Programs Mon 12.8.2014

Art in Advertising: How a Film Independent Fellow Made a Creative Commercial Project

misty copeland 1

Film Independent Fellow Sheldon Candis, who directed the VMA-nominated music video for J. Cole’s “Crooked Smile,” has another exciting project in the works: a web docu-series featuring ballet dancer Misty Copeland as part of Under Armour’s “I Will What I Want” campaign. We talked to Candis about working with the stunningly talented Copeland and making a commercial project on his own creative terms.

How do you balance pitching commercial projects with making time to develop your own work?
I believe any opportunity to be creative is a blessing. I’m very thankful to have Justin Wilson, my writing partner of 11 years now. Our trust and belief in each other grants me the freedom to continue along my path as a filmmaker. So currently I’m balancing my time in development of our event series at ABC while writing our next movie. Any free time outside of these responsibilities, I’m constantly creating concepts for brands and musicians. Ultimately, it’s based upon how I’d like to see the world and how their product or music inspires me. Often you are handed ideas from brands or record labels, in which they are coming to you to creatively execute their own vision of an existing idea. I honestly try not to do this type of work, because it becomes just that—’work’—and you find yourself having to compromise and adhere to circumstances that can kill one’s creativity.

How long had you been pitching UA and what was the pitch that won them over?
I’ve been pitching Under Armour for many years now. I’ve been obsessively flying back and forth to Baltimore, pitching them creative ideas. When you walk in those rooms, the unspoken energy is, “Why do we need you?” So you have to present why you’re an asset to them. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very powerful brands that dictate society and culture. In terms of Under Armour, I first met them through producer Jason Berman, who produced my first film LUV. But it was actually a serendipitous moment at the Super Bowl where I met the CEO of Under Armour. I was right in front of the man, I pitched him an idea in the middle of a pep rally and he sparked to it!

My mission statement to Under Armour since day one has been to let me be the guy to tell cinematic stories through Under Armour athletes. Let me present the human condition and the emotional core that drives these unique people. We all know Tom Brady as America’s all-American quarterback, but very few know his humble underdog beginnings of being buried on the bench at the University of Michigan. I want to tell that story!

[I won them over] with the Misty Copeland “I Will What I Want” docu-series. I’m very inspired by ballerinas and the uninterrupted dedication it takes for them to find their center, to achieve the perfect set of movements that express the beauty of their art form. Their feet go through warfare in order to achieve this. Creatively, let’s cinematically display this experience, let’s go inside the world-famous Steps on Broadway dance studio and experience this vigorous training with Misty Copeland firsthand. Let her tell her own story against the fast-paced chaos of New York City, juxtaposed against the slow movement of a metronome.

I create visual look books with my art director John Godfrey at The Department of Digital Works and ultimately verbally pitch the story. The “I Will What I Want” look book is one of the best visual aids I’ve ever done with John. I learned many years ago, when I worked as an assistant at RSA for Ridley and Tony Scott and later for Spike Jonze, that the filmmakers I admire most surround themselves with people that are better than them or have a different understanding and perspective. That ultimately makes you a better filmmaker.

misty copeland 2What interests you about athletes in general and about Misty as a character?
I love athletes mainly because I was one. Probably the worst college athlete ever known to division one athletics! Athletes are amazing individuals. Misty Copeland is a special athlete that only comes around every so often. And like many great athletes, Misty Copeland has had to overcome a lot. There’s great drama in the athlete’s life.

In this case, Under Armour had made a bold and untraditional move that really resonated with me. They were making not only a ballerina the face of their woman’s brand, but an African-American woman. Misty Copeland has been the underdog for many years and now she is at the very top of the art form. This all really struck a chord with me. I had to work with her. I can relate to being the underdog, and what it feels like to know you are one of the best, but having to navigate the reality of getting overlooked at times. Ultimately, based upon your own character and your foundation, this is either going to defeat you or spur you on to work harder. I believe there’s more endurance for one’s life when one meditates on humility.

How was the shoot? What was its biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
The shoot was really great—running and gunning around New York City. Moments like these feel like film school again. Racing to shoot as many shots as possible, using New York as your big backlot. If you’re going to New York to shoot, make sure you partner with a producer with an indie/grassroots sensibility. Hillary Cutter at Cutter Productions enabled us to get as much of the budget onscreen as possible.

DP Philip Friesenbichler is always pushing to get the best shot and is very grumpy about compromise. I love this about him. He’s going to keep shooting until there’s no more available light. His creative mind with each job we do together adds something I hadn’t thought about. This a relationship I think all directors should aim to find—a cinematographer that enhances our storytelling, a true storytelling collaborator. Same goes for composer Nuno Malo. His score fully realizes my cinematic vision for the art of Misty Copeland.

How does the result reflect your indie voice and vision?
You are aiming to serve yourself creatively, but ultimately understanding that you are serving the client. So, my creative voice functions to tell Misty Copeland’s story and to genuinely inspire viewers to “I Will What I Want” in their own lives.  I’m very excited for this series and am hoping to continue to tell cinematic stories through Under Armour Athletes.

Where and when will it air?
The entire docuseries now posted in its entirety on the Macy’s YouTube channel (all three episodes below). My additional work is available at

Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manager