Episode 276 — Mark Toia — Director

 

Episode 276 — Mark Toia — Director

Originating from a very successful career as an advertising photographer, Mark Toia was coerced into directing TVCs by his clients. Being pursued by advertising agencies and production companies globally, he has a lengthy list of repeat business with the world’s largest companies that most could only dream of.

Mark’s prowess and success is due to his ability to reinvent himself over and over again. He’s always looking for new inspiration, constantly finding new technologies to aid his work and learning new crafts to help create images that have compelling screen presence, not to mention more on-screen value. After a decade of experience as a director of auto commercials, Mark has brought his expertise to feature films. His first feature Monsters of Man will premiere December 8th, 2020.

In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Mark Toia, the Director of Monsters of Man, about his insight and expertise directing, financing and distributing his first feature film, the future of virtual production and the myth of “a starving artist”.

 

Mark Toia on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm7802941/

Monsters of Man Website: www.monstersofman.movie

Mark Toia on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/marktoia

Mark Toia’s Reel: https://vimeo.com/marktoia

Mark Toia on Instagram: @mark_toia

Mark Toia on Twitter: @marktoia

 

HIGHLIGHTS:

[03:47] Mark Toia Introduces Himself

[04:27] Starting Out in Art

[07:41] The Myth of “A Starving Artist”

[14:07] Building a Brand: a Blessing and a Curse 

[17:43] Mark Talks About Venturing out into RED Cameras

[28:31] The Reality of Virtual Production

[32:46] Mark Talks About Working on Monsters of Man

[38:55] Movie Budgets and ROI

[1:00:26] Planning Your VFX in Pre-Production

 

EPISODE 276 — MARK TOIA — DIRECTOR

Hi, everyone! 

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 276! I’m sitting down with Mark Toia, the Director of feature film Monsters of Man. The film comes out December 8th, 2020. 

I’m really excited to sit down with Mark. He has a background of directing commercials and has a lot of technical knowledge on how to shoot stunning imagery. He’s pretty much become the face of the RED Camera and pushing what it can do. I’ve worked with Mark early on in my career, and it’s been great to see the progression of his career. He’s also takes the time to give back and help out other creatives. 

I think a lot of us can benefit from this Episode. His new feature film is self financed and we can learn from his experience. 

The audio levels aren’t the best on this recording. We’re going through COVID-19 and recording from home. But the content of this Podcast is amazing! 

Let’s dive in! 

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST: 

[1:08:23] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!

 

INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR MARK TOIA

[03:47] Allan: Thanks again, Mark, for taking the time to chat. Do you want to introduce yourself?

Mark: I’m Mark Toia. I’m a Director and a DP. I shoot my own work. I used to travel the world shooting commercials but COVID has pretty much ruined that. So I’m looking into doing features here, in Australia. 

[04:27] Allan: Going back to you being a kid, did you always want to be in a creative industry? Or did you discover that later on? 

Mark: It’s an old story but it’s an interesting one. When I was 12, 13, 14, I could paint real life oils and draw very well. It was fun stuff but a lot of people appreciated it. I didn’t. Anyway, I didn’t take it seriously. It was the only thing I succeeded at in school. A manual arts teacher said that there was meaning in an arts degree. That pretty much threw me off early on. So I ended up learning a trade, working with steel. But then I got into photography and I sent a picture to a magazine. They sent me a check for $50 which I couldn’t believe. Then I got hooked into sending photos to magazines and that started paying more than my steel working wage. And I decided to go pro. Several years later, someone asked me to do a tv commercial which I did. I had no idea how to make tv ads. But my first commercial won [the award] for best director and cinematographer.

[06:55] Allan: Was your acceptance speech, “This stuff is so easy!”?

Mark: Hopefully, I was humble. That [brought] me more clients for whom I’d done photography. “Shit, you can do my ad as well!” Twenty five years later, I’m sitting here talking to you. 

[07:49] Allan: I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about this. I’m pretty sure I’ve worked on a few of your car commercials back in 2006, at Cutting Edge. For whatever reason, I’m pretty sure I’ve met you.

Mark: Yeah, we’ve probably met.

[07:41] Allan: That’s always been a big sticking point that “Art is not a real career” (www.allanmckay.com/99). People try to impress their parents who put that idea in their head. In your case, it was a teacher. These people put real pressure on young people. Why do you think there is this stigma of “a starving artist”?

