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21st May 2014
The way to go
Title of film: Airbnb, Views
Director: Alma Har'el
Alma Har'el shoots and directs her own films, from her first feature Bombay Beach to this around-the-world fest for Airbnb. Here she talks about experimenting with new cameras and working as a one-woman band.

You famously directed and shot your own feature film Bombay Beach with an original and unusual cinematic voice. (And, of course, the Sigur Ros Fjögur Píanó video, see in Related Content, that you directed is still very memorable although that was shot by Shawn Kim.) Now you have directed and were cinematographer on this around-the-world commercial for Airbnb. What is your creative process when you’re multi-tasking like this?

On Bombay Beach it was a necessity that I shot my own film because I had no budget to move someone there (Salton Sea, California) with me for such a long time. I was immersed in these people’s lives and wanted to film them with intimacy and no particular schedule. Being alone the whole time and also doing the sound gave me a lot of freedom, sometimes I could just spend the night on their couch. Now I’m filming my second film and I decided to shoot it myself again for the same reasons. Documentaries are a huge commitment and take years to make. My process is to pretty much make the camera an extension of my relationship with the people. It’s very different from music videos and commercials. There’s no shot list, just the moment itself and what it asks for. 

How did you become involved in the Airbnb shoot? 

I did the first campaign for Airbnb with Pereira & O’Dell and worked on it with Eduardo Marques and Rafael Rizuto who are two very special creatives who just moved to the US from Brazil. It was one of the most fun things I ever did.

We built 50 bird houses that were replicas of real Airbnb listings and filmed the people who built them to do an installation in New Orleans on “The tree of life” in Audubon Park. Josh Stricklin who always does my production design was the main man who orchestrated the whole thing on camera and my friend Zach Shields form the band “Dead Man’s Bones” did the music for it. It was really like a short film more than a usual commercial and we all loved working together. After it came out it went viral but then had to be removed very quickly because a competing company of Airbnb had a bird house in their logo and they were threatening to sue. A few months after when this campaign was forming they wanted us all to join forces again and we just picked it up where we left it. 

Would you say you have a deep curiosity about the technical side of film-making – are you constantly experimenting with cameras and lens? What did you use on the Airbnb shoot and what were the filmic qualities you were after?

I love filming and I love small cameras that a woman like me can hold the whole day with out getting tired. On this Airbnb campaign we needed to go around the world in 20 days and I was lucky to get one of the first models of the new digital d16 Bolex

I met with Joe Rubinstein who is the developer of the camera after they raised money on Kickstarter to produce the first 100 cameras. Now it’s on the market and I hope people are going to use it. It shoots RAW files and the colors are incredibly beautiful. I shot the whole commercial with the original Kern lenses from the 16mm Bolex cameras and they have a soft look that I wanted. I think it’s a pretty romantic feeling to imagine what it would be like to look at the world through a stranger’s window and to see the world through their eyes. 

I didn’t travel with any camera department crew and we hired locals everywhere we went. It’s a surprisingly fun way to meet new talented people and get a sense of the place you’re filming. We also got the lighting wherever we went and improvised a lot. It’s good to just throw yourself into the world sometimes and it went well with the feeling we were trying to capture. My process when I’m alone is obviously a lot simpler in many ways because I can show my strengths as a DP and hide my shortcomings.

I don’t shoot everything I direct but for some projects I know I’ll do the best job for myself and save everyone a headache. It’s also part of my process to talk to my favorite DPs before I leave and tell them what I’m doing and get their advice. In many ways I use these experiences to learn about light and about the technical side but in the day-to-day I’m more interested in learning how to tell a story and get to know characters over getting to know cameras. 

The Airbnb film is truly global, was shooting in so many different locations challenging or a dream?

It was a challenging dream! Non dualism all the way… 

Do you have a hard drive full of ideas that you adapt to new briefs or do you work on various treatments until you feel you have the right solution? 

For this one the creative was very clear so my ideas and my input were for the tone and for the scenes we will see through each window. There was a lot of back and forth with the creatives and with Airbnb but we stayed a good team. Some of the places allowed for me to do exactly what I imagined and some required for a whole new plan. We didn’t get to do a location scout everywhere we filmed and we would get some where and say ‘ok, today we have to let the shot find us instead of imposing what we planned’. It’s hard to do that in advertising but that’s why I love to work with this agency and one of the reasons they bring me on a job like this is that I’m used to that from documentaries. It was interesting to come to certain places and really figure out what’s the view this person can share with other Airbnb travelers. At the same time we had to negotiate the variety that the brand needs to offer and tick some boxes. 

In music videos it’s very different. I let the music tell me what the video is about. If the song isn’t speaking to me in images I pretty much feel it’s a waste of time. I’ve done a few of those and they were the equivalent of a relationship you knew wasn’t working but stayed in it too long. I don’t really have a hard drive full of ideas but I have archetypical images that come back to me just like we all do in our dreams.  In advertising it’s a different story. 

What informs your particular filmic vision – is it an amalgam of watching films, art, books etc – and if so are there any key influential ones? Or is it more a response to each brief? 

I think I’m still in the early process of forming it but it’s always influenced by all of the above and by movement and by life and dreams and the existential strife of being part of nature but equally being able to make semi-conscious decisions that can prove to be a joke. 

Each brief is a different story and it’s like making a new friend or going on a trip to a new place… you don’t want to come with too much baggage.

See stills from the production here

Bombay Beach

Alma Har’el