Last week, Todd Cole’s agent sent me a link to the new video he did for Kate Spade. So many fashion videos are boring, or cheesy, or just kind of mediocre, that I really appreciate when I see a good one. And this one is really good – so much so that I wanted to hear more about how it came about. I also realized that although I’ve known Todd for some time, I didn’t know much about his background and how he came to do what he does, so while I was at it, I sent through a few more questions.
Skye Parrott: I really love the new video you did for Kate Spade, which functions as a choose-your-own-adventure. How did the idea for it come about? Did you have a lot of input on the feel and style of the video, or did that direction come down from the brand?
Todd Cole: Kate Spade approached me with the idea of doing some films with this interactive concept. I thought it was a great idea, super smart and very forward thinking. I thought it was a great progressions to what these fashion brands films can be. They had the initial idea that you could choose whether the girl did a cannonball or swan dive, etc… and I just took that and fleshed out the scripts. Instead of a swan dive, I loved the idea of a swan landing in the pool and disrupting her perfect dive. Kate Spade has such an identifiable brand aesthetic, and that is always a great starting point. We just built on this. The bathing suits recalled the glamour of old Hollywood, and the history of movie stars escaping for long weekends of parties in Palm Springs. So Palm Springs was the obvious location to me from the beginning. I have an amazing production designer named Ruth de Jong who I worked with closely to create this girl’s world. It was so perfectly Kate Spade to me. I was heavily referencing the films of Douglas Sirk, real classic cinematography, graphic. And I only wanted primary colors in the frame.
Skye: It has an amazing shot in it of a swan wiggling its tail. Was that planned or just really lucky?
Todd: Animals are tough to work with… and swans are generally not nice birds. It was planned. That swan was a pro. We just let her go in the pool and filmed her with long takes as I waited for her to do something spontaneous that would help tell the story and give the bird some attitude!
Skye: You shoot both still and moving images. How different is the process for you of making a video or shooting photographs? What’s the same? Which do you prefer?
Todd: I love doing both, but they are completely different to me. Videos in generally require you to tell a story, or at least string a series of images together over a period of time in a coherent way. Film/video is 24 frames per second, where with photography you can shoot thousands of frames to get just one good one. So film is much more challenging in my opinion. I am a photographer, and I really understand how to compose a frame, but I always work with a DP when doing a video. There are so many other things I need to worry about, and I would rather not have to worry about exposures and the specifics of lighting, etc. I feel like I would be very foolish to try to do it all myself, when I could work with a great DP who has been working in these situations with these cameras for ten years. But photography, especially fashion photography, is about directing your subject to get what you want, as well as lighting, composition, building characters. So I have been surprised on how much of this has translated to directing film/video.
Skye: Since we’re having this little email conversation, tell me a little about how you grew up. Were your parents creative? How did you become a photographer? What do you think you’d be doing with your life if you hadn’t?
Todd: I grew up in Houston, TX. My dad is a scientist and geologist and my mother is an artist and new age shaman for the Junior League and debutantes. So it was a fairly interesting childhood. I was a really good football player in high school – which means more in Texas than most places – so I went to college to play football and just got a business degree because I thought it might be useful. I got out of college and went to work for some stockbrokers and had an existential crisis. So I had a few astrology readings and a past life regression session, and then moved to LA to be a director. I assisted some directors and I taught myself photography with the help of some good friends who had graduated from the art schools out here.
Honestly, I have always been very serious about creating the life I want to live, so I can’t envision it being any different from what it is.
Skye: Tell me about your first real job as a photographer.
Todd: Oh man. It might have been shooting Paul Verhoeven for Index back in the day. I had him at the Chateau for like 30 minutes. He is super intense, but cool… and one of my favorite films is Starship Troopers, so I fanned out on him for the first five minutes. Telling him he is a subversive genius and that no one got that movie. Then I asked him to hit ping pong balls at me at the ping pong table as I took photos. He went nuts and started slamming ping pong balls at me. He was sweating and had this crazy look in his eye. We did that for like ten minutes and then I took a couple of bad portraits and that was it. Index never ran the ping pong shots, but they were epic.
Skye: What’s the best job you’ve ever done (and – if you want to tell me – the worst)?
Todd: An early best in my career, was shooting a project for Martin Margiela for their SS 07 mens collection. I have always had such respect for him and the label he created. I love the clothes. And then one morning I received and email from the house asking me to do a project. I totally tripped out. I also LOVE my Rodarte films. There in no one I like working with more than Kate and Laura. I think the things we do together is my best stuff. Worst… hmmm… back when I was living in Houston, after I decided I wanted to be a director, but before I moved to LA, I worked for a corporate video company in Texas. We made infomercials and internal videos for home builders and hospitals. I remember some of those as being very dry, to say the least. I had NO idea what I was doing and spent a lot of time in trying to figure out how a camera worked in some track house on the outskirts of Houston.
Skye: When I get interviewed people always ask me what projects I’m working on now. On one hand that feels like a cliché. On the other, it’s nice to have an opportunity to talk about stuff you’re excited about. Can you tell me something you’re working on that feels like a departure? If nothing fits that description, is there anything you have brewing in your head that’s really different than the work you’ve done so far?
Todd: Eventually I would like to direct a feature film. I have written a script for a short film that I am trying to raise some funding for. I am pushing myself more into working with proper actors and dialogue. It’s a whole new world for me, and is deeper creative experience when it comes to making films. I have always been more drawn to quiet films, but lately everything I write or pitch has a crazy car stunt or big explosion scene. I don’t know why. Hollywood is getting to me, I guess. I am seeing things with Sam Peckinpah eyes.