Get To Know: Hylton Tannenbaum, Talking Testicles ‘n’ All

Award-winning director Hylton Tannenbaum has directed a staggering 200+ commercials during his 20 years in the industry. He has built up a diverse range of directing abilities and styles and favours performance, humour and storytelling in his work. Hylton has worked with a vast variety of brands and agencies and has picked up numerous awards including two Cannes Lions.

Most recently, Hylton worked alongside NERD to direct a series of snappy online commercials for Nestlé, which can be spotted across social media. We decided to find out more about the project, as well as dive deeper into the world of one of NERD’s most accomplished commercial directors.

Tell us more about directing the Nestlé project.
HT> It was a fun project to work on. JWT London were really collaborative and seemed to like my ideas. We had a great crew – which enabled us to shoot 5 scenarios in one day!

What did you enjoy most about the process?
HT> I loved the idea of making scenarios that involved kids but we never actually see the kids, rather, we see the aftermath of their boredom. We feel their presence through the mess and mayhem they’ve left behind. 

You were a pretty creative kid growing up, weren’t you? How did you get into film at such a young age?
HT> My Dad consulted at a film lab and had a Super 8mm camera. There was always stock laying around. From the age of 10 I started using it to shoot little movies using my friends and family as actors. It was a huge thrill shooting on 8mm film, getting it processed and then watching it at home on a projector. I loved everything about it – the smell of the stock, the sound of the camera, the grain, variable frame rate & exposure on the film.

At what point in your life did you realise that directing was the career you wanted to pursue?
HT> The first time I heard film roll through the gate on that 8mm camera, I was hooked. I went to advertising school in South Africa and all I was interested in doing was shooting other students’ scripts – this time on DVCAM though. Fortunately, a lot of those guys went on to become ECDs at big agencies – so I got to work with them again later in life, this time with budgets and catering.

Which award do you feel most proud to have won?
HT> The first one. It was the Kodak Student Film Award in 1995. I won Best Student Commercial for a Pirelli ad we shot in a little village in Italy. We were a crew of six, had one roll of Super 16mm film, a 1,000 quid budget and two old Italian theatre actors. We had so much fun, and the award opened doors to my directing career.

Over the years you have produced hundreds of pieces of content, is there anything that stands out to you and why?
HT> A couple of years ago I directed Testi-monials for CANSA with FCB Cape Town. It was basically a talking testicle, a survivor of testicular cancer educating men about the signs and symptoms to look out for. It was interesting and effective using humour to convey a serious message. I also loved the weeks we spent in CG debating how the pubic hairs should gently sway and whether the scrotum should twitch a little as the testicle’s mouth moves… 

What has been your most successful project to date?
HT> See above. The Testi-monials campaign went on to win two silver Cannes Lions, a Clio, three Gold Loeries and a Ciclope film craft award. I also get a kick out of telling people that my talking balls won awards AND saved lives.

What is the process you go through when producing a piece of work?
HT> When I take on a project I fully immerse myself in it. Day and night – it’s all I think about. I shoot it over and over in my head, I do these really bad drawings and I draw inspiration from my favourite movies and commercials. By the time I get to set I’m well prepared and am ready to answer any question anyone may have. From hair & make-up to camera moves to how I like my coffee… Martin Scorsese once said being a director is being able to confidently answer approximately 100 questions a day.

What is the biggest misconception about live action directorial work?
HT> That every single detail is worked out before shooting. Maybe some directors work like this, but I like to keep an open collaboration with the agency, key crew and actors. Film making is an organic process – and of course we set out with a very firm idea of what we’re making, but we also need to be receptive to some magic happening on the day. An actor may suddenly have inspiration to try the performance in another way or change the dialogue a little, the DOP may come up with a different way of shooting a scene etc. The director needs to be receptive to those ideas because some of them will be great and could make the work better than he or she could have ever imagined. The skill is knowing which ideas to filter because there’s only so much you can fit into a shoot day.

We know you’re very familiar with NERD’s ethos of diversity, inclusion and nurturing young talent, but what attracted you to join NERD?
HT> I’ve known NERD’s founder Milana Karaica for a long time, from well before NERD – we shot together many times. I’ve always respected her honesty, integrity and passion for putting creative above all else – and it’s fantastic to see how those attributes have become a large part of NERD’s culture. I love the way young talent is fostered there but they’re smart enough to surround the young ones with seasoned professionals.

What is your stance on the gender inequality in the industry?
HT> I mentored a female director for many years and loved the insight and approach she brought to her work. She was particularly skilled at action sequences and car shoots – which was wonderful as she rightfully flipped the stereotype on its head. It’s crazy that we still live in an age where the choice of using a female director is even questioned, it’s even more outrageous that there is still a pay difference in the industry as a whole. In fact, I believe women should actually get paid more – because they’re far more awesome than men. (I have a wife and two teenage daughters, so I come from a place of experience on this matter).

What is your favourite type of work to produce?
HT> I love big, technical shoots. I love the energy and excitement of building a big set, using green screen, stunts, having multiple cameras rolling at once. Doing things that haven’t been done before – recently we built a large submerged living room set in an indoor swimming pool (it was an insurance ad and the living room needed to be flooded). And then conversely, I love small performance pieces. Two actors, one camera and a great script. I really enjoy the extremes of these kinds of work and I’m lucky enough to be in an industry where I get to do both, sometimes in the same month!

Do you ever see yourself getting tired of directing?
HT> No, never. I’ll direct until I drop dead, which will hopefully be on set, in my late nineties, moments after calling: “it’s a wrap!” on the greatest shoot I ever did. Fortunately, directing is a discipline that you can keep crafting and improving, and the industry celebrates old directors – George Miller, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese all directing into their 80’s.

Is there anyone that you would love to collaborate with and why?
HT> Plenty of people. Too many to mention. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best people, and its true what they say – if you want your work to shine then surround yourself with great people. But there are still a lot of great agency creatives out there I’d love to shoot for and a lot of great actors, DOPs and editors I’d love to work with.

Thanks Hylton!

See more of Hylton’s work here.

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