A few weeks ago in Los Angeles, director Ramaa Mosley was on set shooting a Black History Month promo for ESPN. The idea itself was fairly straightforward: Mosley and her team were filming young African-American athletes mimicking the iconic moves of their heroes, like Serena Williams, Calvin Johnson and Damian Lillard. What was unique was that Mosley was basically playing second fiddle to two 12- and 15-year-olds.
“I was so happy while we were shooting,” says 12-year-old Hannah Gonera, who directed the spot along with 15-year-old Tru Jackson. “I didn’t think something so big could be placed to me, but I’m really happy that it was and really grateful that it was.”
Gonera and Jackson are signed to Mosley’s Adolescent production company. The company seeks out and mentors young directors between the ages of 11 and 27, giving them hands-on experience (and a paycheck).
Ad agency 77 Ventures recommended Adolescent to ESPN and network executives were immediately excited about what the production company represented.
“It felt so important, beyond just creating a spot with the usual production agencies,” says A.J. Mazza, marketing manager at ESPN who has worked on “NBA on ESPN” and “This Is SportsCenter” campaigns. “The fact that young African-American directors were able to have a part in this just made it that much more appealing,” he says.
Mazza flew out to L.A. to join the Adolescent crew in pre-production meetings and the shoot itself. “From day one there was just a sense of excitement that you don’t get on a normal shoot,” he says.
In pre-production, the young directors talked the ESPN execs through the shoot, shot-by-shot, and also handled casting and call backs. When the shoot came around, both Gonera and Jackson worked hands-on with the athletes and got behind the camera to film. “It wasn’t just ‘sit here in the chair and watch as we direct,’” says Mazza. “They got in there.”
The band featured in the spot is from Heartbeat Music Academy, an LA-based performance arts program that works with under-served communities and foster care facilities. The band is playing on the 6th Street Bridge. Mazza says they shut down the bridge for a few minutes at a time and then ran off when it re-opened to traffic.
Mosley, who worked closely with documentary filmmaker Andrew Droz Palermo on the shoot, says she started Adolescent as a way to give back.
“I began directing when I was 16 because I had a great mentor,” she says. “I’ve made it a priority to mentor other directors.”
Gonera has another mentor too. Her father, Sunu Gonera, is an award-winning commercial director in his own right. Hannah got the directing bug by making short videos with friends. “I was so hooked,” she says on the phone from South Africa where she is accompanying her father on a shoot. “I just love recording things and capturing things in the moment. I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.”
The talent and poise exhibited by both young directors is what impressed Mazza the most. “When I was 12, I still thought I was going to be shortstop for the Yankees,” he jokes. “Tru wants to focus on animation. Hannah wants to do films. They’re doing it now.”