LITTLE BLACK BOOK
28 April 2023
Prad Sen is a director represented by Truce Films in Australia. His extensive background in music videos has seen him work with artists including The Avalanches, G-Flip, Paul Kelly and Montaigne and be nominated for ARIA and Rolling Stone awards. These days, Prad’s narrative and commercial work combine a lush visual aesthetic with tender human stories. He sat down for a chat about setting a mood in music videos, creating depth in commercials, and his upcoming docu projects examining Australia's changing food culture.
Your career began with music videos – how did you get into that space?
I’ve always loved music and my first foray into seeing things that were creative and visually captivating was through watching music videos. I wasn’t exposed to arthouse cinema and the like until university. Making music videos was a great way to experiment with ideas and it helped me learn to set a mood within time constraints. Music videos are just three minutes of tone and mood – and I love playing with that.
How does your music video experience inform your commercial work?
It’s influenced the aesthetic of the work I do in the commercial land as well as in my own creative endeavours. Music videos allow you to stay constant and on-trend – being able to be ‘harsh’, so to speak, with directorial choices. When you have limited time, you have to make every frame count!
There’s also often no budget in music videos, so you’re working with limited resources. It forces you into a lot of preparation, ensuring you’re across everything as much as possible. When working on ads, you’ve got a large team and the ability to facilitate your ideas really quickly due to the money and time associated with that – but it’s very ingrained in me to always be prepared.
Having a hands-on understanding of post-production, whether it be animation or compositing, also helps a lot. It translates to how I storyboard: before every job I like to have the storyboard and then cut it as I would cut the ad myself. I then have an idea of what the ad looks like in still format, before we get on set. But then, I find that a lot of the ‘heart’ comes from the little moments you didn’t plan out. It’s important to have a little bit of room on your shoot to do that when you can.
What does ‘heart’ mean to you and why is it important in your work?
For a while, I could make a very slick aesthetic quite easily, but now I’m trying to also have an emotional hook – My more recent commercial work happens to be stories centered around disability, family hardships and health: subject matters that require empathy and emotion. I feel that my approach to visually poetic content, which has been nurtured through my earlier work, now informs how I craft pieces that are more heartfelt.
I’m fascinated by human stories and I love bringing them out – even more so now that I’m able to combine that slick and stylistic approach I’ve developed while bringing tenderness into that. That’s something I’m constantly trying to work on. In the past, I just got really into making pretty pictures. Now, I still want to make pretty pictures, but create a sense of depth in them.
How do you create that sense of depth and bring human moments to your ads?
My spots for Dexcom involved finding an avenue to tell stories of diabetics that felt as if you were experiencing a private, poetic glimpse into someones life. I enjoyed strategising and crafting my storytelling to speak directly to the viewers sense of personal sanctuary without being overbearing. What resulted was two commercials that dealt with complex and layered matters such as fear, relief, love and familial support in a simple and effective manner.
Another recent campaign, Jobs That Matter, involved working with both actors as well as non-actors who are real-life disability carers. I got to work with some interesting directing techniques to bring the emotion out of the non-actors. Essentially, we used the actors as leverage for the non-actors to feel comfortable and feel like they were a part of this little world that we were creating.
For example, we got one of our actors, who is a disabled person and a comedian, to feed one of our non-actors lines through a phone call. He had to respond with the lines that he was scripted, but he was being fed completely random stuff by this guy on the other end, giving him an opportunity to laugh, be confused, be happy, smile.
What other themes are you drawn to exploring in your work?
A lot of my work is either informed by a sense of wholesome tenderness or by trying to find human stories. Also, I love food! I love how food connects us to people, stories, and lineages.
The other side of that – the yang to that yin – is that I’m also very much into creating sensual imagery, like in my work for Montaigne and for SKYN. I’m very interested in the senses. It’s almost like the other side of food – that pure, sensual, hedonistic, sexy energy – that I tap into. But it’s always about a balance between the two, the wholesome and the sensual.
So it’s the stories of the people behind food that spark your interest?
Yes, 100%. Growing up, my mum was a massive cook in the family. She’s one of 12 [siblings] and she had to cook for everybody. Food’s always been a huge part of my life, and I’ve always been interested in other people's food and the stories behind how and why they eat.
As a first-generation immigrant to Australia, I was fascinated and perplexed by the amount of food types and cultures here, and I didn’t really understand what ‘Australian food’ was. But I was introduced to things like ‘dimmies’, charcoal chicken, and Chinese-Aussie food that became iconic to me and recognisable as Australian food. In a way, it's similar to my story – these foods came here and adapted and changed.
People in Australia are, more and more, taking pride in their food – but we’re still discovering what our food identity is – and most of it has come from somewhere else. Did you know, Australia didn’t have broccoli on their plates until the Italians came? Little stories like that – it’s nuts!
And you’re currently working on a few projects exploring the stories and people behind food culture?
Yes, Combination Soup – a project currently in development with Truce and GoodThing Productions – features stories on different immigrant populations and the foods that have become beloved in Australia because of them. The food, though, is really a hook to talk about the people and stories behind it.
We now have a host, Nornie Bero, who is a Torres Strait Islander chef who runs a restaurant in Melbourne called Big Esso. Having someone who is First Nations be the one to tell the story is really important – and it’s all about having round table conversations about food, over food.
I’m also working on another documentary project called Sauced, which looks at how much Australian food culture has changed and how far we've come in our attitude toward food from developing or immigrant nations.
Even during the pandemic, there’s been a shift. We’re seeing this amazing birth of voices, because of social media and because people are more willing to accept diverse voices.
Sauced is told in a very punk rock doc kind of way. It's the antithesis of a chef's table, classical music, slow-motion montages… it's punk because the people that are doing this are quite punk in their aesthetic and in the way they approach things.
We’ve got Filipino chefs that grew up in the suburbs who are winning chef's hats; a Vietnamese Chef restaurateur who's opened up a restaurant for other chefs or colour and queer chefs; a community-minded Fijian Indian who is fine-dining trained but has bought a fish and chip shop in the middle of the suburbs and is creating a hub for local youth.
A lot of the people making this food are second-generation kids. Whereas their parents may be a little bit more traditional, these kids are reinventing what it is to eat like an Australian. So, while Combination Soup deals with the past and talks about nostalgia and the people that originally brought this food here, Sauced deals with the present and potentially the future, asking: what’s happening and where can we go from here?