Grayson Schaffer: Partner Talweg Creative/ Outside Magazine Editor at Large / Photographer
Heidi: Tell us about your transition from photography to cinematography and what are your thoughts overall about that for photographers?
Grayson: We’re at a point in time where a lot of still photographers are becoming directors. Sometimes that just means buying a Red camera and hanging up a shingle. Sometimes still photographers have clients who are asking for motion as part of a project. From an image-making perspective, motion isn’t that difficult. There are some frame rate and shutter angle considerations that you don’t have to deal with in still photography, but at the end of the day, a frame is still a frame. The hard part is having something to say. And for that, more photographers need to be leaning heavily on their writer friends to figure out what the film is going to be about before you get out there. We see it again and again where competent still photographers—many of whom have sizable Instagram followings and interpret that as a sign from the universe that whatever they do is great—just end up with a series of pretty but disjointed images. We all make crappy movies or write crappy stories from time to time, but you can minimize that if you lean on your talented friends and assume they’re smarter than you.
What made you take to the leap from producing editorial content to producing advertorial or native advertising?
My personal goal is just to find and report on interesting people. At Outside magazine, that mostly involves finding great characters who are at an inflection point in their lives or careers. It wasn’t until raw cinema camera technology reached the point where we felt like we could get our ideas out onto the screen that we decided we had something to say. At the same time, brands have realized how important stories are. So in a lot of ways the ad world came to us rather than the reverse.
One would think you’d have less control, is that true?
One of the mistakes I see filmmakers make again and again is in sending their work out for criticism and then completely ignoring that criticism either because they’re tired from getting all the way to a rough cut or because they can’t put themselves in their viewer’s shoes to see that the work is missing basic clarity or is overly self-indulgent or precious. Working at a magazine doesn’t give you more control, it just means you get your ass kicked by editors instead of a client. Either way you can’t ignore the feedback. After a few years of it, you realize that they’re trying to fix actual problems and not just make your life miserable. Once you get to the point where your default position is to believe the criticism rather than immediately defend against it, then you’re actually in a place to push back. But, yeah, sometimes commercial clients will sacrifice the story in order to obey the data, stay on message, or avoid getting too real. It’s one reason that the word documentary should be reserved for actual documentaries. That’s gotta stay sacred. Films by brand ambassadors about other brand ambassadors can be amazing to watch. Some of them can even be true and accurate. But I still haven’t come across a brand that has editorial guidelines, fact checkers, or a public editor.
How long has your Talweg been in business and how much have you grown since inception?
About a year and a half ago, Ryan Heffernan and I had the opportunity to move from production work into being a full-service ad agency. We’ve got a Jedi media planner who’s a real millennial whisperer and a couple of account managers who are super sharp. That core team has allowed us to service clients like New Mexico Tourism and other state agencies. We’ve also been doing work for Yeti coolers and a number of other clients in and out of the outdoor space.
Yeti has been very successful in getting so much coverage for their brand, what do you attribute this to?
The word storytelling has been getting thrown around a lot lately. There was that great rant by an Austrian designer recently about how that term gets misused.
If you’ve been watching social media, you’d think storytelling was anything where somebody reads poetry in an affected voice while slow motion pictures roll by. But Yeti actually gets it. They find filmmakers they believe in. We all work together to pick characters we believe in, regardless of whether they have any affiliation to Yeti or not. And then we all roll the dice. The very first film in the series was one we did in the Grand Canyon last May called In Current
Our plan was to bring models down the Canyon and have them be “trainees” who were learning the ropes. But about five hours into day one of the trip, we realized that there were actual baggage boatmen who’d been cutting their teeth for years trying to get a shot at rowing a dory. We immediately pivoted to focus on this amazing woman Amber Shannon and were lucky enough to have a client—Yeti’s marketing director was with us on the trip—who didn’t hesitate to go with what was real over what was storyboarded. That project laid the groundwork for the Yeti Presents series, which has been a huge success.
What sort of notes can other companies take from Yeti’s playbook in your eyes?
Some agency types have since told us that the branding is way too subtle in these films for their clients’ tastes. Others have told us they’re perfect. We believe that the most important thing is making a film that people want to watch, not one that requires a huge media spend to get eyeballs on it. If I had to chalk up Yeti’s success with these films to one thing it’s that they’re willing to fail. They assign dozens of these 5-7 minute shorts. They don’t all work out. But the ones that do more than make up for the ones that fall short.
The most important thing for a client who wants to get into storytelling (actual storytelling) is to relax their guardrails and trust the process. This is what doc directors, reporters, and editorial photographers have always done. It doesn’t always work out like you planned it but it always works out somehow. In our REI short film Fast Forward, ultra-distance cyclist Lael Wilcox, who was trying to break the record for the Arizona Trail, came down with a respiratory problem only 36 hours into her ride. The record attempt was a disaster, but you ended up believing in her as a character. And that was more important than success.
How do you manage working at a magazine and then working for advertisers at the same time?
I’ve been an editor at large for Outside since April. So I’m not on staff at Outside anymore. Finding time to write and shoot and make movies comes down to working with a great team at Talweg, great editors at Outside, and only swinging at fastballs over the plate.