Paranoid's Vibe is Loftier Than You'd Think
Despite its name, the US, Brazilian and French production company,
headed by EP Claude Letessier, has a dreamy outlook on life.
By Anthony Vagnoni
They liked him so much, they put him in the commercial.
That's the best way to describe how the team at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners felt about Claude Letessier, the Executive Producer and co-founder of Paranoid US, Paranoid Brazil and Paranoid France.
This was back when the company was shooting the campaign that would serve to establish them in the American market, the HP "Invent" campaign, directed by Francois Vogel. These clever and visually engaging spots (see "You" and "Picture Book") helped make the concepts of digital photography - and the printing of digital photos - more familiar to a consumer base that was still used to dropping its film off at the drug store.
Josh Reynolds, then an EP at Goodby who's now producing at O&M in New York, recalls Letessier as being not just totally on top of the job, but "so charming we used him as the talent who clicks the camera in the sixty-second version" of the "Picture Book" spot.
Much has changed for the company since those first HP commercials debuted. Letessier is no longer doing cameos in his spots, for one. More importantly, Paranoid is now a global production brand, with offices in Sao Paulo, Paris and L.A., and boasts an in-house design and visual effects studio in its L.A. base. The director roster has expanded, both in the US and Brazil, and the companies have grown significantly in both regions, with the Brazilian shop winning accolades in just its second year.
One thing hasn't changed: Letessier is still the charming Frenchman, full of passion and poetry and a boundless sense of enthusiasm for what he's doing. A conversation with him will most likely revolve on the higher-minded issues of creativity, beauty and emotion, less so on the nuts-and-bolts stuff of budgets, mark-ups and volume.
A bit of history first. Prior to launching Paranoid, Letessier was partners with Nicolas Leclerq in a Paris-based production company called Entropie. In the early 2000s he considered expanding to the US with his roster, but found the name was going to be a problem, since there already was an Entropy Films working in Los Angeles. He needed a new brand, and the somewhat brooding Paranoid was born.
The first incarnation of Paranoid in the US was as a group of directors who were represented by Tool of North America. Letessier says this was done largely out of necessity, as it was the easiest way for him to gain entry to the US market back in 2003. After several years working under the Tool banner-during which time he produced the well-received HP spots "You" and "Picture Book," which helped put director Francois Vogel on the map as a talent to watch-he went out on his own in 2005.
Letessier's directors, at least in the States, are primarily visually-driven talents whose work often involves a fair amount of post. These include Vogel, who's part filmmaker, part artist and who seems continually involved in curious and creative pursuits; Edouard Salier, a Frenchman whose work has a futuristic, contemporary feel; Sophie Gateau, a stylist whose work for brands such as Nike depends on images rather than words to tell the story; and the single-named Nieto, whose work in live action and mixed media is best shown off on a fascinating campaign he just shot for Cracker Barrel in the US that features dozens of hand-made props.
Given this mix - and there are others on the roster as well - Letessier decided to invest in the tools they need to execute their respective visions, so he launched what's called Paranoid Design Studio shortly after opening on his own.
"It's a cutting edge little lab," he says about the outpost, home to 2D and 3D workstations, editorial, a Flame and other gizmos. "Most of our directors are from that generation where they flip open the computer and they do their own thing," he explains. "They invent their own stuff. They're not from that generation where they say, 'Get me a Coke, I'm going to sit on a sofa and wait for the post to happen in front of me.' And we find that's incredibly cool and interesting for the agency, because now the creatives can be really involved."
Another advantage, he explains, is that directors no longer have to explain what they want when the job shifts over to the post house or effects shop. "Often they have to start from scratch, almost, because they have to describe what their vision of the spot should be," Letessier says. "So having the design studio in house was helping me to keep the fluidity of the creative process intact."
Paranoid operates as largely autonomous companies, whether it's the office in the States, in France or in Brazil, Letessier explains. "We're strong believers in the value of being a quote-unquote local company," he says. "So Paranoid in France is a French company, and Paranoid in Brazil is a Brazilian company. It's run by Brazilians, with a Brazilian roster, and on top of that we add our international talents."
Letessier says there's actually a lot in common between the European and South American operations: "They're both very ethnic," he states. "You have to be French to create French humor or content, and you have to be Brazilian to be able to do the local work there. I believe in the cultural relevance of each company within its own territory. Otherwise, you're not credible." Another advantage of having locals run the show, he adds, "is that they have their own network of connections already in place."
Oddly enough, the Brazilian connection for Paranoid happened almost entirely by coincidence. Letessier says it was 2009, the midst of the recession in the US, "and we were sitting in the office and the phone was not ringing. And I said, 'Okay, should I be watching myself die, or should we be a little bit more proactive?' So we did a little homework to find out where in the world people were working."
Two beehives were quickly ruled out: China and Russia. What else? Well, how about Brazil, a booming economy that's going to be hosting the World Cup in 2014 and then the Summer Olympics Games in 2016? Letessier went down to Sao Paulo and started meeting with production houses, initially seeking a representation deal. While at a lunch he was overheard talking about this by a man sitting at an adjacent table, who came up to him and introduced himself.