Mark: I think it’s true, I don’t think it’s a stigma. I think it is actually a really tough world to get into. You have to be multi talented in a lot of areas. I really delved into a lot of VFX because I thought it’d be another tool in my arsenal. Photography was pretty easy to pull off. But the reality is that it’s still tough. I mentor a lot of young people and not many of them succeed. They lack drive to learn everything they need to learn. I’ve seen a lot of failures. Maybe not failures, but they want to be here in their careers and to make a lot of money. But the reality is I don’t think anyone has. The one person that has is the only one that’s listened to what I’ve said. Everyone else hasn’t listened to me. They’re more interested in taking shortcuts and they don’t really want to learn. And it’s sad that so many really creative kids never reached the potential that they could financially. They aren’t putting the effort into it. My son and daughter hate when I say, “Only lazy people fail.” 

[10:45] Allan: I think you’re right. Nothing worth doing comes easy and most people want to fast track their way to success. What I took from being a producer to being an artist is learning how to schedule everything, understand the decision that will put you in the red. For many creatives, having the business side of things means putting in the work. Frontloading is so important. 

Mark: It’s not like you can learn one program and sit on it forever. My first compositing program was After Effects. And then I can’t even remember what I’d moved onto! I think it was Shake. And then, I jumped into flame and smoke. Nuke! What I found out about compositing programs is that they don’t really have the horsepower behind them to work in a realtime world. You still have to render the whole thing out. A thing like Apple Motion, I’d learned that thing was in realtime. Why is this program not the most commonly used in the world? It’s the most time saving program in the world. If we could harness motions into power and stick them into Nuke!

[13:30] Allan: That’s what they were trying to do with Shake when Apple acquired it. It’s always the case.

Mark: Having to learn all these programs, you can then really see which one can be really beneficial to you, for the job. The same is with the editing suites and audio. Forget about the industry standard! What can you use to get the best quality of the job, the fastest?

[14:07] Allan: I think that’s a really good point. It’s like dating. You can be dating a bunch of people, but then you find the one and marry it. I was curious, you’ve carved out a niche with car commercials. Has that been beneficial for you, but build your brand around that?

Mark: It’s a curse and a blessing. I did cars for 7-8 years. It was quite lucrative, with happy clients and happy agencies. But the reality is that you can only shoot so many three-quarter shots of a car driving before you get bored. It’s like pouring concrete. There is no such thing as a unique car script. The clients have a mandatory shot list. By the time you get to the ad, you have this much left of the creative story. So it’s hard for an ad agency to write a script around a car. The brief is so tight, you can’t really move. I do only 2-3 car ads a year now. Being stuck as the Car Guy is okay, but being more of a generalist and knowing that you can shoot cars, then all of a sudden my market shot straight up. But I had to take a break for a year or two and rejuvenate my reel. It was an expensive rejuvenation. Like anything, I had to get my showreel in order. And for the last 10 years, everything has been great! 

[17:43] Allan: Right! So you get to pick and choose. I want to fasttrack a bit. When did you get involved with RED Cameras? You’ve become a bit of a poster boy for those.

Mark: Um, I was interested in digital cameras from a stills perspective, from a photography side. Just as I was leaving the photo world and getting into the moving world, the digital stills cameras were coming out. The raw files were great in those cameras, way more than film. “If someone could do that with motion cameras!” Three or four years later, RED brought out RED One. We did a test with Mike Seamour. He had an early one. We had a bit of a shoot, went back to the studio and put the footage on the screen. I couldn’t believe it! I could see straight away the benefit of it. You had more to play with. Film is a great medium. I love it, but it’s a really expensive medium! To shoot 4-5 minutes of film would cost me $500-$700. That’s just for shooting and processing, not grading it yet. I really got into digital. The Canon 5D didn’t have the dynamic range that film did. But the RED Camera came out with that RAW file. You just had to know how to extract the information. Once we did, we started to do it in the house. I couldn’t get my local post house to jump onboard. I think it’s because they made money by having you be stuck in the suite for so many hours. All of a sudden, they didn’t have me for that long. Once we started doing post in house, that’s when it really took off. And then I was hard on the RED guys Jarred [Land] and Jim [Jannard]. We were having some heated discussions and they didn’t like my being so vocal. But the reality is that they had to be vocal to know where that point was. They were brave enough to get to that point. Now, you can drop the RED Camera on the ground and it’s tough as nails. It has a dynamic range no other camera can do. If you do your own post, you know the difference between RED information and not. 

