Mackenzie Sheppard is a Canadian film director, born in the UK and raised in Japan, that currently lives in Tokyo. His visual diversity and magical take on stories has received acclaim around the world. Mackenzie’s most recent work includes an award winning music video for Nike, a recurring series for IKEA, and a series for The New York Times.

Interview by Daniel McKee.

What was it like to grow up in Japan?

I moved to Japan when I was 5 years old after living in the UK and Canada. When you’re 5, you’re pretty happy to go wherever your family goes… I remember being well prepared for the move and I never felt out of place growing up. My reality consisted of school, Lego, friends, and traveling around Japan. The same as most other kids. I grew up in the countryside, not Tokyo, so that had a lot to do with shaping me as a person. A lot of people would assume that I was heavily influenced by Japanese cinema and anime, but I wasn’t actually that engaged with it much growing up. I got most of my entertainment playing with Lego and making silly films with my friends. Not to say that Japan hasn’t influenced me, of course it has, but it’s the usual thing of looking beyond the normal-media that you get everyday, and always looking beyond the immediate culture you are in for inspiration.

You describe your style as having a visual diversity and a magical take on stories. Can you identify the origins of your interest in these motifs?

Escapism is what I look for in anything I watch, so that’s naturally what I like to make. Back at the beginning, if I was making a documentary, I would look for a magical take on it. If it was a magical fictional story, I would find a way to connect it to everyday life. Like any kid, I grew up with a sort of self imposed mandatory Saturday 6am viewings of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and other fantasy films. I’d then spend the next few hours inspired and primed for epic Lego sessions, playing in my room or outside. When I make things now, I have a good radar if it’s worth pursuing when I have the same feeling of “play” that I had with my Legos growing up. If I’m not playing while making a film, I’m not really creating anything in a way that feels true to me.

Welcome to Nike Juku - Nike

You’re freelance and self-represented in Japan. What has been your experience navigating the industry in this way?

I get asked this a lot. As with anyone starting out, it’s lots of hustling and lots of small lucky breaks and serendipitous connections. I look back at this weird daisy chain of interconnected moments. A lot of fantastic projects interlinked by ones that were less so.

I’ve been through the usual traversing of avoiding being pigeon holed by my early documentary work, and becoming known as a more diverse filmmaker who enjoys taking on any genre or format and putting my spin on it. There were many moments where I could have let someone else decide what I was going to make next. Either out of financial pressure or what they wanted. But I’ve learned to say no and move through these things and seek out the better fit.

Japan is a very unique place to create and I started out 9 years ago when I was 22. Back then, it was not as internationally-production-friendly. Now, there has been a growth spurt of great smaller production companies and a bilingual community that are fantastic to work with. That support system wasn’t there when I started, but I can see it attracting more and more creatives here in the future.

Ironically, I have found myself working outside of Japan more in the last 6 months. Partly because of Covid19 rules disappearing and also by creative attraction from elsewhere. Working in Japan has been important, but there have been years when nothing has happened and I’ve been outside the country working. It’s a weird life at times. But it keeps it interesting.

Looking at your recent The New York Times work, can you share an insight into its production process and your collaboration with Droga5?

The Droga5 creative team is amazing. I didn’t feel like I was working on a commercial. I felt like I was one of many artists in a studio collectively making this interesting evolving mixed-media piece.

The script they wrote was so simple and neat that it invited a lot of opportunities to build on top of. We did a pitch film showing the possibilities and it seemed to really vibe with the Droga5 team. But most importantly, what I pitched was a way of making this, and not so much a treatment that satisfied the end result. Yes, I had idea, paints and colors ready, but neither party knew exactly what it was going to be.

So I said, hey, let’s meet in Berlin in our own pseudo-photo-edit-art studio, and let’s work on it for 2-3 weeks in a flowing creative environment. If we needed to shoot something, we’d shoot it. If we needed to design something, we’d design it. If we wanted to burn something, we burnt it.

We had 3 editors, 3 design wizards, and me working together. The wizards and I would take on a mini project each day or two, and go off and create that idea in Cinema 4D, AE, or in-camera. We’d then plug them into the edit and see what was working best. I loved this way of working because it kept our imagination active in what was actually quite a simple story to tell. It’s a simple edit, but it also took a lot of ideas living and dying to get there.

At one point, the entire text/ticker tape was very analogue. And I was printing it onto celluloid and print-scanning it back into my computer, hand animation the text with my hands. I knew this was getting a little too messy, but doing this influenced the feeling of the edit in a good way. We kept a couple of moments of this style as a way of breaking the more digital flow. It was super fun!

Do you have any long-time collaborators?

My long-time collaborators are all people who I started out in commercials with, but we’ve found our most meaningful collaborations outside of the advertising world. I have a small team of people who I continuously write, edit, and shoot all my personal projects, long form gigs, and short films with. They’re all my friends, so there’s not much else to say other than it’s fun to work with them! It just feels right and is always inspiring!

Have there been any unique/specific challenges/advantages you’ve experienced as a filmmaker working in Japan’s film industry?

I faced some challenges when I was younger. I always wanted to make things bigger and better than what the client’s agency was ready to settle for. When producers hear this, they automatically think bigger/better = unnecessary/expensive. This is the most common things I have come up against. Doing anything less than making something better isn’t part of who I am, so it always felt weird when others wouldn’t do the same. Over time I learned to pick my battles and projects better so that this happened less and less.

At the end of the day, outside of making yourself happy, you have to make sure the story works for everyone. You’re making something for You, The Client and the Audience. So it’s been interesting to learn how to do this. I’ve learned to use notes as pivot points to a way of making my storytelling universal.