You may not instinctively recognise the company name SHORTFILMS, but you’ve definitely seen their work. They’re behind the spots where smooth, glossy hair artfully sways across the screen while a Hollywood actress utters the iconic ‘Because you’re worth it’ line. Director Stephen Mead and producer Holly Hartley - the company’s founders - have worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, helping them to find and define their vision of beauty. L’Oreal, Garnier, Schwarzkopf, P+G, Coty, Henkel, and Unilever are just a few of the clients SHORTFILMS have produced work for. In recent years, they’ve expanded their remit to brands like Simple, Matches, and Anthropology too. Today, the duo continues to hone their craft and bring their expertise to clients spanning beauty, fashion, and interiors, with the view of marrying beauty and authenticity at every step.
Above: the spot for Matches finds beauty and romance in the everyday
Stephen and Holly first met when they worked at Academy where they soon realised that they could offer clients a more nimble production model that was easily adaptable due to its size. The beauty specialism, in many ways, found them. Looking back, both see how it was a fortuitous inevitability. Stephen’s background in theatre lends itself naturally to storytelling, which he and Holly felt was missing from the beauty advertising world when they first started. “A lot of the work was done by photographers then, who captured fantastic images, but it wasn’t translating to video that well,” explains Stephen.
For a beauty ad to work, aesthetics and aspiration are just one part of the equation. Stephen and Holly have been adding the other - authenticity - way before it became the industry’s standard. SHORTFILMS produced a spot featuring the model and TV personality Martine Lervik, marrying editorial beauty shots with vulnerability and comedy; it was responding to the question of how representation of women is evolving into a more authentic space. The spot is light-hearted and undeniably beautiful while letting Martine’s personality shine through. The result is a kind of casual glamour that entertains and persuades simultaneously - not an easy feat to achieve.
Holly recalls shooting Cheryl for L’Oreal: “She told us that from the age of six she’s always wanted to say the brand’s iconic line. It was a big moment for her.” Cheryl’s excitement and anticipation were not only captured on film, after Stephen coached her, but made into the final spot too. “I deliberately surprised Cheryl to get a sincere look of excitement in saying the line. When she looks to me to see if she can finally say “because you’re worth it”, it's genuine and spontaneous on her part. You can see that she finally fulfilled that childhood dream, complete with a huge smile and a twinkle in her eye,” Stephen recalls. Even with a spot as glamorous as that, SHORTFILMS found relatable warmth that audiences could connect with. “We took a more realistic approach to the beauty story,” says Holly; Stephen adds, “Yes, we have made some purely indulgent glamorous pieces, but we have always been true to a spirit of honesty.”
Holly and Stephen’s approach has worked to great success over the years with the duo receiving calls to work with some of the most recognised stars globally. The list read like a veritable who’s who of celebrities: Rose Byrne, Claudia Schiffer, Jennifer Aniston, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and Rachel Weisz. Beyond Hollywood, SHORTFILMS have worked with Fan Bingbing - possibly China’s biggest star, with the brand flying them in specifically for the shoot; and with Deepeka Padukone in India. Looking at the list of names and seeing the work produced, it could be said that SHORTFILMS have the golden touch when it comes to working with celebrities, developed over countless shoots all over the globe. Recently, Stephen and Holly have been using their expertise to make the next generation of beauty stars and influencers look and feel their best in front of the camera, with a deft hand and that Hollywood-honed approach.
Taking a different look at beauty
When we start talking about the beauty industry’s evolution, they both note the refreshing way brands approach their ads today. “There has been a much needed reaction to the image of perfection and rightly so. The industry needed to rethink its parameters of what beauty is,” notes Stephen. “Seeing yourself on screen is really important. It’s nice to see that diversity is now baked into casting,” Holly adds.
SHORTFILMS do question whether to be representative and realistic, which tends to veer into the gritty end of the aesthetic spectrum, some are forgetting to find the beauty in the image too. “The opposite of beauty is not necessarily ugly,” Stephen says with a smile.
It’s clear that Stephen and Holly always look for beauty in everything they create though this doesn’t mean the kind of capital ‘B’ beauty we typically associate with the concept. Instead, they’re able to find its traces in every subject or object, aestheticising the simple and the everyday too. For Anthropology, they shot on location in Sweden, capturing the actors playing in nature, making connections with each other, and even baking. It’s an ad so organic, and more akin to an arty short, that all you’re left with is the impression of warmth. Is it beautiful? Of course. It’s also casual and human first. SHORTFILMS worked a similar kind of magic for Matches Fashion, faithfully expressing the bohemian atmosphere of a Greek island through a mix of shots that focus as much on summer vegetables and cooking as they do on clothes. Again, the effect is transportive and the beauty subtle, with the camera revelling in the textures, movements, and colours in shot.
For Holly, the art of commercials is the precision needed to distil a brand’s spirit into a 30-second spot. “When you’re working on something so short, you have to be disciplined and you have to be selective about what makes it into the final shot.” Stephen agrees, adding that their task is “to pay attention to everything, and to what the client and the agency want, before becoming brand ambassadors for the duration of a shoot. Our philosophy is to understand the brand first, then connect it to their audience.” “We like to keep the message clean, elegant, simple,” Holly concludes.
Speaking to Holly and Stephen, the passion they have for their work is tangible. The professional relationship they’ve cultivated over the years means they finish each other’s sentences and know what the other is thinking almost instinctively. This is the key to their work. “If I can get the work past Holly, then I know it’s pretty good,” laughs Stephen. “She’s my fiercest critic. The client could be happy but I know I’ve done a good job when she’s pleased too.” Holly points to Stephen's ability to gently push boundaries to always find that special something, whether it was planned for beforehand or not. “We’re incredibly collaborative, our taste aligns, and we both know when we’ve created something we can both be proud of.”
With creativity and collaboration at the forefront of their approach, SHORTFILMS is keen to bring its expertise to a market beyond beauty, like the work they’ve already done with fashion brands, and perhaps to interiors too. Beauty, however, will forever remain the realm they’re excited to work in, helping the brands of today and tomorrow find and define what beauty means for them.