Filmmaker Olivier Philippe Perseveres Through the Pandemic

Director Olivier Philippe shot by Yan Chetrit

Since childhood French director Olivier Philippe has been innovating new approaches to storytelling in digital media, television, advertising and other media formats. Over the years he has revolutionized the industry with his work, and he’s recently proven that it will take a whole lot more than a global pandemic to slow him down.

Olivier Philippe’s directorial credits span every medium, with many of his most renowned works in the realms of television and advertising. His work can be seen in some of the world’s most popular television series, such as “Top Chef” and the BBC’s “The Great British Bake Off,” as well as in numerous high-fashion advertising campaigns, such as for French luxury fashion house Dior. Philippe worked tirelessly to achieve what he has, beginning when he was just a child with an obvious natural talent.

Olivier Philippe spent his earliest years growing up in the shadow of a medieval castle in the idyllic countryside of Montmorency, France. It was against this backdrop that Philippe’s imagination blossomed. Even as a young boy it was clear he possessed a unique creative vision. When he was 10 years old, toy manufacturing giant Hasbro selected his dioramas as the winners of a contest memorializing World War II. At just 16 he was hired by La Savonnerie Des Deux Monde soap company to direct his first film, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the company’s founding.

In the years that followed, Olivier Philippe worked with a myriad of high profile figures and companies as his directing career took shape and took off. Following a period spent working in radio at Radio France, he transitioned to television and was immediately at home. He began at TV5MONDE, the largest French-language TV network in the world. There, he travelled the world directing and filming foreign broadcasts for the network, ultimately taking the lead on his own weekly half-hour show, “Hors Sujet.” This in turn led to one of the most defining projects of Philippe’s early career, “SODA,” one that also proved to be revolutionary for the industry.

“For the ‘Soda’ TV Show, which was a mix of interviews and celebrity topics, I broke all the codes established at the time. Most TV shows were done in a studio, so I decided to shoot in natural settings. These shows used to do the interviews comfortably seated, so I took the stars to unusual places — behind the scenes of the Eiffel Tower, the kitchen of a Parisian palace, on a walk in Montmartre, and so on,” Philippe described.

The success of this style of using short, unorthodox videos quickly caught on. Today, that personal and engaging style has become the norm that television and the internet alike have adopted as a sort of unofficial standard.

As a director for television, Philippe has built a sterling reputation on his ability to direct portraits of candidates and figures on some of the biggest shows in France, the UK and abroad. His style revolutionized the way series like “Top Chef” and “Bake Off” — better known to American fans as “The Great British Baking Show” — introduced viewers to the contestants. When tasked with creating the brief bios for each candidate, Philippe opted for an approach that was more cinematic and more personal, one that captured the immense skill and unique personality of each contestant.

Olivier Philippe behind the scenes on “The Great Bake Off” shot by Jeremy Fazel

“Until then, these kinds of sequences in shows were shot quite ‘simply,’ without much aesthetic or narrative research. It was just about explaining who the candidate was, what he or she did for a living, and what his or her hobbies were,” Philippe explained. “I found it incoherent to shoot in a rather ‘flat’ way these characters who make extremely artistic things like French pastries, French gastronomy or fashion couture.”

Philippe had faith that with the right equipment and a more personal touch, these portraits could be an opportunity for contestants to really connect with the audience. It took some creative budgeting but he was able to get what he needed to give each contestant their chance to shine.

“So I started by putting a lot more resources into the filming equipment to obtain a cinematographic quality image… I wanted to make it dazzling. These are very short formats, rarely more than two minutes. I thought it was important to have a wow effect. I wanted to sell these characters like you sell a product in an advertisement, and make each film say, ‘Look, this guy is amazing! What he does is just crazy! He’s the best! That’s why he’s in this show!’.”

Fans of “The Great British Bake Off” can attest that so much of the show’s appeal comes from the attachment viewers feel towards the contestants. That emotional connection — where you find yourself grinning when your favorite contestant gets praise from the judges and holding your breath in anticipation when they’ve made some terrible last-minute mistake — is all based on the portraits we’re given, the intimate yet brief snapshots into their everyday lives as ordinary people with exceptional amateur baking skills. Philippe’s intuition led to a better, more engaging style of reality television.

