Raised in Toronto, The Collective @ Lair founder Thor Raxlen has been honing his filmmaking chops since the early ‘90s, when he moved to New York to start working on music videos and other productions. Eventually, he was hired by none other than the Library of Congress to make a documentary about jazz musician Gerry Mulligan. The film ultimately screened at Lincoln Center with an introduction by Wynton Marsalis, but what really set Raxlen’s career in motion was a pivotal choice he made before the work was even finished.
“To finish the job, we had the choice of either paying an editing company or, for the same money, I could buy a nonlinear editing system,” he told Daily Brief, “and edit it myself.”
Raxlen took the latter route, and thus “was an early adopter of desktop post-production,” he said. “It logically evolved into wanting to know more about all these toys and different ways of telling stories.”
From editing, Raxlen moved into other related pursuits such as 3D graphics, animation and digital effects. To this day, “I never stop learning,” he continued. “Every job, I learn something, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years.
The cumulation of it all is LAIR, which Raxlen founded five years ago: a director-driven collective with a 360 approach to content – as capable of producing a traditional :60 spot as it is an outdoor spectacle in which a video for Bentley Motors’ new SUV was projected against an 84-foot high rainbow of water at the annual luxury auto extravaganza known as the Pebble Beach Conours’ D’Elegance:
The Bentley stunt teased at above was a collaboration between LAIR and Bentley’s agency of record Momentum that introduced the car company’s new ride to attendees in compelling fashion. With Raxlen creative directing the project and LAIR member Steven Weinzerl designing, directing and editing the video that appears on the fountain, it also showed off the collective’s unusual dexterity across all mediums.
“These days, you have to be an autodidact to be successful,” Raxlen said. “As a filmmaker, if you’re an editor it makes you a better director. If you understand visual effects it makes you a better director. If you understand animation it makes you a better director.”
It also helps your company execute on a very particular kind of project that has become something of a calling card for LAIR: branded content.
There are a lot of creative content studios out there making branded content spots. Few do it at a level high enough to be invited to talk about the subject at PromaxBDA: The Conference. The Collective @ Lair, whose founder Raxlen was part of a 2016 Conference session called “Three Best Practices for Making Branded Content Magic,” is one such studio.
Mastering the co-branded narrative approach, Raxlen said, requires an understanding of “the dynamics of working with a brand versus an agency” as well as “the commercial needs,” all while staying true to “the characters and whatever the through-line of the show is.” It’s far from an easy or quick process.
It’s just one of many guidelines Raxlen has incorporated over the years that have helped The Collective @ LAIR become experts in branded content. What follows is a round-up of his other tips for mastering this highly specific yet increasingly important niche in TV marketing:
1) Hiring a great screenwriter is “the best dollar return in this business.”
Many of LAIR’s co-branded spots work not because they are flashy, but because the narrative they tell is well-structured and flows smoothly, with grace notes of gentle humor peppered throughout. This Raxlen-directed spot, for instance, uses the subject matter of History’s Mankind as a springboard for an ode to storytelling itself that eases the viewer into the realm of co-client DirecTV without missing a beat:
Written by History creative director Tom Kaniewski, the spot’s hand-drawn animation gives it a casual feel that understates the craft at its core. “You can have a great script and do a pencil animation and it can be beautiful, elegant and moving,” Raxlen said. “If you have a good script, everything flows downhill. If you don’t, you’re just constantly struggling.”
2) “Stay with something that is very clean and simple along a narrative line.”
With co-branded spots, “you run the danger of it being muddled already because you’re going across one brand from a show to a product or service,” Raxlen said. “If you try to put too much messaging in, it invariably gets clunky and busy, and if people are not interested in watching it, and entertained by it, it fails.”
In this spot for History’s Ax Men, Raxlen simply lets the easy repartee of the show’s featured players lead the charge, no more, no less. Oh, and they just so happen to be hanging out in a Honda Pioneer 1000.
3) “Let the characters of the show or the idea of the show do the heavy lifting for you.”
The Honda/Ax Men campaign is also successful, Raxlen said, because, during the shoot, “those were real dudes out there having fun with their sons in these brand new Pioneer vehicles… You were cruising through on this amazing machine but we weren’t saying, ‘look how great this machine is.’ It was just part of the story.”
A co-branded message, he continued, should be “woven into the fabric of the narrative versus hanging out there as a sell. That gets the eyeballs attached to it, and then along the way, the sell can be a little more subtle that way.” Otherwise, “people see it for what it is—just another ad.”
4) The best work comes from teams with varied skill sets.
Being a director-driven company, LAIR’s cadre of filmmakers covers the gamut of expertise. Steven Weinzierl, for instance is “an incredible designer,” Raxlen said, while star animator Brian Haimes can “come up with any contraption and make it work.” Director/writer Gary Nadeau has sold nearly a dozen screenplays, including Frances Ford Coppola’s Jack, and Brad Hasse consistently executes inventive and delightfully absurdist comedic visions. Rounding out the crew, Greg Kiefer specializes in slice-of-life tales and Michael Slovis is a seasoned DP and episodic director with a flair for suspense.
“We work individually on jobs but we also team up a lot and that’s fun,” Raxlen said. “You can bounce ideas and look at things from different lenses.”
5) The better the producers, the better the directors.
Prepping on a Lincoln-branded spot for the History show Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, Raxlen needed to shoot a subterranean location in New York to touch on an anecdote about “FDR’s secret railroad car underneath the tracks,” he said. “They said, ‘you’ll never get a permit,’ but our production team—I call them the Jedi mind-trick people because it’s like they waved their hand and the next thing you know, we were shooting everywhere they said we couldn’t shoot.”
LAIR partners and core producing duo Theresa Loguercio and Mark Aji are “so together and that helps me and the other directors do what we do best,” he continued. “It is a collaboration not only creatively but logistically. Theresa and Mark are the gatekeepers of that and they keep our lives fun.”
6) “The biggest thing is being able to listen.”
Experience has taught Raxlen a lot of skills – more than many artists, but for all his prowess in both the technical and artistic realms of filmmaking, nothing has helped his career more than the ability to synthesize information from people outside himself.
“That’s what I hear over and over again from our clients,” he said: “‘We like working with you guys. You get it. We have clear communication.’ That’s something you learn with experience—what are they really concerned with? What’s really important here?
“At the end of the day, it’s really about creating good, solid work,” You’re telling a story and if you focus on that, as long as it’s aligned with the needs of the client, that tends to make for pretty seamless work.”