What began as a routine video assignment for Atlanta ad shop Brunner unexpectedly yielded a stirring, award-winning 10-minute documentary about at-risk youths and the power of color to help change their lives.
Last June, commercial carpet and flooring provider Tandus Centiva, a division of Tarkett, tapped Brunner to create a three-minute film explaining the company's support for Publicolor, a non-profit group in New York, to customers and employees.
Each year, through after-school and summer programs, Publicolor teaches more than 1,000 teens literacy and math skills and gives them a grounding in product design. Disadvantaged kids participate in workshops and community activities aimed at sparking their imaginations and building self-confidence.
During the video shoot in Brooklyn, Publicolor students shared deeply personal stories of striving to overcome poverty, family discord, learning disabilities, bullying and other difficulties.
"It became obvious that we had so much more content that was rich with emotion, and that a deeper story could be told if we expanded our vision," Ehsan Abbasi, Brunner art director and co-director of the film tells Adweek. "The whole team thought we might just have something very special."
Agency staffers decided to volunteer some $100,000 in additional work hours and extend the original $70,000 film by seven minutes to tell the story in a more expansive and meaningful way.
Brunner creative director Matt Blackburn, the film's other co-director, heard his own youthful struggles to find self-discipline and direction echoed in the words of the Publicolor teens. "I was not on a good path" as a young person, he recalls, and discovering the world of art "saved my life."
Watching the raw footage, Blackburn was also struck by Publicolor president Ruth Lande Shuman's passion and dedication for the program she founded. "Her ability to convey the moment when she realized what should could accomplish by impacting public space, was inspiring, and a deeply personal moment for me," he says.
In a telling moment early in the film, a Publicolor student describes his depressing school environment: "All the walls are yellow, and all the doors are purple, and it follows you everywhere. It's like a prison."
Publicolor gives teens a grounding in color theory though weaving and painting, and these lessons have practical and immediate real-world applications. For example, by using bright hues to decorate the drab, utilitarian halls of their schools, the kids learn to channel their inner power to affect change, and hopefully, come to understand that they hold the keys to shaping their future.
"Too many of our schools are environments of failure, so no wonder kids are dropping out," says Shuman at one point in the documentary. "In my research, I had discovered that if you affect public space, you affect more people more of the time."
Indeed, since its founding 20 years ago, Publicolor has made an impact. New York City's on-time graduation rate is 68 percent. Among Publicolor students, that rate is 94 percent, almost all of whom go on to college, the organization says.
"If you actually put thought into what you surround yourself with, you can transform people and the organization," says Blackburn. "Design is powerful. Color and aesthetics matter. And not just to artists, but to all of us. Understanding this, we can help transform attitudes, and lives."
That's the over-arching theme of the film, which has been entered in various competitions in the U.S. and Europe, recently winning the prize for best short documentary at the Hollywood International Independent Film Festival. (It will compete at the Marché du Film, Cannes, France, in the spring.)
Though far from cockeyed optimists, the filmmakers weave a hopeful message, as bright and hypnotic as the colorful strips of fabric that decorate a room, floor to ceiling, in one of the documentary's most memorable scenes.
"When you become familiar with the program, and the children involved, it is simultaneously heartening and heartbreaking," Blackburn says. "These kids endure a lot of tough circumstances, and we made it our mission to create something that could lead to greater awareness and support. … We know this is not a panacea, but Publicolor gives these kids some sense of hope and a window to a better life."
Ultimately, if the film helps Publicolor raise funds to inspire just one more teenager to transcend his or her situation, "we've succeeded in a huge way." Blackburn says. "Who knows how many lives that one person may change?"