Producer Marlène Loubière, who worked with Philippe on “The Great British Bake Off,” and is currently working with him on the series “Farmer Wants a Wife,” explains, “Working with Olivier means allowing yourself to be constantly surprised. It’s funny because my main job as a producer is to cast my characters, choose them, evaluate them and know them in any part of their life before shooting. But when Olivier shoots the first sequences with these characters that I know very well, I always discover something new and something more beautiful than what I had evaluated.”

Olivier Philippe’s engaging, innovative and above all cinematic style is what has made him so sought after by brands like L’Oréal, Guerlain, Gucci and Dior. Philippe has directed short films for each since 2015, and has worked extensively with Dior in particular since 2018. Most recently, Philippe directed a short film in Los Angeles promoting the brand’s work with iconic American artist Kenny Scharf.

“The short films for Dior are intended to show the excellence of manual work and the know-how that any product of the Dior brand demands, especially in the field of sewing. Having worked a lot with passionate artisans… I told myself that it could be very interesting for a brand like Dior to show a little behind-the-scenes of its products,” Philippe said.

“My experience with other crafts such as cooking, pastry-making, sewing and especially my ability to film with a very cinematographic rendering convinced them to entrust me with several shoots around the world to show off the excellence of the craftsmen employed by the brand.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, Philippe’s job has not been immune to the sweeping changes in the world all around us. He has had to adapt not only to new regulations and precautions, but to an audience whose lives are uncertain and constantly changing as well. Fortunately, adapting and innovating are two of his most powerful assets.

“The rules of social distancing, travel restrictions and various precautions force us to reinvent ourselves. I find that good, because it forces us to rethink everything,” Philippe explained.

“The first time we had to respect a distance of two meters between people on a set, we realized that we would need four times more space than usual, and four times more light too, and more cameras to film characters from so far away. We also had to rethink the wide shots to avoid showing sparse sets that do not give a very warm atmosphere.”

Olivier Philippe (left), Frédéric Chertier and Franck Suplisson (right) on the live stage for Hennessy (Photo by Ludovic Dupont)

Olivier Philippe’s most recent work with Hennessy, the world renowned distiller of cognac, was organizing and filming “Le Live Hennessy,” an event celebrating the company’s rich history and the resilience of its growers, distillers and employees around the world amid the pandemic. Staging and filming the event in early 2021 came with extraordinary safety and logistical challenges, on top of the already-difficult task of carefully setting up dozens of lights around the highly flammable distillery. But the brand was wise to place their faith in Philippe, and the event went off without a hitch.

“In general, Olivier always has an idea, an angle, a point of view or a method that other directors, even very experienced ones, do not have. For example, he will propose to mix real reports that are made on a certain theme with fiction in the same film. Or he’ll turn a cognac distillery into a television set, when the constraints are enormous and it would be easier to shoot in a real studio,” says Elephant at Work Executive Producer Florence Hermieu, who’s worked with Philippe continuously over the past decade.

“For him constraints are good material to challenge his imagination. He finds original solutions and in the end, the result is always unique.”

Olivier Philippe has always had a kind of roll-with-the-punches philosophy to his filmmaking. No matter what the project is, when given the opportunity he consistently proves himself able to produce innovative content of unparalleled quality. Since the start of the pandemic, much of his work has been making what he calls “adaptive commercials,” in which brands focus on the current state of the world and address customers to reassure them and show them what’s being done to protect them. But in many ways, Olivier Philippe’s style has always been “adaptive,” long before the pandemic began and put him to the test. And in the midst of all the changes and uncertainty, he hasn’t slowed down a bit. You can check out one Philippe’s most recent adaptive commercials below.

Portia is a journalist & poet from Los Angeles. You can find her work through №3 Magazine, ElephantJournal.com, Gypsyrich.com, Stillstoked.com and more.

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