LBB | The Directors: Michael Gregory

Director and ECD at The Mill LA on bringing characters to life and combining live action with CG
Press September 29, 2022

Michael came to the industry by way of his graphic design degree he earned from Central St Martins. He has spent 10 years at MPC in London working as a VFX supervisor. In 2016, he moved to LA to work with MPC LA, and now The Mill, where he is the executive creative director. His impressive portfolio of work includes some of the industry’s most acclaimed commercials, including the double Cannes Gold Lion winning and triple VES winning Samsung ‘Do What You Can’t’ spot directed by Matthijs Van Heijningen. As a director, his spot for Arm and Hammer won Gold for ‘Best Animation in a Commercial’ at the 2021 VES awards.  Between his work as a VFX supervisor and director, Michael has collected over 20 of the most sought-after awards in the industry.

Name: Michael Gregory

Location: Los Angeles

Repped by/in: The Mill, LA

Awards: VES Award – Arm & Hammer ‘Once Upon a Time’ (Outstanding Animated Character in a Commercial).

LBB: What elements of a script sets one apart from the other and what sort of scripts get you excited to shoot them?

Michael: Well, a good script for me is one that you can already visualise on first read. Ideas already spinning around the brain. The “formula” needs to be coming together already – “oh this would look great here…what if we did that there?”  Simplicity and originality are also key. Not a copy of a copy. There should be just enough on the page for you to start getting excited by where you might take it.

LBB: How do you approach creating a treatment for a spot?

Michael: For me, it is all about getting my creative idea across. Normally, I’ll find a few key images that define an idea and use those as the base to then write the copy. I find that ‘Day One’ is all about collecting all your thoughts and really letting the mind go wild with the different possibilities. On Day Two I start eliminating the ones that don’t work and keep the ones that can be connected or built out. It’s important to make everything very clear – once someone has read your treatment, they need to understand exactly what you want to make. The tone, look, how you will execute it, and so on, all must be laid out from a creative’s perspective. The team you’re working with might have been pitching and working on this idea for a year, so it is important to deliver your vision for it. The treatment needs to land in their inbox and be their idea returned as a fairground ride of ideas and excitement.

LBB: If the script is for a brand that you’re not familiar with/ don’t have a big affinity with or a market you’re new to, how important is it for you to do research and understand that strategic and contextual side of the ad? If it’s important to you, how do you do it?

Michael: It’s good to know the brand’s history and where that particular brand sits in the market. I normally watch some previous campaigns if I’m not aware of their previous work. It gives you a sense of who you are working with and shows the client that you can represent them. Normally, the brand will tell you any fears the client may have or watch outs – that can be helpful in avoiding any potential issues. It’s also good to be aware of the journey they have been on if you are making something new. How does your content fit or deviant from their past content? Now in the case the work might be for an existing successful campaign, the pressure is on; but sometimes you’re looking to set a benchmark of a new campaign all together.

LBB: For you, what is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person in making an ad? And why?

Michael: I think that is a rolling, everchanging list. It starts with your producer, but then you win the job and it’s your storyboard artist that is now the most important. Then the production designer takes over, then the DP, and so on in each critical stage of the work. Then, of course, your producer tells you you’re over budget and it’s the barman serving you a pint as you strategize that holds your focus. Then the PA, who’s helping you block a shot, comes back into importance, and the dance continues. Each project is a journey and having good working relationships with all the crew is so important to keep the line moving.

LBB: What type of work are you most passionate about – is there a particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Michael: Character work is a big part of my reel; I love to bring characters to life. I use live action combined with CG, and when you get the two right, it’s wonderful. Building a digital character from scratch is a very cool experience. From concepting, design, casting a real actor for performance, animation, voice casting, you get to see them literally become “alive.” Working in those character trait details is what gives you believability on screen: you can really push personality into them. You always need to start with a name. In a recent spot I made, a female cat says, “you can drink from my saucer anytime.” That’s a great inuendo line, so what did we do to capture that vibe? I looked at Christina Hendricks in Madmen as casting reference. We called her Kiki, made her a red head, and I cast a similar actress for the performance. We replace the head with CGI, but the performance and facial animation comes from the actor, and we gave her a sultry voice and big glasses that sat on the bridge of her nose. She had 2 seconds of screen time but absolutely nailed the character I wanted her to have.  You must go “all in,” even if it is the smallest part.

LBB: What misconception about you or your work do you most often encounter and why is it wrong?

Michael: The misconception I sometimes see is that just because I tend to direct commercials that have a lot of visual effects, I can’t work outside of that. I can and I do! I’m just telling a story with my imagination.

LBB: Have you ever worked with a cost consultant and if so how have your experiences been?

Michael: My producers are the ones who work with cost consultants more directly. On my part, I’m very good at making every dollar go on screen. There’s a challenge to making budgets look bigger than they are.  You work within your constraints and requirements, but there are definitely tricks and trades to make something look like it cost twice what it did.

LBB: What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Michael: Trying to find a saloon we could film in during the COVID-19 pandemic. The world had been closed for quite some time, but my producer found one of the only countries that was open to film production. A couple of phone calls later, and low and behold we found they had a Saloon on a backlot just outside Sofia, Bulgaria. Four weeks later, I was directing a cowboy scene over zoom. It was a lot of fun. When the world opened up, I went back and shot on the stage there – it was nice to see everyone in person after working with them remotely. I didn’t realise they had my zoom audio on a loudspeaker for 2 days. I think some of the crew may never get over that.

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