[23:23] Allan: I just sold my Helium Weapon not too long ago. It was a massive investment. I switched to Blackmagic Cameras instead.

Mark: You have to buy RED mags everytime you shoot?

[24:17] Allan: No, man. I’m just saying I love RED and it’s smart of them to position themselves as the Apple of cameras. You’re making a major investment and everything is shiny and amazing. For me, I wasn’t leveraging it and making the most of it. 

Mark: I’ve been pretty lucky with their gear. I haven’t had any failures. We had maybe one mag that played up a little bit, at which point we just chuck it. But one in 10 years, that’s pretty good. I’m a big believer that you should never buy a camera that doesn’t suit your needs. And I’m also a big believer you don’t sit on a camera because you like the name on the side of it. The reality is that you should never be loyal to a brand — you should be loyal to what it delivers. Good mates of mine know I’m a ship jumper. I’m there for the technology, I’m not there for the good humor. Then you have little cameras, which amazes me. It still doesn’t have that great of a range. 

[26:41] Allan: What are your thoughts on the Komodo? At the moment, it’s disrupting things a little bit. 

Mark: You can use  Komodo on a movie. But it’s still 6K. It’s still three times the resolution of an Ari or an Alexa and has a dynamic range. I think it’s still pumping at 7 stops.

[27:20] Allan: I think it’s pretty identical in the key requirements you need in a camera. I’m not sure what the weight on it is. But it’s pretty impressive for six grand.

Mark: Yeah, I think it’s great! I am personally waiting for one that shoots a hundred frames per second. I’m sure RED will make one one day because the demand is there. I’ve got a lineup of RED’s. That’s where I want to keep my world. 

[28:31] Allan: Is there any technology or gear that you’ve seen that you’re excited about in the future. Obviously, virtual production is becoming a thing right now, so you don’t have to take the entire crew around the world.

Mark: I’ve gotten very, very consumed with virtual production and LED walls. A producer wanted me to do this tv show for Netflix. The whole world came in at $5 million, with the whole infrastructure. Then we had to buy a building. That was going to cost us another $3 million. If you’re doing shows like that, it can work beautiful. But it’s not a cheap exercise. You aren’t saving money. You’re just working. Your world gets bigger but it’s not a cheaper way of doing things. If you want to shoot a rainforest, grab 5-10 guys and go shoot a rainforest! Don’t build an LED wall. Once we did the real math, it took a long time to recoup $5 million. And the wall would be obsolete in a year or two.

[30:20] Allan: That’s the thing with technology: It shifts really quickly! 

Mark: If you have a big movie budget, like The Mandalorian, you can work around it. But you really need to look at your long term sums. The only benefit I see now — after seeing it work in the flesh and the quality on screen — is that you can have these amazing worlds created behind. Did it save you any money? No! It’s still a high end expense. It’s just your world is bigger. I still love the whole idea! We’ve got another show idea. I told him we could build sets where 20-30% of the show is done outside. And another 70% can be done [virtually]. He’s falling in love with it. He’s running around trying to get that number up. 

[31:57] Allan: I guess it becomes a selling point that you can leverage new technology.

Mark: Well, this particular individual knows all the right people. The thing is that if we do build a wall like that, we might as well roll into another show. You want to build it properly. Then at least, it has a life.

[32:46] Allan: That’s totally true! Let’s just jump into Monsters of Man. How did that come about? When did you finally decide to pull the trigger and make a movie?

Mark: Boredom made me pull the trigger. And I’m also looking for an exit strategy. I’d love to dive off into the wilderness doing what I love to do. I don’t mind doing ads working with good people. But what’s happening in the advertisement world right now is very “Seagulls and the Chip” mentality. There are so many people, it’s a vicious industry! Now that COVID-19 is happening, the budgets are decimated. The scripts are being written for a million dollars, but you have $20K for a budget. You always figure out a way but the only person winning is the client. The writing’s on the wall for the advertising industry. And it’s an oversaturated market for photographers.

