BONAPARTE signs director Mackenzie Sheppard
Sheppard is a hands-on director, deftly mixing filmic techniques from live action to VFX, 360 and animation and adding a dollop of magical whimsy.
Question: what do a travel show for aliens, Japan’s first female rugby squad and a man trapped in his own mobile phone have in common? Answer: Mackenzie Sheppard.
The Tokyo-based director, who recently signed to Berlin-based production company BONAPARTE, has built a reel that’s notable for its sheer variety and visually diverse style. A hands-on director, deftly mixing filmic techniques from live action to VFX, 360 and animation and adding a dollop of magical whimsy, his award-winning work spans everything from original content series (SiGNALS; Visit Earth), to short films (Man in Phone, Donny the Drone), commercials for household names like Nike and IKEA, and the award-winning Liberty Fields docu-short for Guinness.
Trying to define Sheppard’s aesthetic is nigh-on impossible, as he himself admits: “I remember being told early on by somebody: “I don’t know what your style is, man” and being simultaneously annoyed but also challenged to understand what ‘style’ or ‘vision’ really is. All I can say is taste/style/aesthetic grows in time and I’ve drawn from a lot of different interests in my life to develop that.”
Though his style may be esoteric, one constant in Sheppard’s work is his magical take on storytelling and gift for weaving whimsical worlds, in which inanimate objects frequently spring to life. Single-use plastic bottles bare their souls in support groups, dumplings (and other dough-based culinary delights) sing, and a sentient drone accepts Time magazine’s Person of the Year award. “I’ve always enjoyed escaping in my own stories,” he explains. “It all started with drawings, and then I moved into a Lego phase that basically lasted until I was…uh…21.”
A Canadian national, Sheppard was born in the UK but moved to Japan aged five. Navigating these two very different cultures has given him a unique perspective as a filmmaker, and yet, he points out, “the main thing I’ve learned is how universal storytelling is across any culture. I often find myself balancing three things: what I want to say, what the audience will understand, and then in commercials what is required to be said. This sort of trinity of culture meets creativity is what I am always trying to navigate.”
As a self-taught talent, Sheppard admits to loving “every element of filmmaking” from shooting to making music, but particularly enjoys the freedom of editing. “Before I knew how to direct something, shoot, write something, I knew how to splice a clip and make it mean something.” Having started out in music promos, he broke through with the Young Director Award for short film Man in Phone, a Kafkaesque fable in which a tech addict wakes up trapped inside his own mobile. The dark side of technology, along with the destruction of the natural world, is a recurring motif across much of Sheppard’s work: in Donny the Drone, the film’s eponymous hero reveals a sinister world domination agenda to save the planet, while YouTube Originals series SiGNALS humorously spotlights the environmental cost of single-use plastics.
“I’m always trying to find the meaning of what it means to live a connected life with those around you,” says Sheppard. “Humans, tech, the natural world, all these things can often seem at odds with one another, symbolizing disconnection more than anything. But they sometimes cohere into one beautiful connective mirage that can be pretty mind-blowing.” How does he come up with his concepts? “I find that an early throwdown of ideas and then forgetting about it for a few days, before returning, is a good way to distil ideas. Us creatives often have a dilemma of feeling like we need to ‘ideate’ to survive and be relevant vs just coming up with an idea you believe in. This process of coming back to something is a great bullshit filter.”
When it comes to production, Sheppard takes a similarly no-bullshit, hands-on approach, getting his hands dirty building custom rigs, experimenting with camera angles, “I’m a big fan of skidding my Komodo across the ground and finding the smallest bug eye view possible for insanely weird shots” - and even 3D printing and supergluing together characters like Donny.
Alongside personal projects, Sheppard has also shot commercials for household names such as Nike and IKEA and is keen to continue exploring genres. “I’m all about escapism and am down to venture into any story that offers me that,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I really just want to bake in stories that set my mind free and get me excited to pick up a camera and shoot.” A particular draw is the sweet spot where advertising and original content collide, most recently in a wacky six-part series Visit Earth for S7 Airlines via Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, promoting our planet as the ultimate destination for nature, food and art-loving intergalactic travellers, which has racked up over 23 million (earthling) views to date. Whether his reputation as a filmmaker will extend beyond this galaxy remains to be seen, but in his new home at BONAPARTE, a company which takes pride in making things happen in unconventional ways, Sheppard has found a shared ethos and ambition to embrace new challenges on Planet Earth: “I have absolutely no idea what I’m getting myself into and that’s why I am excited about it."