The Work That Made Me: The Vortex

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December 13, 2022

The Vortex is the unstoppable force before which there is no immovable object. The directing duo, composed of award-winning photographer, Emiliano Granado and music video director and director of photography, Austin M Kearns, were both in the flow of successful careers when in 2020, like all vortices before them, came together with a force akin to alchemy. Magic, even. In the future – or possibly the past – scientists may devise words to describe why and how their combined effort is so cinematically delicious. In the interim, however, let’s think of them as The Smoothie of Your Dreams™. Always fresh. On demand. With an umbrella on top. Possibly a cherry. There are no limits inside The Vortex.

The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…

Emiliano> I always loved The Chemical Brothers - Elektrobank. I loved that whole album, but in particular, that song. I remember watching the video and feeling like the song had been elevated to a new place in my brain archive. I remember turning the bass waaaay up in my sh*tty red Mazda MX-6 before class and listening to the song while the visuals sorta scrolled through my head. It was a really good way to start my day. If I’m being honest, I was today years old when I realised it was directed by Spike Jonze and starred Sofia Coppola. So, this exercise has already made me a better person.

Austin> I've got this VW ad that has been living rent-free in my brain since the day I saw it first, in the early 2000s. It features this Swedish actor called Peter Stormare; he wears a white lab coat and has a bombshell assistant that looks like they are straight out of an anime. Long story short, they have a guy in an airplane hangar and his ridiculous Fast and the Furious street racing car. Peter introduces him to the ‘audience’ and then insults his car, seconded by his assistant. They then 'Unpimp The Auto' — destroying it with a shipping container that then splits open to reveal a VW. It gives me a deep belly chuckle every time I watch it (oh yes, I revisit it all the time). To me, it reflects the type of oddball humour that was present in most early 2000s indie movies and music videos.

The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…

Austin> There is this Lykke Li music video for her track 'Sadness Is a Blessing.' She sits in the stuffy dining room of what seems to be a rather nice restaurant, accompanied by a very sad-looking Stellan Skarsgard. She has a waiter pour her a considerably large glass of vodka several times while he gives Stellen a fearful look of disapproval. The song begins, and we are introduced to the rest of the restaurant. Lykke then gets out of her chair and starts dancing in the restaurant (which clearly is not allowed). Two waiters try to subdue her until Stellen has had enough and gets out of his chair; he pulls her close and slow dances with her.

This video isn't a particularly well-crafted video, nor does it display any wiz-bang effects or camera angles. BUT it's a big-ass mood, and it was the first time I realised that something could be a big-ass mood and not be perfectly crafted. To be honest, I think I was already in this biz, but this one made me rethink my approach to the creative process.

Emiliano> Austin introduced me to this video - Frank Ocean - 'Nikes.' I watched it nonstop. I kept talking about it all the time, obsessing over how they did this and that, and Austin would simply nod his head in agreement. He had already been through all the stages of accepting the existence of this masterpiece, and he was kind enough to walk with me on my journey.

The creative work that I keep revisiting…

Austin> Frank Ocean's 'Nikes' video, directed by Tyrone Lebon. Holy. F**k. I knew Emiliano was going to agree. Talk about a big-ass mood. This is one of those videos that several people have tried to recreate (including The Vortex) and have failed miserably. It is, in my opinion, the single piece of work that has dictated the current trend in 'Hot Boi' advertising. Mixed media and more setups than one person can handle.

Emiliano> I was born in Argentina, but my family moved to the United States when I was four. I lived a pretty traditional American existence, but at home, we spoke Spanish exclusively. While it was great to move seamlessly between cultures, it also felt like I never fully belonged to either. In my early 20s, I consciously decided to connect with my Latino heritage. I ended up living and road-tripping in Argentina for six months. I tried to catch up on all the music, art, pop culture, and experiences I had missed out on living in the USA. Two films that continue to resonate with me from that time are:

Lucrecia Martel - La Cienaga: Watching this movie is like visiting a cousin’s house on a Sunday afternoon — it’s so familiar. It’s a masterpiece built out of nothing (almost nothing happens during the movie). I saw this when I was just figuring out who I was as a visual artist. It depicts an Argentina that I had experienced, but I hadn’t deciphered its allure to me until I saw this movie.

Y Tu Mama Tambien: Again, it just hit all the notes for me. The camera is this passive narrator of Latin America. I was on my own road trip (literally and figuratively), discovering myself and my identity, when I saw this.