[38:05] Allan: It’s like music videos 15 years ago. There was a budget and it seemed to have gone away. People got handy with VFX and the budgets got lower. I have a buddy working at Digital Domain who does music videos. He did one for Lady Gaga recently and I was surprised that it was a big budget.

Mark: The reality is that the music industry is so decimated and ruined. The young filmmaker trying to cut his way in the world and a young musician that needs exposure will work hand in hand with each other. Hopefully, they’ll both benefit. As for Monsters of Man, I was going to do a feature 15 years ago but a few things stopped me. I was so busy doing my ads and making money, it’s hard to stop a machine that’s so large. And then you go do a film which is slow moving and slow paying. It’s this big beast. I kept looking at that film model: Why is it so complicated? It’s just a long ad. It’s the same process. But now you’re dealing with actors and agents and they’ve made it so annoying. So many people want a piece of that pie. Everytime I looked at it, the budget wasn’t making sense. Even if the film was a dump, producers were still going to make money — but from tax breaks. That’s how a lot of films get made by very clever producers.

[38:55] Allan: That was a very valuable lesson I learned working with game studios and the big five studios here. You’re dealing with banks, not a creative machine. What they’re looking at is the ROI. What would it be in the perfect world for you? What is the solution?

Mark: I don’t think there is a solution. I’ve got very good friends who are big producers. That’s how they make their money. They make the movie and they would get their 30% from a different country with tax breaks. They’re supplying the dream. But it’s a very clever way of making money even if the film is a flop. Producers can utilize that system. But I’m not sure I want to play in that area. Maybe I’ll have to. With Monsters of Man, when we first budgeted it out, it was going to cost me $10 million. To do it the other way meant having a small crew, leaving the country — and I got the price to $2 million. But I’m not making any money from the tax breaks. It was a really weird equation. I wanted fewer people telling me what to do and fewer fingers in the pie. I didn’t want distributors telling me how to make my movie. But I wanted great quality. We figured it out and we’ve done it. It’s feature forward, it’s a great way to make a movie. Right now, the movie industry is so oversaturated with content, even now! I think the person who will win this race is the person who can make the best movie for the least amount of money. If you drop $50 million on a movie, it needs to make 4-6 times what it cost in order to to break even. You remember the producers have already made their money on the offset. 

[43:13] Allan: I don’t know how much Sonic, the Hedgehog cost to make. It was Jeff Fowler’s first feature. When you spend $100 million on a film and then COVID hits and there are empty theatres for your first release. That’s got to hurt! The bigger the budget, the bigger the return must be.

Mark: That’s why you need big movie stars. It turns into a big machine. I’ve been asked to direct bigger movies, and I won’t become a passenger on those. I just want to do my job for them. I want to make a large movie with a smaller budget. It comes down to my commercial knowledge: I can shoot with multiple cameras, I can put effect together easily. That’s a great asset to have. You are savvy, so you know what I’m talking about. It’s also about story and performances. I couldn’t afford a big star, but at the end of the day, I needed a star element. That’s why I chose to do a robot movie because there are mass markets that are into robots. They became my stars. And I think that’s what gave us the attention.

[46:07] Allan: The trailer looks great! It looks legit and like it has a big budget. You came into it with fresh eyes.

Mark: I like what we’ve done. It’s been really stress free. It got stressful when we started using external people selling the movie. It was actually really peaceful. When you’re doing a film and you’ve paid for it yourself, you can go have a beer at 5:00 p.m. Everything was really relaxing. We’ve cast really great actors, solid actors that were so into it. I loved all of them! We were so blessed! Putting them into a real environment helped as well. We went to Cambodia, I dropped them into the Golden Triangle. There were real landmines in the area. They were in a real village. It was great! They really got sweaty. We tried to shoot the movie in sequence so the actors could feel like they were a part of that journey. That’s another good thing about not having a big star involved. 

[48:47] Allan: How do you typically shoot the film, in terms of doing it on location. How do you figure out the sequences?

Mark: Because I was paying for the film, I was happy to go over in some areas. I would get the actor to stay in the swimming pool for a week. And they were happy. It made it better to shoot in sequence. And it made it better for the actor. The weather in Cambodia, you don’t know if it’s going to rain or be sunny. The crowdfunding we used for two reasons: Indie Gogo has thousands of people who will view the trailer. Then were a bunch of people who wanted to jump on. That money from Indie Gogo went into our marketing plan.

