Winter 2019

Selling with Soul

The commercial work of Elma Garcia is notable for its visceral impact and striking imagery

BY T.L. Stanley

Director Elma Garcia (Photo: Courtesy of Elma Garcia)

Elma Garcia experienced a life-changing brainstorm in the early '90s.

She pondered whether to make the leap from still photography to moving pictures, taking advantage of her growing rep in the former to launch a career in the latter.

At the time, she was fielding an offer from advertising agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, where the creative team wanted to use her black-and-white images of blue collar, salt-of-the-earth folks in commercials for Southwestern Bell.

She had a different idea: Give me a week, she said to the executives, and I'll bring you a proposal for the whole campaign.

"I hounded those people," Garcia says, "and they took such a huge chance on me. I still get goosebumps thinking about it."

That project, a 10-day shoot in Arkansas with a $1 million budget, became her first directing gig. And it set her on course for the next two-plus decades, during which she's infused her small-town sensibility and visual arts background into memorable, trope-busting ads for Levi's, Audi, Northwest Airlines, Jack Daniels and other Fortune 500 brands.

"I felt like I came out of my cocoon," she tells DGA Quarterly of that first commercial experience. "I watched those dailies, and all of the sudden, movement made sense to me. I turned into a butterfly."

Garcia and her crew trek through the redwoods on Northern California for some location shooting. (Photo: Courtesy of Elma Garcia)

Learning from the Masters

Garcia used the Southwestern Bell spot to gain more traction in the commercial world, calling still photography her first love but deeming it, "a little lonely," she says. "I found that I loved the collaboration of a set." Her striking visuals and humanistic sensibility also allowed her to develop into an auteur of sorts in a field that usually requires directors to mold their style to fit the product. But with Garcia, oftentimes it's the other way around.

In short order, she would work with some of the heaviest hitting DPs in the business, including Robert Richardson and John Bailey, as well as the late Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler, cinematic naturalists who also worked as directors on commercials, and who acted as mentors.

"That was the beginning of my film school," she says. "I was so fortunate to work with these amazingly talented craftsmen. They involved me in so much of the process." They also encouraged her to take on double duty as a director/DP—a logical progression for someone who picked up a Kodak Instamatic as a kid and started a lifelong obsession with photography.

Being one of the few female commercial directors back then wasn't the only thing that made Garcia stand apart. Her work celebrates real people like Midwestern dairy farmers and Southern blues musicians, with a documentarian's eye for authenticity and a visceral punch.

"She brings a dramatic, of-the-moment edge to everything she does," says Ian Foster Woolf, who worked as Garcia's 1st AD on a sprawling, 400-person shoot in Mexico for Gilead's hepatitis C drug, Harvoni. "It's real and raw."

Garcia is "concerned with every frame," Woolf says. "She's a very intense director/DP. Because she does it all, she's able to bring a whole other level of creativity."

Images from Garcia's spots for McDonnell Douglas (top), and Make-A-Wish Foundation (bottom). (Screenpulls: Elma Garcia Films)

An Eye for Building Brands

Growing up in rural Washington State, Garcia had considered becoming a photojournalist, but ended up enrolling in the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and focusing on art photography. After graduating, she opened her own studio in San Francisco, where she honed her classic Americana signature.

An assignment from CBS to shoot portraits of hardworking everyday people around the country, and iconic news anchor Dan Rather, boosted her visibility and piqued interest on Madison Avenue. A steady stream of print gigs followed.

The breakthrough Southwestern Bell campaign and work that came quickly on its heels, for Boeing and Secure Horizons insurance, became her calling cards, opening the door for the likes of Visa, Nike, McDonnell Douglas, Volvo and others.

Garcia found that she had a knack for advertising, specifically for straightforward, uncluttered storytelling with an emotional kick—like heart-tugging pieces she created for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Operation Game On, a wounded warrior program. Even categories like pharmaceuticals and aeronautics that wouldn't seem to have a soft side can elicit a few tears courtesy of her vérité-style approach.

She hasn't concerned herself, either then or now, with trends in commercials, she says, preferring to put a humanistic stamp on marketing messages. And if she ever heard the feedback that her work was "too pretty" for some brands, she knew it wasn't the right fit for her.

Her work is timeless," says Thomas Patrick Smith, her longtime AD. "You can look at something she did 20 years ago or last week, and you wouldn't know which one was which. It's not a genre play. She's an original with a voice and a vision."

Smith has collaborated on scores of commercials with Garcia, whom he says doesn't have "a formula" for brand work. "It's more heart and soul, not a hard sell," he says. "It's not usually on the nose, product-wise."

It's no accident that Garcia's portfolio is filled with muscular subjects like sports, cars, heavy machinery and liquor. As one of a handful of women directors in the '90s, she didn't want to be known as a go-to for female-targeted brands.

"No Pampers, no Tampax, no perfume," Garcia says. "I was very clear about that. I'd rather deal with smokejumpers and cowboys and Chevy trucks."

Garcia has always been drawn to the challenge of launching new brands because "there's a lot at stake for a client and an agency, and people get really nervous," she says. "I want to create something that moves the needle."

In this regard, Garcia says she's facing a changing industry, with less room for a director to shape campaigns. "In the past, we could take a premise and craft it, make it more interesting visually and still get the point across," she says. "Now you're much more locked in."

Images from Garcia's spots for the Hep C prescription drug Harvoni (top), and Nike (bottom). (Photo: Elma Garcia Films)

An Organic Connection

Garcia has assembled a team of longtime collaborators, stationed around the world, who convene when she lands an ad campaign. (A competitive equestrian, Garcia relocated from the West Coast to a ranch in Tryon, N.C., where she's renovated property in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the International Equestrian Center, where she can indulge her passion for horses. It's remote, but provides easy access to New York City.)

She slavishly preps for every shoot, taking her own photos for the storyboards she creates "so everyone knows exactly what I'm thinking about."

She spends time with the commercial's stars whenever possible, whether they're actors or non-professionals, so they're comfortable around her. (She often negotiates with an agency or brand to do both the video and print components of a campaign to provide continuity for the concept and the cast. She fits in the photography during breaks in the filming.)

Garcia likes to scout, and she'd rather find a good backdrop than build one and prefers natural light to artificial. In the same vein, she'll have her costumers go through the closets of the non-actors she's filming, believing it's better to use their own clothes than to outfit them.

The shooting itself is "like triage," Garcia says. "Fast and effective."Some might call her technique "old fashioned," she says, but Garcia loves Titan cranes and long lenses, which allow her to be "faster and more intuitive." Steadicams are another must-have. But as she learned from Conrad Hall, Garcia doesn't "get bogged down in equipment lists." She's more interested in getting as close to the action as possible.

"She's not the sitting-behind-video-village type of director," says Woolf. "She's very hands-on, whether it's the look of the background or the colors or the wardrobe. Everything is constructed."

And on the subject of being nimble and capturing a real moment, Garcia isn't opposed to a stripped-down shoot with pocket-sized technology. She helped launch a diabetes medication called Farxiga with footage captured in Vancouver on iPhones.

"I'm looking for authentic stuff," she says, "whether that's with Panavision or iPhone, the intimacy is what's important."

Director Profile

Stories profiling feature film directors about

their life, work and approach to making movies.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly includes The DGA Interview featuring Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a look into motion smoothing technology on television sets, stories featuring directors Nora Gerard, Robert Aldrich, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, George Tillman Jr., Elma Garcia and more!