Eclectic. This may be the most appropriate word to describe the work and life of Australian director Ken Karpel. The background, experiences, and influences that led to the work of this multiple award-winning director is the plot to a movie in itself. While his early years are exotic and full of character (sometimes ridiculously so), the mixture has created one of the Australian industry’s most unique and successful directors. Karpel’s creativity has manifested numerous successful and lauded commercial campaigns for internationally recognized companies such as: Nestlé’s, Kellogg’s, Jeep, Adidas, Hyundai, and countless others. While clients sometimes raise an eyebrow about his methods, the results are undeniable. These achievements and awards include: ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ at the 2014 PromaxBDA Global Excellence Awards (Jeep); 2014 ASTRA Industry Excellence Award for Best Consumer Advertising Campaign (Nutri-Grain), 2014 Best Brand Integrated Spot at PromaxBDA ANZ Awards (Kellogg’s), a 2013 PromaxBDA Global Excellence Award for ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ (Topdeck), 2013 PromaxBDA ANZ Award in the ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ Category (Adidas), a 2012 Promaxbda ANZ Award for Best Sponsor Integrated Spot (V-Rentals), and many others.
The Award-winning and world travelling director is a long way from his early days growing up in Ukraine. His most recent professional ventures prove that Ken is always on the move and looking for a new challenge. A boy from Kharkov isn’t the most obvious choice to helm a documentary for Netflix about an Australian Hip Hop group but Karpel has used his unique upbringing and perspective to bring insight to all his work, no mater the subject. He grew up speaking Russian and watching…well, non-age appropriate films. He recalls, “I used to lie to my dad about sleeping in daycare so I could watch the R-rated Jean-Claude Van Damme opus ‘Bloodsport’… I was three at the time. That was the first movie I remember watching. The second was ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and the third was John Waters’ ‘Cry Baby’. I did not watch any age appropriate TV until I moved to Sydney, Australia when I was five. Having newly emigrated to Australia, Ken’s parents were focused on work and providing for their family while Ken was fixated on film and TV. When his grandparents forced him to stop watching TV to go out and play with the other neighborhood kids, Karpel used the opportunity to recreate his favorite films with these make shift actors. He relates, “We watched Karate Kid and started practicing karate on each other in the park; after Home Alone we developed an intricate plan to catch burglars that ended up in me ruining my grandparents couch; following Happy Gilmore we all became interested in Subway and golf.”
Ken moved from film fan to participant at age seven when, after being inspired by Goodfellas (yes, at age seven), he immediately began writing films about his family and friends, complete with storyboards. He cites Quentin Tarantino with being the first person whom he noticed with three credits in Reservoir Dogs: actor, writer, director. He began to investigate what a director’s role was and study its intricacies.
Years later, when asked what it is about the profession he loves, Ken states, “I love every aspect of it. Pre-production is great because you’re figuring it out and that’s the best it will be. There’s no compromise yet. I love playing it all out in my head over and over again trying to visualize it before it’s even shot. Being on set is fantastic because there’s so many people there trying to achieve the same goal. I love the problem solving aspect of it. You’ve thought about this moment for so long and now something’s gone wrong…or it’s not working out the way you thought and everyone’s looking at you to solve it. I love that high-pressure environment and adrenaline; solving problems and collaborating with everyone for this common goal. There’s nothing like the moment when something magical happens that you didn’t anticipate. Where the camera moves in a direction and the light hits it a certain way or the performer does something you didn’t plan. I just love finding things in the moment. It is exciting to me. I also enjoy being in control of every single element in the frame. You’re creating a reality that you’re in charge of and it’s representative of your perceptions. You’re making something you hope people will relate to but it’s really a part of yourself. You’re putting yourself out there.”
One of Ken’s most recent projects is his work with Collider & Particle films. The production is a mini-documentary to promote Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix TV show “The Get Down”. The content piece follows Australian Hip Hop act ‘Horror Show’ as they prepare to perform their biggest show. It looks at the birth of hip hop in the Bronx during the 70s, and draws a line between that period and its continued influence on artists today, some 40 years later. Karpel envisioned a documentary in which the audience would be swept up in the artist’s world and experience it through their eyes. He would shoot each environment in one unbroken take. The camera would create a pace and perspective that which enables the viewer to feel as if they are in the room alongside the group. Once they begin their show on stage, when they’re in their element is when the real excitement of the concert is communicated. This took some convincing.
Ken concedes, “I’m glad we were able to convince the Artists and their management to let us shoot the live show on stage with them. We needed an up close and personal view of the show from the artist’s perspective, not the audience. Their whole tour, and thus their story, was building up to this show and from a narrative point of view we needed to be there on stage with them as close to their faces as possible. We ended up shooting so close to them you could see the sweat dripping from their brow.”
Rachael Ford-Davies of Collider & Particle Films declares, “We represent some of the best commercial directors in the business and based on his previous work, I knew Ken was the right person for the job. His high-energy visual storytelling places him in a unique position on our roster of directors at Collider & Particle Films.”
Working with a totally different type of Australian group, Ken created a series of emotive and energetic spots that follows nine different people in the Australian Defence Force, juxtaposing their work lives with their personal lives. A total of nine 60 second spots were created. Revealing the humanity in these individuals, a series of match cuts matched the personal lives of these individuals with their Army ones. For instance, a helicopter pilot puts his helmet on to ride his bike to work and there is a match cut to him putting his helmet on in his helicopter at work; an infantry man is cutting up ingredients for a meal he’s cooking at home followed by a match cut that to him assembling his rifle at work. Always searching for an emotional aspect in a production, Ken comments, “It was important to have emotion and empathy for these people but also portray their work as energetic and fast paced. To achieve this, I interviewed each person off-camera and added their voice over to the images; this way they’re telling their own stories. While shooting I realized that we had a lot of high energy action shots but to instill this empathy we needed a balance. I was getting a lot of very emotional stories (in the voice over interviews) that wouldn’t just work over fast-paced imagery. I decided to start shooting pensive moments with each of our characters where we see them take a quiet, reflective moment. Most of these moments were improvised in environments we found on the day: a locker room, a kitchen at sunrise, a bench following a heavy workout. The result gave the spots everything it needed: a high energy visual piece, with emotional tonal shifts that reflected the character’s difficult journey to get to where they are.
The best indicator that one is doing great work is when others seek you out your abilities and talents. For Karpel, this came in the form of his signing for representation in Australia with Collider & Particle, Target pictures in the Czech republic, and most recently Bakery Films in Germany. As Anna Stolzenberg (Sales Executive at Bakery films) recalls, “At Bakery Films we had been aware of Ken’s work for some time. In November last year I contacted him to see if he’d be interested in discussing representation with us. Serendipitously he was in Prague directing a commercial. I decided to travel from Germany to Prague to meet him. I was expecting Ken to be older, but was surprise at how young he actually was. Over a long lunch we discussed the possibility of Ken being represented by us in the German market. A couple of weeks later Ken signed with us. Ken is an extremely talented director whose work defies advertising categories. He is able to do emotive, authentic and energetic storytelling pieces, comedic spots, visually stunning pieces and pretty much everything in between. The through line of all his work however are honest performances, a striking visual style, authenticity, heart and humor. It’s amazing to me that someone his age has already worked with so many international brands and I see him becoming one of the most in demand directors working around the world.”