"And that guy was a very famous Brazilian director who had just finished a feature film and who wanted to leave the production company he was with," Letessier explains. It was Heitor Dhalia, who is now one of the lead partners and directors in Paranoid Brazil and brings a wealth of experience in the Brazilian market to the company. A former agency creative who has worked at such top Brazilian shops as W/Brasil and DM9 DDB, he's been directing for the last nine years and has worked both on ad campaigns as well as his own independent feature, which he financed on his own.
"And it all started from this conversation that we had over a little cup of coffee, one that extended late into the night," Letessier says.
The Brazilian shop is run by Dhalia along with Executive Producers Egisto Betti and Tatiana Quintella. Quintella comes out of the features side of the business, while Betti has long and deep experience in TVC production; he was on the production company side for a decade, then moved to the agency side where he was Head of Production at Almap BBDO, during which time he shot with Dhalia many times. The two were at the same production company before Betti moved over to the agency side.
"Heitor called me and told me that he and Claude were talking about setting up a company with an international way of working," Betti says. "There were not a lot of international directors working in Brazil, and I think that being a supplier of global talent to the local market has played a big role in our early success."
The company has a strong local roster of Brazilian talents, Betti says, who are exclusive in the Brazilian market, and the Paranoid US and French rosters are available to them. (Vogel was just down there shooting a spot for Tang, the powdered breakfast drink, says Letessier.) "They're a more difficult sell here, mostly because of schedules and budgets," Betti says, "but we have them, so this is not just talk. This is real."
The company's Brazilian work is no less impressive than its US or French spots. Most notable was last year's "Balloons" for MTV, directed by Dulcidio Caldiera out of Loducca Publicidade in Sao Paulo. The spot takes the concept of the flip book-a pad with individual frames from an animated drawing-and transposes the drawings onto a series of balloons that are mounted on a track and popped in rapid succession. The spot won a Gold Lion in the Film Craft competition in Cannes last year, as well as a Bronze in the Publications & Media category.
Betti is buoyant about the outlook for Paranoid in the coming years, not just based on all the global attention that will be focused on the country between the football matches and the Olympic games. It's economy has drawn the interest of top brands and top agencies, he points out, with RGA, Wieden + Kennedy and Pereira & O'Dell all opening offices there within the past year or so.
Back in the States, Letessier - who holds dual US and French citizenship - likes the way things are structured at Paranoid and doesn't intend to fiddle with it. While it's great to have a global production brand, he notes that there are such major differences between how the industry works in Europe, the States and South America that each office needs to mold itself to the business practices of its home market.
"We share a roster, and the directors travel, but running all the offices as a network just doesn't work," he says. For example, he notes, managing client expectations and demands is "wayyyy different in the US than it is in France, for example."
It's worth noting that, even though Letessier got his start in Europe, his approach to the business is all red, white and blue. "Claude is one of the true owners of a company who brings a highly sensitive taste level to a project," says Josh Reynolds. "If there was ever a practical issue on productions, he'd invariably say 'Leave it with me,' and would figure out how to make it happen."
Reynolds recalls Letessier as being a very hands-on presence on those early HP shoots. "He was always on set. We ended up running another job through Paranoid for an in-house director at Goodby because I knew Claude would throw everything at it, and he did, even when we had an earthquake on a frozen lake in New Zealand at 3 o'clock in the morning. It resulted in an ice crack so big we almost lost the motion control crane. Claude managed to helicopter it down the mountain two days later, and we shot in an ice skating rink, which had to be completely blacked out. It was amazing."
For Letessier, it's the directors and what they can bring to each job that is the real secret behind Paranoid, not so much its global footprint. "Take Francois," he says. "He's one of those talents that's easy to export, and that's because he's not a director, he's an inventor. He invents visual alphabets."
Letessier decries what he calls the "visual diarrhea" of today's media environment, one in which "everyone is an artist, everyone posts stuff on YouTube and Vimeo and Facebook and blah blah blah. So basically we're reaching a level of visual overload. All you see is big effects, massive, 'oh my god' stuff. And I believe that the guy who comes in with this little piece of paper and makes me dream, now this is cool! This is simple, this is charming, this is elegant! I'd rather have Houdini make me dream than any big visual effects house. I do believe in the power of circus magic."
Deep down inside, he says, it's emotion-or the ability for a filmmaker or imagemaker to evoke it-that he's looking for. "And I think you can find that with most of the Paranoid directors, no matter where they're based," he says. "I mean, Francois spent a year writing a book with an astrophysicist in France about pinhole cameras. Can you believe it? It's a beautiful book, it's poetic, it's touching, it's intelligent, it's relevant! I love him for it! I almost cried when he sent it to me."
A typically French response, you might think? Sounds like it. What turns Letessier on about the concept is its purity, and therein lies a hint to what he's all about. "What is a pinhole camera but a camera without a lens?" he asks. "It's the essence of filmmaking, the essence of capturing life on any type of surface. I love it! It's what makes me work in this business-constantly trying to find the simplest, most organic and humane thing that will make people dream and go, 'Oh, wow!'"
Published 24 February, 2012