Motion à la Mode: The Story of a Fashion Filmmaker

by Libby Peterson

© Bon Duke

Despite the vibrant color in some of Bon Duke’s images, he always adds a darker, cooler tone to them, a look he attributes to growing up watching music videos and Guy Ritchie films.

May 14, 2014

The fashion industry has long been reputed to be a world of cutthroat competition, and for many of its photographers, this could not ring truer. In the words of 26-year-old fashion photographer and filmmaker Bon Duke: “The top dogs stay on top.” But while the fashion photography greats continue to thrive in traditional still imagery, this New York-based artist has muscled his way in and found his own raison d’être: fashion films.

Video is a “fourth dimension,” Duke says—an entirely new way of storytelling that is on the one hand fixed and stringent, and on the other, pliable and versatile. “There are no rules, especially in fashion films,” he says, “because no one knew what they were. It was an open playing field.” 

It’s only been four years since Duke began exploring the potentials of a largely untapped, static film genre, yet he’s already positioned himself as a highly sought innovator—and he’s just getting started.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Duke humbly calls himself fortunate for having parents who chose to move from Vietnam in the 1970s to one of the pinnacle cities of the fashion world. But these days, living and working as a young creative can be trying, he says.

“New York is always go, go, go,” Duke says as he snaps his fingers on each pronounced word. “It’s a lot of hustle. But when I try to slow down, I kind of freak out, like, ‘What am I doing? I need to work!’” As a co-founder of the New York Fashion Film Festival (NYFFF) who juggles a number of commissioned and personal projects at once, Duke has certainly not been without his share of work. His ambitions have even given him the opportunity to help other promising young fashion filmmakers and photographers earn full scholarships through the NYFFF to the one-year intensive MPS Fashion Photography program at New York’s School of Visual Arts (from which Duke graduated in 2012).

He explored nearly every medium of artistic expression during his studies, each of which has contributed to his philosophy of vision today. First learning color study and texture with painting, Duke became most attracted to the instantaneous satisfaction of working with his Canon 5D Mark II (though he now uses a Nikon D800 for stills), at first gravitating toward portrait and music photography. He then dabbled in graphic design, gaining an insider’s view of what a magazine’s art department looks for when laying out photos.

Then came his introduction to filmmaking, one that he calls ongoing. “People think it’s an easy transition,” Duke says. “I don’t think it is. For a photographer, you take an image and it’s there; it’s all in that one frame. With film, you have to think of so many other layers, it’s not as fast and you have to be patient.”

Duke estimates that his knowledge level of what’s possible in filmmaking lands somewhere in the 60 percent range, and he makes sure not to forget the mistakes he’s made that have led him to this point. Today, he understands the importance of always writing down his ideas, of the pre-conceptual stage, of storyboarding narrative and of working closely with an editor and cinematographer to understand what’s logistically possible, all to better achieve his vision for a film.

With a photography background, he knew the visual elements necessary to create something beautiful, but Duke attests that some of the mistakes he made in the very beginning are laughable now. “Instead of just saying ‘action,’ I would just say, ‘OK, let’s roll the camera,’” he recounts, “and the others on set would say, ‘What do you mean roll the camera?’ because that means something totally different.”

Though he needed to be corrected on directorial commands, Duke otherwise figured out his own errors, especially technically. Using an Arri Alexa camera, he shot films with his friends and other willing participants, and he clicked around in Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere.

Duke caught his big break when he was chosen by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2009 to shoot a campaign for the designer Proenza Schouler. Though he wasn’t necessarily intrigued by fashion at the time, getting in the director’s seat allowed him to be more of an artist than he expected, he says, likening the experience of shooting clothes and accessories to sculpting.

The CFDA may have chosen Duke for his individual talent and artistic perspective, but he walked away from that shoot blown away by the collaboration on set. “All these intricacies and details that hair and makeup and the stylists were paying attention to made a whole image, and it was up to me to translate everything that we worked together to create,” he says. “I’d never felt that teamwork.”

For him, a “truly great” project is collaborative, where creative minds from different disciplines meld together to make one strong, multifaceted end result. This, Duke feels, is a discipline that is unfortunately lost on many contemporary creators.

“The legends, like Diane Vreeland and Alexey Brodovitch, made their magazines iconic because they knew great photographers and models,” he says. “Avedon would not be Avedon without those two. And I think that’s one thing that people take for granted.”

Only time will tell whether Duke’s fashion films become as iconic as Avedon’s studio portraits, but they already have a distinct look and feel unique to the name Bon Duke. “There’s a darker tone to it sometimes…well, the majority of the time actually,” he says, smiling. “I don’t retouch a lot, but I always end up adding this cooler layer.”

Duke also carries narrative throughout his films, an element he finds absent in most fashion videos. “That’s the problem with a lot of fashion films, they’re just visual eye candy, but is there anything else? The majority of the time, no,” he says. “But I think that’s changing. People are realizing that we need to show something conceptually compelling besides just a beautiful model and clothes.” Without a real underlying story in his films, Duke thinks his work “would just fall dead. Then I’m just another machine making something that I don’t really care about.”

Last year, Duke’s projects were overwhelmingly video-based with about 70 percent of them going to clients. This year, he’s scaling his hired work back to 40 percent, devoting the remaining 60 percent to personal projects, films and exploring more with sculpture. Still, Duke says his dream project would likely be commercial, maybe an ad for “Skittles or Starburst or something,” he says. “I used to always watch the Super Bowl commercials and thought they were so great, so why not try to go for that?”

But the big screen is another story. “I don’t think I’m ready for that anytime soon,” he says. “I write a lot, but my heart’s not there yet.” And that’s just fine with him. Duke already uses the traditional principles of filmmaking in what he’s doing right now to revamp a genre that even many of the “top dogs” haven’t yet tapped into.

Bon Duke. © Hugo Arturi

Bon Duke’s Filmmaking Lessons Learned

1. Make your mistakes early. “The only way to learn was shooting with people who wanted to help me out and be a part of the process, and making all my mistakes early.”

2. Understand what’s possible. “People see things done in movies and say, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually a six-figure budget—though that shouldn’t stop you from trying to figure out how to do it anyway. When you want something framed or done in a shot, make sure it’s realistic, make sure you and your cinematographer can do it. And always talk to your editor about your story to understand the editing. It makes it so much easier to explain your story.”

3. Write out your ideas. “No matter what the project is, start writing it out into a storyboard. Write whatever—it doesn’t have to be dialogue—but the physical act of writing and putting your thoughts out helps you highlight all these things that you want to portray. From the storyboard you lay out this imagery and you can think of how to film it. It’s this layering process, but it starts to branch out. It really helps you solidify your film.”

4. Keep at it. “Constantly making new work is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. If you don’t make any work, you don’t take any steps or face new challenges.”

5. Be humble. “You meet people who are just awful in this industry, but the greatest legends who you respect the most are actually the nicest, most humble people.”

See this story in the digital edition.

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