The American Experience

October 6, 2010

Our shoot: Emily Miller Productions was hired to provide a week’s worth of destinations and experiences for National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths, who was selected to photograph scenes emblematic of American culture as part of a global commercial project for HSBC bank and the JWT agency.

The challenge: Fill the shoot schedule with a kaleidoscope of activities, vignettes and cultural adventures that would represent the many facets of the American experience, all within two hours of San Francisco.

The big questions: What represents America? And how can we cover it all in five days and 500 miles?

The fix: With a list of ideas and a rich resource pool here in the Bay Area, EMP had long-distance brainstorms with our photographer, who was shooting the project’s first legs in Central and South America along with creative director Dinesh Kapoor, videographer Bryan Harvey and traveling producer Jennifer Hile. From Argentina to Panama, their real-time experiences informed and influenced our approach to this unique assignment by the day.

Considering our evolving locations, we had to have contingencies for the contingencies. We needed to make human connections that could withstand last minute schedule changes, cancellations and replacements. So we created a plan of modular pieces that could bend and sway. Even unexpected rain simply meant shooting something different (indoor rock-climbing wall), instead of shooting nothing at all (empty surf).

EMP explored contemporary scenarios such as: a first-generation Chinese grandmother watching her granddaughter try on a white Western wedding dress; a multi-ethnic competitive cheerleading squad with girls of all sizes encouraging each other through their weekly practice session; a gospel choir performing in a community church in one of the toughest urban neighborhoods; and a modern circus school where executives learn a centuries-old high-wire act from professional trapeze artists.

We traveled back a few decades to uncover the historic core of Small Town America and our love of the open road. Within a few hours of the city, we found a quintessential Route 66-style gas station-turned-museum of all things Americana and a suburban drive-in movie theater. We drove the picturesque hairpin turns on the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset and captured the youthful exuberance of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in a vintage convertible.

And when our traveling team asked to see moments typical of our fair city by the bay, EMP brought them to a hive of bicycle culture, the best of the Mission street murals, a favorite coastal running route and park trails beneath the redwoods. We introduced them to a community of houseboat dwellers that enchanted us all with their stories from the past and their acceptance of change, a community held together by the tenet of being a good neighbor… Indeed, how very American.

Client: National Geographic
Project: HSBC
Agency: JWT
Photographer: Annie Griffiths
Videographer: Bryan Harvey
Producer: Jennifer Hile

Griffiths' Golden Gate

Small town story with a twist

On the water: community charm

Three cameras and two cars at 55mph