Ashley Xu blew up on social media when she started making ‘thirst traps’ (adverts) in her college dorm. Check them out, you may be surprised by just how good they are. It did not take long for major brands to see it and commission her. It’s a fascinating example of how talent and technology are converging to change the future.
Modern media has developed a sort of iron curtain between two very separate worlds. On one side, traditional producers still turn out film and television much as they always have, absorbing much technical upheaval in the last decade or two without changing their behavior very much. On the other side, the internet has unexpectedly turned out to be the world’s first truly global broadcast medium, creating an enthusiastic cohort of new people who can start working early in life, on short subjects for TikTok and YouTube.
If there’s a qualification for crossing that divide, achieving two and three-quarter million views on a spec Sprite commercial shot in a college dorm using a couple of bedsheets and a desk is probably it.
Filmmaker Ashley Xu, who produced the piece more or less on a whim, sees the benefits of both sides of the coin. “All throughout high school and the beginning of my college year,” she begins, “I was dead set on going mainstream Hollywood, Netflix, Marvel, and it’s something I’m not going to forget just yet because I am interested in doing it. Being part of a production company, working with other creative minds, is something I’m interested in. But whether that’s films, short films, commercials, music videos, the amazing thing about social media is that it’s available to everyone.”
Here are three selected examples of the combination of behind-the-scenes social engagement and remarkable finished results which characterize Ashleys style: Sprite Commercial : Thirst Trap For A Bagel : Thirst Trap For A Waffle.
Currently in her final year studying film production and marketing at Northwestern University, Xu’s online success has already led to commercial commissions for brands as big as Verizon. A career in media, though, wasn’t always the goal. “I’m from California,” she goes on. “It’s very tech-centric. Going to high school, I thought I would go into tech. Then in high school I watched a bunch of movies and the behind-the-scenes jumped out for me… it was like being let in on these big secrets. I took some film classes in HS and thought - this is something that really speaks to me. And I wanted to pursue it.”
For many people, and especially before the existence of social media as a legitimate career choice, that aspiration might have withered under the harsh glare of fiscal practicality, and Xu’s first steps were as tentative as anyone’s. “The first thing I ever filmed was in high school, in a film class. I reached out to various non-profits and asked if I could film them videos for free. A lot of them were gracious enough to let me in, to let me shadow and film.” As so often in the fickle world of online distribution and its impenetrable algorithm, though, the Xu can easily identify her breakout success.
“The first video that really got traction was when I first got to college. I had a can of Sprite off the plane, brought it to my dorm, didn’t have anything to do with it and thought I should make a commercial for this can of Sprite. I made an indoor commercial for sprite and it blew up!” Xu continues, with some understatement. The project was not her first, following several commercials made on a similar basis during the isolation of pandemic lockdown, and often for simple items – a clock, a pencil, coffee. Despite the limited resources of a room in student accommodation, though, Xu’s work achieved such a convincing level of gloss that the piece drew almost a million views very quickly. “I didn’t expect it to go anywhere whatsoever,” she admits. “I just got the idea.”
That success attracted exactly the right kind of attention, leaving Xu cramming in commercial work around full-time studies. Despite the unusual circumstances, though, the commissioning process will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been involved in organizing promotional production in either the old or new media worlds. “The majority of the time the company or the brand reaches out to me,” Xu explains. “They’ve seen my work on social media. From there it’s kind of moved on to management to negotiate rates and everything. If it goes through that’s when the creative process starts. I’ll submit a creative concept for review, and if they approve it I start shotlisting. I keep a notebook full of shots I want to do and ideas I want to hit. That’s when production starts, which takes me two or three days. I edit, submit for review, the process can take anywhere upward of three weeks but I have done projects that have lasted three months before.”
Moving up from iPhone to a selection of mirrorless cameras, principally the Sony a7S III paired with Sigma’s 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom or the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 prime, Xu’s process hasn’t changed much, relying on both careful camerawork and some diligent post production to achieve results which compare startlingly well with almost any commercial material shot anywhere. “I have the Sony which I use for everything that’s commercial based. Recently I’ve started a new series where I transition from my iPhone camera to the a7S. All the BTS and the starting transition bits are iPhone.” Complex choreography of flying fruit, which a more mainstream production might shoot with a high-speed camera and a motion control robot, is put together in Final Cut. “A big reason I use compositing so much is because I’m limited to such a small setup… just a backdrop, maybe a green screen, that’s how I made all my dorm videos. I didn’t have robots and things!”
All of this puts Xu in an interesting position with regard to that divide between the new and old media. “I have briefly [spoken to faculty] about it,” she recalls, “but honestly they don’t think much of it, they’re there to teach linear storytelling. In film school right now we have a lot of classes that are production and theory. All of those things are traditional narrative film. If you want to do documentary, short film, the commercial work that I’m doing - if you do it on your own, you get the experience, otherwise you don’t.” At the same time, Xu confirms, the benefits of film school are not to be overlooked. “That’s a huge caveat: at a film school you get network connections.”
Similarly, with much of Xu’s work involving food – the sort of thing the old school would call a tabletop or pack shot – there are necessarily gaps in self-taught technique. “I have never had to professionally light a [human] subject of my own,” she says. “I’m in an advanced cinematography course right now and I’ve done it for that class. I think it’s a lot harder because people are dynamic, they move around and you have to flatter them. Lighting different skin tones is something that people dont think about. I think that’s why I want to jump into a big production company right out of college.”
With Xu’s course at Northwestern drawing to a close, jumping full-time into professional work is both a looming responsibility and an opportunity, and a resume including a brace of existing commercial projects might seem enough to make Xu an attractive prospect. Her priorities, though, reflect broader issues, at least concerning her extra-curricular work: “I think the thing I lack most is collaboration with other creative minds,” she admits, echoing the concerns of many successful, but sometimes slightly shut-in, social mediators. “Right now it’s me doing what I want, which has a lot of merit to it. You have the creative control for every project. It’s fulfilling, but the real world is not like that. If you go to Marvel it’s very not like that.”
Having visited both Los Angeles and New York, Xu has her sights set principally on the east coast. “I just love cities,” she enthuses. “Everything is walking distance, everything is accessible. The reason isn’t super deep, but in New York public transport is better!” The prospect of moving production out of a college dormitory is a big draw, too, and Xu admits to “a big grocery list of things I wish I had. Moving forward I’d like to have actual light, a big overhead light which is so good… fill lights with big softboxes that take up a lot of space. I’ve also seen a lot of behind-the-scenes on commercials with the motion control robots and I want to get my hands on that too – the super slow motion robots that move at super high speeds, then they slow it down and it’s so beautiful.”
If the new media is creating new routes into the traditional sector, Ashley Xu’s experience might be more or less what we’d expect that to look like - or perhaps that dividing wall is beginning to blur, as really it should. Either way, as Xu puts it, the status quo has made access to both distribution and technique easier than ever. “Everything that I know is a combination of YouTube tutorials and just figuring it out,” Xu admits. “I will say that YouTube tutorials will give you a baseline for how to do things, looking at industry professionals who know what they’re doing set up and then talk through why. That’s where I started – key light, fill light – so I set that up and tweak it until I’m satisfied. By doing that over and over I know what I need. Now anyone can pick up a camera, they can show their own story, or show their ability, and a lot of people can see it.”
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