If you’re a visual storyteller and you haven’t seen Tales by Light, what are you playing at? Get yourself on Netflix and don’t come back until you’ve finished seasons 1, 2 & 3.
Glad to have you back.
Tales by Light was originally going to be an ad spot for Canon, with photographer Darren Jew. A sit down interview about his work in Tonga protecting the whales. The series creator, Australian filmmaker Abraham Joffe, wasn’t particularly impressed by this idea.
“‘Better than that, why don’t we go to Tonga? For the same budget I’ll go over to Tonga and spend eight or nine days with him in the water, filming him photographing whales”.
Canon agreed, trusting Joffe with their money on a week-and-a-half trip to Tonga. They were rewarded with the most successful piece of short content pieces Canon had ever released. Joffe believes this is because it was “inspirational”.
Off the back of this video, he pitched a series to Jason McLean from Canon Australia. That they agreed was shocking, seeing as Joffe and his team had never produced a series before, but you have to be in it to win it. And win it they did.
Netflix ended up picking up the first season of Tales by Light and subsequently, the second and third. In and of itself this seems unsurprising, as the quality of the films is extremely high. However, considering Netflix is notorious for only picking up ‘true’ documentaries, it becomes quite astonishing the series have had the level of commercial success they have. Essentially episode-long ads for Canon products, only those interested in cameras would have noticed that all the equipment is Canon branded – and maybe not even those. The product placement is so subtle and under-handed that even we didn’t realise the series were Canon funded until finding out about it later. The focus of the story is completely on the photographer and their process. At first glance it appears mere coincidence that all the photographers are using Canon gear.
Why is this Important?
Aside from being thoroughly entertaining (I’ve literally sat through all series more than three times) Tales by Light shows us what branded content can be, and what it can do when done right. Sure, some things call for in your face marketing, but the most hard-hitting, emotive and remembered content is that which evokes an emotion. In the case of Tales by Light that emotion is inspiration. Joffe indicates this key take-away himself as indicated by interactions with some of his audience:
“The best feedback we receive is when young people say that it has inspired them to pursue a career in photography, filmmaking or conservation.”
So this show has not only motivated people to buy Canon product (it must have generated income, due to the re-commissioning of a second and third series), but it has literally changed the course of some people’s lives. Even whilst researching this article myself, I came across the below production still and got a little misty eyed with the idea of being such an adventurous filmmaker. This surely is the cornerstone of any good branding. Here, Canon are building customers for life rather than just their first purchase. If they can get people to fall in love with their brand rather than their product, they will have no trouble selling effective pieces of kit to their army of dedicated photographers and filmmakers. This is why Tales by Light is so successful.
Not only that, but it’s getting extra press just for being so subtle with its branding. Abraham Joffe has been interviewed multiple times in multiple media outlets for the success of the show, which all serves to strength not just Canon’s brand, but his own.
Lessons We Learned
We could all learn some lessons from Tales by Light, I’m sure. I know I would have no trouble watching more advertising content if it came in the form of tales of adventure in the far flung corners of the world.
First of all, let us remember that story is king. We’re biased about this phrase, we know, but it holds true. No matter how beautiful a subject is, if there’s no compelling story that goes with it an audience will soon get bored.
Speaking of audiences, serve them. This content is about entertaining, informing and inspiring them. Not talking about yourself or selling your serves or wares in a visually stunning way. Focus on your audience. They are important. They pay your bills. Make content for them. With respect to Tales by Light, Canon’s audience are photographers, so a series about photographers out in the world at the top of their game is bound to be compelling to other photographers. They can relate.
For the love of the craft. Monetary gain is important when you’re trying to make photography or filmmaking your job, but don’t be afraid to give up the money for the right project. Joffe took the same budget he had for his initial brief and turned it into a 9-day shoot to Tonga, with a small crew. I’m guessing this means he didn’t get paid too much. But look where it’s lead him. Well worth the sacrifice I’d say…
Think outside the box. The whole series is an example of why dreaming big and pitching your outlandish ideas to your clients is not such a bad idea. Remember, this 3 series show was going to be a short talking head video about Darren Jew’s work, shot in the USA. Instead we got Tales by Light. Dream big!
Finally, be a visual artist. Every shot in the series is beautifully crafted. Even in the more fly-on-the-wall style of season 2, each shot is a piece of art. One of my favourite sayings, which I try to embody as much as possible, is to “compose every shot as though it were a photograph”. This way, nothing is wasted.
I hope you can see why Tales by Light is worth the watch. Not only is it entertaining, informative and inspirational, but it also offers us a template for our own exceptional work. Thanks Abraham Joffe. Canon and National Geographic.