[51:20] Allan: I think that’s brilliant! You’re touching different audiences. You’re finding new audiences everywhere and they can get invested in terms of merch or seeing behind the scenes. Do you find that these new ways of raising money is a great way of getting people involved?

Mark: Oh, yeah, I’m loving where it’s going! The theatrical side of a release of an indie is a complete waste of money, for a filmmaker. Unless he’s four walling it with a huge fan base. But if you give a movie to a distributor, you won’t make much money. That’s why they do the big tent poles, it’s because they can make money from marketing. From an indie point of view, there is no way my film will land on thousands of screens. The reality is tivo, on demand, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo and all that. That’s the modern day theatre. Everyone has a big screen at home these days, with great sound. I watch my movies on an iPad. I was watching Interstellar on that screen and I’ve noticed so much more. I was so immersed in that film. Transactional video on demand and six month after that you push it into streaming; and 6 months after that you push it so people can watch it for free. You won’t make a damn cent if people in the world don’t know they don’t exist. You have to create advertising and fanfare around your film. I’m lucky with the genre being so popular. And the trailer has all these explosions. I think we’re going to do okay. We’re putting it on platforms in 60+ countries.

[56:33] Allan: Obviously, you’ve learned a lot from this experience but have there been any major aha moments? 

Mark: I think if you’re going to make a low budget movie, after you do the work yourself, you don’t need to knock on a thousand doors. You can sell the movie yourself. Just find an aggregator that can put your movie on certain platforms. There are a bunch of platforms where you can put the movie on yourself. But don’t go through the trials and tribulations of distributors. There is no real reward for you. If it’s an average film, you won’t see any money. So make sure you have a budget set aside to sell your movie. There needs to be an ROI on your investment.

[58:15] Allan: Artists need to understand that if they spend time on something, they need to sell it.

Mark: That’s right! I’m not saying that distributors are bad. They’re providing a service you don’t want to do. It’s a big job. Myself and my wife and my producer are doing it, and it’s a lot of work. But the reality is that at least, that income is coming straight to me. The sales agent wants to get paid for it as well. You have to find the right distributor that’s going to earn their money. Don’t think you can’t do it yourself because you can! 

[1:00:26] Allan: My last question would be about visual effect. How much did you do in-house?

Mark: We don’t have an in-house but I do a lot of composting. But the reality is I set up a fellow to help me. He was not just a supervisor but my eyes and ears. He was stopping all this shit coming for me. He was on the box as well. We set up a system that was ingenious. We sent animation work to Vietnam. We had compositing done in Russia and Sweden. We had texture done by a guy in Australia. There were a lot of individuals working on it. There was no haggling. If they had the expertise but didn’t have a machine, I would build them a machine. We made sure they used Red Shift for rendering. We didn’t want to fuck around. When you see the movie in 4K, you’ll see everything. That’s what brings realism to robots. We didn’t multilayer 3D. We made sure our models were coming out perfectly lit so the compositor would just have to grade it into the thing. I demanded it because I wanted that. When we shot, I made sure we didn’t shoot robots’ feet. It was easier. We were comping shots in under 5 minutes. When you’re a post guy, you know how to work around these little ways. It doesn’t compromise your frame at all. Just know where the robots’ feet are. If they were walking, we made sure we had all the textures required. We shot glass behind blue screen. You have to be really clever on set.

[1:06:32] Allan: So the movie is coming out December 7th, in Australia. 

Mark: I’m not sure I can manage 20 platforms at the same time. Amazon may be within that week.

[1:07:00] Allan: Where can people go to find out more about the film and you?

Mark: We’ve got a website: www.monstersofman.movie. And everything is in there. I’m a bit busy at the moment, but everything you need is there. The trailer is all over the internet. Watching the film, you can go to all the majors: Amazon, Apple, etc. You can stream it later on. I’m not sure we’ll land on Netflix.

[1:08:10] Allan: Thanks again for everything, man! I appreciate it.

Mark: It’s great chatting to you too! 

 

I want to thank Mark for coming on the Podcast. Please check out his film! It’s awesome. I can’t wait to see what Mark does next. 

Next week, I’m interviewing the CEO of Embergen, a great piece of software we all need to invest in.

Make the most of 2020 and get ready for 2021. I’ll be back next week.

Rock on!

 

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