Chris Hooper Draws on His Boundless Imagination
The Über Content director, a former cartoonist and
illustrator, knows how to sketch a character or two.
By Anthony Vagnoni
As a kid, Chris Hooper says he was always drawing. It was more than just a form of creative expression - in some respects, it was an escape. "Bullies at school used to force me to draw dirty pictures for them," he recalls with a laugh, making us wonder whether his work was more in line with that of R. Crumb than B. Kliban. "But what was great about drawing was that it allowed me to bring things from my imagination into the real world."
A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Hooper's penchant for drawing and his interest in animation led him south, to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he initially majored in illustration. But there was a drawback to that, says Hooper, whose career trajectory took him into advertising and who's now a director with the L.A.-based production company Über Content. "I felt that if I pursued that, I'd end up alone in a small room, rendering drawings for the rest of my life," he says. So he switched to the more palatable - and sociable - discipline of advertising design, while also taking classes in the school's vaunted film program.
Both choices paid off, as he landed an art director's job at TBWA\Chiat\Day, which in turn was followed by a Senior AD post at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. He spent five years on the agency side before taking the next step into directing. "I always knew I wanted to make the transition," he says. "I remember seeing 'Day For Night' and being hooked."
While the films of Francois Truffaut have never been known as laugh riots, humor was nonetheless another strong influence too, as evidenced by his reel of laugh out loud commercials. Hooper worked as an editorial cartoonist in Canada earlier in his career, and still admires the ability of a single-panel drawing and a few well-chosen words to make people roll on the floor. "It's my secret ideal to draw for The New Yorker," he admits.
Other ideals have proven to be more attainable. For a kid hooked on movies and a fan of comics, he's had the chance to work with some iconic heroes from film and TV, he points out - like Ripley from "Alien," Captain Kirk from "Star Trek" and Dr. Emmett Brown from "Back to the Future." All have appeared in various spots in the long-running "Fourth Wall" campaign for DirecTV that Hooper has shot. In these spots, key players from famous flicks break character in mid-scene and speak directly to the audience about the virtues of watching movies via the brand's satellite broadcast service.
In each instance, Hooper worked with the actors from these classics - Sigourney Weaver, William Shatner and Christopher Lloyd, in these cases - to recreate their movie roles. The spots are seamless integrations of new material spliced into older films, and required a combination of visual effects tricks to pull off effectively, Hooper notes.
More recently, the director has reunited with the DirecTV client on a spot from Grey, New York titled "I Am Epic Win," part of a larger campaign that's gotten tremendous buzz both in the ad trades and the blogosphere. The spot features 'Gregor,' the over-the-top Russian oligarch, played flawlessly by an Irish actor named Tim Murphy. Surrounded by sexy models and his trademark miniature giraffe, Gregor has a bodybuilder lift weights for him (he gets the muscle contraction benefits via electrodes hooked up to his biceps) while he extols the limitless choices available on DirecTV. Strawberry Frog's Scott Godson, covering Cannes this year for Forbes magazine, called it one of the best TV spots to have come out so far this year.
As his earlier DirecTV work reveals, Hooper's become rather handy at integrating visual effects into his work, which seems to be a required skill for comedy directors these days.
It's apparent in all of his work on Deutsch's California Cheese campaign – those spots in which happy cows make the best cheese. The spots feature performances of talking animals (with VFX courtesy of the Pittsburgh, PA and Venice-based effects studio Animal) that are full of quirky nuances - it's as though Hooper, in some kind of bovine whisperer manner, transferred his ability to work with actors to cud-chewers.
The director's relationship with Deutsch in L.A. has been at the heart of both of these campaigns. His work on the "Fourth Wall" spots, for example, came out of work he did earlier on the brand that featured big-name athletes and an actor playing a DirecTV installer. The spots required some effects work, and so the agency team felt he could handle the more challenging scripts that the "Fourth Wall" entailed.
"It's been a great partnership with Deutsch," says Hooper about his work with the agency. "They believed I had the requisite toolset as a director, given my background. But it's really been built on a relationship and on collaboration, and that's a great way to work."
There was an element of trust, too, which carried over with the client when it moved its account east to Grey in New York-the agency behind the "Epic Win" spot and other new work for the brand. "I think they felt that I understood what the brand's message is all about," says the director. Adds Phyllis Koenig, EP and Partner at Über Content, "Chris was an obvious choice for this, based on the work they'd done together in the past."
Hooper joined Über Content three years ago, and says the shop still feels like an upstart even though it's five years old. "It's great to be with a company that's growing and has somewhere to go," he remarks. Koenig's partner in company is Preston Lee, and together the two of them have tried to build a shop that, as its name implies, is wide open to all forms of media, not just traditional TV spots.
Indeed, says Koenig, the shop is exploring the launch of a division geared towards entertainment projects in film and television, Hooper says he's excited about the prospect of being able to use his base at Über Content as a platform for work in other disciplines.
His commercials reel, while strong on comedy, runs the stylistic gamut, from car spots for brands like VW to the aforementioned cheese ads with chattering critters to the occasional mood piece reeking of sex appeal, like his spot for PETA in which a succession of smoking hot women cavort with their favorite vegetables.
Regarding comedy work, Hooper obviously has some strong feelings about where the genre is headed in the post-"Seinfeld" era. "Reality television has created a comedy environment where you need a sense of believability and spontaneity," he observes. "On the other hand, there's still room for the finely-crafted comedy piece, one that's full of detail and nuance, where the viewer picks up new details with each successive screening. And that's where it's changed-these days, comedy either has to be completely convincing or artfully done. And that's exciting for me, being a former art director, because I still have that passion for detail, where every item in every frame counts."
Are the things that clients are looking for in a comedy spot different than what they used to be? Hooper says in some ways they are. "Everyone wants the work to be effective, that's first and foremost," he says. "And every commercial has a chance to achieve that goal.
"But when it comes to the web," he continues, "what client doesn't want their advertising to earn high marks? They want their work popularized, they want it memorable and watchable, something that improves after you've seen it over and over. That requires bravery on their part, and trust in their agencies, but the payoff can be great."
Hooper says the lurking presence of whether you work will be 'liked' (in the Facebook sense) or not comes up in conference calls all the time. "We keep it in mind all the time while making creative decisions about things like casting and art direction," he says. "It's all part of how the web has both informed and transformed advertising."
What's on tap for the director? For now, it's more advertising work, as he's busy juggling a crowded shooting schedule and the responsibilities of raising a family with two small kids, ages six years and ten months. And what about his doodling days? Is there a graphic novel percolating in the background, a comedy script or treatment, maybe an idea for a web series or TV show of his own? "I've got all of the above in my hip pocket," he says with a laugh. "It's all fantastically super-funny stuff. And when I get a spare minute, I'm going to shoot all of it."
Published 3 August, 2011