My first professional project…

Emiliano> I’ve been a photographer for many years, and directing is a relatively new thing for me, so here are the first for each. My first photo project was thisstory for a magazine called Mass Appeal, and my first motion project was this Under Armour video.

Austin> Right out of college, and I mean like two months after I graduated, I had the opportunity to direct a music video for Jonathan Rado's side project. It was about an underground dance battle that was supposed to be fixed, but our star athlete decides to go for the win, which tragically seals his fate, and he is stabbed to death.

The piece of work that made me so angry that I vowed never to make anything like *that*…

Austin> Unfortunately, I am the one that made it. I was but a young, bright-eyed music video director, sure that I was one video away from becoming Spike Jonze (how wrong I was). I was being courted by a small production company, and they were interested to see my ability to "play ball.” Up to this point, most of the videos I had been directing were capped out at about a $15K budget, but I had full creative control, which kept the level of poverty I was living at acceptable.

I was approached with a Mad Max-themed video, complete with a dance number, for the violin artist Lindsey Stirling. Let me just say that this is the antithesis of anything that I think is cool, nice, or fun, but the budget was $100K, and I was going to get a real pay check for the first time. So what did I do, fam? I fuggin’ directed it. I still have nightmares about this one. It did nothing to further my career, and the money wasn't worth it. I showed no one, I told no one, and I vowed never to make anything like it again. Please enjoy.

The piece of work that still makes me jealous…

Emiliano> The Gucci and Beyond campaign from 2017 was amazing. It was such a beautiful marriage of highbrow/lowbrow. It was funny, irreverent, visually compelling, and technically perfect. The marriage of the campaign imagery with the video is perfect as well.  

And a special shout-out to that piano scene in Spring Breakers.

Austin> Solomon Lighthelm's Valvoline commercial, shot by Kate Arizmendi. I will say nothing further, as I am still jealous.

The creative project that changed my career…

Emiliano> I was the co-creator of Manual For Speed. From 2010-2016, MFS was a dynamic mix of a professional cycling documentary, irreverent social commentary, and neon tie-dye artistic showcase. It was rooted in photography (with clear references to Eggleston, Parr, Edward Hopper, etc.) but evolved to be a platform for pseudo-literature (online critics claimed proximity to David Foster Wallace and Gonzo Journalism) and art collaborations. This project taught me so much about branding, publishing, building a network, and deeply trusting my voice.

Austin> That would be the first official Vortex project for LOWD Cannabiscompany. We almost got a Vimeo Staff Pick...almost.

The work that I’m proudest of…

Austin> This has three winners for me: The LOWD Cannabis video, Tim Heidecker's 'Work From Home' music video (it's a four min one shot, y'all), and the 'Higher' music video I directed for LeMaitre.

Emiliano> It may sound weird, but it’s me! I’m proudest of my commitment to evolve and reimagine myself continually. Since I didn't go to art/photo/film school, I learned everything about photography and film outside the structure of an educational institution. After college, I worked in client services and then transitioned to a career in photography. And now, I’m evolving again to explore another medium and learn new things. I certainly could have chosen to only focus on photography in relative comfort, but evolution and discovery are way more interesting.

But, to showcase this constant evolution, I would also have to say the LOWD project. It sits nicely in the chronology of my evolution. The project was a photo look book and a video, all shot at the same time. It was one of our early Vortex projects, and it served as a strong proof of concept that we were on to something.

I was involved in this, and it makes me cringe…

Emiliano> I’m not gonna shit on any client publicly here! But I’ll share some non-specific things I’ve experienced. I like to think we’re hired to make projects that inspire or evoke something - you know, some emotional, higher-order connection with our audience. It’s definitely disappointing when a project that had real substance gets turned into the lowest common denominator, easy-to-digest thing. Some projects go from exciting to blah, and others…well, they keep going into the cringe zone. #RIP

Austin> The Lindsey Stirling video I mentioned earlier...thanks for bringing it up again, btw.

The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most…

Emiliano> We just wrapped up our biggest project, to date, for Meta’s celebration of Latino/Hispanic Heritage month. It was five high-energy, heavily layered videos that showed Latinx activists connecting with their heritage. We shot in New Mexico, NYC, and Mexico and used multiple mediums. Amplifying our subjects’ lifestyles in a fresh, compelling way has been very rewarding.

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