Diego Contreras is one of those guys who does just about everything well—although he wouldn’t be the one to tell you that. You’d have to drag it out of him like I had to before he finally admitted that, yes, he does seem to “pick things up quickly.”
Just a few years ago, Diego had never considered filmmaking as a career. He didn’t even know his camera had a video mode. Now—despite a promising career in advertising—Diego is looking to make his hobby into a full-time vocation. His latest project, a music video for the band Kool Head, is stirring up a lot of talk on the Internet, and we recently sat down with Diego to talk about his writing process, his professional approach to his craft, and how Vimeo played an important role in his development as an artist.
This is our conversation with Diego Contreras.
From Islands to Kool Head
DC: Sorry, I just woke up. I kind of overslept.
TMB: That’s fine. The interview will be more raw that way.
DC: Yeah, that’s good.
TMB: So how long have you been at Anomaly?
DC: I’ve been here for 3 years. It’s been great but it’s actually my last day today. I’m heading to a new place early next year.
TMB: Is that why you’re sleeping in until 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday?
DC: Hah, I usually sleep in. We work pretty late and often on the weekends, so we can get away with coming in later in the morning. But yeah, that’s also part of the reason.
TMB: Is this new place going to be a little more stringent do you think? More nine-to-five?
DC: The ad industry is usually pretty crazy, so nine-to-five is pretty rare. But I hear the hours there are a lot tamer. I’ve been doing the crazy hours thing for years now, so it’s nice to also have time for personal projects.
TMB: So I’m curious how you’ve balanced your advertising career and your filmmaking career so far. How do you fit it all in?
DC: There’s really no time for it. I have to make time. Advertising has been a 24/7 job and a lot of what I do on the side has happened on my nights and weekends, very late nights and weekends. That’s just the way it is for now. I’m still figuring out how to balance it all—mostly because I’m married now, and I want to spend time with my wife. I’m definitely lucky that she’s so supportive of what I do. She’s always on my shoots helping out; she’s the first one to read my treatments, and the first one to look at my edits. She’s more involved in these projects than anyone else, and I love that.
TMB: Do you think your experience in these advertising agencies has affected your work as a film director?
DC: Definitely. In many ways. I didn’t go to film school, so I was clueless on a lot of things about film. Stuff like having to yell, “Action!” (Which I don’t really like doing), the gear, lighting, people’s roles. I really didn’t have anyone to teach me that stuff, so I’ve learned a lot by just watching it all happen on commercial shoots. I’ve been lucky to work with talented guys like the Daniels [Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan], and Nabil Elderkin. Seeing the Daniels work had a huge influence on me wanting to work on music videos. I’ve also gotten used to working with short time formats, 30 to 60 seconds, which has helped me a lot with transitioning to writing music videos.
Advertising’s also had an impact on how I’ve learned to present my work. There’s always competition, both inside and outside an agency. You’re always competing with others to get your ideas sold and produced, so you gotta make sure your work looks the best it can. It has to stand out, and it has to look impressive on just that piece of paper.
TMB: That explains why your treatment document for the Kool Head music video is so amazing.
DC: I’ve always had a high standard for how I present work. I really craft my treatments. I think it’s important for people to visualize what I’m seeing and imagine the world I want to create. In a lot of ways, creating a good treatment is just as important as writing a good script or a good story. Someone should be able to spend 10 minutes looking through that document and have a pretty good idea of what the end product will look like.
Crafting the treatments has been really helpful when it comes to pitching music videos at this stage in my film career. These treatments are my first impression sometimes. I heard from a close friend that my director of photography for the Kool Head video, David Kruta, thought he was getting a treatment from some hotshot director, only to find out later that I was a newcomer doing videos on the side. It was funny to hear that and it meant the treatment worked.
I used to be afraid of sending treatments to my favorite DPs thinking they’d never get back to me. But when I sent out this treatment, almost all of them responded. It was great to realize that talented people are totally up for working on a project if they like the story. Sometimes you just gotta knock on some doors.
TMB: So can you walk me through how you create these treatments? Are you using InDesign?
DC: Yeah, it’s all put together in InDesign, but there’s also lots of heavy Photoshop work put into some of the key images. I also love doing an overall color correction to make sure all the images share the same look and feel. I’ve done design work for years now, so that also helps. I’m honestly a little obsessive about treatments. I spend a lot of time finding reference shots. Vimeo has been a great resource. With Kool Head, I had a little more than a month to finish their treatment, but I rarely have that luxury.
TMB: Are you kind of learning the story as you’re putting the treatment together? Or do you already have your ideas pretty set?
DC: I usually write the entire story first. But I think mostly visually, so the stories always evolve as I’m looking for reference images for the treatments. I sometimes find visuals that make no sense for the video, but I try to find ways to bring them into the story anyway.
TMB: So how did this Kool Head project come about?
DC: I met Jason Nitti [the producer/songwriter of Kool Head] a few years ago when I joined Anomaly. He was an art director there. I found out he was playing in a hardcore punk band with some other guys from the agency, and I totally gravitated toward that because I also played in hardcore/metal bands growing up. We were both creating stuff outside of work, and I think that’s what sparked our friendship. We admired each other’s work.
