We had the good fortune of connecting with Mikey Zeller and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mikey, do you have a favorite quote or affirmation?
Creativity is so intangible. Sometimes ideas flow like the salmon of Capistrano and other times they leak out drip by drip like an old faucet. A favorite affirmation that I’ve grown to live by is to allow space in my creative process for the unexpected. Just start, and as long as I do that I can trust that the rest will come. A long time ago when I started in abstract and mixed media art, I learned that layers are my best friend. That no matter how much time I spent thinking strategically about every move I could make on the canvas, it was often the tiny details – impossible to predict or pre-conceptualize – that I liked the most. Like, how did this color blend with that color? And over that text in the paper that I happened to glue down first?! I couldn’t have planned it if I tried. You don’t have to have all of the answers up front, but rather the courage to be vulnerable and explore. It’s as much about letting go as it is about being in control that results in the work I’m the most proud of. Those tiny details and the way they end up working toward my end goal are what give my work a voice that’s unique to me. It’s a perspective that I apply to literally everything I do creatively, whether I’m working as an abstract artist, a director, or a cinematographer.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Sometimes I struggle answering the “what do you do” question. I’ve always been fascinated by so many things (though my sanity would likely appreciate fewer pursuits!). Being a Creative Director, Cinematographer, Director and Fine Artist comes with not only a hefty serving of anxiety, but a truly unique point of view.
I’ve acquired an expansive tool belt of experiences to draw from, whether I’m telling a brand story or creating a piece of art. At this point in most people’s professional career, and certainly when creating at this level and with these budgets, most people have specialized in a single area. Some of them probably consider it a weakness that I haven’t, but I thrive off of knowing how so many different worlds work, especially within the kind of adventure and sport spaces that I’ve made my home. For example, when I’m in a Director of Photography role, I’m more effective at collaborating with a Director because I wear that hat, too. I’m able to look at a project through a much wider lens creatively and can offer better support when called upon because I’ve been there.
Currently, I’m really excited about two commercial spots that I recently directed with Saatchi & Saatchi for the launch of two new Toyota vehicles, the 2022 TRD Pro Tacoma and the 2022 TRD Sport 4Runner. I also directed photography on a broadcast spot running on TV now for the 2021 Toyota Trail Edition. As a director, I learn how to be a better cinematographer and when I’m a cinematographer I learn how to be a better director. All of my creative avenues feed the others, which is so fun for me.
Like any successful artist or entrepreneur, I got to where I am today through passion and hard work. Although it’s common to hear many of the greats talk about knowing their path at 5 years old and fearlessly chasing it down their entire lives, that wasn’t the case for me at all. If it were, I would have split my time between being an FBI agent and a professional snowboarder. The snowboarding dream came much closer than the FBI ever did, but hey, there’s still time! Suffice to say, my career path didn’t become apparent until later in life.
I’ve always had the creative bug, but I was the “late bloomer” of the family as my dad used to say. Sometimes I think it takes trying a lot of things that you don’t like to figure out what you do. I vividly remember the moment that really kicked me into gear, which was actually a moment of failure. I was doing a graphic design internship for Elm and Oak in Boulder, CO many years ago and I had the opportunity to film a show for a music producer named Paper Diamond. I thought I knew what I was doing behind the camera but I lacked some key technical knowledge needed to shoot a live show basically in the dark. Well, as you might have guessed — I didn’t nail it. After seeing the dailies I remember feeling the disappointment of these people that had trusted me. That I respected and looked up to. It absolutely wrecked me. I went straight home and didn’t sleep for several days, pulling every useable frame together until I had a salvageable edit. In the end, it was ok — but it was that kick in the face that made me realize how much I had to learn and I vowed to never be that unprepared again. Now, I get absolutely immersed in the learning process and am borderline obsessed with the hunt for knowledge.
I’m always learning and I’m always growing. I’ll be the last to claim that I’m the best but I will never stop striving to be. Everything in life is a lesson and that’s one of the reasons why I love painting. I’m able to work some of these themes and lessons into my pieces. It’s an escape for me and since it isn’t my main source of income, I’m able to truly do it for me. I would honestly be fine if I never sold another painting… Although it is nice every time I do! In my career in the advertising world, my focus has been mainly in the adventure, sports and automotive worlds. Being an athlete and a car guy my whole life, it’s become a part of my professional DNA as well. Telling stories is about authenticity and, especially in those worlds, you can pick out the imposters pretty quick. I’ll chase cars and trucks through the wilderness for fourteen hours over a studio shoot any day, although the white cyc foot booties are a good look. I could always start using them as dust masks instead. Maybe I’ll look into fashion design next?
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
When a visiting friend makes the mistake of putting me in charge of their trip, the first thing I do is confirm that, like me, they try to spend their entire vacation eating and drinking…
I live in Long Beach, so I would first take them to Ballast Point Brewery because it has the best view of the water and a cool atmosphere. Then, I love hopping on the AquaLink water taxi right next door that takes you all the way across town by boat, giving a really fun view of the city and the Queen Mary. We would hop off at The Pike and walk a couple of blocks up to Pine Ave to either The Harbor Bar for some beers, good food and free skee-ball or a cool rooftop view at Bo-Beau Kitchen. From there, we could head down Broadway Avenue and stop at one of our favorite dive bars – House of Hayden or a classier affair at Padre Latin Kitchen, where they have a killer rooftop patio and Mezcal bar. If everyone is still standing, we could finish the night at the Stache Bar/Sideburns where they know the key to my heart by way of authentic Wisconsin cheese curds and top-tier cocktails. Their cheeseburger’s sleeper either!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Many people deserve a shout out for their role in my success — this is a tough one! My parents are both very creative people, so they have always been an unwavering support system in all of my creative endeavors. My dad is still working as hard as he ever has at age 78 and my mom has been an artist all of her life, so I have grown up with some incredible role models. My brother, Jonny Zeller, deserves a huge shout out for my success and confidence as a visual artist and storyteller. He is an extremely talented Director and Entrepreneur and has always been an inspiration to me. Having a creative partner that you trust and respect 100% is invaluable. I am also very appreciative of Andy Bell, Executive Producer of Sweatpants Media, the production company where I currently work. He gave me a shot early on in my career, believed in me and allowed me the opportunity to climb the ladder to the Creative Director role that I am in today. And the biggest shout out to my ride-or-die fiancée Alison for being my rock!