John X Carey | Director and Filmmaker

by Lynne Heffley

John X. Carey

John X Carey (Art Center College of Design, Film, BFA 2011), critically-acclaimed maker of commercials and short films, has had his work featured by the New York Times, Forbes, CNN, Time and other media outlets. He has worked with such high-profile agencies as Mullen, Saatchi & Saatchi, Digitas and Ogilvy, and his impressive client list includes eBay, Google, Dove, New Balance and Goodwill. A 2013 Clio Award-winner who made the Cannes Young Director Award shortlist the same year, Carey was also a 2014 Directors Guild of America Award nominee for his Jane Austen-inspired “Real Beauty Sketches” Dove ad. Dubbed the number one commercial of 2013 by Time magazine, it was listed by Adweek as one of the “10 Most Watched Ads on YouTube.” Conveying a powerful message about self-image, the Dove ad showed a forensic artist sketching women as they describe themselves—and then as strangers describe them.

“I wanted to do a kind of Pride and Prejudice thing with these women in this loft lit by window light. They’re in this kind of church-like space talking about internal thoughts and I just wanted to play with that, and with very atmospheric music and emotional reactions, and have this event happen in one controlled space and document the whole thing.

“I remember driving to IKEA and buying all the props myself and because I didn’t have a budget for a props person, just muscling in the chair that the women were sitting on. It was really very much just me making this whole thing,” Carey said, “so I was really proud that it took off.

Dove Real Beauty Sketches

Dove Real Beauty Sketches

That inspirational ad has roots in Carey’s creative turning point—one of the “biggest lessons I learned at Art Center,” he says—that came about when he filmed Voices From the Field, a Designmatters documentary profiling the nonprofit PCI organization’s HIV prevention programs in Zambia.

“They sent me and two other students to Africa to shoot this film,” Carey said, “and that was a very, very different kind of experience for me. I came to Art Center wanting to do funny, slapsticky things, Hollywood commercial-type stuff, and it just wasn’t working. Then I was suddenly forced to shoot a very human documentary with people who had AIDS and tuberculosis. It really made me want to do more human-driven emotional content,” he recalls.

“I think people really do crave meaningful content that can give them a little bit of advice, or a little bit of wisdom, about how to live their lives,” Carey adds. “I think that’s why the Dove film took off.”

The son of two writers, Carey grew up on a farm in Missouri, “a great kind of solid grounding place.” After studying literature and philosophy at the University of Missouri, he transferred to Art Center’s Film Department with the desire to be “exposed to every area of art.” As a filmmaker, he says, “I wanted to be the guy that knew what kind of wallpaper to pick out for the bedrooms I was shooting in, and what kind of details to put into the sound design—all these things that they teach you at Art Center.”

Once enrolled, Carey stretched himself by grabbing every opportunity that came along, something he encourages other students to do. “When I was at Art Center I would film weddings. I wouldn’t see it as a bad thing; I’d see it as a great learning opportunity. I’d edit students’ projects for free, I’d do special effects, I’d grip—I’d do whatever I could to help other people. I think that’s what helped me the most, just jumping in as much as possible.”

Working with his peers in the program and bouncing off ideas with them was invaluable, too, he says. “A couple of students ahead of me started doing union shoots
and regular commercial jobs and it totally inspired me, made me work harder. That was awesome—it still inspires me. And I still follow their work.”

—Lynne Heffley is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about the arts.