Profile: Tommy Means

Mekanism founder Tommy Means is best known for his work directing viral Web videos. But he is about to make his mark in the movies with this month’s theatrical release of Surfwise, a feature-length documentary he produced with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and mogul Mark Cuban.

Means got the idea for the film when he attended a surf camp eight years ago for his 30th birthday and met Dr. Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a real character who dropped out of mainstream society 30 years ago and raised his family in a camper while surfing all over the world. “It was one of those moments where you’re like, ‘God, someone needs to make a documentary about this family!'” he says.

Means secured financing and the rights to Paskowitz’s story, hired Doug Pray (Scratch) to direct and then hit surfing spots in Southern California, Israel and Hawaii to shoot. “It was pretty amazing to shoot out in these huge waves in Hawaii with a giant hi-def camera,” says the first-time feature filmmaker.

Means aspires to direct his own picture one day. But, for now, his focus remains on serving his advertising clients via Mekanism, the San Francisco-based production studio he formed in 2000 after stints at a small documentary production company and production shop Complete Pandemonium.

Means, who runs the shop and directs many of the company’s projects, founded Mekanism to take high production values and strong storytelling into new media. He recalls pitching the concept to agencies and clients eight years ago and being met with a lot of blank stares. “Back then, nobody knew what the hell I was talking about,” the director laughs.

Means started shooting viral films “before I think there even was such a thing,” making his mark with an ambitious series of Webisodes for Sega’s Super Monkey Ball Deluxe that played out like a TV series and brought him a gold Lion at Cannes in 2005. The films center on a guy, Chad, who chooses to live inside a giant ball, just like the character in his favorite video game.

Means’ trademark is smart, subversive humor mixed with strokes of broad comedy. In a 2006 series of Webisodes created with McCann Erickson, New York, for Microsoft on, comedian Demetri Martin embarks on a search for clarity at a freaky institute filled with screwy scientists. The effort merited two silver Lions at Cannes in 2007.

Other credits include “World’s Dirtiest Film” for Axe (with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York). Cut into a Web film as well as 30-second spots, this October 2007 spoof of avantgarde European art films has David Spade observing humorously kinky scenes, including a group of people getting sudsy in a huge bubble bath.

Elsewhere, a cast of oddballs ranging from a heavy metal dude to a guy in a raccoon suit traverse the country in videos for, a multimedia campaign launched in February for the Toyota Matrix (with Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles). Your Other You is essentially a complex interactive prank, with elements including videos, phone calls and text messages, designed to make the victim think that someone he’s never met is going to show up at his house.

Means, who includes Wes Anderson and Ricky Gervais among his comedic influences, isn’t quite sure where his bizarre sense of humor comes from. “I just look at the monitor and tell people to do stuff that makes me laugh,” he says. “There’s not really a science behind it.”

That said, there is quite a bit of thinking that goes into crafting how the videos he shoots fit into and function within the sites that host them. Take Means’ latest project, Launched in April, it centers on the efforts of the fictional National Organization for Legislation Against Fun. Means was hired by Chicago’s Element 79 Partners to build the site and direct the full-screen interactive video, which allows users to manipulate the characters. “I personally think the next frontier is going to be full-screen interactive video,” the emerging media expert predicts, “and I think is a great example of the possibilities.”