Keith Rose (2002)

If it hadn’t been for a love of music Keith Rose’s brilliant work as a director of short films might never have seen the light of day.

This son of a gold miner grew up in Krugersdorp and after school he went into daddy’s business – underground on the West Rand, home to the deepest and, despite today’s rocky prices, some of the richest gold mines in the world.

Rose studied for a ventilation certificate, quite literally a learning curve in dealing with hot air, hanging out in Randfontein, Carletonville, Westonaria, claustrophobic dorps prone to naming roads and parks after professional wrestlers. In 1975 in Carletonville, with television still a novelty in South Africa, he found himself pressed up against the window of Bradlows furniture store gawking at the magic of a NASA space odyssey. The camerawork intrigued and he thought: “I’d really like to do that.”

It encouraged a decision, one which had been ripening for a while: he would try his luck at the SABC. Perhaps he could be a sound engineer. He had begun looking at older miners and wondering about life.

The SABC hired him for sound but it was the camera which claimed him. Rose says he “kinda drifted into the work,” thanks in part to asking questions of some English cameramen imported to teach the locals their trade. He became a camera assistant and soon began freelancing his talents in the brave new world of commercial filming.

Rose worked for five years in London on feature films – his name is among the credits for Zulu Dawn – but switched to commercials in 1980 where his technical expertise and superb gift of visualising and manipulating concepts to best cinematic effect quickly plonked him in the director’s chair. He aspired to the job only because it let him control his own work.

“All I ever wanted was to be a cameraman,” he says now. “Directors destroyed good photography (and) I needed control of my photography, design and lighting. Although I couldn’t, I started to direct to have total control. I was a filmmaker. Now I’m an adman.”

Clearly a very good one. He has worked with most major international agencies on location in North America, Europe and the Far East and has won more top awards than most men have socks in their drawer. They include five Gold Lions at Cannes. In 2000 he was admitted to South African advertising’s Hall of Fame.

Rose is not indifferent to awards but says he doesn’t “live and die by them. I am always happy if something wins and am normally pissed off when something good gets no recognition.” Where Velocity Films used to decamp en masse to Sun City for the Loeries, in 2001 the country’s best known production house chose to give it a miss. The rebellion (if that’s what it was) had been brewing a while. Rose can point to ads of his which were “beautifully crafted, creatively and technically” but which never achieved recognition. Yet “I know they shone through,” he declares. Sour grapes? Maybe, yet the worth of his view is widely acknowledged, if at times grudgingly. Inevitably there is no clear-cut division between concept and execution. Lines blur in the process from creation to commercial. Cinematographers like Rose are expected by agencies to contribute to concept, design and interpretation, but the relationship is fraught, not least with clashing egos.

If good advice is rejected and the ad fizzles how should its cinematography be judged? Can and should adjudicators be dispassionate about technical strengths and excellence, especially if the director has cherry-picked the script? Velocity for example, is deluged with 50 scripts a week on average.

It’s a tough call. As Rose says: “Concept is everything, but then so is execution. Beautiful photography is wonderful to behold, but no-one ever laughed at beautiful lighting. Technique should never cramp an idea.”

But even when technique augments a great idea both can be overlooked. An early ad of which Rose is justly proud is Elephants, shot for O&M with ISM the client. In it an adult elephant helps a struggling calf, a nice metaphor for the guidance ISM could give us mortals. At Rose’s insistence it was shot at noon in harsh light to mirror life’s realities rather than at sunset in light and shadow that would have “romanced the ad and beautified the drama.” It was rewarded with nothing except his own pleasure in it.

Four of the Top 10 on what Rose calls the A-PIus list of commercial film directors in the United States are South Africans and a great many others form a solid wedge of excellence both there and in Canada. Rose by contrast has always wanted to stay in South Africa while working internationally.

He co-founded Velocity Films in 1990 with Barry Munchick, a droll New Yorker, who says he accepted the offer to come to Johannesburg because it offered excitement. The partnership works and Velocity has prospered.

Rose, the father to two young boys, has cut back on his hectic schedule but still does most of his work abroad. It is likely to stay that way because the local industry is tough, he says, and has lost its mid-range advertisers. At the top – typically banks and vehicle manufacturers – tight budgets and rule-books are stifling creativity. And at the bottom of the market it’s show-and-tell.

Rose is associated with many great commercials, from the superb mid-1980s VW campaigns of O&M’s Brian Searle-Tripp (“I love him. I had my best working relationship with him”) to the brilliant BMW ads of John Hunt, a ride which continues.

Diplomatic for once Rose declares that he doesn’t “have best work. The best ad I’m doing is the next.”

He shot the Chapman’s Peak ad for Willie Sonnenberg – who was aghast when he heard (in Groblersdal, of all places) that a Mercedes Benz had plunged over the cliff on the first day of shooting and the onboard camera had failed. In fact Rose, anticipating failure, had bought five cheap on-board cameras and in the days which followed three of them worked.

Included on his history reel is a Lindsay Smithers ad for Toyota, a soap box ride on a mine dump in Krugersdorp using barefoot kids cast off the street from the rough end of town. Rose has a soft spot for it.

By Bill Krige