Lance Acord On The Spot

Acord wears two hats: He’s a cinematographer, with feature-film credits that include Lost in Translation and Adaptation, and a commercial director, most recently on TBWA\180’s “Impossible Is Nothing” campaign for Adidas and Audi’s “Progressions” spot. He also runs production company Park Pictures with Jackie Kelman Bisbee. Acord, a 39-year-old Northern California native who studied photography and filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, was nominated for a Directors Guild of America award for outstanding achievement in commercials for 2003.

Q. Usually people move to films after doing commercials. You did the opposite—how did that happen?

A. It was a way of seeing the process through a little bit. It was at first fascinating and very satisfying for me to go from being a cinematographer to a director because you’re involved in all the finishing aspects of the commercial. [As a cinematographer], you shoot tons of film, and a lot of times you never really see where that goes. There’s a lot of decisions that have been made before you got there that are very difficult to magically transform into something pleasing. As a director, you can ultimately really control visually what it is from the concept.

What was the most challenging part of the Adidas campaign?

Not getting lost in all the [technical details]. Because when it got right down to it, our biggest hope was that they wouldn’t call attention to themselves. It’s easy, in the midst of all that, to lose sight of the more important things, like the emotion of the spot. What is the expression Laila [Ali] has on her face, and what is that saying?

How do you choose commercial projects?

I pick the ones I respond to the most. A lot of projects come my way that are good but I don’t feel like I would necessarily do that good a job with. It’s like, “Wow, this is a huge commercial,” but then I find myself saying, “I don’t know if I really connect with this.” I just feel strongly I need to somehow relate to the material. I can usually tell right away. But a lot of times projects come that are relatively underdeveloped—those, in some ways, are the trickier ones. You have to trust who you’re working with, that you ultimately will be able to be a strong part of the process.

What work are you most proud of?

Lost in Translation. When you don’t have any gear or a big crew, the main purpose of the process of filmmaking is to facilitate the acting. But a lot of times those films are boring to look at. I’ve never felt it has to be that way. Seeing some of the Dogma films that are so powerful and the acting so amazing, I just question, Do they need to look like hell? A lot of times I feel like they do.

How has the critical success of Lost in Translation affected your career?

It hasn’t really changed that much. You get a lot more scripts to consider—a lot more. But if I’m going to do a commercial project, I’d really prefer it to just be a commercial. It’s more straightforward and pure somehow. When I do films, it’s such a drawn-out, labor-intensive process. To do a purely commercial film for a pay check, it’s not worth it when I can do that in commercials.

Do you see yourself directing a feature?

I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and there seems to be so much going on with my company. I’ve been working hard these past couple years to get established. I’m not really in a position to take on a feature. That’s the beauty of being a cinematographer. You come in a month or two before [shooting starts], and you’re really involved with that aspect of the process. Because there’s only so many things you can commit to thoroughly.

Name someone you’d love to work with.

Terrence Malick. I like the way he really has mastered the language of cinema itself—how the visuals function as metaphors and symbols, and have meanings aside from the more literal aspects of the script.

What is the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately?

Cost-consultancy. I don’t know if that’s a creative trend, but it’s going to lead to the end of a lot of good creative. Agencies have producers who help control their budgets. And they have incentives to be frugal with them, because they want to produce as much good work as possible. You don’t need another, outside group coming in and trying to control what money is spent and how. Advising them on not going to one location over another because it’s cheaper is crazy.

How about the most disappointing trend specific to the work?

What I just can’t stand anymore is when there’s a script and everyone reads the script, and then they cut everyone together saying little bits of the script. You know that “I am Tiger Woods” that Nike did? It kind of kicked that whole thing off. Those spots shouldn’t be made anymore.

What’s the smartest career decision you ever made?

Starting my own production company. At the time, I was still shooting a lot of commercials as well as directing them, and it was the wisest way to go about directing commercials. I’d received offers from a lot of bigger production companies, and I felt like I needed to do it on my own. It could just be quieter and outside the whole scene.

What’s your biggest fear?

Working too much and then looking back on it all and feeling like you overlooked an opportunity to do the more important things in your life in terms of connecting with your family. It’s easy to get swept up in everything.