One day out of the blue, Jason sent me a folder filled with tracks from his new Kool Head music project, and it blew me away. It felt totally fresh and catchy. I asked if I could shoot a video, and he let me pick any of the tracks I wanted. I immediately picked “Leon.” A few months later, Kool Head started turning heads on the Internet, and they decided to promote “Leon” as their first upcoming single.
TMB: You picked a good one.
DC: They have so many amazing tracks, but “Leon” really stuck with me. It felt like it came straight out of the Drive soundtrack. It felt perfect for a nighttime neon-y sort of world.
A few years ago, I’d written a weird TV spot for Converse about kids waking up in the middle of the night and sleepwalking to a basketball court to play ball. It was about loving something so much that you do it in your sleep. But like 98 percent of our work in advertising, it went into the horrifying black hole of dead ideas. So I brought it back out and used it as a starting point for “Leon,” which quickly evolved into a new story for the video.
Our budget was initially zero dollars, and the expectations weren’t big for the video. But I thought the track was so amazing that it deserved something bigger—something special. We decided to launch a Kickstarter to fund the video, and we quickly realized how tough it is to raise money. Some people laughed at us for asking for money for a music video. We only got to about 27 percent funded with just seven days left, and I started to lose hope. Then, out of nowhere, some of our clients at the agency—who know Jason personally and are Kool Head fans—pitched in and helped fund the rest of the video. I was speechless.
Even so, that Kickstarter budget turned out to be too little for the treatment, so my producer and I pitched in to double the budget and bring up the production quality.
TMB: Was this your first time directing something on this scale?
DC: On this scale, yeah. I’ve never felt that much pressure when doing my smaller videos. I was both the director and DP on those, so I had the freedom to be spontaneous and go with my gut. But it’s so much harder when you have a large crew who consistently waits for your directions.
I had a moment on our second shoot day where things were not going well at all. We were out on a crazy-busy street at rush hour, and the neighbors were poking their heads out of their doors and windows. Some random guy was yelling at me and asking if we had a permit to shoot on the street. We were losing light and people were getting anxious. Suddenly it was nighttime, and we hadn’t shot a single frame. There were people looking at me from 30 directions, and for the first time in my young filmmaking career, I crumbled. I felt like Spartacus in the arena about to be torn to pieces. My brain kind of blacked out for five straight minutes. It’s a crazy feeling to see your shoot fall apart like that.
TMB: How did you pull yourself out of that?
DC: You just have to keep going. People are looking up to you as the director, and you gotta lift yourself up and do whatever you can to get it done. I decided the day scene would have to work as a night scene, and it somehow worked out in the edit. Looking back at that moment, it was actually a great learning experience for me. I guess I needed a little bit of punching to improve and grow up.
TMB: There’s a lot more freedom to screw up when nobody’s watching.
DC: Totally, and that’s what’s interesting about personal projects. People can tell you something turned out amazing, but they’re not seeing all the bad, shaky stuff you cut away from the edit. If you make mistakes on the shoot, those stay with you and no one else. But on these bigger productions, you have to stay strong and show confidence in yourself. The moment you lose that, people start doubting you.
TMB: So speaking of personal projects, we should probably talk about “Islands.” Was that the first video you did that really broke through?
DC: Yeah. It was so shocking because before “Islands” I would never get more than 50 to 100 Plays on my videos, and maybe just a few Likes. Not that I care so much about that stuff, but I really wasn’t expecting much more than that. “Islands” was a very personal video. It was shot on our honeymoon, and it really wasn’t meant to be seen by that many people. I put a lot of heart into the edit. And when I finished it, I could tell it was very emotional.
A few hours after I put it up on Vimeo, it got picked up by the Staff Picks, and then it kind of blew up. It got more than 100,000 Plays on the first day, and it also got picked up by some of my favorite blogs, like Fubiz.
TMB: Do you know how they found it? How does the Staff Pick happen?
DC: Not really, but this was the first time I figured out that I could add my video to groups and channels on Vimeo. I had no clue you could do that. I also started sharing it on all the little Shout Boxes on my favorite channels. A few hours later, I believe Sam Morrill from Vimeo picked it up, and it went up on the Staff Picks.
My phone started buzzing like crazy. I got showered with emails. I have those notifications set up that tell me when I get Likes on my videos. I used to get maybe one a month. Then suddenly I had 300 emails in a matter of minutes. I was like, “This is strange. What the heck is going on?” I went to the Vimeo homepage and saw it up there, and I was like, “What!?”
TMB: They don’t tell you? They don’t email you or something?
DC: I don’t think so; it just happens.
TMB: That’s pretty funny.
DC: That Staff Picks incident really spiked my interest in doing film as a career. Before then, I only dreamed about being a filmmaker. But I wasn’t even thinking it could happen that soon. I had a phone call recently with Jeff Hurlow from Vimeo, and I was telling him how I didn’t know how to thank them. That little click of a button to pick up my video as a Staff Pick is launching my film career.
This past year has been crazy, and I’m so deeply thankful for it.
The Music Bed licenses music to filmmakers and other creative folk for use in streaming videos, films, commercials, promos, highlights, slideshows and the like.
Our library is full of relevant hand-picked music for any flavor of media. We're your one-stop-song-shop for inspiration, continuous listening, and proper music licensing.