into a concept?
I’m not sure there’s a certain way. I always have a call with the agency to make sure our minds are aligned. Then I’ll go away and write a treatment, I’ll change things, we’ll have another call, I’ll change some more things, and so on until we get somewhere exciting. I usually start looking for images from the very beginning, which then become a major influence on my decision-making. I’m first and foremost a visual person. Visuals inspire me instantly. I guess that comes from my graphic design and photography background.
What was production like for this spot?
The shoot was pretty straightforward. We did it in one day. Eight hours or something. It was winter and it got dark around 4:30 p.m., so we had to start the day around 1:00 p.m. We had to black-tent the car to shoot the close-ups — the wheels spinning, the exhausts, things like that. The hardest part was there was a big storm coming through, so we had to take down our big light for safety reasons. Other than that, everything pretty much went to plan. We had fun with it. We didn’t even have a Russian Arm. We had a tracking vehicle and a handheld camera in the back of a truck — something ridiculous like that — which is why it looks so shaky. But that was intentional, as we wanted this raw, unhinged, powerful look. Overall, it was a great first experience and one of those films where everything seemed to fall into place perfectly.
Did you approach Lexus differently than you approached McLaren?
This is actually the director’s cut. It combines two separate spots we made. The voice-over wasn’t part of the original plan. But I wanted to create a film that I felt good about. I edited this one myself after the agency’s editor did a very rough cut. Since he was based in New York, it was hard for me to work with him efficiently; so I dove into it myself. You’ll notice I hold a lot of the shots much longer than you’d see in a normal car commercial. The intention was to make the viewer feel something, that we aren’t just watching car porn. I wanted it to feel more poetic. Even if you take out the voice-over and music, it’s poetic in the way Khalid Mohtaseb moves the camera or holds a shot.
What do you think makes a car commercial “good”?
It depends. Different cars demand different things. With the Lexus ad, it was much more about the journey: where these people were going, what they were doing. With McLaren, it was about showing how cool this car is. For the BMW 1 Series, it would be about the energy. It would be kinetic. Dynamic. There are ways of doing it that don’t feel like the same old car commercial. The time of day you shoot. The locations you choose. The way the camera moves. The cuts. The music. All of it. There are always ways of making something feel new.
Has shooting car commercials affected the way you approach other projects?
I think it has. Khalid Mohtaseb and I did a film for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and we approached it a lot like a car commercial. Fast cuts mixed with these storytelling moments. The way the camera moved was inspired by the car commercials we’d done. We treated the skating as if it were a car. But the truth is, everything you do influences everything else. That’s how it works. Everything I do is extremely visual. Even as I’m thinking about longer format narratives, I see things visually first and foremost. Writers think about story first, but I’m also thinking about how the camera is moving, how the framing and light are telling the story, what the sound design is doing, is there music? Maybe that’s why I haven’t made a feature yet. [Laughs] But I don’t think I’ll ever make something extremely dialogue-heavy and contained in one location, for example.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself to watch other people’s work. I didn’t do that when I was first starting out. I almost refused to watch commercial work; I wasn’t that interested. But now I watch it more and more because it’s good to see what people have done and what they’re doing. Another thing I’d tell myself is never shoot anything you don’t want to see in the edit, because somehow that’s the stuff that always ends up getting used. A film is only as good as its weakest shot. If you have this really shit shot in there, it could bring down the whole project. Remember that your name is on this thing, and hold every shot to the highest standard.